The beginnings can be ominous, but chance, and not choice, with a bit of ‘self-help’ can get you out of the rut. Provided you realise that it’s a rut in the first place. That recognition better not be slow and painful and tiresomely reflective, for Rising Asia has no time for such odes to tranquility (unless at another time, another place). It has to be snappy, instantaneous and derived from very few metaphors and signs.
It might all start under a bed, not on the bed, but when ‘You’, the addressee, are hunched underneath the wooden castle of your imagination, and waiting for your life-story to be narrated to you in quick, throbbing pulses of instruction. Mohsin Hamid makes you realise that often diligently knit-together story of a life, the bildungsroman in other words, the trajectory of growth of a little child to a responsible adult, can resemble a hastily put together training module of a business manual, a ‘self-help’ book proliferating at the heart of the GDP-driven fantasies of nations, any nation, leering from TV screens and billboards and book-shacks on sidewalks.
You are the hero of our time. Hamid imagines You first in a nameless village in a nameless country, but we are (sub)continentally marked, of course. It’s Rising Asia, in its myriad hues and millennial avatars, because hours into a bus ride from a rural heartland into urban settings would amount to time travelling. You span centuries in minutes, millennia in hours. You arrive into the future that beckons you with come hither looks dangling promises of filthy riches. Hamid, a former brand consultant, lives the seismic social churn, moving from global financial hubs secure inside glass walls of very, very tall buildings glittering in the night like clusters of luminescent galaxies, to strange ruggedness of sands and grasslands, where the events tend to be geological, and only tangentially political, say in a drone attack, as a terrorist hideout, through a secret defence mission, a stealthy nuclear test site. Though You come from a rural setting, almost denuded of signifiers that tie it to specificities of religion, language or postcode, chance brings in the first big step that the ‘self-help’ genre actively advocates. You move to the city.
Hamid tells us that happens because You are lucky, as being the third child, you could be lugged around, not sent off as a painter’s apprentice, not forced into a ‘marked-for-entry’ pubescent marriage.
You can start selling pirated DVDs once in the city, because now you are away from the perennial feudal scanner of tribal relations and immersed in the grand anonymity of a city’s great grind.
But You, being the protagonist, must get rich, for that is the only direction your life can take if it merits a narration, a narrative.
Else, you’d be discarded into the trashbin of time and history, dumped with the slushpile that never meets the eye of a discerning reader, never becomes a story, or a book. So be it. You’d be a rogue trader, first reselling food past their expiry dates (how does it matter in a corner of the world where good food is still a luxury for many, and where the idea of ‘expiry dates’ seems outlandish and perhaps just crazy!). Then your inner or acquired cunning would start telling you what to do, how to whiz past the shoal of sharks masquerading as fellow competitors in the bustling megacity. You’d become your own Machiavelli; you’d derive Hobbesian logic by yourself, by quick thinking and force of cold calculations. You’d outsmart, for sometime, the other vast array of reprobates — bureaucrats, politicians, business honchos, middlemen, lackeys, strongmen, hitmen and other assorted characters — until You become one of them, until the squalor of your beginnings seems like a distant dream which You cannot forget, because it does not stop haunting You flashing its ghostly pallor of dried up wishes.
Oh poverty, you think, surmise, from the safe but nostalgic end of life. You don’t have self-pity, not because that wasn’t endorsed in the self-help book that fixed your life, but because You are too restless for such indulgences. You did flout the instructions though, and despite the book’s admonition against falling in love, you loved the neighbourhood ‘pretty girl’ from your adolescence, whom marriage could not wipe out from your heart. Your embodiment of love, however, pursued her own set of self-help manual codes; she perchance had a brush with fleeting success when her face and body held you rapt from a giant billboard on one of the many arterial roads connecting scattered moments from your life. You and she crossed paths, you digressed, yet you carried her inside for long, and perhaps, when material wealth started deserting you, or vice-versa, you rediscovered her, shed of her dazzling physical beauty, but aglow with something else, a calm, a halo of quiet and resigned wisdom. You met your soul mate at last.
But by then, you have lost your child to the American dream, your riches to wily relations, your youthful vigour to the inadvertent pit of old age. Are You from Pakistan, or India, we wonder – You must be from some part of this subcontinent, but You needn’t be. Hamid wishes You to be more than that, and also less than that. Perhaps he wants to set You free, for You to have an ‘exit strategy.’ He recommends a yearning for loss at the end of it all, but after much acquisition, much procurement and possession — of riches, stature, family, children, success and failure.
This is the story of You. Be happy, for You have a splendid creator in author Mohsin Hamid, whose quasi-mythic novelistic universe packs in the banalities of self-tutorials that You can slough off to rise higher, higher than the moth smoke of ephemeral numbers that are mistaken as ‘growth’, in Rising Asia of course, but more so in other places.