The book started as a joke
Filthy Rich began, Hamid has said, “as a joke” with his friend John Freeman, the editor of Granta, about how people persevere with novels as a form of self help, because they perceive novels to be good for them. The idea stuck. “Why,” Hamid writes in Filthy Rich, “for example, do you persist in reading that breathtakingly boring foreign novel, slogging through page after page after please-make-it-stop page of tar-slow prose and blush-inducing formal conceit, if not out of an impulse to understand distant lands that because of globalisation are increasingly affecting life in your own?” This sentence is an example of the flexibility of Hamid’s use of the second person. Who is it he is addressing here?
The inspiration behind the book
There wasn’t a single inspiration, but I wanted to take on a pretty big canvas and look at a broader section of society unlike my first two novels. I thought about what kind of novel would let me do that. The self-help book form started as a joke with my friend, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
Origins in a Sufi form
Although the new book’s form owes a debt to epic Victorian novels and self-promotional advice tomes, Hamid insists that its true literary ancestor is the Sufi love poem: “The Sufi poem, sort of Sufism in a nutshell, is Islamic mysticism where love is used as the prism for relating to the universe. And it generally expresses itself in the form of love poems, which are second-person addresses, very often, and quite often nameless second-person addresses.”
Elaborating on his plan for the book’s scope, Hamid says, “I wanted to write a big, sprawling, 19th-century, 800-page book, but I didn’t want it to be much longer than 200 pages.” That’s partly because he wants to write work that won’t unnerve young readers weaned on tweets and YouTube videos. “For me, the project is to not have literature be in a ghetto,” he says.
The marketization of water
In his new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid’s nameless protagonist is an ambitious young man who moves from the countryside to a megalopolis in search of his fortune. The city is modeled on Lahore, Pakistan, where Hamid was born and partly raised and where — after living in the United States and England — he has now settled with his family.
The story of moving from the country to the city is a story that is common in Pakistan and throughout the world, Hamid tellsFresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “Something like half the world’s people now live in cities for the first time in human history, but in the course of the next generation, 25, 30 years, that number’s going to go to 80 or 90 percent, which means that a couple billion people are going to move to cities in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. … [S]o, in a sense, this is a story of that mass migration in Pakistan, but also elsewhere.”
Having made it to the big city, Hamid’s main character aims to get rich with a series of business scams that include taking goods that have expired and giving them labels with a longer shelf life. He finally finds wealth boiling tap water and selling it as expensive mineral water.
Hamid — who is also the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which has been made into a movie starring Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber and comes out in April — had a point when he made water the basis of his protagonist’s successful scam.
“The marketization of water, the sort of application of a kind of uber-capitalism that you see all over the world … you can see … most clearly in water,” Hamid says, “because water used to be almost free. You could get water from a river, from a canal, from a well, from wherever, and now of course we’re running out of clean water in most of Asia and much of Africa and much of Latin America, and so people don’t have clean drinking water. We can live for a month without food, but we can’t last more than a couple of days without water, so people are selling water — both at the luxury level, where you have these high-end mineral waters, and also at the level of just poor people needing something to drink.”