How to write about the poor:
He knows he won’t get very far if he thinks about them as “the poor”, or as “them”. The reader will sense the impenetrable barrier between him and his subjects, and an acute reader will feel the clunkiness of the dialogue he put into their mouths.
He knows that this doesn’t stop other authors: some write with that barrier firmly in place, for the benefit of readers who like to peer into the worlds of slumdogs and halwais from a safe, germ-free distance. But he’s Mohsin Hamid, so this will drive him to find a better way to write about the poor.
So he will, in a deceptively slender book called How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, pull off an act of stunning audacity. He will not be deterred by the fact that what young Asia wants is unrelenting banality—rewarmed and defanged myths, love stories discounted down from television soaps, tidy novels that reaffirm safe middle class values, diet and self-improvement books. Instead, he will smuggle in an original, moving novel, one that holds to the dated values of clean sentences and literary worth under cover of the self-help banner.
He writes about his characters, a boy and a girl breaking out of their grindingly impoverished and limiting world, with flair, even with style, and definitely with intelligence, which will make some readers suspicious. To soothe them, he will soften them up with regular reassurances that they are, indeed, reading a self-help book: “…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.” It is possible that the intelligent reader will see right through his pretence—here he is, an astute novelist pretending to belong on the same shelf as Who Moved My Cheese?—so he reassures them: “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.”
In other words, he will write about the poor the only way one can: by lying, so that people put off by the idea of reading about the poor–*shudder*–will be lured into his net. This is cunning of him, just as it is clever of him to pull off the second person voice throughout. It allows him to write about the world with precise sarcasm, and about the poor with a measure of respect. The third person voice would reveal the layers of reportage that went into his book—the world of dusty new arteries, gray effluent water, the internet cafes that smell of women’s hairspray, sweat and semen.
Writers are used to grabbing and squeezing the lives of the poor for juice; but Hamid’s use of the second person gives back “the poor” some privacy. He is aware of this; he knows his characters as well as he knew the rich bored boys in your first novel, Moth Smoke. But the second person allows a little distance, a little dignity, a little space—all those luxuries we reserve in India for the filthy rich, never the poor.
How to write about the rich:
The other night, at one of those Delhi dinners set against a tastefully crumbling monument hovering like a respectful khidmatgar in the background, I watched a young girl who reminded me of Daisy Buchanan. Like Daisy, her voice was low and thrilling; it promised that there would be “gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour”.
F Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the rich in The Great Gatsby from the perspective of a privileged outsider, someone who was invited to all the parties but doesn’t have his own polo ponies. Edith Wharton and Leo Tolstoy wrote about being wealthy from the inside, but they were among the exceptions—the rich don’t like holding up a mirror to their own lives in print.
Many of the authors who write with the sharpest intelligence on the subject of property, wealth and their subtly warping ways either had little wealth or came to the security of wealth late in their lives—Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Fitzgerald himself.
The film version of The Great Gatsby comes out at a time when the glamour of being rich has been significantly tarnished. If the rich in the US are responsible for bank crashes, and the rich in Europe are selling their islands along with the family silver, the rich in India have a disturbing tendency to pick each other off in farmhouse murders. But what makes Fitzgerald such a wonderful writer wasn’t that he unpicked the corruption that accompanied wealth—that would have been boring.
He understood the true allure of being rich: you stood, as Daisy Buchanan does, “safe and proud above the struggles of the poor”. And what made the rich dangerous wasn’t that they were corrupt; it was just that they were careless. They were so good, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, at smashing things.
(Published in the Business Standard, April 16, 2013)