Review: Mohsin Hamid's 'How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia'
In much the same way that Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee manages with his Dusklandsnovel, Mohsin Hamid brings to life a fictional world with strong roots in reality. While Coetzee tells us about “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” (a ‘memoir’ of an 18-century South African colonialist) and focuses on the underlying horrors behind treating human beings as inferior species, Hamid shows us the side of the 21st century that achieves almost the same effect.
At its core, Filthy Rich is about you. As you experience Coetzee’s bloodlust and murderous drive, so too shall you experience Hamid’s—or your—drive towards escaping the shackles of your past and progressing towards wealth. The main difference separating these two books, and what makes Hamid such a notable name, is his writing style. You feel the pain and pleasure of your first love; you feel the loss of your parents and siblings; you feel the need to change your future. You experience aspects of your own life through his writing.
Indeed, whether or not you were born in (what we assume is) Pakistan, Hamid makes you a reluctant participant in a narrative that resonates across multiple levels. Although rife with moments of laughter and discomfort and disagreement, the book strikes at the heart of larger generational and cultural issues; of breaking away from what our parents had to go through, from what our siblings have to go through, and to be the one to break the chain. Filthy Rich is an embodiment of the life struggle experienced by the majority of people around the world: becoming a better version of our parents. And Hamid guides you in the form of ‘self-help.’
With the ultimate goal of accumulating wealth, he instructs to avoid many of the things that make us human and to undertake many of the actions that are not readily available to people; escaping the village, obtaining an education, and being born as the third son being some of them. Yet, even with such predestined successes, “there [is] no hiding from the fact that you [are] the son of a servant” (59), and try as you might it is difficult to break that stigma.
Indeed, Hamid is representative of larger cultural setbacks that afflict many in Asian countries. Whether it is discrimination, powerlessness, bribery, or clan-related nepotism, he portrays the failures of larger society in the journey of the individual. And while he guides that we should join larger organizations for power and learn from established masters, within such a system where we are all but ants in the eyes of the state, our pathway has become about justifying actions; about doing everything we can to make wealth, even if it means treating humans as “biological machines that must be bent to your will” (119).
And as you fulfil goals the likes of selling expired products and bottling boiled water in used bottles, the family you began with takes up less and less of your attention. Deaths and losses weigh heavy on you—and so does the desire for your first love—but the focus is on the fact that for your own son, “the probability of his early death has, through your attainments, been reduced dramatically” (146). This is what shows Hamid’s hand and demonstrates his implicit question of: ‘what happens to the first son of the third son?’
Ultimately, we are but the result of our parents’ opportunities. Even Hamid himself admits that his book will fail to live up to its title. Too many are predestined to not being the 3rd son of successive 3rd sons, and Filthy Rich is the perfect outline of the type of journey those people will take in areas the likes of Pakistan. It may not guide you to riches, but the book is a hell of a guide for the challenge against fate of becoming self-actualized versions of ourselves. And Hamid himself has a phrase that suits this journey perfectly: “You call. The hand is yours. Chance, really” (225). You were born and achieved success. Congratulations. How many didn’t?