The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel by Mohsin Hamid, young celebrated writer who had very intricately woven the story around a young Pakistani, Changez, who faces a post 9/11 situation in the United States. The novel is his monologue: a quietly told, cleverly constructed fable of infatuation and disenchantment with America, set on the deceitful fault lines of east/west relations, and finely tuned to the ironies of prejudice and misrepresentation. This gives an insight into the post 9/11 scenario and what the Muslims had to face in the United States. It is a deeply provocative, excellent addition to the post September 11 novels. But it would be an understatement to merely term it that. The novel is rich in irony and intelligence. It is beautifully written and superbly constructed. It is more exciting than any thriller I’ve read since long, as well as being a subtle and elegant analysis of the state of our world today.
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It seems that Mohsin Hamid would have us understand the novel’s title ironically. It has a double meaning likewise the title has one person with two different personas. We are provoked to question whether every critic of America in a Muslim country should be labeled a fundamentalist, or whether the term more accurately describes the capitalists of the American upper class. Yet these queries seem blunter and less interesting than the novel itself, in which the fundamentalist, and potential assassin, may be sitting on either side of the table. Even at the end of the novel the writer closes with the narration, He writes: ‘I hope you will not resist my attempt to shake you by the hand. But why are you reaching into your jacket, Sir?’
Therefore, it can be gauged that the American even after all the hospitality does not shrug off the suspicion he had in the beginning. The writer starts the sentence in the second line which is self explanatory of the perception of Muslims in the United States post 9/11. It says: Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.
Throughout the novel we will come across instances where the writer tries to establish how the Americans perceive the Muslim world no matter how and what their contributions and emotions have been towards The United States.
This book is written by Mohsin Hamid, born in 1971 in Lahore. After studying at Princeton and Harvard Law, he worked in New York and London, first as a management consultant with McKinsey and then as managing director of Wolff Olins. He now lives and writes in Lahore.
His first novel, Moth Smoke- 2000, dealt with sex, drugs, and class conflict in 1990s urban Pakistan. It inquires the reader to judge the trial of an ex-banker and heroin addict who has fallen for his best friend’s wife. Moth Smoke became a cult hit in Pakistan. It was also the winner of a Betty Trask Award and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
This second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist -2007, explored the fear and suspicion that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In it an American, encounters a bearded Pakistani who has left behind a high-flying career and love affair in New York. The novel became an international bestseller, won numerous awards, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Mohsin also writes essays and journalism for the Guardian, Time Magazine, The New York Times, Dawn, La Repubica, and other publications. Mohsin Hamid started writing the novel in 2000 before even 9/11 struck and then after it stuck he weaved the story around the same man Changez who went to study in America and built it in the aftermath of the fall of the twin towers. Because the writer has been living in the United States and also studied at the same institutes that he has mentioned therefore there is a likelihood that his personal observations would have come into play too.
The audience that the writer caters is general public. The fall of the twin towers in the United States shook the world and a war was inflicted in the name of War on Terror bringing Muslims under its crunch. Therefore this book especially focuses on the youth, as the post 9/11 situation affected mostly the young working and studying in the US.
The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Mohsin Hamid has very intricately woven the story around a young bearded man, Changez who happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tells him the story of his life in the months just before and after the attacks. In 2001, as he explains, Changez was hardly a radical, as he now appears, not from within, but from without. That monologue is the substance of Hamid’s graceful and unnerving novel.
Fresh out of Princeton, Changez was living in New York City and working as a Financial Analyst. At Princeton he was one of only two Pakistanis in his class who did exceptionally well there: “I reached my senior year without having received a single B”. The man who hires him is also something like a mentor: Jim is an American who rose from poor circumstances to become a very successful man, and he sees a similar hunger in Changez, though Changez doesn’t think they are that similar. The fundamental motivation is slightly different: I did not grow up in poverty. But I did.”
His indoctrination, however, was never total. Starting with his job interview at Underwood Samson to a post-graduation trip to Greece with friends from Princeton, Changez maintains an outsider’s double perspective. On the trip he is infatuated with Erica, one of the other travelers, but is also bothered by his rich friends’ extravagance and the arrogance with which they give orders to anyone they’ve paid for a service: “I … found myself wondering by what peculiarity of human history my companions – many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they – were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.” Yet even as he recognizes the shortcoming of that ruling class, Changez, who comes from a high-status family, moving downwardly, also aspires to join it. Given his oft-mentioned phenomenal aptitude for his new job and a talent for winning over other people, that goal seems all but guaranteed.
Has he sacrificed his identity in pursuit of his status? Is he an ignorant master or a shrewd subaltern? Changez has already begun to ask himself these questions when he sees the towers fall. And in the wake of the attacks, as tensions escalate between India and Pakistan, and the United States is caught up in patriotic displays that strike Changez as a dangerous form of nostalgia, he loses interest in his work. Assigned to help appraise a publishing company in Valparaiso, Chile, he spends his time visiting Neruda’s house and lunching with the publisher, who compares Changez to a janissary – one of the Christian youths captured and then conscripted by the Ottomans, compelled to do battle against their own civilization.
He appears to hide himself and his emotions completely, until his reaction to the attacks through the sudden smile, pierces the shell. It seems to have come as a surprise even to him and while hardly endearing, it sets his tale in motion.
Changez has a particular way with words, especially regarding the American. Rather than stating the obvious, he offers a more agreeable alternative — one that permits both him and the American to continue their pretense. And that it is a charade right from the beginning.
Come, tell me, what were you looking for? Surely, at this time of day, only one thing could have brought you to the district of Old Anarkali and that is the quest for the perfect cup of tea. Have I guessed correctly?
In the last lines of the 1st page the writer pens the American mindset, he writes: “You prefer that seat with your back so close to the wall?”
He then adds satirically explaining to the American that the Pakistanis are not all terrorists and to be feared: “You would have been surprised by the sweetness of his (Waiter’s) speech, if only you understood Urdu.”
Mohsin Hamid also talks about the dilemmas of the Pakistani society and narrates: “Status in any traditional, class conscious society declines more slowly than wealth.”
He also talks about the suspicion with which the Americans view the Pakistanis, he tells him that the food is not poisoned and therefore offers an exchange of tea cups also to shrug all suspicions.
The writer continues reflecting on the American mind and how they view the Muslims and adds to the tale: The American says: “Although I like Pakistanis but the elite has raped that place well and good, right? And fundamentalism, you guys have some serious problem with fundamentalism.”
The writer through the mind of Changez feels bridled but accepts that there was nothing overtly objectionable in what he said. But the offence that he took made him restrict his response to ‘Yes there are challenges but my family is there and I can assure you it is not as bad as that’.
Readers may be led to believe that the conversation over tea and dinner is merely a framing device, and that the true heart of the novel is the life-story Changez recounts, but that narrative is interrupted too often. Changez’s life-story holds clues to what brings these two men together here for what is surely meant to be a fateful encounter which the writer pulls that off to some extent.
Two things follow the turning point in the novel: Changez begins his introspection about America’s hegemony and power and the city he had embraced with such joy only a few months before begins to view him with mistrust and suspicion as the public mood and climate change.
Changez’s life begins to unravel quickly. Erica slips away from him, is confined to a mental asylum and eventually disappears. He is fired from his job. He returns to Lahore, bitter and disillusioned about the United States, and begins to teach at a university.
His exposition of US behavior in its grief-crazed, wounded state offers a sort of postscript to this novel. “As a society, you … retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world … Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity but also in your own.”
Changez does not let on exactly what he does to “stop America” once he is back in Pakistan though he admits that is his mission. Hamid keeps the ending of the novel open and faintly ominous. It is hard to tell how reliable a narrator Changez is.
Mohsin Hamid is a young celebrated writer. A less sophisticated author might have told a short narrative of an immigrant’s experiences of discrimination and ignorance. But Hamid’s novel is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez’s class aspirations and inner struggle. For, to be an American is to view the world in a certain way. Erica’s obsession with the past engineered to dovetail with America’s nostalgia and with Changez’s yearning for a lost Lahore – while her disappearance neatly parallels his departure from America. Hamid, who himself attended Princeton and worked in corporate America, aptly captures the ethos and hypocrisies truly and intricately.
We never learn the American man’s identity, yet Changez regularly interrupts the story to address him. Perhaps he had been pursuing Changez, who has become a leader of anti-American protests. Apparently, the man is “on a mission” – and he may be carrying a weapon, as indicated in the last lines.
The use of monologue in ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ allows the writer intimate access to his central character’s mind. Not without its limitations, monologue is used here with great effectiveness, particularly in helping to build suspense. Changez’s tone, which is sometimes exaggeratedly polite, sometimes darkly menacing, is laced with the bitter irony.
The precise, rather classical orchestration of symmetries and reciprocities is both a strength and a weakness in the book. It fosters the kind of concentratedly astute cultural observation at which Hamid excels. At frequent intervals the narrative executes a nice flourish in the form of some densely symbolic image or succinct remark. Changez meaningfully summarizes, for instance, the experience of every happy Manhattan transplant when he declares: “I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker.”
The nature of fiction here is closer to reality. The east/west scenario, the discovery of one’s patriotism and a morally superior set of values leaves Changez with a sense of decision to leave the United States in the wake of September 11 attacks. He, therefore becomes a potentially fascinating character, what his creator would have intended.
This is undoubtedly a great novel written out of the anguished material of these kinds of east/west encounters. This book and its author (who won a Betty Trask award for his first novel, Moth Smoke) certainly has the potential to produce more world class novels. It gives an insight into the American mind and how the world in a post 9/11 circumstances view the Muslims. It also enhances feelings of patriotism when the other party’s intentions become evident. My critical analysis of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a testament to its genuinely provocative nature, and it remains, at the very least, an intelligent, highly engaging piece of work.
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