Step across this line
The idea of using the mechanics of the self-help genre to tell the story of someone who successfully overcomes his origins came to Hamid three years after he began working on the book that eventually took six years to write. Manjula Narayan writes.books Updated: Apr 13, 2013 13:04 IST
How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
By Mohsin Hamid
Rs. 499 pp 228
It’s a few hours after Mohsin Hamid walked across the Wagah border into India and he describes it as “a real Toba Tek Singh sort of moment”.
“When you fly Lahore-Delhi, it’s a very short flight but ok, you’ve gone to another country… But here you just walk over this white paint. I said ‘Where is India?’ and they said, ‘This is India.’ and I said, ‘Where’s the border?’ and they said, ‘That white line.’
It is absurd,” says Hamid who is in Delhi to promote How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – a book you have mixed feelings about, having read it in a single sitting and been impressed enough to underline passages and scrawl notes in the margins, even as you wished it was as visceral as Moth Smoke or as make-the-reader-work tricky as The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Still, you are crushed when the phantom book thief who shadows you makes away with it.
“They’re taking this filthy rich thing a bit too literally,” Hamid says when you tell him about the theft, “I mean not paying for a copy!”
It is the sort of thing the unnamed protagonist of his latest novel – the impoverished boy who becomes a bottled-water tycoon – would have done, had he been a great reader or even merely afflicted by tsundoku, the need to hoard books without necessarily reading them.
The idea of using the mechanics of the self-help genre to tell the story of someone who successfully overcomes his origins came to Hamid three years after he began working on the book that eventually took six years to write.
His original attempt, he says, was to write a novel made up of vignettes told in different narrative voices that eventually came together in the style of an Impressionist painting.
“I wanted to write this broad swathe of society: poor, rich, middle class, urban, rural, old, young, and I was trying to find different ways to do it. So I did all of these little vignettes… and it failed completely!” he laughs recounting how a conversation with John Freeman, the editor of Granta, at a party in New York, led to a breakthrough.
“We started talking about how literary fiction can be hard going and how ‘maybe it’s good for us because it’s tough’.
"We started joking about the idea that it’s like self-help and I said, ‘Yes, it is like self-help and in fact, my next novel could be a self-help book’ and we both laughed and that was going to be the end of the story.”
But Hamid went home to Lahore and kept thinking about the idea of a ‘self-help book as a novel’.
“The more I thought about it the more I thought it was an honest way for me to express certain things,” says Hamid, for whom form is entirely caught up in function.
“My attitude is like an architect’s – the building should look like what it does. I don’t want there to be rococo and swirlies on it for no reason,” he says adding, “This book is not a self-help book just to look cute; It’s a self-help book because it is a self-help book… and it’s also not a self-help book. But I think novels kind of are (self-help books), for me and for readers.”
It strikes you that it’s possible to listen endlessly to Hamid, throwing in a ‘hmm’ here and a word there to goad him into revelations about his writing rituals (“When my daughter goes to school at 8.30 in the morning until she comes back at 12.30, I’ve got four hours where, if I sit in a room doing nothing… don’t check the internet, don’t take phone calls, stuff starts to happen.
That’s my job, basically, to sit there and hope that stuff starts to happen. It’s a weird job.”), and the stupendous labour that goes into the writing of his books that are at once intellectual and deceptively simple.
The ostensibly simple self-help form allowed Hamid to compress 80 years of historical time and write “quite a small novel” in place of the bigger one he had planned.
“This is a sprawling 19th century saga novel, an 800-page Russian book, but it’s 200 pages long,” he says adding that he believes writing a small book is a democratic, anti-elite gesture. “If you are living in your Russian summer house for three months you have time to kill, you want 800 pages… as your serfs work the land.
But now we’re all serfs and we don’t have time,” he says explaining his preference for the lean, mean novel as opposed to the old Middlemarch-style doorstopper.
Much of the power of How To Get... comes from the lean commentaries that inform the action set in an unnamed South Asian city.
These non-fiction pieces infuse the fiction with a universality that allows the reader to imagine the life of someone with the same drive in, say, Delhi, Lahore, Sao Paulo, Caracas or Bangkok. And then, there’s the influence of Sufi poetry.
“Sufi poetry is, in a sense, self-help poetry about how to live a decent life, how to deal with your mortality,” says Hamid who believes he has gained a deeper understanding of the Sufi idea of non-possessive love since becoming a father.
Indeed, the novel’s best lines touch on the protagonist’s reaction to the arrival of his son:
“Fatherhood has taught you the lesson that, even in middle age, love is practicable. It is possible to adore those newly come into your world, to envision no matter how late in the day, a happily entwined future with those who have not been part of your past.”
You could continue to chat with Hamid about the possibility of driving from Lahore to Amritsar for lunch, about how writing is “like fasting or an endurance sport… you have to persevere”, about writing the screenplay for The Reluctant Fundamentalist directed by Mira Nair, but a horde of literary journalists – you hadn’t realised Delhi had so many – is waiting to meet him. Briefly, you feel sorry for him. Then you remember he’s used to endurance sport.