Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reflections: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

This is Mohsin Hamid's most recent book. Similar to his debut novel, this story is a sarcastic and honest commentary on what it takes to survive and make a good living in rapidly growing Asia, particularly Pakistan.

The novel has a different narrative style. The book begins like a manual, a witty and sarcastic one at that, with the author relating a hypothetical, prototypical story of a man that rises from rags to riches. He makes you, the reader, wear the shoes of the hypothetical young man born to a poor family, and he makes you walk every mile of the journey taken by the brave yet naive man in his desperate quest to make a decent living for himself in a corrupt society.

Perhaps because I'd read The White Tiger a few weeks before this book, I was reminded of the book while reading this; the themes are similar and the writing styles of both authors are quite similar too (according to me, at least). However, the protagonist and the characters are different. The protagonist (the "hypothetical" one) is far more naive and sympathetic than Balram Halwai. And his story is not nearly as shocking or brutal as The White Tiger's. In that sense, this story is far less harsh and a lot more realistic of how the average man survives and adapts when he finds himself in the unavoidable tangles of corruption in a rapidly developing society. He is forced to make choices that are devastatingly dangerous and unethical, but in the dog-eat-dog world of survival, he better go with the tide or be swallowed by it. There is nothing extraordinary in the protagonist's story and that's what makes this story all the more realistic and understandable.

The writing is good in this book as well. Mohsin Hamid can write engaging stories that combine social commentary with poignant emotions. There is actually a sentimental thread of old-fashioned romance that runs through the narrative. It balances the sourness of the themes and adds an additional dimension of how a woman, a poor one at that, survives in the same society. The man's journey and the woman's divergent journey provide an unsaid commentary on gender inequalities in a developing country. The contrast was subtly woven into the context of the story. I was impressed that the characters were so well developed despite the unique narration. 

Towards the end of the book, Hamid focuses on human relationships rather than the social themes that dominate the first half of the book. While I really liked his treatment of the topic and the nuances that dominate human relationships, it doesn't fit in with the title or theme of the book. In that regard, the story does drift into a whole new genre after a certain point, which some readers may not like. 

I really liked the book. I am always amazed at authors who write a short and crisp book that effortlessly pack a gamut of themes. This is a well-written book that is worth reading. 

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