Somewhere in Asia: An interview with Mohsin Hamid

By Guy Somerset In Book Club, Books

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Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid, photo/Getty Images

Too bad I’m on the phone to Mohsin Hamid in Pakistan to talk about his new novel and this month’s Listener Book Club choice, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Would there were more time to discuss what the transgender community of Islamabad is up to. Or the youth music scene in Hamid’s hometown of Lahore. These are just two of the subjects he proffers as meriting the attention of American and other overseas media instead fixated on “the unsaid or often the explicitly said question of ‘How dangerous is Pakistan for the rest of us?’”

On the back of his best-selling 2007 Man Booker Prize finalist The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid has produced a fair few “big-picture Pakistani politics” op-ed columns and essays himself, and on the US release of How to Get Filthy Rich he is in the New York Times writing about how his country is “in the grips of militancy”.

But although he welcomes the increase in writing on Pakistan in overseas publications and that it represents a more diverse set of viewpoints, he has misgivings about “the way the questions that are asked and the topics that are given still somewhat create this security-first approach to thinking about Pakistan. And that’s a pity, because it’s very hard when somebody asks the question ‘Should we be afraid of you?’ to offer up the answer, ‘No’. The question itself contains its own answer. Whereas if you actually look at other questions and start getting a bit more familiarity and sense of the nuance and diversity that exists in the country, it begins to look more normal in the sense it’s peculiar like other countries are peculiar.”

As it happens, I am able to talk to Hamid about one of his other suggested topics for overseas media – “How do people get a clean drink of water in Karachi?” – because clean water is the key to getting filthy rich in his new novel, where his approach to thinking about Pakistan is less security first than corruption-first, laying out some of the country’s intricate weave of patronage and graft.

Well, I say “the country”, but actually Hamid is careful not to specify any country. This is simply “rising Asia”.

“The original reason I decided to keep it set in an unnamed country was I wanted to decontaminate and de-stereotype my own gaze looking at Pakistan. I felt that if I used words from Urdu and Pakistani names and distinct Pakistani cultural and political themes, and named those themes, then with those names comes all the baggage of how those terms are usually understood. You slip into a shorthand very easily: when you say mosque, it means this, and when you say fundamentalist, it means that.

“So much of what I think about Pakistan has been told to me by other people and almost subconsciously I regurgitate it and use these terms. So I thought, ‘If I want to describe this place with my own eyes, I have to take away all of the names and visible symbols and just describe what is going on.’ Debrand it, in a way.

“The other part of the project was I’m not a big believer in the nation state. I tend to see borders and passports and nationalities as pretty arbitrary. So it became a way to write in that mode where I could write about specific things that possibly were based on Lahore but make them resonate in a way that it could be many places in Asia. Or even not in Asia. Some things could be similar to Johannesburg or Sao Paulo or wherever.”

Clean water is certainly not a problem limited to Karachi or anywhere else in Pakistan – and is highlighted in the novel just as electricity outages (and subsequent loss of air-conditioning) are in Hamid’s 2000 debut Moth Smoke.

“There is a huge degree of scarcity of water in Pakistan, in India, in all of Asia pretty much,” he says. “And this thing is ticking like a time bomb.” Free water is of a terrible quality – “it’s full of heavy metals, it’s full of faeces, full of all sorts of stuff that makes it pretty unfit to drink”.

Hamid envisages clean water becoming “a luxury good rather than a mass commodity and I think that’s going to open up – it’s already opening up – a terrible class division between people who can afford to buy clean water and people who can’t”.

With water, he says, “you see come together a lot of the overlapping crises of social stratification and corruption and environmental mismanagement that feel to me like they’re going to be desperately important in the coming decades”.

Corruption is in the news the day we talk, in a way that demonstrates how its taint reaches from the bottom to the top of Pakistani society: Switzerland has ruled against reopening charges that in the 1990s President Asif Ali Zardari laundered kickback money through the country’s banking system, because as head of state he now has immunity. It is an “interesting” decision, says Hamid.

“It shows it isn’t the case there are corrupt countries like Pakistan and then other countries like Switzerland that are famed for their rule of law. Actually, there is a network of shared benefit that goes on … Why is Switzerland one of the biggest banking centres in the world? Because it has this incredible banking secrecy and stability … It has no incentive whatsoever to see this case go to trial.”

How to Get Filthy Rich is written as a mock self-help book, addressed in the second person at its central protagonist, as it charts his money-making life from birth to death. The self-help framing device grew out of a conversation Hamid had with his friend John Freeman, editor of Granta, about how “sometimes reading new fiction felt like a chore, like it was good for you, and the idea popped up, like it was self-help. I joked that my next novel was going to be a self-help book. I thought it was a joke but over the subsequent months I really couldn’t shake the notion, because the more I considered it, the more I thought it was both very funny but also partly true … I thought, oddly enough, given how preposterous it is, it’s a way to be really honest. Honest with myself about my motivations for writing, with the reader potentially with some of their motivations for reading and how books work, and so it just went from there. A joke gone wild.”

The novel is the third Hamid has written using the second person, which appears fleetingly in Moth Smoke and throughout The Reluctant Fundamentalist as its narrator talks to a shadowy American stranger in a Lahore cafe.

Hamid finds it a pleasing form of address, one that offers “a certain degree of liberation”. Its appeal for him lies partly in memories of childhood games of Dungeons and Dragons – “a second-person approach to storytelling where one player called the Dungeon Master would be like the referee … It was a precursor to modern video games in many ways yet because it operated through spoken word and text felt a lot more like a novel”.

How to Get Filthy Rich is also Hamid’s third novel with a powerful love story at its heart. Reviewing Moth Smoke, Nadine Gordimer praised his ability “to orchestrate personal and public themes”. Are Hamid’s love stories sweeteners for those public themes, I wonder, or fundamental from the beginning?

“Growing up in Pakistan, you are steeped in the idea of classical songs being love songs, poetry being love poetry and love being the central metaphor for looking at human relations and spiritual relations, etc. It could be some of that has found its way into how I see things. It could be I’m just a sucker for love stories.”

Despite Pakistan being, as Hamid has written, “a country that is far messier than most”, he continues to live there with his wife and children, having moved back in 2009 after eight years in the UK and studying and working in the US before that. His options are many, but he has chosen Pakistan. “Life isn’t just about the minimisation of risk,” he says. “My wife and I – all four of our parents live in Pakistan. Most of our siblings live in Pakistan. We both grew up in an extended family context where generations lived together. I live in an apartment on top of my parents’ house and hope to build a house next to my parents’ house. I think that aspect of things – the intergenerational connections, cousins, old friends you grew up with – is probably the basic fundamental value on which Pakistani society, or at least my experience of Pakistani society, has been constructed, and I really value that. I’m not sure I’ve discovered in New York or London anything that really outweighs it … I still prefer it here because these are the people I want to spend my life with.”

Listener Book Club

To join the Listener Book Club conversation about Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton, $37), visit the Book Club section, follow @nzlbookclub on Twitter or go to our Facebook page, New Zealand Listener Book Club.

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