The nameless protagonist in Pakistani native Mohsin Hamid’s third novel, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” leaves his poor village behind for the glamour of the big city. Written in the style of a self-help book, the story traces the protagonist’s transformation from a simple rural boy to a swank urban tycoon. Along the way, Hamid’s funny, poignant novel explores Asian urbanization, materialism, love and loss.
Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration for the book?
I wanted to write a novel about the huge changes in Asia and much of the world as billions of people move out of the countryside, move to huge cities and start new lives in a new urban environment. My hometown had about a million people when I was born 41 years ago, and it has 10 million today. The same thing that happened to America in the 20thcentury, when people were leaving the countryside for the cities, is now playing itself out in Asia, Latin America and Africa. There are more economic opportunities in the city.
Not many books are written in the second person. What was your reason for this?
On the surface, the novel is about urbanization and the ferociousness of the market. But underneath that, it is a spiritual quest — how does one find happiness in the midst of this dislocation and materialism? It is really about trying to find some antidote to the anxiety we all feel. It was important for me to be able to talk to the reader. It allows a kind of honesty between us.
I’m curious about the character of the pretty girl, an important thread throughout the book.
She is the boy’s female counterpart. She’s living in a slum and wants to get out, and eventually works her way up and starts her own business. She’s ferociously independent, but still has the need for connection and intimacy. There are more and more women breaking away from cultural traditions, and the changing the economy allows them to make a living. She’s part of that trend.
What are your attitudes about the cultural phenomena in your novel?
The market is essentially about self-centeredness, but life is also about loss. We need some narrative about loss – previously our traditional folk stories or religion provided this, but if we’re leaving behind our villages, can stories do the same? This novel is an exploration of that. One way we center ourselves is love. It can be romantic love, children, it can be a cause. For me, that blatantly sentimental claim is vital to the story.