A Young Man Gets 'Filthy Rich' Boiling, Bottling Tap Water

March 13, 2013

In his new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid's nameless protagonist is an ambitious young man who moves from the countryside to a megalopolis in search of his fortune. The city is modeled on Lahore, Pakistan, where Hamid was born and partly raised and where — after living in the United States and England — he has now settled with his family.

The story of moving from the country to the city is a story that is common in Pakistan and throughout the world, Hamid tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Something like half the world's people now live in cities for the first time in human history, but in the course of the next generation, 25, 30 years, that number's going to go to 80 or 90 percent, which means that a couple billion people are going to move to cities in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. ... [S]o, in a sense, this is a story of that mass migration in Pakistan, but also elsewhere."

Having made it to the big city, Hamid's main character aims to get rich with a series of business scams that include taking goods that have expired and giving them labels with a longer shelf life. He finally finds wealth boiling tap water and selling it as expensive mineral water.

Hamid — who is also the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which has been made into a movie starring Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber and comes out in April — had a point when he made water the basis of his protagonist's successful scam.

"The marketization of water, the sort of application of a kind of uber-capitalism that you see all over the world ... you can see ... most clearly in water," Hamid says, "because water used to be almost free. You could get water from a river, from a canal, from a well, from wherever, and now of course we're running out of clean water in most of Asia and much of Africa and much of Latin America, and so people don't have clean drinking water. We can live for a month without food, but we can't last more than a couple of days without water, so people are selling water — both at the luxury level, where you have these high-end mineral waters, and also at the level of just poor people needing something to drink."


Interview Highlights

On using Lahore as the model for the typical global city in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

"For so long we've talked about 'the city' and we've used cities like New York or London as our template for our universal conversation about cities, and I was thinking, 'Well, maybe Lahore actually is quite typical of cities around the world now. Maybe I can use Lahore as a template for this global city.' And that's what I've tried to do. But in Lahore and many other places, you do see this collision between tradition and change, and so you have, on the one hand, the rise of all kinds of phenomena, whether it's illegal bars, gambling, protection rackets, immigrants, new sexual and moral and other values. At the same time you do have this persistence of older themes and older ways of organizing and thinking about a society where family is very important, where marriage is very important, where the bonds between people that come ancestrally and through marriage are vital. And those two systems are, to certain extent, in conflict, because we have this new market-based system that gets people to move away from their families and move to the city and start their new lives and, over time, abandon many of their initial values, but it doesn't fully satisfy."

On talking to immigration officials when traveling

"I've now been so many times that I think they recognize, they know who I am, and I guess they have some system that says, 'Oh, so you're a writer or whatever,' and oftentimes I don't know if this is just an [indication] of how prevalent creative writing has become in America, but at least twice I've had a question asking, 'So my son is thinking of doing an MFA program. You're a writer: Will it pay off?' or somebody else will say, 'This whole industry is getting taken over by a few publishers and retailers, and I've written a book and there's no way to break in.' There's some nice conversations that develop, but of course I would rather not be in that position in the first place."

On living in cities with a reputation for violence

"Violent cities, people who live in violent cities, find a way — as New Yorkers did 30 or 40 years ago — they find a way to just carry on. But you're stressed out. You're worried, you know. There's times when they, for example, will turn off all the cellphone service in Lahore and you can't make a phone call, because they're scared [that] on a particular religious holiday somebody will use a cellphone to detonate a bomb or coordinate a terrorist attack. You know, that's freaky when those things happen. In fact, once recently we had a hospital emergency where my father was unwell and we had to take him to hospital but we had no mobile phones. We couldn't call his doctor, you know. These things happen in daily life and, yeah, it's upsetting and unsettling."

On extremism and fundamentalism

"I have seen people take on extreme views but, living in Pakistan now, I don't really care so much if somebody has extreme religious views. I just care if somebody believes in violence or not. You can be, you know, avowedly atheist or secular or liberal or progressive or communist or avowedly religious, and you can cover your head or you can grow a beard and you can not believe in women and men interacting and all kinds of stuff. I tend to now not be so pushed about where people fall on that spectrum. I think the key thing is: Do you believe — whatever your beliefs are — that you're not going to use violence against people of other beliefs?"

On whether he thinks about where the safest place is to raise his two young children

"There's a wonderful little passage that Martin Luther King had written from a jail cell where he talks about the effect of racism on young African-American children and how he can see on the face of a child the clouds of inferiority gathering as they observe some racist taunt or action. And when I think about — in some senses — the safest place to raise our children, there are many different forms of risk that we have in life. Obviously, physical life is the most important thing, but a place where somebody will be loved and accepted and allowed to flourish emotionally and humanly is important, and there are so many risks of things that we don't get to see but that are doing damage to children psychologically and damaging them humanly. And so, yes, I wouldn't necessarily pick Lahore as a place to live, from a pure physical risk-minimization standpoint, but I do think my children flourish in this environment of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and me having much more time and my wife having much more time because things are less expensive, because we have more people around, because the pace is slower and we can focus and give attention to our kids."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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