Novel follows ‘Filthy Rich’ Asian slum kid

Marion Winik / Newsday /

Published Mar 10, 2013 at 05:00AM

“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead, $26.95)

What do you get when you cross “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the cynical musical comedy, with “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” the award-winning portrait of life among India’s most abject?

I can think of only one person who would even dream up such a hybrid: the brilliant Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid.

“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is Hamid’s third novel, following the acclaimed “Moth Smoke” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” the latter an eye-opening and spellbinding 9/11 tale shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The film by Mira Nair comes out in April.

In his latest, Hamid focuses on a wretched, diseased, yet ambitious child of the Indian subcontinent, picking him up by the scruff of his neck and advising him in the brisk, imperious tones of a self-help manual on how to improve his lot. The invisible mentor follows this unnamed boy up the ladder of success with new admonishments for each rung: “Learn From a Master,” “Don’t Fall in Love,” “Be Prepared to Use Violence,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat” and “Dance With Debt” are some of the chapter titles. Though the ending does contain one sweet surprise, it is no spoiler to reveal that “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” does not have the joyous finale of the musical comedy it resembles.

In its cleverness, its slightly cruel satire and its complex understanding of both Western and Eastern paradigms, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is pure Hamid.

The entire book is addressed to a “you” whom we meet “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. ... The whites of your eye are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in 50, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.”

The voice shifts fluently between close-up tracking of this character and his friend “the pretty girl” and a grander philosophical meditation.

The sharp-eyed storyteller follows our young friend as he struggles through his childhood and adolescence, taking in what education there is to be had, working his way up from bicycle delivery of pirated DVDs to the selling of expired canned goods to his first entrepreneurial venture: the bottling of lightly sterilized water posing as eau minerale. This business — thriving due to the contaminated water system that caused his hepatitis — is the rickety car in which he ascends the roller coaster track of the South Asian economy. Meanwhile, the pretty girl is on her own journey, seen on billboards and in tabloids, then on television hosting a cooking show. Their paths crisscross and, ultimately, converge.

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