Mohsin Hamid: “The Third-Born”

11/15/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 24, 2012.

The people of your village relieve themselves downstream of where they wash their clothes, a place  in turn, downstream of where they drink. Farther upstream, the village before yours does the same. Farther still, where the water emerges from the hills as a sometimes gushing brook, it is partly employed in the industrial processes of an old, rusting, and subscale textile plant, and partly used as draining for the foul-smelling gray effluent that results.

You, on the other hand, can most likely drink your tap water, or have access to at least a Brita filter (or a cache of bottled/mineral water), and you read The New Yorker, so you have it good. You certainly don’t have the acclimating indecencies of Hamid’s prose raining down on you, where each sentence makes your circumstances a little worse (although, the implication goes, not as bad as for the people downstream of you). And you probably don’t, like the second-person narrator of this story, have hepatitis E. “Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum.” Don’t mistake this as poverty/misery porn, though; Hamid’s prose is embedded in a harsh reality, but it’s not wallowing in it. One can’t help but dwell to a degree in one’s surroundings, to accept them, but the empathetic perspective yielded by the second-person also has aspirations, can relish small miracles, in this case the fortune of being the titular character: “Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like your parents’ fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.” Listen to how casual these cruelties are, see how they again, like that earlier paragraph, grow worse and worse while still yet holding open the comparison to things that might be even worse. Those who dismiss fiction as “not real” ought to take a gander this way, contemplate whether non-fiction might stir them half as much, if they weren’t being sucked in directly through the second-person.

There’s little in terms of plot to discuss here — which is the only reason I brought up the potential to mistake this as poverty porn — but there is an abundance of rich, excellently written details, and interesting pearls of wisdom — the survivalist’s guide, if you will, to the sort of life that begins and often ends in a “single mud-walled room she shares with all her surviving offspring.” (And again, just look at the use of the word “surviving” in there.) Grim nuggets of truth about this semi-tribal life and the missed opportunities for women like “your” mother are doled out: “Your mother and grandmother play a waiting game. The older woman waits for the younger woman to age; the younger woman waits for the older woman to die. It is a game both will inevitably win.” Then, a shift occurs: “your” father works as a cook in the city and decides to move his family there with him, inspired, perhaps, by his hepatitis-riddled-child’s inspiring reserves of strength. And so Hamid has the opportunity to describe this upward momentum: “Electricity makes its appearance” and buildings “shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.” (Not for nothing, incidentally, does the story begin with “you” longing for things that you do not yet even know, like chocolates, remote controls, and sneakers.) Lest these more modest conveniences be mistaken for safety, we’re also told that along this crowded bus ride “your likelihood of death, or at least, dismemberment will be extremely high. Such things happen often, although not nearly as often as they don’t happen. But today is your lucky day.”

Hamid’s depiction of this squalid life expands, now, to the “education” system: a school, “wedged between a tire-repair stall and a corn kiosk that derives the bulk of its revenues from the sale of cigarettes,” has “fifty pupils” and “stools for thirty.” The teacher frequently makes mistakes while teaching the multiplication tables and brutally punishes the students who might correct him. Lest we write him off as a Dickensian villain, bear in mind that “Your teacher did not want to be a teacher. He wanted to be a meter reader at the electric utility” as they are “both better off and held in higher regard by society.” See, teachers aren’t respected either, especially at this level, and yet despite this, jobs are so difficult to maintain that his fear of being fired is so great that he must continue to take it out on his children — after all, he can’t afford to pay another bribe. Things, then, are poor all around, though at the same time, infinitely tolerable. After all, “Over sufficiently long a term, as everyone knows, there is nothing that does not have as its consequence death.” Make of this story, then (as you would of life), what you will.

 

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