As you gaze at the cover of the book, you see a pair of eyes - intense, disjointed eyes that allude at a conflict of perspectives or emotions within an individual. Perspectives on love-and-hate-relationship with a country, on obsessive love, identity and belonging, and on perceived social standing. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, that individual is Changez - the brilliant boy from Lahore, who manages to get into Princeton with a generous scholarship, and bags one of the most coveted jobs in the country with his sheer diligence. Only to throw it all away as he embarks on a journey, which is as much about self-realization as it is about self-destruction.
On a pleasant day in Lahore, Pakistan, a bearded “[ex]lover of America” reveals to a fearful American stranger his love affair and eventual break-up with the so-called land of opportunities, where he undergoes a transformation from a willing liberal to a reluctant fundamentalist. His monologue forms the essence of an experience that is as moving as it is chilling.
A few months before the 9/11 attacks in WTC, Changez, a recent graduate from Princeton, lands up with a plum job at one of the most sought-after companies in The Big Apple. For the bourgeois Pakistani immigrant, a Princeton degree and an enviable headstart in his career is a treasured dream come true, and he doesn’t spare anything in making the most of the opportunity by becoming the most valuable resource for his employer.
All goes well until one fine day when he switches on the television, witnessing the horror “as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then [he] smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, [his] initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” Thus, begins his transformation as a “fundamentalist” in a land where he is taught to “stick to the fundamentals”, ironic as it may sound.
To be fair to Changez, his pleasure was about a smug, defiant America being “visibly brought to her knees”, and not about havoc the attack caused to innocents, as it may seem. Until that point, even if he felt that way at a deeper level about the country that gave him education, financial standing and even the love of his live, he had chosen to ignore it and accept happily all the perks that he was getting as a part of his love affair with his new motherland – recognition, adoration and money. But all that changes post-911 as he looks within and faces his true feelings in the ensuing days, as one would if revealed his lover’s infidelity. All the flaws about America then become magnified, and resentment and rebellion take over, creating a serious dent in his perception about his own life, identity, and affiliations.
Then there is the question of Erica, the gorgeous, ethereal love of his life, more perplexing and turbulent than Changez himself. She seems to have disintegrated in spirit after the death of her soulmate Chris, and never quite put herself back together ever since. Her two halves – one grounded in reality and the other floating in vacuum – never reconcile with each other. Even though she likes Changez and his company, she seems to be suspended in another plane of existence, waiting to re-unite with Chris. To Erica, Changez is merely her tether to the real world that has been holding her back from crossing over to where she virtually exists. Even when they make love, her body, mind and heart seem to turn into stone – unresponsive and cold, only becoming alive when Changez offers to become Chris.
This love affair is as important as the main theme of estrangement itself. But this may not be as distinct from the central issue as it may appear on the surface. It seems that perhaps each character represents a certain perspective that can easily be overlooked if one doesn’t pay close attention. As James Lasdun notes, “It dawns on you that Erica is America (Am-Erica) and that Chris's name has been chosen to represent the nation's fraught relationship with its moment of European discovery and conquest, while the narrator himself stands for the country's consequent inability to accept, uh, ‘Change-z’.” Lasdun could have hit the nail right in the head here. The insightful observation makes us think whether Erica is even real or merely a figment of the narrator’s imagination (the allegorical connection is far too powerful). Even though Erica, like America, is good to Changez, and wants to accept him, she simply can’t let go of her past.
Finally, as matters deteriorate and tensions escalate between India and Pakistan (and between some Islamic countries and the West in general), Changez loses interest in everything, including his work. He grows a beard in order to assert his identity in an increasingly hostile world he inhabits. He becomes increasing disturbed as “America gives itself over to a nostalgia at [the] time…struck by the determination to look back.” Although not provoked excessively, he develops a certain “guilt” of betraying his own country that is suffering partly because of the America, its ideologies and its actions.
During his last assignment, he is compared to a “Janissary” by an old man – a member of faction of Christian men captured and trained by Ottomans to “erase their own civilization, so they had nothing to turn to”. He comes to think of his host country as “unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united [it] with those that attacked… [An America] that retreated into myths of [its] own indifference, assumptions of superiority…” This thought remains stuck in his head, and he decides to give up the riches and go back to where he thinks he truly belongs, determined to stop “an America that needs to be stopped in the interest of not only the rest of the humanity, but also [its] own”. The path he takes is a question that Hamid deliberately doesn’t answer for us.
Hamid doesn’t implicate America in a way that may be anticipated. He paints no grim pictures – there are no Quran quoting zealots who’ve resorted to militancy after their lives have been shattered by bomb explosions or gunfire that American military often resorts to in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq; there are no religious clerics preaching young gullible children the meaning of Jihad. Au contraire, his protagonist is an unlikely fundamentalist – he earns upwards of 80k and leads a lifestyle most of us in the developing part of the world couldn’t dream of. He is not a victim or America’s capitalist policies (infact he gains from it). He is believably weak and fragile as a human. He even sounds like a hypocrite who judges his peers by their frivolous lifestyles and loathes their we-are-superior-and-you-better-know-it attitudes, yet wants to be like them. Until his conscience urges him to take a look around, he is almost indifferent about everything but his work and Erica.
Through Changez, Hamid simply tries to tell the Big brother the answer to the question Americans pose regularly – “Why does everyone hate us?” And he does so with a certain conviction that would make many uncomfortable or unsettled about how they can repair a damage that seems to be getting more serious with every “progressive” step - A case in point being handling of the current conflicts in Pakistan between the government and the radical rebels (Are the steps taken there well though-out and planned? Will they yield the results that are desired?). More alienation from people in such troubled countries would not only mean more Osamas, but possibly more Changezs as well.
It may also be important to mention at this point that the identity of the listener is never really revealed, nor is his fate. Whether Changez intends to kill him is not disclosed and it is upto the reader to assume what happens next. The tourist is escorted to his hotel “The Pearl Continental”. Could the word “Pearl” allude to a certain execution of the listener at the end? Although it is left up to the reader to find out, it may not be important. The story has much food for thought, even if it’s a made up tale by a perpetrator of a possible crime to happen.
What is important are the insights in this brilliant piece of fiction that should make the fundamentalists on both sides of the table think and act. Whether America and Americans are guilty as charged for all allegations is a question that is bound to raise more debates than questions (as it should), but Hamid deserves credit for bringing it up.
A mesmerizing read without a doubt!