Mohsin Hamid is a gifted writer and a wonderful story-teller, so it is totally to his credit that his latest novel "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" is gripping. In fact, it left me wanting to finish the book, and I did so in one sitting or two. And that's despite the fact that it's not his best work, by far.
Hamid is undoubtedly one of the leading voices in Pakistani Writing in English (apologies, that's only as grating a term as the once common IWE). He is quite an engaging writer. Which is why I'm not sure that he flexed enough with this. Or maybe just he did just about enough, to pull off a competent, well-enough told story.
It's cleverly written and is a good story, don't get me wrong. It will also undoubtedly translate very well onto the big screen, and yet. It's not got enough meat on it, not judging by the author's own standards. I'm sure it's hard to live up to a brilliant first book -- but Moth Smoke was path-breaking, and offered insight in a way that I don't think the latest book does, at least not to those of us on the subcontinent. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, his second book, was also quite brilliant, and offered a different perspective in the increasingly shrill War on Terror.
This book is written as a self-help book and is funny and clever, and it's a bit of a love story, and sweet for all that. (And for all my scepticism, I did want to see the protagonist end up with the now significantly older "pretty girl".) I'm sure it can be read as an indictment of capitalism on the sub-continent more than 50 years after independence. But we're weary here on the subcontinent, I feel. We're weary and we're well aware how people game the system. Outside of our little bubbles, we're quite aware we're being gypped half the time. 'Trust no one' or 'Trust nothing desi' could well be the motto.
So yes, it's quite plausible that there are entire businesses dedicated to stripping off expiry labels and re-sticking them with dates changed --- one step on the path to financial success for our protagonist, the second-person "You" that Hamid writes about. Yes, it's quite likely that the protagnoist's drinking water business - which gains him financial and political clout - is based on a lie. The endemic corruption is interesting as well, I'm sure, if you don't have to live through it. It's an indictment of a system both sides of the border. I mean fake bottled drinking water is something Indians have grown to expect and watch out for.
So there's nothing actually that rings false about that - it's just that something doesn't click with the way You, the protagonist scale these dizzying heights. Or the way You and the "pretty girl" who's now a top model reconnect every so often as adults. There's some heart and soul missing. Which may also be very clever, because this is to all intents and purposes modelled on a self help book.
It's a competent book and if it had been by any other writer, I would have ended this there. But this sort of Slumdog Millionaire meets The White Tiger? I think Hamid can and will flex a little more, and entertain us thoroughly with his next.
Agree? Disagree? Post your feedback here or tweet me @amritat.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is available from Penguin Books India for 499