Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist — Mohsin Hamid — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 10, 2008

People who create history very often are not the people who suffer its consequences. 9/11 is a classic reminder of this. The “collateral damage” in the form of sharpened identity politics, innocent lives lost, wounded national prides, affected psyches, desparate rage, hunger for revenge and muted voices of moderation have been all too evident for anyone to see. Given the media bias, the  elbow room for views from “other side” has been all too limited and constrained. With the publishing of Mohsin Hamid‘s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” we have a glimpse into the views from this “other side” thrust into the mainstream literature. “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America“….thus begins this brilliant monologue of the urbane, controlled, sensible and some times edgy and anguished voice of Changez, the hero of the book. Changez is the self appointed Pakistani host of a visiting American on a dusky evening in a non descript Lahore restaurant. His is the voice of an educated Pakistani national torn by confused loyalties between two nations, a love that is also a personal tragedy and a commitment to show his own resentment through civilized protest and action. The desire for civilised protest results in Changez relocating to Lahore leaving a lucrative career in the high world of Wall Street finance post 9/11

With a degree from Princeton – one of the elite meccas of higher education in US – Changez joins Underwood Samson and Company as a highly paid analyst in their mergers and acquisitions division. While at Princeton he falls in love with Erica a batchmate of his. Erica herself is divided in her feelings to her former boyfriend Chris who is dead on account of cancer and Changez whom she finds polished, polite and accommodating.  On his first assignment at Malaysia, 9/11 takes place and Changez returns to a metamorphosed America. His own feelings towards 9/11 are confused and he admits to his guest in Lahore thus: “But as I continued to watch, I realized that it was not fiction but news, I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled….. and so when  I tell you I was pleased at the slaughter of thousands of innocents, I do so with a profound sense of perplexity….. I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees…..

Yet the feelings of hostility and perplexity are not suddenly developed. Changez’s own stay in the US and his observations of the behaviour of Americans over a period of time prepares him for the anguish and gradual alienation. Consider some of Changez’s observations: “But you told us,” they would say to the Greeks twice the age, before insisting things be done their way. I, with my finite and depleting reserves of cash and my traditional sense of deference to one’s seniors, found myself wondering by what quirk 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 they they were its ruling class … or… Or perhaps it was my ability to function both respectfully and with self-respect in a hierarchical environment, something American youngsters – unlike other Pakistani counterparts – rarely seem trained to do

At Lahore the situation gets further complicated with rising tensions between India and Pakistan. Changez’s own thoughts are: But that night a family banquet was held in my honor, and there the conflict with India dominated conversation. Opinion was divided as to whether the men who had attacked the Indian parliament had anything to do with Pakistan, but there was unanimity in the belief that India would do all it could to harm us, and that despite the assistance that we had given America in Afghanistan, America would not fight on our side. Already, the Indian Army was mobilizing and, Pakistan had begun to respond;convoys of trucks, I was told, were passing through the city, bearing supplies to our troops on the border; as we ate, we could hear the sounds of military helicopters flying low overhead………and ………… all America would have to do would be to inform India that an attack on Pakistan would be treated as an attack on any American ally and would be responded to by the overwhelming force of America’s military…Yet your country was signally failing to do this; indeed America was strictly maintaining neutrality between two combatants, a position that favoured, of course, the larger and – at that moment in history – the more belligerent of them. It is here that I felt that Hamid portrays Changez as a person with a lack of knowledge of complicated contemporary history and relations between India and Pakistan and India’s own feelings towards Pakistan especially that there was a Kargill war which was a sufficient demonstration of the belligerence against India

It is during this time Changez goes onto an assignment in Chile to value a book publisher and there he meets a Juan Batista who opens his eyes to a different kind of reality when he tells Changez the following: … He nodded; he lit a cigarette and took a sip from his glass of wine. Then he asked, “Have you heard of the janissaries?” “No” I said. “They were christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal; they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to…. The Janissaries were always taken in childhood. It would have been far more difficult to devote themselves to their adopted empire, you see, if they had memories they could not forget.. It is this with troubling insight and his own reflection on his situation Changez returns to New York in midst of his assignment with a potential sack awaiting him. At one point he says: I resolved to look about me with an ex-janissary’s gaze – with that is to say, the analytical eyes of a product of Princeton and Underwood Samson, but unconstrained by the academic’s and the professional’s various compulsions to focus primarily on parts, and free therefore  to consider the also the whole of your society – upon my return to New York. Seen in this fashion I was struck by how traditional your empired appeared. Armed sentries manned the check post at which I sought entry; being of a subject race I was quarantined and subjected to additional inspection; once admitted I hired a charioteer who belonged to a serf class lacking the permissions to abide legally and forced therefore to accept work at lower pay; I myself was a form indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer. Thank you Juan – Bautista…. for helping me to push back the veil behind which all this has been concealed!

On top of all this America’s behaviour in the world also rile Changez quite a bit and he at one point says: ..but it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostaligia at that time. There was undeniably something retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor…. what your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me — a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? or moral certainty? I did not know — but they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent….. or…………It seemed to me then – and to be honest, sir, seems to me still – that America was engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect on upon shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out those beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an America has to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of the humanity, but also in your own

Given that I am an Indian, I found it difficult to accept all the views that Hamid puts forth through Changez. Notwithstanding those personal biases, I think “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a brilliant and moving book and paints a grim picture of the psyche of an affected Pakistani national caught in the tidal waves of contemporary events that affected the entire muslim world

Two aspects of Hamid’s writing that I liked in the book are, firstly, the styling of the monologue.  It is on this I am willing to hazard a guess which is that the polish of Changez’s language is a derivative of the highly polished cultures of muslim families steeped in tradition of speaking refined Urdu at home

Secondly, there are many places in the book where Hamid brings out the differences between the ethos of sub continental Asia and West quite appealingly. Consider what Changez says when he pays the bill for the meal: You wish to pay half ? Absolutely not; besides, here we pay all or we pay none. You have reminded me of how alien I found the concept of acquaintances splitting a bill when I first arrived in your country. I had been raised to favour mutual genorosity over mathematical precision in such matters; given time both work equally well even to a score…… Or…..There is great satisfaction to be had in touching one’s prey; indeed; millenia of evolution ensure that manipulating our meals with our skin heightens our sense of taste — and our appetite, for that matter!….. Or………It is remarkable indeed how we human beings are capable of delighting in the mating call of a flower while we are surrounded by the charred carcasses of our fellow animals — but then we are remarkable creatures. Perhaps it is in our nature to recognize sub consciously the link between mortality and procreation – between, that is to say, the finite and the infinite – and we are in fact driven by reminders of the one to seek out the other

All in all “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a sensible and thought provoking read. I was disturbed for a while after reading the book and more than anything else I thinkI stand sensitised to the anguish and hurt sentiments of an affected muslim of the contemporary times.

A worthy shortlist for the 2007 Man Booker Prize


3 Responses to “The Reluctant Fundamentalist — Mohsin Hamid — A review”

  1. Harsha said

    Brilliant review! I will be reading this book sooner than later…

  2. one of the better reviews on the book on the internet, bravo!

  3. Prashanthjee S said

    Interesting review. I am now tempted to read this book.

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