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Extracts of exquisite writing from Mohsin Hamid’s “how to get filthy rich in rising Asia”

One of the most exquisite pieces of contemporary writing I’ve read recently is “…rising Asia” by Mohsin Hamid. Ostensibly s self-help manual, this quicksilver sliver of contemporary fiction traces the arc of the protagonist (the unarmed “you”) from childbirth (“start with a business plan”), to the final poignant, bitter-sweet “have an exit strategy.”

I have compiled below some of the writing that particularly appealed to me.

On Family:

“Here, in the heady bouquet of Nature’s pantry, your father smells only mortality.”

“Your mother and grandmother play a waiting game. The older woman waits for the younger one to age, and the younger woman waits for the older one to die. It is a game both will inevitably win.”

“Third also means you are not, like the fourth of your three surviving siblings, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.”

“In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.”

“In the moment she ceases to live, your sister is holding your mother’s hands, your mother like an infant struggling to take its first breath as it transitions from aquatic life to terrestrial, but in reverse, with her lungs filling with water, and the breath never coming.”

On Love:

“The pursuit of love and the pursuit of wealth have much in common, Both have the potential to inspire, motivate, uplift, and kill.”

“You are a door to an existence she does not desire, but even if the room beyond is repugnant, that door has won a portion of her affection.”

“You think the first woman you make love to should also be the last. Fortunately for you…she thinks of her second man as the one between her first and her third.”

“As the pretty girl rejoins her world, she finds her poise somewhat undermined by your encounter. You are like a living memory, and she, who is implacably resistant to remembering, is unsettled by you. Your manner of speech…still carries the cadences of how she once spoke, more than the cadences, the perspectives, the outlook of the neighborhood she once belonged to, a neighborhood she is glad to have fled and to which she does not want to return, even for a moment, even in passing.”

“…and for her home carries with it connotations of sorrow and brutality, connotations that elicit signals from her to you to be punishing, but these you misinterpret, and so they remain unacted upon.”

“Lying beside her in bed, untouching…it does not occur to you that your wife’s love might be slipping from your grasp, or that once it is gone, you will miss it.”

“She sees how you diminish her solitude, and more meaningfully, she sees you seeing, which sparks in her that oddest of desires an I can have for a you, the desire that you be less lonely.”

On Life, and Death:

“And in any case over sufficiently long a term, as everyone knows, there is nothing that does not have as its consequence death.”

“He fears death, but not terribly so, and he awaits the opportunity to be reunited with his beloved much as certain young girls await, with a trepidation that does not quite exceed their longing, the loss of their virginity.”

“Death in the village, being common, is handled in a matter-of-fact manner, and after the first few days you witness no wailing, even if a tear is shed by your eldest niece when she bends to allow you to place a palm on her head as you depart.”

“To be a man whose life requires being plugged into machines…is to experience the shock of an unseen network suddenly made physical, as a fly experiences a cobweb…the inanimate strands that cling to your still-animate form themselves connect to other strands…mirroring in stark reality preexisting and mercifully unconsidered systems within, the veins and nerves and sinews and lymph nodes without which there is no you.”

On Business:

“…harnessing the state’s might for personal gain is a much more sensible approach. Two related categories of actor have long understood this. Bureaucrats, who wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests. And bankers, who wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state.”

“Distasteful though it may be, it was inevitable…that we would eventually find ourselves broaching the topic of violence. Becoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else. For wealth comes from capital, and capital comes from labor, and labor comes from equilibrium, from calories in chasing calories out, an inherent, built-in leanness, the leanness of biological machines that must be bent to your will with some force if you are to loosen your own financial belt and, sighingly, expand.”

“Over the coming months your business is quantified, digitized, and jacked into a global network of finance, your activities subsumed with a barely a ripple in a collective mathematical pool of ever-changing current and future cash flows.”

“You are caught up in one of the cynical accountability campaigns periodically launched by your city’s establishment, tossed to the wolf pack of public opinion, unsubstantiated rumors of your shady dealings receiving scandalized attention in the newspapers. You have always been an outsider, and finally you have been wounded. It is only natural that you be sacrificed so that the rest of the herd may prance on.”

“…the majority of your limited savings remains untouched…and it seems not improbable that in the race between death and destitution, you can look forward to the former emerging victorious.”

“Meanwhile similar attempts…seem to be under way to try to desiccate society itself…those widening fissures evident between young people who appear to you divided as never before, split into myriad, incomprehensible tribes, signaling their affiliations with an automobile sticker, a bare shoulder, or some arcane permutation in the possibilities of facial hair.”

And Finally, On Writing:

“And what of other novels…surely those too are versions of self-help. At the very least, they help you pass the time, and time is the stuff of which a self is made. The same is true for narrative nonfiction, and doubly so for non-narrative nonfiction.”

“Surely ideals, transcending as they do puny humans and positing meaning in vast abstract concepts instead, are by their very nature anti-self? It follows therefore that any self-help book advocating allegiance to an ideal is likely to be a sham. Yes, such self-help books are numerous, and yes, it’s possible some of them do help a self, but more often than not, the self they help is the writer’s self, not yours.”

“…when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood, or increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters or events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book…readers don’t work for writers. They work for themselves. Therein, if you’ll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of reading. And therein, as well, lies a pointer to richness elsewhere. Because if you truly want to become filthy rich in rising Asia…then sooner or later you must work for yourself.”

“We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone, and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.”



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