"The Markets Have Taken the Commons Over"

Mohsin Hamid's new novel tells the tale of a man's journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon. In this interview with Claudia Kramatschek, he talks about universality, his belief in the city, and how commodities like water have become an object of speculation

By Claudia Kramatschek

Your first two novels were both set in Lahore. The new novel takes place in a nameless place – but it could be Lahore. Why did you decide to not use a specific setting?

Mohsin Hamid: If you say 'Pakistan', 'Lahore', 'Islam', these words suddenly have people think certain things. If you say, more broadly 'city', 'religion', 'country' – you can begin to address more universal ideas. And I believe it is important that writers should not be seen as exotic. Rather every place should be able to claim universality equally, whether it is Berlin, New York or Lahore.

The title of your new book is 'How to get stinking rich in filthy Asia'. What's the title about?

Mohsin Hamid: If we think about Pakistan, 'Asia' is not the first geographic reference that comes into the Western mind. But it is undeniable that Pakistan is in Asia. It is also undeniable that cities in Pakistan – in a way – are booming. Lahore, where I live, is a city of 10 million people. When I was born 42 year ago, it was one million people. And Lahore, if you get there, seems a relatively prosperous city. Poor, but prosperous – compared to many other cities in India or Pakistan or elsewhere.


I think we try to define terms in ways that create meaning. So we want Asia to mean Shanghai. We don't want it to mean Pakistan. But how can we speak of Asia and not speak of Pakistan?

There are many things in Pakistan that are true not only for Asia. And the experience that is shared in a way, one of the biggest experiences, is a story of a massive migration from the country to the city.

In the next generation, a billion people will move from the countryside of Asia, Africa, Latin-America to the cities of these places. And in these mega-cities of 10, 12 million people the future of humanity is coming into focus. This phenomena is very much happening also in Pakistan. So in that sense, the use of Asia in the title is meant to remind us of how we stereotype and that instead of looking at the others as 'the other', it is sometimes worth looking at them as yourself.

The big city is one of the major topics in your new book...

Mohsin Hamid: Yes, indeed. I am a big believer in the future of the city, for many different reasons. A young Christian is much more likely to leave a small town or a village and come to a big city like Lahore and find more inclusiveness, less persecution, a better quality of life. In Lahore we have bus services, radio stations, universities, independent music stores, rock-bands, homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, writers – all of humanity. And public hospitals, and good schools.

Now compare that to what a village would be like. A small village might not have electricity. It might not have running water. It might not have a school. You know, we look at these giant slums and say, oh my god, the city is a dystopian hell. But I would ask people to go and look at the countryside where these people now living in the city slum have come from!

It doesn't mean that cities can't improve – they must improve much, much more. But they are likely to. Because concentrated groups of poor people inside cities are better able to demand their rights and affect the political system by their voting, by writing, by accosting politicians on the street. So all of these things make me think: the city is no paradise, but it is a great improvement to the alternatives.

"Every place should be able to claim universality equally, whether it is Berlin, New York or Lahore."

Your protagonist finally becomes a tycoon by selling his soul. The girl he is in love with tries to forget about him – because he reminds her of her origins she tried to escape. Must a nation, too, forget about its own identity in order to become a player in the globalization game?

Mohsin Hamid: I don't think necessarily one has to forget one's origins to succeed. But I think that the more ruthless one is about looking towards the future and not the past, the more successful one can be. In other words: Nostalgia is not very helpful in terms of achieving success. And romantic love is just one aspect of that.

As a boy, your protagonist sells water. Is water the new symbol for the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor?

Mohsin Hamid: Yes, but is also more than just the gap between the poor and the rich. Until recently, in much of the world, it has not been the case that drinking water was an expensive commodity. It was thought of as a public good, like air. But now, of course, we find that it is possible to sell these things. The markets have taken the commons over.

One of the big reasons for Somali piracy for example is rampant fishing off the coast of Somalia so that people in small boats can't catch enough fish. So they become pirates. That is, in a sense, the rape of the commons. So the water metaphor in this book also reflects the reality where we all live in: where our sense of solidarity and community is degrading to the point where previously basic things that were shared by all are no longer. So, not only are we privatizing things, but we are doing a kind of intergenerational theft.

Interview by Claudia Kramatschek

© Qantara.de 2013

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Mohsin Hamid is the author of the novels Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. His award-winning fiction has been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and translated into over 30 languages. His essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, and many other publications. Born in 1971 in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.