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In Sly Self-Help Novel, Selling Clean Water Gets You 'Filthy Rich'

Mohsin Hamid's newest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, takes its structure from the genre of self-help tutorials. Chapter 1: Move to the City. Chapter 2: Get an Education. Chapter 3: Don't Fall in Love (the book's nameless protagonist, who transforms from rural peasant to corporate tycoon, fails to follow this last directive). After all, the dogged pursuit of success doesn't happen in a vacuum.

It's more than just fertile ground for a novelist — according to Hamid, it's an intensifying global phenomenon. "For people who are at the bottom economically, the world is becoming a harder and harder place," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And yet the incentives to become rich are so great because enormous amounts of wealth are being accumulated. And so those two things, that carrot and stick, are beating people along this trajectory of trying desperately to move up in the world."

Interview Highlights

Mohsin Hamid's fiction has been translated into over 30 languages. He was born in Lahore, Pakistan.
Jillian Edelstein / Camera Press
Camera Press
Mohsin Hamid's fiction has been translated into over 30 languages. He was born in Lahore, Pakistan.

On writing a "self-help" novel

"It started off as a joke. I was in New York, talking with a friend of mine, and we started joking about the idea that sometimes, reading novels felt like hard work, and we were doing it because they were good for us. And I said, 'Well, you know, I'm going to write my next novel as a self-help book.' And I tried to forget that, but it had triggered this notion that, you know, maybe novels really are self-help books. And maybe writing a novel is sort of self-help for me, being more comfortable with my life and the world. And maybe there's a kind of self-help in reading fiction, too."

On the protagonist's evolution as an entrepreneur

"The story of this guy, who is the model for the self-help book, takes you from the village — because right now there are billions of people who are migrating from the world's villages and countryside into the world's big cities. ... They're doing it because the rural economy all over the world is collapsing. Farmers and people who make a living from the land are finding it impossible to survive. So the first step is to get out of that place. Come to the city where there are opportunities. And the next step is, in the city, you need an education. And then there's a whole series of steps, basically, that take this character as he grows up and becomes a man, to basically realize you need to be a really hard-nosed, cunning entrepreneur to make it."

On the fictional — and real — marketization of water

"[The protagonist] figures out, by working for a very cunning guy who takes expired canned goods and resells them after rewriting the [expiration] dates on them so they look like they haven't expired, that there's all sorts of niches the market doesn't service very well. And what's happening in much of the world right now is that there's a water crisis. There's not enough clean drinking water available. So our hero decides that he should get into this water business. And the first step [in] that for him is to begin to boil tap water, put it inside mineral water bottles, seal it and sell it to ... unsuspecting restaurants and wealthier people.

"It's at the heart of economic growth. It's also at the heart of how our world is being marketized. Because things that we used to take for granted — water, for example, was almost free for a long time. And now, suddenly, it is having a price put on it. It's becoming a giant market. So that area, a former public domain that's now becoming a huge, contested economic activity, is where he decides to fight his economic fight."

On the business landscapes in Pakistan and America

"The biggest difference, I think, is that in the U.S. there are more rules. And those rules generally work to people's mutual benefit. In a place like Pakistan, for example, or many other emerging economies, as they're called, there are fewer rules. So, there is more corruption, there's more direct violence, intimidation, breaking of regulations. Now, as we know, these things happen in America, too. But the level of it is just more intense.

"In a way, there's this whole debate in America. ... What if the state got out of the way? What would happen? What would it be like? Living in Pakistan, I can tell you that in Pakistan, the state has gotten out of the way. There's rampant gun ownership, there's almost no taxes, there's a free-for-all, in a way, economically. And it is a very, very tough and difficult environment for human beings to succeed in."

On the benefits and pitfalls of development

"There's two different sides to it. On the one hand, people are getting a little bit more to eat. They're living a little longer. Their kids are getting vaccinated. That's important. There's a material improvement that is going on. And I think it can't be denied. The problem, though, is something else. I think the problem is more psychological or almost spiritual, you could say. There's a kind of spiritual and mental health crisis that's taking place. And you see that expressed in all kinds of strange phenomena like terrorism and crime and depression. So, there is a material improvement, but not yet a humane narrative to go alongside it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff