The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s taut and accomplished second novel, takes the form of a single, long monologue that we are asked to understand as a dialogue.
Changez, a resident of the Pakistani city of Lahore, encounters by chance or purpose an American tourist on the streets of his city, and presses his hospitality upon him. They get to talking—we never actually hear the interlocutor, only Changez’s reactions to him—and Changez loses no time in revealing that he has actually lived in America. He is, we learn, a graduate of Princeton University, worked subsequently for a prominent American firm, and even had a love affair with an American girl.
Then how is he now here? Changez’s story—which seems to gush from him like blood from a wound—traces the self’s shifting sense of itself against the rumblings of a rudely shaken world.
Changez is the scion of a prominent Lahore family. A bright student, he wins a scholarship to Princeton, where many of his American peers come from the same class of their society as he does of his. But it is a different society. The bright allure of meritocratic America seems to Changez in direct contrast to the tired air of his home country, its attention focused on military skirmishes with neighbouring India. On graduating, he takes up a lucrative offer from Underwood and Samson, a leading valuation firm. The guiding principle of his firm, he tells us, is “Focus on the fundamentals”.
At 22, Changez becomes part of a global elite, flying business-class and hopping from country to country. He loves the buzz of New York. “I was, in four-and-a-half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker,” he exults. Returning to Pakistan to visit his family, he is depressed by the shabbiness of the house in which he grew up, but realizes that “I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner”. It is a persuasive portrait of how life in a new country reshapes all of one’s old certainties.
In New York, Changez also falls in love with Erica, a girl from a wealthy American family. As their attachment develops, he learns that Erica has a past: Her long-time boyfriend, Chris, passed away recently. Changez feels that it is only a matter of time before Erica leaves behind her memories and embraces the present, but disturbingly she seems instead to regress, and he feels powerless to help her.
Changez, then, has multiple allegiances to America. Yet, while on assignment in the Philippines, when he sees on TV the spectacle of the World Trade Center being erased by terrorists, he finds himself perplexed by the fact that his immediate reaction is one of satisfaction. “[A]t that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack,” he analyses, “…no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”
Those italicised emphases—of which there are many in The Reluctant Fundamentalist—are Hamid’s way of signalling tremors in his otherwise understated writing; they are suggestive also of the cadences of Changez’s analytical mind at work, searching for the most precise nuances and distinctions.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Changez finds that something in the air has changed. Because of his ethnicity, he is viewed with suspicion as he never was before. He is alarmed also by the martial stance of his adopted country, intent upon a reprisal that will lead to the deaths of many more innocents. He finds that America is in the grip of “a dangerous nostalgia” not dissimilar to that of Erica, pining for her departed companion.
But Changez’s doubts and fears are not solely directed outward. He begins to see himself, too, as complicit with a world order he finds morally repugnant—after all, “finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised his power”. He feels he cannot abide any more within his insulated world.
Drilled into focusing on the fundamentals, he sees now that those fundamentals were akin to a pair of blinders. He becomes—in a clever subversion of the expectations raised by the novel’s title and its alienated Pakistani protagonist—a reluctant fundamentalist.
And just like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who rather than believe in an unjust order decides to “return my ticket”, Changez, too, forsakes his gilded life in America and returns to Pakistan to teach. During the course of his narration, he asserts repeatedly that he means his unidentified American companion no harm. But the reader has heard in his voice the dark undertow of what Orhan Pamuk has called “the anger of the damned”, and is not so sure.
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