His last book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was released in 2007, and is in the news again, as its screen adaption, directed by Mira Nair, readies for release. Amidst the buzz, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s third book, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, hit bookshelves. The Pakistan-based author was in Delhi recently, and spoke about his curiously positioned ‘self-help’ book.
“Why so long, for the third?” was our obvious lung-opener. After a chuckle, he confesses, “All my books took ages to complete. This took six years, my fastest! Each time I start to write, my work reads terrible — I’ve not retained a single line from those early drafts.” Soon, talk veers to how it took shape — “The biggest shift since I wrote The Reluctant...was that I became a father. I had children; in a way, I wanted to feel different. Unlike my earlier works, where the protagonists were my age, this novel’s leads are different. It’s a bigger scale — and a huge departure; you’ll read about children, family, old age and the circumstances that engulf them. My return to Pakistan has also affected the book, partly.”
The novel has its bittersweet moments. There’s life, death, love and yet, positivity grips the reader. Hamid elaborates, “I wanted to explore the idea that while our world today is filled with talk about markets, uber commercialisation, increasing assets and GDP, human existence is also about loss, health, and love. If we only speak market language, it’s impossible to tackle loss. Nowadays, families are less all-encompassing; folk traditions are dying. This builds anxiety; we’re incapable of talking about loss.” He cites how spiritualism in Zen Buddhism, Sufi traditions and Hindu theology speak of not being self-centred. “I’m familiar with Sufism and wanted to talk about love. This novel is a brutal view of growth at all costs yet I wanted to show that love endures through loss and in the end, can offer a degree of comfort.”
And it is towards the end that Hamid writes, “We are all refugees from our childhood.” Is this specific to our part of the world, or a universal truth, we ask? “It’s universal. Most importantly, we must remember that we are all refugees. We cannot revisit our childhood — that time has passed, and with it, experiences. But memories should make us more understanding. In the larger picture, wealthy nations and the wealthy must be more open; they shouldn’t look down on those who turn up at their doorsteps, as refugees. We must recognise this connect in life too. It starts from there.”
On his narrative style of namelessness in all three novels
It’s always been a conscious decision. One of the important reasons is that I didn’t want to create these peculiar, exotic places in the minds of readers. Lahore was my model. Yet, I wanted to have a universal theme. Why aren’t New York or London but Lahore and Mumbai always perceived as the more exotic location? On the contrary, the latter two are far more humane than exotic, more grounded and well-rounded in character. Namelessness allowed me to be human and reflective.
On working with Mira Nair
It was a wonderful experience shooting in New York and Lahore. She’s become a good, close friend. But beyond that I respect her a lot because she realised a near-impossible task. Firstly, she didn’t end up making an Indian film based on a Pakistani book. Then again, she was working with Hollywood A-listers like Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland, along with Pakistani and Indian actors. To place them in the background and not vice versa showed exceptional creative vision. She overcame numerous financial roadblocks; during those 5-6 years on the film, not a single month went by when we didn’t imagine that the film would almost collapse. But Mira made it happen. She’s a tough and groundbreaking director who inspires me, immensely.
On English fiction in South Asia
There is a surge in reading that has led to an interest in English. There is a false notion that reading is for the elite. When I travel across Pakistan, I see young people in its cities, universities and small towns reading English fiction. We are riding on the crest of this wave. Reading in English in the Subcontinent has made it a South Asian language. Without taking away from the popularity of Urdu or Hindi writing, English is now on par with both these languages.