Nov 18, 2008

Thoughts on A Reluctant Fundamentalist

The protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s impressive Booker nominated second novel –- The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- reminded me of those women who upon finally deciding to ditch their childhood sweethearts for traditional grooms who’d been chosen by their families, suddenly find everything about the old boyfriends either wrong, offensive, duplicitous or morally reprehensible. Oh, not to forget, they’d been merely infatuated before. That is Changez’ story too, only it is his infatuation with America that he elaborates upon here.
Compared to his debut work Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems both artificial, as well as less absorbing. Perhaps the only positive thing I can say about Hamid’s work is that it is timely, especially since there is no doubt that America has no intention of curbing its annoying interventionist foreign policy, given its hawkish stand on Iran and Russia. Though he poses questions that are relevant in an increasingly intolerant world, Hamid does not possess the subtlety or the power to accomplish this in a way, say, a much superior writer like Nadine Gordimer does when she probes the whole issue of apartheid, another cursed phenomenon, which though much reviled operates at various levels of our shared experience and does not offer any easy resolutions.
The novel is set in an old café in Lahore where as dusk gives way to night, our Pakistani narrator Changez shares the story of his life in the U.S with an unnamed American businessman. Since, the listener is never allowed to speak we are left to form our own opinions about him from the way Changez responds to him – ‘A flower-seller approaches. I will summon him. You are not in the mood? Surely you cannot object to a single strand of jasmine buds.” We learn that Changez hails from an old Lahore family whose fortunes have since declined. The gradual erosion of his family’s wealth echoes those of his unfortunate nation and this in turn is contrasted with the wealth and well being of his Princeton classmates and the country they hail from. All of which is fine but inherently meaningless for Hamid never allows Changez to reflect on the diverse and complex causes that have brought about this contrast. Instead, Changez speaks in a steady mix of sarcasm, hostility and forced politeness and seems to take no account of the larger historical and social conditions that shape a nation’s destiny. At least, the protagonist of Moth Smoke was honest enough to acknowledge the corruption and indifference which crippled Pakistan.
After having finished his studies at Princeton, Changez joins the prestigious valuation firm of Underwood Samson where the mantra of success is to ‘Focus on the Fundamentals’, one which we gradually learn he has always been ‘reluctant’ to embrace. In America, Changez befriends other outsiders like Jim and Wainwright and even has a doomed affair with the beautiful Erica whose sanity gradually unravels as her affair with Changez progresses. Post 9/11 he starts to feel all the more resentful of America’s retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and her single minded pursuit of her ‘fundamental’ interests at the cost of all else and he decides to return to his homeland and becomes an activist of sorts who dedicates his life to spreading awareness and raising questions regarding the imperialism of powerful western nations like America.
The question of identity and assimilation is at the heart of the book and as we plough on, it is not merely Changez’ identity that is probed and tested but also Erica’s, the silent businessman’s and the readers’. Early in the novel Changez tells us how “I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American. The Filipinos … seemed to look up to my American colleagues, accepting them almost instinctively as members of the officer class of global business and I wanted my share of that respect as well,” and when he is stopped by the concierge of Erica’s posh Manhattan apartment, he retorts in a “cold and rather imperious tone.” However, despite his best attempts at merging in, he does possess an outsiders’ perspective which finds his ‘upstart’ classmates’ wasteful spending and offensive manners most disturbing, “I ... found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions ….. were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.” Though bothered by certain aspects of American life, Changez is still another cog in the nation’s great capitalistic machine and is in Manila on business when he watches the twin towers collapse on TV and smiles. This smile is the pivot of the novel for it at once tells us several things about Changez that he has only hinted at so far. Though it may not reveal anything as significant as a rabid fundamentalism, it does tell us about his desire for vengeance, a kind of smug satisfaction at the tables having been turned so abruptly. Nothing has happened till then to warrant that smile and yet it’s chillingly familiar to many of us if we allow a little honest introspection. And that’s one of the points of the book, that even when we think nothing has happened, there are things that have already taken place, the shared weight of history that shapes our perspectives and what we finally choose to be.
On his return to the U.S, he is viewed suspiciously as he’s waiting in line at Immigration and slowly it is not only his relationship with Erica which starts to decline but also that with America and its institutions of power. Unable to concentrate on work he is increasingly discomfited by the idea that by embracing America he is also embracing a certain world view. When a client slyly tells him the story of the janissaries -- Christian youths captured and brainwashed into fighting against their own people -- his transformation and self loathing are complete, “I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.” As mentioned before, it is in areas like these that Hamid’s amateur skills are most obvious for he never allows Changez any of that inner debate or doubts that must surely have assailed this intelligent Ivy League graduate. I think this is a very dangerous way of looking at things and artistic license notwithstanding what does this say about the thousands of Afghani restaurateurs and Irani and Bangladeshi storekeepers who have escaped their repressive and poverty stricken homelands in hopes of a better future? Surely Changez cannot really imagine that working in a foreign nation implies you’re a henchman in its strong-arm tactics?
Where the novel does sing is in the depiction of the romance between Changez and Erica. Even though this like much else in the book can be explained as a pure allegory for his uncertain, shifting relationship with America, it is interesting to note how much Changez challenges Erica’s identity, thereby pushing her into her vortex of guilt and despair. When he visits her at the Clinic he’s told by the nurse, “…. right now you’re the hardest person for her to see. You’re the one who upsets her most. Because you’re the most real, and make her lose her balance.” He and the scope of what he represents threatens Erica’s ideal picture of the adolescent, selfless love that she shared with Chris, her ex-boyfriend. Similarly, immersion in America’s materialistic culture, threatens his identity and his selfhood. Both derive their selfhoods from the roles they see themselves as living up to; in Erica’s case that of Chris’ ever faithful girl friend, and in the case of Changez, the prodigal son who has to eventually return home.
Hamid is very good when he describes the language and mannerisms of characters like Wainwright or Erica. This is where he scores above many other authors writing about the diaspora. Hearing Erica discuss her novella, one is reminded of another young, budding writer, Heather in the film ‘Starting out in the Evening’.
He also powerfully taps into the immigrants’ guilt and doubt when wondering at the threat of war with neighboring India, Changez muses, “What sort of man abandons his people in such circumstances? And what was I abandoning them for? ……….. I grappled with these questions again and again.”
I think it would be safe to say that The Reluctant Fundamentalist raises interesting questions without always probing them adequately and perhaps a little less of the neat explanations that he offers would have made the novel more satisfactory. As the narrative ends we are left uncertain regarding Changez’ story and do not know whether he is an activist or a terrorist out to kidnap the nervous American businessman or whether all he wants is for the American to give him, a voice that has been suppressed for ages, a fair hearing. Nor are we told if the silent American is really as innocuous as he seems or if he is an undercover CIA operative with more sinister intentions. The answer is not so important but our preoccupation with neat answers is. The Reluctant Fundamentalist will work best if it is read as testament to the infallible truth that simply demonizing those who hold a different world view from our own is neither helpful, nor desirable and only breeds contempt and mistrust.

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