Mohsin Hamid on bending the rules and striking it rich in modern-day Pakistan
Mohsin Hamid had already started work on his second novel when 9/11 happened. Six years and many drafts later, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was released. It was written as a one-sided conversation between a Pakistani and an American at a café in Lahore, the city where Hamid was born. Hamid's most recent novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is different in style — it's a confident, mock self-help manual that follows a rags-to-riches story set in a time of crushing upheaval.
In this conversation from 2014, Eleanor Wachtel talks to Mohsin Hamid about his work. Hamid's new novel, Exit West, is slated for release in March 2017.
Why he wrote the book in the second person
The self-help genre is often about "you." How you can get a six-pack set of abs, how you can live to 150. The second person form of address is a natural thing for self-help. But also, I think of novels as being about the relationship between readers and writers. By using the "you," I was hopefully able to speak to the reader in a different way.
I wanted to earn that "you" by the end of the book. To start with a "you" that was more of the standard self-help version, and then, by the end of the novel, to achieve a relationship of real intimacy with the reader. But it's a bit like meeting somebody at a bar. If you walk up to somebody in a bar and say "Hey, I'd like to have a relationship of real intimacy with you," that person turns away very quickly. Better to tell a few jokes, adopt a devil-may-care attitude, talk about money, and then a relationship begins to develop that doesn't seem to be founded on anything of very great significance. As the novel progresses, what starts to happen, I hope, is that the stakes get raised. It's not about whether we get rich. It's about something else.
On Pakistan's growing middle class
It's similar to what we've seen all over the world. More and more people are becoming educated. The state — however overbearing and corrupt it is — is stepping back. So what you see is an incredibly entrepreneurial society, where everybody is running little businesses. In Pakistan, there is a very strong class structure, but there is also a degree of mobility. On the one hand, the poor, as a general rule, are treated abominably by the state and other people. But there is this burgeoning middle class and this upward mobility against the backdrop of very real, violent competition.
On the "ethically marginal side" of his protagonist's business plans
In a society where the law exists primarily to enforce the power of those who are already powerful — as opposed to protecting the rights of the individual or a degree of equality — in a sense, fighting the law is a form of upward mobility. It shouldn't be so surprising — after all, so much of the wealth that was created in the last 20 years in cities like Toronto and New York was wealth from the financial sector, which as we know, both rigged the game and broke the rules incessantly. If you're powerful, it's called white-collar crime and nobody gets punished. But if you're not powerful, then it's real, criminal crime and you might well get punished. The market does encourage people to at least bend the rules, to do what no competitor has previously done.
Mohsin Hamid's comments have been edited and condensed.
Music to close the show: "Kanga," a traditional folk song performed by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, from the album "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."