Tag Archives: Mohsin Hamid

17. Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, by Mohsin Hamid

19 Mar

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This group of collected essays by the author of How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is minor-arcana, a small treat for the Mohsin Hamid fan, which I am.

Hamid is one of the best writers of literary fiction working today. He knows what’s important in life and has an ability to access strong, deep human emotions in his fiction. He’s a humanist, and he’s also the type of sophisticated writer who achieves utter clarity and simplicity.

But he writes slowly.

That’s where this slim volume comes in, collected from his previously published non-fiction work written in the 15 years since his first novel was published (for much of that time he kept his day job as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co.). The essays are arranged into sections on Life, Art and Politics, and to an extent that they have a focus, it’s globalization. He writes in the introduction:

“When I was younger, I thought of being a migrant and being foreign as things that made me different, an outsider. Now, at the age of forty-three, I think these experiences are increasingly universal.”

In  global world, we’re all foreigners somewhere, and all forced to contend with alien new neighbors—even if they live continents away. Hamid is an ideal guide to this strange modern condition. He’s Pakistani by birth but has lived only “a little less than half” of his life there. He lives in Lahore now, but spent much of his adult life in New York and London, the other two cities of the book’s subtitle.

And we should all take Lahore up close and personal, he says, because the city matters,

“not just to myself and other Pakistanis, nor only because it is beset with terrorism and possesses nuclear weapons, but because Pakistan is a test bed for pluralism on a globalizing planet that desperately needs more pluralism. Pakistan’s uncertain democracy and unsteady attempt to fashion a future in which its citizens can live together in peace are an experiment that mirrors our global experiment as human beings on a shared Earth.”

That he has these concerns—how to be human, how to be human together—is why I’m interested in him as a human, and why I’m curious to read his autobiographical essays and his thoughts on writing and politics, as collected here. I do find that work collected from previous mass-media sources can be dated and scattered, and this collection has that problem to some extent. Do we care about that time he saw Avatar in Lahore? How he likes Murakami’s running book?

Still there’s enough wisdom in here to make those flaws easy to overlook. And as an American, reading the Politics section reminded me of how U.S politics have shaped Pakistan since its inception. We are neighbors. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could visit more freely with each other?

 

38. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid

23 Dec

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This book grabbed me by the guts and didn’t let go; I’m still thinking about the characters a week later, which is a strange feeling when a book is written in the second-person. The hero was “you”–definitely a person who had nothing in common with “me”–and the love interest only “the pretty girl,” yet their stories were so vivid and compelling, and the “you,” once I got used to it, was so deeply embodying, that I’m still wondering what the hero and the pretty girl could have done differently, if anything. Lying in bed at night I’ve found my mind drifting to them, their lives, wondering if they were good lives or bad lives, though of course the answer is just tragically mixed, as ours all are.

The book is about what the title says it’s about, and traces a protagonist from birth in rural poverty (chapter headings like “Move to the City”) up the success arc in an unnamed city that seems to be religiously Muslim, though it’s barely specified beyond the women sometimes going covered. The “How to” of the title is relevant, since the structure is maintained as a faux self-help book. And the observations about life and success are, while probably not actually helpful (since most readers are not trying to get filthy rich in rising Asia), funny and well-played.

I was a little bit off-put by both the voice and the prose, in the beginning. Unfortunately I quickly loaned my copy out, so don’t have the examples in front of me. It was choppy and hard to follow in places, and started off with a lot of squatting to shit and meaty thwhacking while people had sex. But fortunately the book was grabby enought that I stuck with it, and before too long I was utterly won over by the feeling of the stakes raising with each decade of age. I’m not sure if that’s true of all lives, or just the ones depicted, but it ended up being a powerful read. I will definitely read more from this author.