How to Get Filthy Rich for Asian Asians

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Penguin (2013)

Mohsin Hamid deftly guides you into his world of making it big in Asia. And by which I mean South Asia. East Asia is a different subject altogether, and better left to experts from outside this great mess of a subcontinent.  How to Get Filthy Rich… is an essential book for every modern young urban migrant without the baggage of memory, exile, partition, bloody wars, disasters, calamities of the recent past.

The roving You, is the centre of this novel, quickly shifting from boyhood to old age, from one phase of life to the next. What is your clutch? Nationality? Memory? Money?  Or cumulatively, time? Diasporic Asians are no more diasporic, they have ditched their hyphens, in this English speaking, maiden name loving, globetrotting, commercial oneness, achieving that synchronised identity upwards. Hamid is Pakistani, but you could just as easily be Indian or Bangladeshi.

And although this book could easily be targetted at anyone (including Westerners) who want to strike it big in Asia, his self-help strategies are aimed more directly at the Asian Asian. The Asian Asian is someone who lives in Asia, and wants to make it big in Asia, in a world where Asia is the centre of the universe. You are the millennial’s parent, the baby boomer, who sends your kids to North America or elsewhere to study and become citizens of another land. You are staying on, digging your tunnel to wealth, sitting on the goldmine that is Asia.

The book is a ten step or ten chapter lesson to improving yourself, and (like all good Asian advertising) nothing as grandiose as the title suggests. In the clutter of nonsense that is everyday living, Hamid brings us back to the basics with tips like: moving to the city, forging an identity, befriending the capitalists, begrudging the idealists, greasing the bureaucrat’s palms, getting educated, staying out of the trap and burden that is true love, taking up a mentor, dancing with debt (risk taking lessons), doing whatever it takes, befriending all sorts, banging on the basics and hitting the ESCAPE button.  There is a lesson or two tucked in, “Entrepreneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavor, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success.”

You can manipulate your own mortality:

“With borrowed funds, a business can invest, gain leverage, and leverage is a pair of wings. Leverage is flight. Leverage is a way for small to be big and big to be huge, a glorious abstraction, the promise of tomorrow today, yes, a liberation from time, the resounding triumph of human will over dreary, chronology-shackled physical reality. To leverage is to be immortal.”

Aging is graceless, thankless:

“You have encountered the reality that with age things are snatched from a man, often suddenly and without warning. You do not rent a home for yourself or buy a secondhand car. Instead you remain in your hotel, with few possessions, no more than might fit in a single piece of luggage. This suits you. Having less means having less to anesthetize you to your life.”

The books ends in mutual consent between the reader and writer, the thinker and the living person, you or your progeny.

Hamid perhaps makes you expect a Slumdog Millionaire, dreamy realist story, but moves beyond. And what you forget is his nationality. There is never a dull word about the Asian neighbourhood nor the immediate political and social forces that cloister everyday living. His blissful pragmatism, is easy to disappear into.

Also there is not a single show or talk of skyrises versus the slums, an image we are much worn down by. It  is equally entertaining that he merrily skirts around the issue of forward mobility (the idea of moving forward, rather than moving higher) in times where society’s next trend  after upward mobility is exodus, moving outwards inwards, connecting, being socially outfitted post the rise of information networks. With better material disposition, you are bound to inhabit a better mental disposition too; However, better mental health is not necessarily the outcome of having become filthy rich. We are easily deluded from the consequences of this rags to riches or riches to rags tale as it may be. (Without wanting to drop any spoilers).

Belonging to the ilk of Teju Cole’s Open City, this book is also a rumination on solitude in the city. The voice originates from the same fragmented (or in Hamid’s case: segmented) age we are living and burning our livelihoods in.

So, I read this ebook on a Kindle app on my Mac, which did little to add to the weight of the novel. I found it light weight, easy to finish, leave off, and pick up again. Which made me wonder again at the physicality of the book; can physical weight ever match the weight of words? If a digital book is light on verdict, do you feel less cheated?

I loved the genre specificity and yet open endedness of this ever ready self-help novel; if you want to help yourself in a most enjoyable way, you have to read this book. If you are a baby boomer parent, you have to read this book too. If you are a Millennial child, go on and send this to your kindle. If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll probably be more deeply struck by how similar your life is to those around you.

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