A Young Man Gets 'Filthy Rich' Boiling, Bottling Tap Water
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."
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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The book title "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" has led to some misunderstandings about its author, my guest Mohsin Hamid, who is not a fundamentalist. That novel has just been made into a movie, which opens next month. Hamid has written a new novel called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." It's set in an unspecified Asian city that closely resembles Lahore, Pakistan, where Hamid was born, partly raised, and now lives.
But Hamid has also called home Palo Alto, where his father studied at Stanford when Hamid was a child; Princeton and Harvard, where Hamid earned his degrees; as well as New York and London, where he worked as a management consultant. "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" is written in the form of a self-help book, but it's directly addressed to one man, who is referred to in the second person as you, that's Y-O-U.
That main character's approach to getting filthy rich is through business scams: taking goods that have expired and giving them labels with a longer shelf life, and boiling tap water, then bottling and selling it as expensive mineral water. The book is both a satire of self-help books and an examination of life in an Asian city with a growing middle class and an infrastructure that can't support it, except for the crime infrastructure, which is thriving.
Mohsin Hamid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start with a reading from your new novel, which is written in the form of a self-help book, as we'll hear.
MOHSIN HAMID: Look, unless you're writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn't yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It's true of how-to books, for example, and it's true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it's true of religion books, but some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats.
So it's wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one, and slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.
This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia, and to do that, it has to find you huddled, shivering on the packed earth under your mother's cot one cold, dewy morning.
GROSS: That's Mohsin Hamid, reading from his new novel "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." First of all, I love the way you kind of, you know, get into those opening paragraphs a sexual reference and a reference to people who think a lot of novels are written by infidels.
GROSS: So, like, nice work. Why did you want to write this in the form of a self-help book? The main character is constantly referred to as you, and this is a self-help book directly addressed to one person.
HAMID: Well, I originally didn't want to write it as a self-help book. I was trying to write this as a straight novel, and as usually happens with me, I did that for a couple of years and failed and eventually stumbled across this self-help book form. And what I liked about the self-help book form was I started to realize that in a way I actually do write novels to help myself.
You know, I sit by myself in a room for several years, which isn't a normal thing to do, and out of it comes a novel. So there is some degree of self-help just in writing a novel. But also when I read a novel, I feel like there is a kind of self-help going on there too, that I'm going beyond myself, transcending myself, I'm encountering another consciousness, I'm leaving the place where I am.
And so there is some element of self-help there. But as you said, you know, the kinds of self-help aren't strictly financial, as the book pretends to be, but there are - there is a kind of romantic and spiritual dimension to it here as well.
GROSS: So the character being described in this self-help book is trying to make the transition from poverty to prosperity. His family moves from - you know, his parents and the children, of which he is one, moves from like a small village to a city as they try to work their way up. Do you feel like the character in this is typical of a journey that is being made in a lot of Pakistan now of people like really trying to go from, you know, village poverty to the urban middle class?
HAMID: I think it's a story that is a type of story that is common in Pakistan, but more than Pakistan in the entire world, because 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 is going to go to 80 or 90 percent, which means a couple billion people are going to move to cities in Asia and Africa and Latin America, all over the world.
And I think there's a lot of similarity between going from a poor countryside to a Third World megacity, which is a journey that these billions of people are on. So in a sense this is a story of that mass migration in Pakistan but also elsewhere.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about that migration? Because it seems to me your family - you grew up in a family that was very middle-class, and you know, your father studied at Stanford, which is what first brought you and your family to the United States.
HAMID: Well, I think partly because the city I live in, Lahore, is in Pakistan. It's the second-biggest there. It's about 10 million people. When I was born 41 years ago, it had about a million. And this transformation of the city around me is breathtaking. I mean you see it happening every day. There's changes coming, there's pollution, there's traffic, there's new parts of town, slums, high buildings. It's this ongoing transformation.
But the other part of it I think is in my life I came to America at the age of three, went back to Pakistan at the age of nine, came back to America at 18, went to the U.K., moved back to Pakistan in my late 30s. I've been a migrant my entire life. And I think I have a kind of I guess affinity or sense of empathy or connection to these migrants who are moving even inside countries. I feel like a migrant myself, and I think the dislocation of moving from a small village to a big megacity like Lahore is just as dramatic as the ones that I've been through in my life.
GROSS: So the business that your main character finally makes his money in is bottled water. But explain how he goes about it.
HAMID: Well, the marketization of water, the sort of application of a kind of uber-capitalism that you see really all over the world and certainly in Pakistan, is in some senses you can see it most clearly in water because water used to be almost free. You could get water, you know, 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. And 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, and 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.
So his scam is to take mineral water bottles that have been consumed at high-end restaurants, buy the empties, take tap water, boil it a little bit, pour it into these mineral water bottles and reseal it so it looks like it's an authentic water bottle and sell it back to the exact same restaurants, who probably suspect that it's a scam product, but because it's so much cheaper than the water they buy normally are happy to take it on.
GROSS: And I just want to read a couple of lines from your novel. Your city's neglected pipes are cracking, the contents of underground water mains and sewers mingling with the result that taps in locales rich and poor alike disgorge liquids that while for the most part clear and often odorless reliably contain trace levels of feces and microorganisms capable of causing diarrhea, hepatitis, dysentery and typhoid.
Is that the kind of water you're typically exposed to?
HAMID: You know, when I got married, my wife loves to dance, and we have five-day-long weddings in Pakistan. And one of the events at the wedding is a mehndi, which is basically a dance-off where the groom's side and bride's side go at it. And on our mehndi, she was so weak and so tired and just so anguished that she could barely get up. She danced, and then she would go and collapse on the side and she'd dance.
And then the next day was to be our wedding, and I said to her: Look, you know, if you're really this upset and nervous and unhappy about the marriage, we don't have to go ahead with it. You know, you can always pull out. And she said: No, no, I'm really happy about the thing, but I just feel physically unwell.
So anyway, the day after the wedding, we went to see a doctor, and she had hepatitis. And it was the second time she had had it. Virtually everybody in my family has had either hepatitis or typhoid or something of that sort. You know, water-borne illness is everywhere. It affects the poor, and it also affects the affluent in a place like Pakistan.
GROSS: So you think she got it from the water?
HAMID: Yeah, I mean basically you get it from either drinking water, you know, brushing your teeth with tap water, or perhaps somebody prepared your food, and they had washed their hands in that water or touched the water or hadn't washed their hands at all. I mean it's - the mode of transmission is what's called oral-fecal, and that sort of unsavory term really sums up how you get it.
GROSS: I guess it's no coincidence that hepatitis makes its way into your novel, I think on the second page, because your main character has it as a boy.
HAMID: Absolutely. I mean he has it as a boy, and so many of us had it, and it's a strange situation. You know, living in America, where in most cities you can drink tap water, and even so, people do have bottled water, but the tap water is perfectly safe to drink almost all the time, there is an enormous difference in a society where you can do that and a society where you cannot do that.
And most of the world actually you cannot do that. So the government, the state, hasn't performed the basic, basic service of taking this most common of all commodities that we use and making it safe for everybody to drink as they please.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mohsin Hamid, and he's the author of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which has just been made into a movie that will be opening sometime soon, and he has a new novel, which is called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mohsin Hamid. He's written a new novel called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." It's set in Lahore, where he lives. He's also lived - he also lived for many years in New York and in London. His previous novel is called "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," and that's just been adapted into a movie, and that will be opening in April.
One of the businesses that your main character works in early in his life is he works for a tiny little DVD store where all the DVDs are pirated. Is that how you've been able to watch DVDs over the years? Are there legit DVD stores too?
HAMID: Well, you know, it's very hard for a legit DVD store to flourish. I mean, I'm a writer, so I can tell you even it's hard as a legit novelist to flourish because books are pirated too. But if you talk about DVDs in Pakistan now, there are a bunch of shops that have broadband connections. They will download the torrent of a DVD. They'll burn it, and you buy it from them, or in the case of the shop where the main character of this book works early in his life, they deliver it to you, and he's a delivery boy.
So in America or other countries, you sometimes have people, you know, using BitTorrent clients to illegally download films. Well, in Pakistan, people's broadband connections aren't so fast. It's hard for them to do that themselves. But shops take on that role. And in a way, you know, every shop is like a giant online retailer. They have access to every movie in the world, and they can give it to you whenever you want.
But of course the whole thing is entirely illegal.
GROSS: So the main character in your book, when he has this water business, he has to basically pay off a militia for protection. You have to pay them protection money. And he has a bodyguard. Is that typical that businesses have to pay a kind of militia-mafia?
HAMID: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think protection rackets are common everywhere. We know they've been common in New York City, where I'm sitting right now, until very recently. Perhaps they still exist here. But all over the world, whether you're in Mexico or India or Pakistan, there are protection rackets to be paid off. Cities tend to breed mafias, and one of the things that various types of mafias do, whether they're organized on ethnic grounds or religious grounds or whatever grounds, is they fleece businesses, legitimate businesses, for permission to operate and to protect them.
GROSS: So are these particular, you know - I don't know what to call them, militias or mafias - are they religion-oriented too?
HAMID: Well, you know, the thing is, it can be anything. You know, people get armed and organized for different reasons. You might get armed to defend your group because you're an immigrant group. You might get armed to attack some other religious group. You might get armed because you are, you know, engaged in guerrilla warfare.
At some point, though, the main reason for why you get armed perhaps becomes less important, and the fact that you are armed and organized, and you can monetize that, takes over. So whether it's in the sort of narco-jungles of Latin America or in the streets of Lahore and Karachi, you have all types of groups.
In the case of the main character of the novel, the group he goes to see appears to be some religiously motivated group in its inception but by now has become yet another mafia.
GROSS: The characters in your novel live in Lahore, and Lahore is this kind of interesting mix the way you describe it in your novel between, you know, a kind of like Westernized, urban, you know, overcrowded, chaotic city but also with a lot of, you know, still like very traditional practices that, you know, date to another era.
And I'm thinking specifically here of marriage, of how, you know, marriage works for some of the characters in the novel, which is either like an arranged marriage or something more along the lines of like a contract, not a love contract but more of a contract. Do you see this collision between like the traditional and the contemporary?
HAMID: Absolutely. I mean I think that the collision between the traditional and the contemporary is all around you. And the city of the novel, as you correctly say, is based on Lahore, but in the novel everything is nameless. So it's not...
GROSS: Yes, good point, yes.
HAMID: So it's not actually said to be Lahore. But part of the reason for that, just to make a small aside on Lahore and non-Lahore, is, you know, for so long we've talked about the city, and we've used cities like New York or London as our template for 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 - and so you have on the one hand the rise of all kinds of phenomena, whether it's illegal bars, gambling, protection rackets, immigrants, you know, new sexual and moral and other values.
At the same time you do have this persistence of an older - older themes and older ways of organizing and thinking about a society, where family is very important, where marriage is very important, where, you know, where the bonds between people that come ancestrally and through marriage are vital.
And those two systems are to a certain extent in conflict because we have this new market-based system that gets people, you know, 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's - it feels like an insufficient - it doesn't fully satisfy, I think, many people's needs, and traditions are hard to entirely let go of.
So in the novel we have a pretty unscrupulous businessman, you, the main character, who at the same time has a real allegiance and loyalty to his family, and also really values love and a kind of fidelity to this girl that he fell in love with when he was a teenager but with whom he doesn't wind up for most of his life.
GROSS: Yeah, she's not the woman who becomes his wife. And her way toward upward mobility is to basically exchange sex for money not as a prostitute but by allowing a wealthy man to have sexual access to her. And that kind of gets her out of conventional society and enables her to become a businesswoman.
HAMID: Yeah, I mean initially she starts off, she's dirt poor, she's living in a slum, her father is abusive, her mother is, you know, mentally ill. And she wants to break out of that. She has no real assets. She's not particularly educated. She has no connections. She's, you know, attractive. And so she takes that capital and trades it, you know, with a marketing manager who is in charge of a line of shampoos, hoping to get a break as a model, and moves around, eventually does get a break as a model and eventually goes on and starts a TV career as sort of a TV chef and starts her own business.
So she, you know, she takes her own step onto this upward path, you know, through - yes, through using sexuality as a kind of currency. But thereafter what she tries very much to do is build a real independence and to flaunt, in many ways, values around her, whether it's that you should get married or that a woman should be with a man or that, you know, you should have sexuality only inside of a martial context. All of that is stuff she doesn't believe in.
GROSS: Mohsin Hamid will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." His previous novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," has been made into a movie which opens next month. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mohsin Hamid. He's best known for his novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," about a Princeton-educated Pakistani man working in finance in New York, who finds that 9/11 changed his views of America and Americans' views of him. The novel has been adapted into a film which opens next month. Hamid's new novel, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," is set in an unspecified Asian city, like Lahore, where Hamid lives, where a growing middle class has outgrown the infrastructure. The main character gets rich - like a lot of others in the city - with business scams. He boils and bottles tap water and sells it as expensive mineral water. His business has to deal with organized crime, government bureaucracy, terrorist attacks and the growing security and surveillance system.
Drones make a couple of appearances in your book. Have you ever seen a drone?
HAMID: No, luckily.
HAMID: I've never seen one except on, you know, TV.
GROSS: But do you feel like somehow because we know that there are American drones that have flown over parts of Pakistan, do you feel a sense of that? I mean do people...
HAMID: Well, the drone is an enormous part of popular culture in Pakistan. It's difficult to convey, I think, if you live in the United States, although, I suspect it'll be very easy to convey in five or six years when American police forces start using them more regularly. But the existence of an unmanned eye in the sky potentially lethally armed hovering around in your vicinity somewhere, is a very strange phenomenon. And in Pakistan, there's enormous resentment, I think, over these drone attacks. But when the drone appears in the novel, it's part of a larger chapter that really looks at the world through the eyes of surveillance technology. And I feel living in Pakistan - and even when I'm in the States - that, you know, surveillance technology is now totally out of control.
In Germany, there was a big scandal because they found that there had been software implanted in regular people's laptops that turned the camera of the laptop into a camera that's watching you in your apartment. Your mobile phone can become a bugging device. You know, there are old-school spooks and spies in hotels and all over the place in Pakistan and elsewhere. And so the sense of being constantly watched and constantly under observation is very strong.
To give you an example, just today, you know, I was boarding a flight for New York City from Raleigh, and for the enth time on this trip, you know, my boarding pass printed out with the sort of special security S-S-S on it and I was frisked and investigated. And when I come into the country I'm always taken aside asked questions. And you know that you're in some database and you keep hitting this database and you're investigated and analyzed. And I think it happens increasingly all over the world, and drones are just in a way one frightening incarnation of that.
GROSS: What does the S-S-S stand for?
HAMID: Well, I don't know exactly. It's whenever I get a boarding pass in America, a series of S's is printed on it and that means that I have been selected for, you know, more intense security screening. And occasionally, it has happened to me when I was transiting from Asheville to Raleigh the other day, when I got to the gate, I boarded the aircraft, I sat on the airplane and somebody come running on the plane saying, we don't think we actually did the security check properly. Yet have to get off the plane. So they took me off the plane. And I said well, I'm giving the reading in Asheville. I'm going to miss my connecting flight. If there is any way to get me on this plane I'd really appreciate it. Luckily, they were able to do the second screening in enough time that I was able to get on the plane. My fellow passengers seemed more amused than frightened by this, which was kind of a relief to see.
GROSS: So since you always have to go through extra security clearance when you fly, do you travel with a press kit, you know, so people could see, this is my new novel, I'm on a tour, you'll notice the photo, the author photo, that's me. My novel, my previous novel is being adapted into a film. Here's the press kit for that, you know.
HAMID: I do. I do. And I can't tell you...
GROSS: Liev Schreiber is in it. Know him? You know, does that help?
HAMID: Yeah. This is Kate Hudson and me in the Venice Film Festival.
GROSS: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
HAMID: No. It's, I do actually, as a matter of fact, travel with that kind of a thing, and I can't tell you how much of a relief it is to be traveling with a book called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," instead of a book called "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."
GROSS: I can see your point. And then you probably have to say, do you know the concept of irony?
HAMID: But interestingly enough, while the TSA guards who normally search me at airports - we don't wind up chatting very much - but the people I encounter at immigration when I'm taken into secondary inspection when I fly into the country for the first time, you go to a separate room where you're held in the asking additional questions about, you know, what you're up to, why you're here. 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 a prevalence 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.
HAMID: You know, you're a writer, will it pay off? Or somebody else will say, you know, 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. And so there's some nice conversations that develop but, of course, would rather not be in that position in the first place.
GROSS: That's really funny. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mohsin Hamid and his new novel is called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." His previous novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," has just been adapted into a film, directed by Mira Nair, and that opens in April.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mohsin Hamid. He's a writer who lives in Pakistan. He's also spent years in the United States and London. His new novel is called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." His previous novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," has just been adapted into a film which will open in April.
In your novel, there is a couple of terrorist attacks in the background. And for your main character who, you know, is a kind of rising entrepreneur in illegal businesses, the attacks basically mean a disruption to his business. You have had, you know people who were killed or hurt in terrorist attacks, things have come pretty close to you and I know in your life it's not about disruption to business. There's a growing I think, fair to say, a growing amount of terrorism where you live now in Lahore. I think it was last month your mother's and your sister's eye doctor was assassinated?
GROSS: Why was he assassinated?
HAMID: Well, he was a Shia and he was assassinated for being a Shia. His 12-year-old son was shot in the head and killed. I mean, this stuff goes on. There are attacks on Christians. There are attacks on Hindus. There are attacks on Ahmadis. There are attacks on Shias. And there are attacks on Sunnis, well, the majority not necessarily for being Sunnis but for other reasons; political beliefs or being in the police or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So this violence, you know, is ongoing.
GROSS: You wrote an op-ed piece about a blast - a terrorist blast - that your sister felt in her office at the university where she teaches in Lahore. What was that explosion?
HAMID: Well, there was a blast outside of a government office, perhaps a mile or two away from the university where my sister teaches in Lahore. And she experienced it as a pressure wave that moved through the building. Oftentimes, you know, when people are hurt in these blasts, what happens is that your windows shatter from the pressure wave and are actually hit by bits of flying glass. She was far enough away that no windows shattered. But the door of her office was unlocked and slightly ajar and it opened up towards the hall, just pushed open as though a ghost was exiting her office into the hall outside. And she stepped outside and, you know, she heard this boom and she went up onto the roof and she took a photograph, and in this photograph is like this little mini, very beautiful, horseshoe-shaped dust cloud rising a mile or two in the distance and that was the dust thrown up by the explosion.
GROSS: So this has to shake you up.
HAMID: It does shake you up but, you know, it shakes you up and it's in a way I think if you live in a city or in a place where violence is common, then it perhaps doesn't matter so much if the violence is the likelihood somebody is going to mug you or attack you in your house or they're going to blow you up as you're in your barbershop.
Violent cities, people who live in violent cities, find a way - as New Yorkers did, you know, 30 or 40 years ago - they find a way to just carry on. But your anxiety level is high. You're stressed out. You're worried, you know. There's times when they, for example, will turn off all the cell phone service in Lahore and you can't make a phone call, because they're scared on a particular religious holiday somebody will use a cell phone to detonate a bomb or coordinate a terrorist attack. You know, that's freaky when those things happen. And 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 it's, yeah, it's upsetting and unsettling.
GROSS: You know, when there's a terrorist attack in America, it's like, well, why do extremists from other countries hate us, you know, hate America or hate Western values or - but when you have, you know, a Pakistani terrorist targeting other Pakistanis then you have to look it at a different, you know, differently, I'm sure. Does it seem different to you? Does the nature - yeah.
HAMID: Yeah, it is different. I mean the one thing which is worth bearing in mind and which I think is too little noted in America, the vast majority of people who are killed by terrorists - even by groups that dislike America - are not Americans. You know, 30,000 Pakistanis have died; so 10 times the numbers who died on September 11th in terrorism and counterterrorism in Pakistan in the last decade - and Pakistan is just one of many, many countries. Most terrorists kill people, you know, in their own towns or their own provinces. Very few terrorists are actually international terrorists. So there is a difference and each situation is different. You can't really necessarily compare what's happening when they kill Shias in Pakistan with the September 11th attacks, with Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka, with what's happening in Israel and Palestine, etcetera. Each context is different.
But America's heightened sensitivity, you know, to terrorism, the idea that America feels very much at risk and that Americans are quite frightened by this maybe is partly because America doesn't have much of it. In Pakistan, where there is a lot of terrorism, in a way you have to get around, you know, get along with life. You have to just sort of carry on. And it's, I think, probably worth saying that, you know, one of the responses a society has to this kind of violence is to say, look, you know, we can't eliminate the risk and, you know, we need to as a people try to get on with our lives and remain as humane as we can and not let this change us.
GROSS: Your great-grandfather, your namesake, was born in Kashmir and he was stabbed by a Muslim who thought that your great-grandfather was Hindu, which he wasn't. He survived the stabbing, right?
HAMID: Yes. And I think, I mean for me that's always been a metaphor for, you know, for this kind of religiously motivated violence. My great-grandfather was a Muslim and he was in fact, an active member of the Pakistan movement that was campaigning for there to be an independent country called Pakistan. And some, you know, Muslim zealot - a fellow Muslim - stabbed him because he was a lawyer and highly educated at a time when most lawyers in Lahore were Hindu, and he ran into a group of lawyers and I guess my great-grandfather either looked Hindu to him or perhaps just was a lawyer and that was a fairly Hindu profession. So he stabbed him out of all of the people. He was the only Muslim in that group, as a matter of fact, and he, you know, he survived.
GROSS: Do you have friends or acquaintances or family, people that you've known for a long time, who have become extremists and you kind of were able to see the evolution?
HAMID: I have seen people take on extreme views but, living in Pakistan now, I've come to feel that 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, you know, religious, and you can cover your head or you could 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?
Fortunately, only a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny minority of people do believe in the use of violence and I don't know anyone who falls into that camp. But among those who've gone from being let's say liberal people too much more conservative people, yes, I know several people like that. But I also know people who've made completely the alternative change and have gone from conservative families to be, you know, real libertine, you know, wild, crazy sort of actors in the city today.
GROSS: Having lived in New York, London and Lahore, and now you live in Lahore, now that you're father of two young children, do you often ask yourself what's the safest place to raise them? And if you do ask that, what are the answers you come up with?
HAMID: Well, there's a wonderful little passage that Martin Luther King had written from a jail cell where he talks about the affect 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, you know, 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, you know, life is the most important thing. But, you know, a place where somebody will be loved and accepted and allowed to flourish emotionally and, you know, 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, you know, humanly.
So, yes. I wouldn't necessarily pick Lahore as a place to live from a pure physical risk minimization standpoint, but I do, you know, 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, you know, to our kids.
So I guess it's a way of saying that, you know, I could take - we could take our children to some city that ranks number one in the world, sort of lifestyle rankings, and is incredibly safe, but not necessarily be confident that the emotional health of our children would be perhaps as taken care of, as nurtured as in Lahore. That said, things do happen. You know, my wife was robbed outside our house, you know, last year.
And these sorts of robberies and crimes is common in Lahore, increasingly common. And our daughter, who was sitting in the child's seat in the back of the car, was completely freaked out, really upset for a week. And, in fact, insisted that, you know, we discuss why didn't that man know about sharing? And how do we get a new phone for her mother so that her mother doesn't feel bad about losing her phone?
So obviously, you know, any brush with physical violence or crime or these things is devastating for a child. But I guess as a parent you just sort of balance it all and see where do you think, overall, things lie. And to be honest, I've seen very few loves that have moved me as much as my three-year-old and my nearer time and father's, you know, love with each other. I mean, they're just best buddies.
They play in the morning. I come out and there they are in the dirt. And she's Mowgli and he's Bagheera and they're pretending they're in a jungle. And it's something special to see.
GROSS: Well, Mohsin Hamid, thank you so much for talking with us.
HAMID: Thank you.
GROSS: Mohsin Hamid's new novel is called "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. The film adaptation of his previous novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," opens next month. Later this month in New York, the band the Moving Sidewalks will perform for the first time since 1969. The band's guitarist, Billy Gibbons, went on to found ZZ Top.
Coming up, Ed Ward reviews the box set "The Moving Sidewalks: The Complete Collection." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.