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Sufi self-help

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Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid

Acasual chat with Granta's editor John Freeman in New York about how novels are marketed as self-help books inspired bestselling contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid to structure his third novel, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, around a parody of a self-help book. Speaking to an almost packed room in the Bodleian Library during the Oxford Literary Festival, Hamid says he originally wanted to write a novel that cut across a crosssection of society, rich and poor, urban and rural, but was unable to find the right form until he stumbled across this. 

He wasted two years creating snippets of voices from different slices of life but now in his 12-chapter novel, the protagonist is a young boy from an unnamed village aspiring to be rich. The boy is also the reader because the novel is written in the second person 'You'. It follows his climb up the ladder and the village he is from could be in Pakistan, India or any emerging economy.

Hamid is known for his interesting use of form. His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, short-listed for the Man Booker prize and a film adaptation of which is to be released this year, was structured around a conversation in a Lahore tea shop and the first, Moth Smoke, around a trial. Hamid says that writing his third novel made him realise that writing was a form of self-help to him. "It's very strange to sit by yourself for six to seven years and make up a fantasy world tapping into a computer, " he says. "That is a bizarre way to live a life. I think I realised that if I did not write novels I became very grumpy. "

Dressed in a shirt, pullover and dark jacket he adds in his strong American accent that novels can also "help" the reader. "There is a story you tell yourself about who you are but sometimes that does not match what you do, " he says. To cope with the anxiety surrounding that, he explains, people read fiction since reading a novel is the "moment when we can turn off the fictional creation of our own selves and just chill out and we are not required to maintain the illusion we have of ourselves. "
His book also addresses the "loss narrative" in life, which he feels is not addressed by contemporary society with its focus on the "growth narrative".

"The dominant narrative in the world right now is the market capitalism narrative, " he says. "Even Pakistan is hyper-capitalistic. With no money you will die there. It's a growth narrative of how to have money and cars. But existence is partly about loss as well and loss cancels out growth so I thought where is the loss narrative being spoken about? You will lose all these things - your life, your health and your loved ones. I thought religion is increasingly politicised and the loss narrative is not being addressed but one of the ways it is being addressed is through storytelling and so my novel is a self-help narrative thinking about loss even though it is structured about growth. "

He blames the rise in mental health issues everywhere from Pakistan to the USA on the fact that society is not addressing the loss narrative that all humans experience. "I don't see any difference between a suicide bomber in Pakistan or a man shooting down his peers in the USA, " he says. "What novels can do is to try to offer stories that are not just growth stories because on a fundamental level we need them. "

The book also looks at a non-possessive type of love through the character, the pretty girl that the protagonist falls in love with. "She does not want to be possessed in love. Very often the idea of love is a market concept - to own a woman. People think they want to possess people but there is another side of love - the love when you don't say: 'You make me less lonely' rather 'My desire is that you be less lonely'. " He compares it to the love grandparents might have for a grandchild, which enables them to be more excited about their future than they would have been if they only focused on their own futures, and it is a love that is more selfless. That love, he says, is the same one that Sufi mystics speak of, when you transcend the self to relate to the universe. When asked who his readers are he says, "I don't tend to believe that Westerners exist. I am not being facetious but I spent six years as a child aged three to nine in California, my 20s in New York and my 30s in London and now I am in Pakistan.

So am I an Easterner or a Westerner? I don't think I am the exception. I think everyone is like this. Does a young cross-dressing transsexual Pakistani fashion designer have more in common with General Zia or a fashion designer in New York? So when I write I don't really think of these concepts. "

"Many young people in Pakistan have not read a novel and they don't know what literature is, " he says. "But they do buy books and they do read, he adds. "Most people do not read literary fiction so I try without compromising on language to create something that feels less daunting to people. It's an anti-elite gesture, " he says, reciting how a boy travelled miles on a bus to hand him a piece of paper at the recent Karachi Literature Festival saying how much he and friends liked the drugs and sex in Moth Smoke.

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