This book offers beautiful writing and delights with a very sharp approach to the question of identity, “cultural power”, cultural clash between the West and the East in a context of the dominance of one powerful country such as the United States (US) prior and after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001.
The themes in the ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ are diverse and portrayed in a very nuanced manner. In one of the interviews, Mohsin Hamid said that the objective of this book was to be like a mirror to the reader, to confuse the reader in order to show that the characters in this book are as complex, multidimensional, can be many things, with many identities as the people in our world.
There is no reference to religion, faith, or spirituality anywhere in the book. It is fair to say that the term: ‘Fundamentalist’ often carries the meaning associated with religion but NOT here. ‘Fundamentalist’ refers to the business activity which will be explained in more detail later in the text.
Making of the Reluctant Fundamentalist – the Secular Fundamentalist
The story revolves around the conversation in one of the cafes in the bazaar of Lahore between a Changez, a young Pakistani man, and an American stranger where Changez recounts the story of his life mainly focusing on his time living in the USA. We can only hear our Pakistani protagonist; the narrative is told in one voice only as we never hear the American interlocutor, but we can deduce his reactions from Changez’s words. The American man speaks but we cannot hear his voice in the novel; there is only one narrator, one speaker and the story takes place in a real time – this is a remarkably unique narrative forcing the reader to use their conscious and unconscious assumptions related to the protagonists’ cultural, ethnic and religious background.
Another interesting aspect about this book is that an Urdu pronunciation of Changez is the same as of Genghis Khan who was an Emperor of the Mongol Empire responsible for multiple attacks on the Muslims communities during the 13th century in the region that it is now Pakistan.
Changez is a product of his backgrounds; he is a Pakistani young man who comes from a well-established Pakistani family whose wealth has dwindled due to the political changes and the consequences of the 1947 partition of “British India” into two states, Pakistan and India.
The main character, Changez, wins a scholarship to attend Princeton University. While at Princeton, Changez supports himself working three part-time jobs. One of these jobs is at the Library of Near Eastern Studies. He does not want others to see him working these jobs and the Library of Near Eastern Studies is the least frequented by the fellow American students hinting that the American students have no interest in foreign cultures other than their own. In Princeton, Changez is only one of a few Pakistani students. At the beginning he finds the university something close to a paradise but slowly his disillusionment grows as he finds cracks in the façade of this dream which finally culminates during the post – 9/11 aftermath.
To celebrate his graduation Changez goes with the group of students to Greece where he is taken aback by the way his American colleagues speak to the foreigners:
“(…) their self-righteousness in dealing with those whom they had paid for a service. ‘But you told us’, they would say to Greeks twice their age, before insisting things be done their way. I, with my finite and deleting reserve of cash and my traditional sense of deference to one’s seniors, found myself wondering by what quick of human history my companions – many of whom I would have regarded as upstairs in my own country, so devoid of refinement where they – were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class”.
Following the graduation, in spite of Changez’s growing unease with the American dream, he is caught up with it. He is hired by the valuation company called Underwood Samson (US) – of which first letters US represent the power and the country itself, United States. Underwood Samson is a personification of the USA. The company’s motto is ‘Focus on the Fundamentals’ and Changez becomes ‘an expert business Fundamentalist’ – ‘a secular fundamentalist’. The reluctance comes later.
The title of the book ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ does not refer to religion; it refers to the business activity. I must admit that before reading the book I assumed that it had to refer to the religion in some way because of the words used in the title – I am usually very careful with making assumptions but I was caught…
Changez moves to New York City to start the job and he falls in love with New York City. He feels he is not unique anymore. He says that at Princeton he was never an American, he was always an exotic foreigner. In New York City he immediately becomes a New Yorker; he does not look different to the man next to him, he is able to meet people like him, to visit Pakistani Delicatessen, to speak Urdu to a taxi driver but he also understands that New York City is not a synonym of United States.
When he hears the stories about the power of America and how advanced they believe they are especially when he reflects on the past, Changez’s sentiments towards the USA grow resentful. He reflects that 4000 years earlier, the region of today’s India and Pakistan was the home to one of the earliest civilisations: the Indus Valley Civilisations with its cities with a great urban planning with drainage system and water networks. For comparison in many European countries sewage system was introduced only 150 years ago. However, these days many contemporary cities of Pakistan and India are largely unplanned.
“This, I realized, was another world form Pakistan; supporting my feet were the achievements of the most technologically advanced civilisation our species had ever known. Often, during my stay in your country [US], such comparisons troubled me. In fact, they did more than troubled me. In fact, they made me resentful. Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonise America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs (…). To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed.”
“We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle-elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.”
On Diversity, Class, and Privilege
The issue and the meaning of ill-perceived diversity and representation is also explored in the book. Diversity – the colour of skin or gender is not what diversity means. Upon joining Underwood Samsons, Changez makes a very interesting observation. Those people who joined the company, although coming from so called different ‘diverse’ backgrounds, they all are all largely privileged members of the society in many areas of their lives.
“Two of my colleagues were women; Wainwright and I were non-white. We were marvellously diverse… and yet we were not: all of us (…) hailed from the same elite universities – Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale; we all exuded a sense of confident self-satisfaction; and not one if us was either short or overweight.“
These days the obsession with the misunderstood idea of diversity and representation has become merely a sort of a tick box exercise for many companies and organisations. Diversity is not only what on the surface; more importantly it is about what is within every individual. This passage above is unbelievably close to my heart and, yet again, it is extremely relatable to my own experience living in the UK as someone coming from the immigrant background.
The theme of class and privilege related to speaking with an Anglicized accent is also depicted here. An English accent has been linked often to power and wealthwhich Changez is well aware of and can often influence one’s perception of the person who has an advantage of speaking with an English accent, either by accident of birth or by having a privilege of attending British school from the very young age.
“I have subsequently wondered why my mannerism so appealed to my senior colleagues. Perhaps it was my speech: like Pakistan, America is, after all, a former English colony, and it stans to reason, therefore, that an Anglicised accent may in your country [US] continue to be associated with wealth and power, just as it is in mine [Pakistan]. (…) Whatever the reason, I was aware of an advantage conferred upon me by my foreignness, and I tried to utilize it as much as I could.”
On Identity, Multiple Belongings and the Meaning of Home
The question of multiple identities is another important subject of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. The importance of having multiple homes, belongings is meticulously presented in the book. As time passes, Changez grows confused about his identity and where he belongs.
During his work trip to Manilla in the Philippines, Changez reflects on the feeling of shame associated with the place one comes from, the accent one speaks with and how the pre-conceived notions of what is right affect our own experiences and life journey, especially if we are ‘immigrants’ in a foreign land. These two passages below resonate with me deeply – the description of an immigrant (coming from the community which is perceived as “less” than for example the communities in UK, USA or so-called Western societies) taking on the new persona just to fit into this more privileged perception of the world is something that is extremely relatable to me. I have never seen anyone describing these feelings so adequately as Mohsin Hamid does in ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’.
“I felt like a distance runner who thinks he is not doing too badly until he glances over his shoulder and sees that the fellow who is lapping him is not the leader of the pack , but one of the laggards. Perhaps for this reason that I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American. The Filipinos we worked with 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. (…) I learned to cut to the front of lines with an extraterritorial smile; and I learned to answer, when asked where I was from, that I was from New York. Did these things trouble me, you ask? Certainly, sir; I was often ashamed. But outwardly I gave no sign of this.”
“There were moments when I became disoriented. I remember one such occasion in particular. I was riding with my colleagues in a limousine. We were mired in traffic (…), and I glanced out the window to see (…) the driver of a jeepney returning my gaze. There was undisguised hostility in his expression; I had no idea why. We had not met before (…) – and in a few minutes we would probably never see one another again. But his dislike was obvious, so intimate, that it got under my skin. (…) Afterwards, I tried to understand why he acted as he did. Perhaps, (…) he resents me for the privileges implied by my suit and expensive car; perhaps he simply does not like Americans. I remained preoccupied with this matter (…), pursuing several possibilities that all assumed (…) that he and I shared a sort of Third World sensibility. Then one of my colleagues asked me a question, and when I turned to answer him, something rather strange took place. I looked at him (…) and thought, you are so foreign. I felt in that moment much closer to the Filipino driver that to him; I felt I was play-acting when in reality I ought to be making my way home (…).”
In addition, the passages below provide a very good insight into the feelings that many immigrants coming from the less privileged background often carry within themselves: the feeling of being an alien in your new home and never fully accepted as well as the feeling of being a foreigner in their original – first home; the feeling of being expected, forced to choose between two or more identities; the feeling of having an obligation to choose between two sides, two cultures; not allowing to be more than mono-identity.
“I lacked a stable core. I was not certain where I belonged – in New York, in Lahore, in both, in neither. (…) I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore (…). I was ashamed (…) But as I reacclimatized and my surroundings [in Lahore] once again became familiar, it occurred to me that the house had not changed in my absence. I had changed; I was looking about with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country’s elite.”
“The truth of my experience complicates that seemingly simple assertion; I had returned to Pakistan, but my inhabitation of your country [AmErica] had not entirely ceased. I remained emotionally entwined with [Am] Erica, and I brought something of her with me to Lahore – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I lost something of myself to her that I was unable to relocate in the city of my birth. (…) waves of mourning washed over me, sadness and regret prompted at times by external stimulus (…).”
Following the 9/11, because of his ethnic and religious background, Changez experiences discrimination not so much by the individuals, but by the state authorities.
“I was escorted by armed guards into a room where I was made to strip down to my boxer shorts – I had, rather embarrassingly, chosen to wear a pink pair patterned with teddy bears, but their revelations had no impact on the severe expressions of my inspectors – and I was, as a consequence, the last person to board our aircraft. My entrance elicited looks of concern from many of my fellow passengers. I flew to New York uncomfortable in my own face: I was aware of being under suspicion; I felt guilty. (…) When we arrived, I was separated from my team at immigration. They joined the queue for American citizens, I joined the one for foreigners (…).”
Changez hears about the attacks on the Pakistani cab drivers, FBI raiding mosques, shops, and private houses; Muslims men disappearing but initially he assumes that all these stories are either untrue or heavily over exaggerated. He does not believe that in the USA, he – a Princeton graduate with a very good job could be ever mistreated.
He grows a beard, not for any religious reasons; but rather because he is simply depressed and goes through emotional turmoil at the time. Whereas this would be an acceptable explanation for many, there is an exception for men who look certain way like Changez – again Mohsin Hamid plays with the notion of the assumption and pre-conceived ideas.
In his conversation with an American stranger in Lahore, Changez recounts:
“It is remarkable, given its physical insignificance – it is only a hairstyle, after all – the impact a beard worn by a man of my complexion has on your fellow countrymen. More than once, travelling on the subway (…) I was subjected to verbal abuse by complete strangers, and at Underwood Samson I seemed to become overnight a subject of whispers and stares.”
On Personal Relationship – Erica as a Personification of AmErica
Changez’s relationship with Erica is the personification of Changez’s relationship with AmERICA – it is a great metaphor.
Erica, Changez’s love interest in the book, represents AmERICA, similarly to Underwood Samsons. Erica is a personification of America in a sense of feeling nostalgia for the bygone idealised past represented by Chris, Erica’s late partner. Chris might be a personification of simpler times; there might be a play on word between Chris and Christopher Columbus when the Europeans were “good ones” and the indigenous population was considered “bad ones” – that perception of the world still dominant a few decades ago amounted to the simplicity.
What is interesting here is the fact, the Pakistani family of Changez also felt the nostalgia for the bygone era, the pre-1947 partition of India and Pakistan, when his family held far more privileges than at present – again this is the simplification of that period and a rather romanticised version of life during the colonial era.
Erica also symbolises the fear of the unknown and of losing the position of dominance. She feels safe and content only when Changez takes on the persona of Chris. Again, there is a similarity to Changez’s behaviour portrayed previously when he adopted a more American persona in order to be accepted, to feel ‘equal’ and not to be seen as inferior. Erica likes listening to the stories from Pakistan that Changez tells her – but on the other hand she requires from Changez to give up his own identity and adopt the identity of Chris, of simpler times, of simpler notions in the same way that the certain societies required from the immigrants of certain background to abandon their own heritage and to become a fully Americanised version of themselves where every individual and event is perceived merely as a mono-identity, without nuance, without possibility of being multitudes of belongings and homes. AmErica stands for “an illness of the spirit”; Erica is nostalgic about the past – whereas Changez based on the experience of his own country sees nostalgia as “a crack cocaine”.
In the end, [Am] Erica decides not to be a part of Changez’s story. Following the attacks on the World Trade Centre, America “retreated into myths of [its] own difference, assumptions of [its] own superiority” where there was no place for the individuals like Changez; there was no place for confusion as to where one belongs to; everyone had to pick up the sides, identity, otherwise the sides would be picked up for you; you had to define yourself in simpler terms; the complexity was not allowed.
As Changez grows more and more disillusioned with his life in the USA, he is sent to Valaparaiso in Chile on a business trip by his company, Underwood Samson (US) which becomes an important catalyst in his life.
To Changez, Chilean Valaparaiso, with its sense of melancholy pervading its boulevards and hillsides, resembles his hometown of Lahore in Pakistan. Despite the geographical distance both cities have a similar history of former grandeur but have been in decline without any remaining significance for many decades. During his trip in Valaparaiso, Changez goes to visit the place where a famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda lived. There he makes a compelling observation: “the home of Neruda did not feel as removed from Lahore as it actually was; geographically, of course, it was perhaps as remote a place as could be found on the planet, but in spirit it seemed only an imaginary caravan ride away from my city [of Lahore]”.
During his stay in Valaparaiso, Changez’s task was to value the loss-making publishing company run by an older man, Jean Bautista who befriends Changez possibly out of empathy and compassion as he sees this young Pakistani man being constantly upset and depressed. At some point, Jean Bautista asks Changez if it troubles him to make a living by disrupting the lives of others to which Changez responded: “We just value”. Jean Bautista then proceeds to tell the story of the janissaries, the Christian boys captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army who fought to destroy their own civilisation so that they had nothing else to turn to.
Jean Bautista’s words plunged Changez into state of introspection on what he became. Was he, Changez, also a personification of America through the work he was doing for Underwood Samson? He realises he is a servant of Underwood Samson – or more accurately, a servant of America; he became a modern-day janissary. He was torn, confused, unsure where ‘his home’ is, where he belongs to. Can belong to many places at the same time? Changez feels that he has to make a choice between America and Pakistan – two places he loved dearly and disliked at the time. Following the conversation with Jean Bautista, Changez resigns from Underwood Sampson and his days focused on ‘FUNDAMENTALS’ are done.
Changez goes back to Pakistan – we never find out who an American stranger is in the book; we do not know if Changez is having just an interesting conversation with a stranger who happens to be an American or has Changez been radicalised and there is more to the story? Mohsin Hamid yet again forces the reader to make judgments on one’s assumptions in order to create the meanings.
‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a remarkable book. Initially, when reading this gem, the language and storyline seem to be quite simplistic but once you finish and start to reflect on the plethora of metaphors you discover the vast richness of hidden meanings employed in the book. One of the aspects I do very much love here is the fact that this book and the story of Changez is so relatable on many levels to people who come from various ethnic, cultural, or religious backgrounds. This masterful comparison between Valaparaiso in Chile and Lahore in Pakistan shows that the experiences associated with one’s identity, belonging can be felt in a similar way by the people living in different cultures, in places geographically located miles away.
This is not a book about Pakistan or a Pakistani man who tries to find his own path in life. It is a book about people like Changez who might live in Hungary, Pakistan, UK, Ethiopia or Russia; all of them might have many belongings, many identities but live in the society which force them to choose only one aspect of their being.
For me what ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ tries to portray is that it is all right to be both or more things, two or more identities, two or more homes. As a society, we create conditions in which people with multiple identities are forced to accept themselves as a mono-group and to reject the complexity of multitudes they hold within.
The message here is not to force anyone to pick up the sides – do not assume someone’s ethnicity, racial group, religious group, belonging based on the place they were born or come from. In today’s world, we can be many things and increasingly this is true for many younger people of my generation. We are often being asked to pick up one group over the other – we are expected to be one thing – one identity; this is a typical narrative common for the right-wing media and politicians. It was also prevalent during the aftermath of 9/11 in the USA and UK. Decades have passed and this narrative is still well and alive – it feeds extremism and radicals. Most recently in the UK we heard prime minister saying, “if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.
I highly recommend ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid – it is one of the greatest contemporary novels; it is a metaphor for the current times. It is one of a few recently published booked that can be considered truly universal.
As a literary curiosity, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize and there was also a very decent film made based on this book with Riz Ahmed under the same title which is definitely worth watching as well.