A Third-World Story That Hits Close to Home

IMG_0893When I picked up the book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid, I’m not sure what I expected. But I know what I didn’t: I didn’t expect to identify with the protagonist, who grew up in an impoverished family in an impoverished country in a largely impoverished continent. Knowing that it is a novel with a self-help setup, I didn’t expect to connect to the “self” or the “help” in this tongue-in-cheek premise. And I didn’t expect to be drawing comparisons between Hamid’s socially minded book and a Disney movie.

But it happened—all of it. Admittedly, the animated film Up has been on my brain lately, after our local symphony recently performed it in a concert featuring popular music from Pixar. The piece “Married Life” from Up finished off the first set, and left all of the adults in the audience in a puddle while they watched scenes of the main character, Carl, fall in love, marry his sweetheart and build his life with her, grow old and lose her, and then face life as a widower. It’s a scene that takes no mercy on adult viewers, so watch at your own risk, but go grab a full box of tissues first.

Of course, you don’t need a blog to tell you that life—and, by extension, good literature—doesn’t resemble a Disney movie. Hamid’s main character lives a world away from the colorful American suburbia depicted in Up, he experiences the exact opposite of middle-class security and comfort, and he finds his love not with his wife but with a model he mostly loves from afar. Yet his story—that of a nameless character known only as “you” and his mate, “the pretty girl”—becomes a universal story that encapsulates human life.

There’s no need to issue a spoiler alert here, since it’s not possible to spoil the events that make up the inevitable cycle of life: birth, coming of age, education, love, work, marriage, old age, and death. That’s the plot of this novel, casting itself as a self-help guidebook but deceptively offering a moving portrait of a man making his way in the world.

Though his story ends up being somewhat universal, his world is anything but. He is rooted in an unspecified location known only as “rising Asia,” but easily traceable to Hamid’s native Pakistan. Talking to his main character in self-help mode, the narrator guides him in the necessary steps to make his fortune in the third world: Move to the City, Don’t Fall in Love, Work for Yourself, Befriend a Bureaucrat, and Don’t Be Afraid to Use Violence, for instance. This process seems, for the most part, to work for Hamid’s hero. He plays the system that he knows, working his way from being a one-man bottled-water delivery operation to becoming a bottled-water magnate considered quite successful by the standards of his own society. His water looks clean to the naked eye, but, like his success, it’s laced with impurities and contaminants. It’s filthy, in a sense, as are the riches he acquires from it. And, though he attains the wealthy status he has been seeking, it’s just for one short chapter.

Fortune is a fickle master, especially in a third-world country, where one’s self-made wealth can be stripped away in an instant by acts of terrorism, violent business rivals, a corrupt government, and widespread crime. And so the book steers him back to a “Focus on the Fundamentals” section, where he must rediscover the important aspects of life: health, parenthood, love.

While we read about this unnamed man—the “you” that supposedly could be you or me—Hamid means for us to feel both linked to and distanced from his character and his situation. If we have the ability even to hold this book in our hands, check it out from a library, or download it onto an electronic device, then already we are enjoying a privileged life far removed from the poverty described here. And, yet, the book also makes us recognize our connectedness across this increasingly globalized world. This is particularly apparent when the main character suffers a heart attack and finds himself in a hospital ICU afterward, which, fortunately, has the life-saving technology of modern medicine:

“To be a man whose life requires being plugged into machines, multiple machines . . . is to experience the shock of an unseen network suddenly made physical, as a fly experiences a cobweb. The inanimate strands that cling to your precariously still-animate form themselves connect to other strands, to the hospital’s power system, its backup generator, its information technology infrastructure, the unit that produces oxygen, the people who refill and circulate the tanks, the department that replenishes medications, the trucks that deliver them, the factories at which they are manufactured, the mines where requisite raw materials emerge, and on and on, from your body, into your room, across the building, and out the doors to the world beyond. . . . It is good you sleep.”

So, while we first-world readers can feel good about the modern advances that may bring healing to third-world backwaters, we should also feel complicit in a system that allows those communities to remain mostly poor, illiterate, and oppressed. We are connected, after all—in both the good and the bad. We share a common human experience, but we also share responsibility for the way of the world at large.



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