There is something pretty audacious about The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It’s the conceit that a monologue delivered by a bearded Pakistani man in a café in Lahore to a mysterious American stranger can hold the attention of the reader even if it’s for a slim 184 pages. It does because instead of writing an anti-imperialist harangue or a “woe is me” account of a Pakistani’s life in post 9-11 America, Mohsin Hamid manages to keep the reader guessing about the motivations of both the storyteller and his listener. In a way, the ambiguous, tense relationship between them parallels the pas de deux between their respective nations.
The book, with its story of Manhattan, Pakistan, 9/11, seems ripped from the headlines. But when Hamid started writing it there was no 9/11. The book he wanted to write after his acclaimed novel Moth Smoke was a much simpler story—a minimalist fable told in the third person.
“I began writing a novel in 2000 about a Pakistani man working in a corporate firm in New York City and trying to decide if he is comfortable in that world and whether he should go back to Pakistan—issues I was thinking about in those days,” says Hamid.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the world changed. As he struggled to incorporate 9/11 and yet not let it overwhelm the story, Hamid says he went through seven drafts and 1,000 pages of manuscript over five years. In the end he changed it to a first-person monologue, in which 9/11 becomes a catalyst for one man who suddenly becomes acutely conscious of who he is underneath his expensive suits in a world of privilege.
Changez, the protagonist, is living the American immigrant dream. He’s at the top of his class at Princeton. He’s working for an exclusive and exciting valuation firm. He has met an elegant socialite Erica who takes him into the exclusive echelons of Manhattan society—art openings and parties you enter through secret doors. Changez loves America.
But when he sees the twin towers fall from his hotel room in Manila, Changez smiles. “Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased,” says Changez. It is one of the most candid moments in the book and one that has raised a lot of eyebrows. Hamid himself watched the towers fall on his television in London but he says he was just anxiously trying to reach his ex-roommate in New York. Having spent five years of his childhood in the Bay Area and almost half his life in America, he considers himself much more of an American than Changez. But he understands Changez’s reaction.
Changez is not a dispossessed poor youth in the West Bank fed on a propaganda diet of suicide bombings and anti-Zionist rhetoric. “I was not at war with America,” says Changez. “Far from it: I was the product of an American university; I was earning a lucrative American salary; I was infatuated with an American woman. So why did part of me desire to see America harmed?”
Hamid says he heard from friends as far away as Hong Kong who felt that same fleeting sense of satisfaction. “People divorced the deaths of these thousands of individuals from the symbolism of what had taken place,” he says. “Each one had a certain resentment of America though the resentment had different reasons. Why a Frenchman might resent America is different from why a Muslim boy might.”
Changez’s reaction to the aftermath of 9/11 appears almost suicidal. Against the wishes of his mother he grows a beard. It was as if at a time when many like him would choose to hide in the shadows, he wanted to stick out. Overnight he becomes a subject of whispers and stares. Hamid himself has had an on-again off-again relationship with his own beard. He says he tends not to have one when he has to go through United States immigration. “So I go from unbearded to bearded on a regular basis,” says Hamid. “And it does make a difference in how people react to me.”
But what he finds even more interesting is how he responds to people. He remembers riding the subway in London and noticing a bearded man with a prayer cap in traditional Pakistani dress. It was a crowded train but no one occupied the seat beside him. “I said, look at this racial profiling, and sat down next to him,” recalls Hamid. But then he noticed the man was behaving erratically as if he was mentally unstable. He had a bulge under his shirt probably from a money belt. “I reacted in exactly the same way I criticize other people for reacting to my beard,” he says with rueful smile. “We are all now frightened of this. Even those of us who other people are supposed to be frightened of, even we are frightened of this.”
He points out that 3,000 people died on 9/11, while 42,000 die in car accidents every year. “The risk of being killed by a bearded man with a bomb is infinitely less than the risk of being killed by your car,” says Hamid. “But you don’t feel that coursing of fear when you walk out and see your automobile. You do feel it when the guy sits in the subway next to you.”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist will probably not provide any reassurances to a jittery populace. It is a novel of cross-cultural suspicion and misgivings. But it is also a love story. Hamid calls The Reluctant Fundamentalist his “love song to America with a sense of critique” unlike Moth Smoke, which was “looking back at the place I came from with somewhat Americanized eyes.”
Changez loves Erica and America and even when he leaves both behind he cannot forget them. That is why like some not-so-ancient mariner he seeks out the American in Lahore and tells him the story of his jilted love affair. Hamid says that Changez, despite his anger and bitterness, cannot quite divorce himself from America. “He’s desperate to talk to the American, he misses talking to America,” says Hamid. Then he chuckles and says enigmatically, “That’s just one reading.”
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|