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. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.
So begins the The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid; a great opening paragraph which catches your eye and which in fact made me purchase this book. (Advice to all wannabe writers, including myself: write a great opening line. This is what sells books.) Unfortunately, what follows hardly measures up. In fact, Mr. Hamid lets the reader down with such a great thud that I am surprised there are no bruises to show for it!
The setting and style of the novel is – well – novel. An unidentified American has entered the district of Old Anarkali in Lahore. He is approached by Changez, the narrator and protagonist, with the above quoted line, and guided to a tea shop the “quality of whose tea is unparalleled”. There, he unburdens his heart to his apprehensive guest. He is a Princeton graduate, and has spent four-and-a-half years in America. The reason why he has come back to Pakistan is the subject of the story.
Changez narrates his tale to his invisible (in literary terms!) guest, and we listen. We can imagine ourselves in the place of the American, or as an eavesdropper on their conversation. Throughout the narration, the listener’s reactions are remarked upon by the teller; which is all we get to see of him. This shadow listener, in facts, works well as a literary device and also serves to enhance a feeling of creeping menace slowly slipping into the barmy Lahore evening.
Well, in my opinion, the positives end there.
Changez is explaining why he became disillusioned with America and became the “reluctant fundamentalist” of the title: however, his story doesn’t hold water. He is the blue-eyed boy from Princeton, top-ranked among his young fellow executives in the valuation firm of Underwood Samson and the personal favourite of his mentor Jim. He is in love with Erica, a beautiful American girl. He is slated to go far in his profession. The good ol’ American (expat) dream…
Well, with 9/11, his world comes crashing down…
…now, if you are waiting for the story of the poor Muslim boy persecuted by Big Bad Uncle Sam, well, think again. Nothing of the sort happens.
Our hero is in Manila on a mission when the Twin Towers are brought down. He watches it on TV and says “my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased” because “someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”! Well, as a reader, I lost whatever sympathy I had with Changez then and there. I mean, here’s a guy who has studied in America, is working in America, planning to marry an American girl and settle down in America – and he’s pleased at a wanton act of terrorism on America? He is not a reluctant fundamentalist but a closet terrorist!
As the story moves on, there are no instances of any discrimination against Changez, other than an airport search and a threatening encounter with a semi-crazed man in a car park. However, his sense of alienation grows and he starts considering himself as an outsider. But what really distresses Changez is not the status of Muslims in America post-9/11. It is the slow slide into madness of his love Erica, and the perceived threat to Pakistan from India.
Erica is a girl who lives partially in her mind with her long-dead boyfriend Chris. She is so disturbed that she can have sex with Changez only by imagining him to be Chris. Although initially she encourages him, she slowly moves away from Changez into an institution; then moves away from life totally, disappearing without a trace. This tale of Erica is Norwegian Wood with all the magic removed – a pastiche. We should be feeling for our poor protagonist, but I was only feeling bored.
The second reason for Changez’s self-destruction, the perceived war with India, is even sillier. This is the period after the attacks on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 by Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaishe-e-Mohammed activists which lead to massing of troops by both countries at the border. Changez’s latent patriotism comes to fore and he flies to Pakistan against the better counsel of his parents. The thing is, while we can understand his need to flaunt his Pakistani-ness, and his displeasure with India, his anger against America is ludicrous. He becomes disillusioned with America for remaining neutral and not chastising India!
Whatever the case, from here onwards Changez self-destucts. He is sent on an important mission to Chile by Jim as a chance to rejuvenate his career, disregarding opposition from the company vice-president who accompanies him. However, Changez does such a shoddy job on purpose and refuses to continue so that the company has no option other than to fire him. The ostensible reason for this change is his realization that he is the modern-day equivalent of a Janissary (Christian youths stolen away by Turks at the time of the Ottoman Empire and used as warriors), fighting for the evil American empire. The reason I can see is that the guy is seriously screwed up.
By now, we have reached the last twenty pages or so, and we see Changez racing into his fundamentalist career with gusto (although specifics, other than a speech, are missing). The narrative then suddenly slides into an ambiguous ending which is left open for reader interpretation. It all depends on whether we accept Changez as a reliable or unreliable narrator. Obviously, it is meant to be explosive – but to me, it felt like a damp squib. I couldn’t care less.
In the West today (in India, too) Islamophobia is a serious concern. Singling out of Muslims as potential terrorists everywhere has done untold harm to religious harmony, and has resulted in many moderate Muslims embracing hardcore concepts. Many of them are reluctant fundamentalists – Mohsin Hamid has tackled a real problem.
Unfortunately, Changez cannot represent them.