Saturday, April 07, 2007

On Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s taut and accomplished second novel, takes the form of a single long monologue that we are asked to imagine as a dialogue - a form which reverses the power relationship that is the subject of the book.

Changez, a resident of the Pakistani city of Lahore, encounters by chance or purpose an American tourist on the streets of his city, and presses his hospitality upon him. They get to talking—we never actually hear the interlocutor, only Changez’s reactions to him—and Changez loses no time in revealing that he has actually lived in America. He is, we learn, a graduate of Princeton, worked subsequently for a prominent American firm, and even had a love affair with an American girl. Then how is he now here? Changez’s story—which seems to gush from him like blood from a wound—traces the self’s shifting sense of itself against the rumblings of a rudely shaken world.

Changez is the scion of a prominent Lahore family. A bright student, he wins a scholarship to Princeton, where many of his American peers come from the same class of their society as he does of his. But it is a different society. The bright allure of meritocratic America seems to Changez in direct contrast to the tired air of his home country, its attention focused on military skirmishes with neighbouring India. On graduating, he takes up a lucrative offer from Underwood and Samson, a leading valuation firm. The guiding principle of his firm is “Focus on the fundamentals”.

At 22, Changez becomes part of a global elite, flying business-class and hopping from country to country. He loves the buzz of New York. “I was, in four-and-a-half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker,” he exults. Returning to Pakistan to visit his family, he is depressed by the shabbiness of the house in which he grew up, but realizes that “I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner”. It is a persuasive portrait of how life in a new country reshapes one’s old attitudes and certainties.

In New York, Changez also falls in love with Erica, a girl from a wealthy American family. As their attachment develops, he learns that Erica has a past: Her long-time boyfriend, Chris, passed away recently. Changez feels that it is only a matter of time before Erica leaves behind her memories and embraces the present, but disturbingly she seems instead to regress, and he feels powerless to help her.

Changez, then, has multiple allegiances to America. Yet, while on assignment in the Philippines, when he sees on TV the spectacle of the World Trade Center being mowed down by terrorists, he finds himself perplexed by the fact that his immediate reaction is one of satisfaction. “[A]t that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack,” he analyses, “…no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”

Those italicised emphases—of which there are many in The Reluctant Fundamentalist—are Hamid’s way of signalling tremors in his otherwise understated writing; they are suggestive also of the cadences of Changez’s analytical mind at work, seeking precise nuances and distinctions so as to avoid falsifications of his experience.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Changez finds that something in the air has changed: almost overnight, he has been pushed out to the margins of a world in which he felt so much at home. If the complaint of the unnamed black protagonist in Ralph Ellison's landmark novel Invisible Man (1952) is that his skin colour has made him invisible ("Look at me!" he shouts), then Changez's predicament is that he is too visible - because of his ethnicity, he is viewed with suspicion as he never was before. He is alarmed also by the martial stance of his adopted country, intent upon a reprisal that will lead to the deaths of many more innocents. He finds America in the grip of “a dangerous nostalgia” not dissimilar to that of Erica, pining for her departed companion.

But Changez’s doubts and fears are not solely directed outward. He begins to see himself, too, as complicit with a world order he finds morally repugnant. After all, “finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised his power”. He feels he cannot abide any more within his insulated world. Instructed to focus on the fundamentals, he sees now that those fundamentals were akin to a pair of blinders. He becomes—in a clever subversion of the expectations raised by the novel’s title and its alienated Pakistani protagonist—a reluctant fundamentalist.

Hamid's narration recalls not just the Dostoevskian universe of humiliation, resentment, and self-loathing, but even Dostoevsky's pairs or doubles: attempting to get Erica to warm to him in bed, Changez invites her to imagine he is Chris, his dead rival.

And just like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who rather than believe in an unjust order decides to “return my ticket”, Changez, too, forsakes his gilded life in America and returns to Pakistan to teach. During the course of his narration, he asserts repeatedly that he means his unidentified American companion no harm. But the reader has heard in his voice the dark undertow of what Orhan Pamuk has called “the anger of the damned”, and is not so sure.

Some links:
Mohsin Hamid writes about the gestation of his book here, in an essay called "My Reluctant Fundamentalist".

And he writes here about applying for British citizenship: "It...occurs to me that I have something to lose. I am a Pakistani and proud of it. Inevitably, I wonder if I am not somehow being disloyal to the country in which I was born and which I have always loved. I have the nagging guilt that I imagine accompanies thoughts of divorce. But then I remind myself that I am allowed dual citizenship. My situation is not analogous to that of a husband who is leaving his wife for another woman. No, I tell myself, I am more like a father who is about to have a second child. Of course I am nervous about neglecting my first-born. But surely I can find within me the affection and commitment to be true to both."

And here are two pieces on Pakistan by Hamid for Time magazine: "The Usual Ally", written just after 9/11 ("I remember, as a boy in Lahore, the moment I learned Pakistan had become, once again, America's ally" - the pauses in that sentence sound just like Changez's voice) and "Divided We Fall", written last year, in which he writes sagely of "the inability of our society to channel dissent into debate". He articulates his doubts over Pervez Musharraf's continuing hold on power in a recent piece in the New York Times, "Pakistan's Silent Majority Is Not To Be Feared".


Hari said...

Your retelling of Hamid's narrative is quite fast-paced; before I knew it I was at the end of the review!

I first heard of Mohsin Hamid through this article he'd written for the Smithsonian magazine.

And, interestingly, this picture of Hamid, taken by an American photographer, also on the book jacket, is from the same street in Lahore that Changez, the protoganist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, meets the American at the beginning of the novel.

Chandrahas said...

Hari - The piece ran too fast, is it? Well, I've put in a couple more thoughts, so now it shouldn't dash along as much. Thanks very much for the links.