How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
by Mohsin Hamid
” We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go.
For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible.
But in between we can create. “
It is incredibly rare that I will read a book that is so profound that it temporarily renders me speechless. Rarer still that I will sit with the book, long after I have finished it, clutching it to my chest as if that action can force it to continue, but knowing that it is a lifeline now broken, and nothing – not even my desperation for more – can put it back together again. The story is over, the story has been told, and it is time to move on, albeit with a part of this story moving along with me.
Our narrator has set our book up as a detailed set of instructions on how to get yourself filthy rich in rising Asia. Each chapter revolves around a subject matter that will move you closer and closer in the direction of your goal and once you obtain it, there are further instructions on how best to keep yourself on top. However, the narrator also knows that everything that goes up must also come back down again, and as such, has included a series of steps for accepting this predetermined fate.
Coming along for the ride is a young boy with no name. He is a strong boy, able to bypass death and the severe illnesses that are common in childhood among the populated village in which he lives. He lives with his family on a compound where several extended families also reside. His father, the breadwinner, works in the city and only occasionally is able to come home for visits. After one such visit he decides it is time – that even though he can barely afford to take care of himself, he can stand being apart from his family no longer, and the boy travels the perilous journey to the city along with his mother and two siblings.
This is, of course, the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia. You must be in the city.
The boy is the youngest of the family and as such has the privilege of education, his older brother having to leave school when he becomes of a qualified age (somewhere around 12) to begin work so as to help provide for the family. The boy’s sister was sent back to their village of birth for an arranged marriage once she (somewhere around 14) becomes of age. The boy knows that an education is a “running leap towards becoming filthy rich in Asia,” but he also knows it is not something easily achieved. He will have to overcome the obstacles of financing if he can even get into the city’s college – so it’s a good thing that he has learned a few tricks on the streets from which he has been raised.
Step Two : Don’t Fall in Love
” You call her that night but she does not answer. You try again the following day with the same result. Later in the week you get hold of her, finally, yet she is distracted, busy getting ready for a shoot. Occasionally thereafter, when you manage to speak with her, you are able to have a brief conversation, but she is always occupied when you suggest a meeting. You find this perplexing, and consider how best to proceed. You do not know much about women, but you know a fair bit about sales, and it is apparent to you that this is a case when you must let the customer seek you out, lest you devalue your product completely. So you wait. And she does call. Not often. Not even every month. But sometimes, usually late in the evening, after she has watched a film, and her voice is languid with impending sleep, and perhaps with alcohol as well, and she speaks to you softly for a few wonderful minutes from the comfort of her bed She does not invite you over, or propose an encounter elsewhere, but she keeps in touch with you and your life, and this, while at times is quietly painful, gives you a measure of hope. “
This step is perhaps the most difficult of them all, as most teenage boys have a hard time not noticing pretty girls. One pretty girl in particular lives the boy’s neighborhood and while she is not obviously beautiful, she has an alluring cadence about her that makes it impossible for the boy to resist her, especially as she does’t seem to pay much attention to the boy, except of course when she needs something. The pretty girl is an imprint on the boy’s mind, the epitome of all that is love – even if he has no idea what that is or what it means. It will become something he will never be able to shake.
This girl will be the only constant in the boy’s life, traveling in tandem on her own path to getting filthy rich in rising Asia, but she will attain her goals playing by an entirely different set of rules. The boy will grow into a man, the girl will grow into a woman, but his infatuation with her will never wean and as such will cause many problems in his life. Not least of which will be his difficulty in giving his heart to anyone else.
“Your brother accepts their return with a handshake, and also, wordlessly, the rolled banknotes hidden in your grip. It shamed him initially to receive help from his younger sibling, but not so much anymore, and he no longer insists on telling you over and over the stories of his difficulties as a father in the face of runaway prices, even though those stories remain pressing and true.
Instead he sits you down on his rooftop and asks you about yourself, lighting a joint and sucking a series of shallow puffs into his scrawny chest. The evening sky is orange, heavy with suspended dust from thousands upon thousands of construction sites, fertile soil gouged by shovels, dried by the sun, and scattered by the wind. As usual your brother encourages you to wed, expressing by doing so an abiding generosity, for a family of your own would, in all likelihood, diminish your ability to contribute to the well-being of his.
“My business fills my time,” you say. “I’m fine alone.”
“No person is fine alone.” “
The man diligently continues down his steps – he (tries to) avoids idealists, he learns from a (shady) master, he works for himself (in his own shady business) and he is prepared for violence (from equally shady competitors).
Water is a hugely sought after commodity in the man’s city and the quality of water is so poor that sickness floods the city. The man decides to take advantage of the shortage of quality water and uses old bottles he steals from garbage cans and various places to boil water and repackage it, marking it up at a premium price, thus getting him closer to his goal of. . . you guessed it – getting filthy rich in rising Asia. The man is smart about his business because he is following the set of instructions laid out in the book and as such, has no doubts that his goal will be achieved.
But the man has hard lessons to learn. While his main purpose in life has always been to get filthy rich in rising Asia, and he has carefully followed all of the steps, he has also missed out on many things and areas of his life are sorely lacking. And the truth of the matter is. . . the brutal honesty is. . . that once you move forward, you can never move backwards. The time you lose is gone forever and while having focus on one goal is admirable, if one does not have balance in their life it will eventually take it’s toll. He will watch his mother pass painfully away, his father die of a broken heart, his sister leave the world alone, his brother struggle to hang on for his own family. The man will not understand the things he missed on his path to becoming rich until it is too late.
He will have a family of his own but it will be only a shimmer of what he could have, if he’d only followed Step 2 to the letter.
“You reencounter each other at a pharmacy, a crowded micro-warehouse stacked with pallets not much bigger than matchboxes, mostly white, bearing text too minute to be legible, even while squinting, and, on occasion, iridescent seals of hologrammed authenticity that shimmer like fish in the light. You are progressing incrementally to the counter, buffeted by those who push forward out of line, reliant on strangers who acknowledge you and are good enough to wait. Ahead you see a figure turn after paying for her purchase, a figure you think you recognize, and you are seized by a powerful emotion This emotion is akin to panic, and indeed you consider shoving your prescription back into your pocket and making for the exit.
But you stand your ground. As the figure approaches, she frowns.
“Is that you?” she asks, not for the first time in her life.
You lean on your cane and scrutinize the wizened woman before you.
“Yes,” you say.
Neither of you speaks. Slowly, she shakes her head. She rests her hand on yours, her skin smooth and cool against your knuckles.
“Do I look as old as you do?” she asks.
“No,” you say.
“I thought you were an honest boy.”
You smile. “Not always.” “
And the man will grow into an old man and will realize that sometimes you are better off not being filthy rich in rising Asia.
This book was phenomenal, and I know that any review I could write about it, any words I could say – they could never do the book the justice it deserves. This short novel (a mere 228 pages) held in it more emotion and more honesty than the majority of the books I have read in the last 30 years that I have been a fool for literature. It is uniquely written in a style and a voice that I have never read before, and I am very anxious to read more by the author – Mohsin Hamid. The Pakistani born, American educated, English resident has a modern and superbly thought out way of approaching the art of storytelling. The subject matter (money being the ultimate goal in life) may not be revolutionary, but the telling of this tale certainly was.
I give How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia five out of five stars, and I am going to be so bold as to state it will be the best book I will read all year.
Perhaps, even in this entire decade.