Category Archives: Pakistan

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

risingasiacollageAlthough How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia sounds like the title of a self-help book, it’s actually a work of fiction. It does however take its structure from the kind of book that is bought and opened with great anticipation and expectation only to invariably disappoint. Self-help books are a triumph of hope over reality but we still can’t seem to get enough of them because every year sees a new clutch of titles. Mohsin Hamid’s novel ridicules such books and – by implication – the people who read them and try to follow their advice.

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. And it’s true of personal improvement books too…. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.

The 12 chapters of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are positioned as guidance for a poor, nameless, boy who wants to rise above his impoverished circumstances. Each chapter contains a lesson: Move to the City; Get an Education; Don’t Fall in Love; Avoid Idealists; Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Patronise the Artists of War; Dance with Debt; Focus on the Fundamentals; and Have an Exit Strategy. It follows him from a child who is “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth” to a metro city which is “enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached, tropical island republic”. There he spots an opening selling bottled water. To get from a lowly job as a water delivery boy to the proprietor of his own distilling plant takes many years of effort, intuition and cunning plus some questionable practices – this is a business based initially on selling food with false eat-by dates and then selling boiled municipal water as ‘mineral water’ Over time in order to grow into our entreprenneur has to resort to bribery and extortion. All the time his heart remains set on something else: the ‘pretty girl’ from his neighbourhood whose star rises along with his. Their paths cross and recross but always she seems one step ahead of him.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is told in an audacious second person narrative style. Hamid says at the end of the novel that he adopted this approach because he wanted to push the boundaries of the reader-writer relationship. He sees the process of writing as a collaborative effort so for him the novel “is a self help book that is a second-person life-story that is an invitation to create. Together.” 

I know some readers felt Hamid didn’t quite pull off the second person narrative voice and I don’t see how it fulfilled his objective of being a collaborative endeavour but I still loved the boldness and freshness of the style.  There is a feeling of real energy about the novel, partly coming from the pace of the story – large chunks of time pass in just a few pages. Sometimes I wished Hamid had slowed down a bit to give more depth to his hero’s struggle up the greasy pole of business. It’s only in the latter chapters do we get a slower feel, when the boy is now an old man alone in the world and appreciating that he can find happiness only by relinquishing the advice of the self-help book. In essence the book’s message puts a different spin on the title – to become filthy rich as a human being means giving up on material ambitions. 

Because the location is not specified (though it’s a fair bet the events take place in Hamid’s home country of Pakistan) and none of the characters have names, only generic descriptors (“the politician”; “the pretty girl”); the implication is that this is a tale which could be about anyone. The desire for wealth doesn’t apply just to Asia;  aspiration is a fundamental part of human nature. There  are thus – or could be – people just like them in many parts of the world going through similar experiences. The ‘you’ to whom this book’s guidance is directed could equally be ‘me’ is what Hamid seems to be suggesting. But this isn’t a book of mere polemic. Yes is does paint a portrait of the perils of a love of wealth but it’s also a warm and charming love story.

Footnotes

The Book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid was published in 2013 by Penguin.

The Author: Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan though has since lived also in California, New York and London. His first novel, Moth Smoke  was a riches-to-rags story about a Pakistani financier, who descends through the circles of Lahore society becomes addicted to heroin. His second novel  The Reluctant Fundamentalist (my review is here), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and looked at the changing relationship between the new Pakistan and the west.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist 

 

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Burnt shadowsShortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize, Burnt Shadows spans the half a century between two events that shocked the world; the nuclear attack on Nagasaki and the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. Along the way it covers a multitude of other subjects from Indian Partition to the war in Afghanistan, from the divide between colonial settlers and the native inhabitants of the land they occupy and from the ties that bind family members together to the ties that bind a person to their homeland.

An ambitious novel and yet it begins very simply and with an air of innocence. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda in Urakami Valley to admire the view of terraced slopes lit by a perfectly blue sky. Dressed in a kimono patterned with three black cranes that swoop across the back, she stands quietly; a young woman on the cusp of a new life with the man she loves. Within seconds her dream is destroyed, an explosion throwing her to the ground; the heat fusing something to her skin.

She touches the something else on her back. Her fingers can feel her back but her back cannot feel her fingers. Charred silk, seared flesh. How is this possible? … So much to learn. The touch of dead flesh. The smell — she has just located where the acrid smell comes from — of dead flesh.

In the aftermath of the bomb that obliterates her fiancé Konrad and her community, all that is left are the bird-shaped burns on her back. Two years later she arrives in Delhi, a city in the twilight of the Raj. She is looking to begin a new life and to erase the stigma of being branded a hibakusha, a survivor of the bomb.  Slowly she builds a new life, with the help of Konrad’s half sister Elisabeth and the love of the family servant Sajjad Ashraf.

Over the years as she moves home, to Istanbul and Karachi and finally to New York, her endurance is tested to the extreme. Through the redemptive power of love and friendship she is able to escape the shadows of the past. But not so her son Raza.  He will never be able to marry the girl he loves because of that past:

It’s your mother. Everyone knows about her.

What about her?

Nagasaki. The bomb. No-one will give their daughter to you in marriage unless they are desperate Raza. You could be deformed.  … You might have something you can pass on to your children.

Perhaps it’s his realisation he is a marked man that drives Raza to take the rather naive step of heading to an Afghanistan training camp with his Afghan friend Abdullah. The experience simply deepens his feeling of enduring guilt, and lead him to make yet another mistake when he joins forces with a former covert CIA Operator in Afghanisation to run a private security firm.

Raza is a complex character but it’s Hiroko, a woman who quietly makes a new life for herself without ever forgetting the past, who stole the show for me.  She holds the fragments of this epic story together and whenever she is missing from the text, the book seems to lose its identity. At times the didactic element of the writing was intrusive but overall I was drawn to the lives of these characters and admired how Kamila Shamsie roamed so widely across the canvas of international politics.

 

A hit and a maybe

FearIt seemed appropriate to begin reading a novel about the horror of World War One on the day when Europe paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the conflict. Ive read several books by British authors so wanted something that was written from the perspective of one of the other participants in the theatre of war. My choice was Fear by the French author Gabriel Chevalier. 

Better known as the author of Clochemerle, a satire about a villlage French morals, Chevallier was called up at the start of the War and, though wounded, managed to last until the end. Fear, published in 1930, tells the story of his alter ego Jean Dartemont. 

Dartemont spends the war in fear. He cowers in trenches and tries  to escape duties . He is scathing of the officers in charge and of the people in France who viewed the war as golly adventure at first. It’s this voice and the graphic descriptions of life at the front that caused controversy when the book was published.

Having had the benefit of almost 100 years to reevaluate the war, some of Chevalier’s attacks may no longer have the same effect but I’m not far enough into the novel to judge yet.  It could turn out to be less interesting than I’d hoped or an undiscovered classic. 

Burnt shadowsOne book that didn’t turn out the way I expected was Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, an author from Pakistan. This was a novel I found in a library sale and bought thinking it as about the effect of the nuclear bomb attack on Nagasaki. The book actually opens on the day the bomb falls. What surprised me was how Shamsie took this event and made it the starting point for a novel which ranges across several theatres of war – India, Afghanistan and then USA and its war on terrorism. Shamsie captured the issues well and showed their impact on the two families but never allowed this to become simply a family saga. Well worth reading.

The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz

Holy WomanAncient customs and family traditions clash with personal desires and aspirations of freedom of a modern day Pakistan woman in Qaisra Shahraz’s The Holy Woman.  

Zarri Bano is the 28 year old daughter of a wealthy Muslim landowner. Breathtakingly beautiful and intelligent she has an independent streak and a strong will that has seen her reject the overtures of many suitors, none of whom meet her exacting standards. Just when she does meet someone who awakens the passionate side of her nature and is her intellectual match,  a family tragedy disrupts the wedding plans. Her elder brother, heir to the family’s lands, is killed in a riding accident and Zarri’s father decides to make her his heiress. In doing so, he resurrects an ancient tradition of the Holy Woman or Shahzadi Ibadat, a woman committed to a life of celibacy and knowledge of the Holy Quran.

Zarri feels obliged to obey her father’s will, putting aside her own desires of a life as a publisher and a wife. She thus relinquishes her jewels, make up and designer clothes for a black Burqa and turns her back on her fiancé for marriage and devotion to  the teachings of her faith.

The book traces her internal struggle between her ambitions and personal desires and her sense of honour and duty towards her father and her clan. Along the way we get an insight into the attitudes of women who adopt the veil and of the  way in which women feel powerless in a patriarchal society.  That was the aspect of the book that caught my attention when I first heard of The Holy Woman. Although it doesn’t appear that there really is a role in the Muslim world called the  Shahzadi Ibadat, I was still hoping that by reading this book I would learn something of the ideology behind the concept of the veil and its importance in Muslim society which might help me also understand the controversy it attracts in many western countries. But the way Shahraz deals with this theme didn’t bring any great new insights or appreciation.

We get rather too many laboured intrusions of the narrator’s voice to make the reading enjoyable. This is just one example:

Zanni Bano had no chance, crushed against this wall of patriarchal tyranny. Even with her youth, feminism and a university education, and with an outgoing and assertive personality on her side, she was still father to be the loser in this game of male power-play. Like her mother, it had been drilled into her from infancy to both respect and pay homage to her father’s wishes and those of the male elders.

Even when Zanni speaks in her own voice, her speech pattern feels forced and unnatural.

I am not only your daughter. I am me! But you and Father have brutally stripped me of my identity as a normal woman and instead reduced me to a role of a puppet…..You have all jailed and numbed me into a commitment which I will have to go along with – but not willingly.

I saw one comment on Goodreads to the effect that the characters in this novel are “without exception 3 dimensional and full of life”. I had the exact opposite reaction. They all came across as pedestrian, cardboard-cut-outs to me who speak in very unnatural ways. Sharaz could have done so much more with this book but instead allows it to descend into a second rate romance with a very predictable, and to me, unbelievable ending.

A good idea but the execution didn’t live up to my expectations at all.

Sunday salon: New acquisitions

garden readingSunday greetings from one very hot reader. Here in the UK we’re going through a very hot spell and unusually this one is sticking around for a while.  Even though my garden is in desperate need of some attention it’s far too hot to do anything much beyond pruning the rose bushes and deadheading some border plants. On a day like this there really is only one thing in the garden I want to do and that’s to sit in it with a good book and a glass of something cold.

  • Which makes it fortuitous that I stocked up my reading shelves yesterday. I can hear you saying “I thought you weren’t buying any books till you’d cleared that TBR collection???” I have indeed been doing well on that front – more on that another time – but I had gone to the library to pick up The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan which had finally become available and then found the library was having a book sale. I couldn’t resist taking a look as you might expect and found some titles that will be good additions for my world literature reading project.

So now I’m set up for a lovely few hours of reading. And all I have to decide is which of these to open first.

  • An Elergy for Easterly which is  a collection of short stories by the Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki. This was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now renamed the Baileys Prize) in 2012. This is the fifth novel by Farooki,  who was born Pakistan to a literary family but now lives in London. It’s about a somewhat shady character who travels around the world adopting a different persona in each country.
  • A book by another Pakistani author caught my eye. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009. It’s a noel about the shared histories of two families, moving from the final days of the second world war in Japan, and India on the brink of partition in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, New York in the aftermath of September 11 and Afghanistan in the wake of the resulting US bombing campaign.
  • I’ve never read anything by Mario  Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for literature , nor have I read anything by a Peruvian author so when I spotted Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, it seemed an opportunity too good to miss. It actually isn’t set in South America but in Ireland where a hero of Irish Nationalism awaits the hangman’s noose having been convicted of treason.

I would have been happy with just those four but the library was offering a discount if you bought five so onto my pile went one book that has nothing to do with world literature: Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me. I have A Visit from the Goon Squad but have yet to open it so I have no idea whether I will like her style. This one predates Goon Squad by 10 years. It’s about a model who is trying to return to life after a catastrophic car accident which so badly impacted her face, she needed 80 screws to fix the back in place. Unrecognisable and unable to return to her former work, she drifts into drink and despair.

If these were your new acquisitions which would you read first?

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