YOU’RE GOING to be hearing a lot about Mohsin Hamid over the next month. You’ve probably read his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist — a slim, taut one-sided conversation that somehow reads like a thriller. Perhaps you know too that the novel is, in the parlance, ‘now a major motion picture’. Sorry, what was that you said? Ah, you’re right: it is Mira Nair who has made the film. It’s much anticipated, has been greeted warmly at festivals in Venice and Doha, and will likely be released in India at the end of April. Since you’re a dedicated Hamid-watcher, which, after all, is probably why you’re reading this piece (unless you’ve just stumbled upon it and are, as we speak, flipping hastily to another page), you also know that his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is out later this month. Given how much you already know, you’re aware too that my strained use of the second person is in homage to Hamid’s inclusive, incorporating, incriminating style. And yes, I’ll stop now.
The novel, in Hamid’s sure hands, is a creative collaboration between writer and reader. Hamid has used the second person to one extent or another in all three of his novels, acknowledging what it is to read: that is, to judge, to argue with, to question, to talk with, to take advice from — in essence to engage with, to “dance” with, as Hamid has put it, the writer. It also means the reader isn’t off the hook, is implicated in the action of the novel, is called upon to judge, to take sides, as if anything else would be voyeurism. “The gavel weighs heavily in your hand,” Hamid writes towards the end of his first (and, to my mind, best) novel, Moth Smoke, “Suppressing a yawn, you use the handle to scratch yourself beneath your robe.” Sometimes, the reader sits in lazy judgement of the novelist’s characters; sometimes, as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the reader is the suspicious interlocutor, waiting for the novelist to explain himself; and sometimes, as in Filthy Rich, the novelist lays bare his manipulations of his characters and, by extension, his readers.
Filthy Rich began, Hamid has said, “as a joke” with his friend John Freeman, the editor of Granta, about how people persevere with novels as a form of self help, because they perceive novels to be good for them. The idea stuck. “Why,” Hamid writes in Filthy Rich, “for example, do you persist in reading that breathtakingly boring foreign novel, slogging through page after page after please-make-it-stop page of tar-slow prose and blush-inducing formal conceit, if not out of an impulse to understand distant lands that because of globalisation are increasingly affecting life in your own?” This sentence is an example of the flexibility of Hamid’s use of the second person. Who is it he is addressing here?
Surely not the ‘you’ he is instructing ironically on how to achieve wealth in a corrupt, lawless, unrestrainedly capitalist third-world megapolis; that ‘you’ is still a child and has only just moved to the city with his father, a domestic cook, his mother, a sister and a brother. There is the putative reader Hamid is addressing, a parodied reader of a parodied selfhelp book, the young man on the make in Dodge City. There are his actual readers, to whom are addressed the sophisticated asides on reading and writing, the nature of fiction, of self-help and to whom, middle class and English-speaking as they are, the entire exercise of imagining themselves embroiled in such a rags-toriches potboiler must provide a deliciously ironic frisson. We are all slumdog billionaires.
Not surprisingly, Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times book reviewer (who incidentally gave the book a rave) treats ‘you’ as just another character, so that Hamid might as well have written the book in the third person. But that sinuous second person is a challenge to the reader’s imagination, a challenge to his capacity for empathy. Hamid is also having a gentle joke at our expense, because we do turn to writers like him to help us understand the world. For a well-intentioned American or British readership, the desire to read a writer like Hamid stems, exactly as he says, from an “impulse to understand distant lands” that because of global politics impinge on their hitherto sheltered lives. For middle- class Indian and Pakistani readers, the impulse may not be that different, the distance from front door to street further than we might think.