Location: Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India

The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. The permanent defeat of life is when dreams are surrendered to reality.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

That day, feeling slightly high on a rationed quantity of Old Monk and carbonated fizz, I walked in home to find my brother and my dad talking about a plane crashing into the WTC and even as I was trying to register surprise...I heard that another plane had crashed into its twin tower and suddenly there was this enormous possibility of it being deliberate. I remember feeling sad about the people trapped in the twin towers...but somewhere deep inside me, I was smiling at seeing the confusion within the American Intelligentsia...and in one fell swoop, the US of A was exposed to war on their own land.

From the second half of the twentieth century, the US has been waging wars in far off the name of installing, preserving and fostering democracy. No other country in history has killed as many people in collateral damages and economic sanctions as the US has done and the most interesting aspect of these wars were that almost all of them were fought away from home. So to see the world's only 'superpower' brought to its knees and forage in the dark for enemies to shoot at amidst unprecedented confusion...brought on a sense of reluctant satisfaction. Somehow I can't bring myself to use the 'wounded tiger' analogy about the Americans, but what followed was predictable...finding a suspect and providing 'swift and sustained' retribution on the enemies of 'America' and the 'war on terror'.

Ok, the preamble was necessary to understand the reaction behind a thought provoking good read, Mohsin Hamid's 'Reluctant Fundamentalist'.

Changez is a Pakistani who graduates from Princeton at the top of his class and is absorbed into Underwood Samson, a premier valuation firm. Life is really looking up for him and though at times he feels a little bit affronted by the supposed lack of 'cultural etiquette' among his peers, he is beginning to enjoy his growing stature. He also begins to have a very tentative relationship with an American woman, Erica, who is trying hard to cope with the loss of her lover. On an assignment in Manila, he hears about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and he smiles as he evidences a feeling of faint cheer in seeing the world's 'superpower' been brought to its knees. The events post 9/11 starts changing his perception about himself and he begins questioning his identity, becoming defensive about his identity as a Muslim. On a trip to Chile to do an assessement on a book publishing firm, he learns about the Janissaries and he wonders if he isn't a modern day Janissary after all. Not being able to take it anymore, he quits
Underwood Samson and moves back to Lahore, where it he has become a staunch anti-American critic. One day he meets up with an American in a Lahore supermarket and he begins telling his story.

Told in a monologue, Hamid writes in a very lucid manner and conveys through his central character...the identification that we all reach at some point in time, to the person we are and why it is very difficult to get rid of our roots in a world that is essentially becoming one big cosmopolitan cesspool. I wont vouch for it, but this I guess is the same sense of feeling that makes a second generation Indian or a Pakistani in London to support India or Pakistan in a cricket match against England and most of these people know of India and Pakistan only through their parents and the influence of mass media in the form of entertainment and news. The idea of using Changez as a device to speak to us may be artificial and for it to work, we have to buy into the premise, considering that the story is told in one sitting to an unnamed American (?) in a open air restaurant in Lahore. Throughout the narrative, we only hear Changez speaking and responding to the American. There is a certain ambiguity to the identity of the American and what he is doing there at that time, which adds to the increasing tension towards the close.

The central theme of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' is how a normal young man, who buys into the US way of life, at ease among his American colleagues and friends, being ashamed of where he comes from and getting alienated on each successive visit home, begins to question his identity and finds that while he helps the superpower influence its way in an increasingly global world, his home country is getting left behind. The narration, starting of as a mild condemnation of the western way of life, becomes increasingly strident and judgmental towards the last third of the book, especially when the narrative begins to explore the increasingly disturbed mind of the protagonist as he begins to question his role as a 'janissary' in his role at Underwood Samson - a not too subtle symbol for US. Changez relationship with Erica also serves as metaphor for his relationship with US. This point also is driven in a none too subtle manner as he can have her only if he pretends to be some other person.

Somehow, I believe that, with the Changez-Erica part of the story, Hamid was trying to drum up the analogies...which I thought was not necessary. Some say, it gives the protagonist a whole rounded personality if there is a love interest involved too (in terms of commercial best sellers, at least), but why does every other thing that happens in his life to mirror his inner turmoil. The premise was set, so I didn't think it was necessary to really drive home the point, and, Erica, to me at least, was jarring, with her constant mourning and pining for her lost lover. (Was Hamid trying to be cute, I don’t know…but it would definitely seem so if you read it as, Erica=America and Chris=innocence and to have Erica, Changez has to become Chris).

But these are minor nitpickings because at its very core 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', though decidedly biased, is a highly entertaining read with a deliciously ambiguous ending.

Mohsin Hamid, a Princeton graduate himself, has acknowledged in one of his interviews that he was also not very different from Changez, except that his reaction was tempered by a slightly more tolerant approach. I believe that the author has tapped into his own sense of identity and used the protagonist to identify the fissures that can crack and how the very nature of conflict between US imperialism and its foreign policies has its consequences in the making of many more reluctant fundamentalists.


Anonymous Sunitha said...

'...the identification that we all reach at some point in time, to the person we are and why it is very difficult to get rid of our roots in a world that is essentially becoming one big cosmopolitan cesspool.' - very well put.

Your take on the book by itself made a very interesting read...looking forward to reading it soon.

May 29, 2007 10:11 PM  
Blogger redwaterstew said...

excellent review Rahul. Seriously suggest you to explore avenues to hone and get your talent across to a wider populace.

Try to get your work peer reviewed. they got an interesting online and offline model

we are slowly falling into the trap of a monolithic culture that tends to decimate a significant part of our being. it is like that classic frog in a pot of slowly boiling water analogy. since the changez happen at a pace that fails to register, we remain oblivious unless something hard hits us. one necessarily don’t have to be living in US or UK for that to happen. mass media, peer pressure et al… i wonder if we are all becoming that straight jacketed, mass produced beings like in one of those aldous huxley books. genetic engineering could even eliminate the need of procreation if dubaya would let the scientists free :-)

May 30, 2007 4:39 AM  
Blogger ReadnRyte said...

Sunita / Salil - Thank you for the encouragement guys...I love flattery :)

But on a serious note, I am just feeling my way thru this genre called 'writing'. There is so much more I need to learn about structuring, bringing in a sense of wholeness...I need to learn to cut out the frills and eliminate those unecessary expositions...I just hope my english teachers dont see what I have written :)

Thanks...once again guys

May 30, 2007 7:25 PM  
Blogger Shivani said...

You deserve genuine admiration and not adulation.

Phew and to come to believe that you found my blog interesting, is really really...flattery to me

Well.... wow.... i am lost for words...

I hope someday I can write as well as you :)

June 13, 2007 10:07 AM  
Blogger Kirthi said...

it will be totally unfair if i don't write my comments on this one... you do have a very good way of expressing yourself!

for i generally skip blogs that are related to politics.... for once i did not find something written along these lines boring... :)

July 06, 2007 10:10 AM  
Blogger Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Rahul!

Thank you for visiting my blog and for your input on my RF post. Sorry I was a little late in getting back to you but I was on vacation and have only just returned. You've done an amazing job with your review and I have enjoyed reading it (very much). I hope you will continue to give us more reviews.

You said:

(Was Hamid trying to be cute, I don’t know…but it would definitely seem so if you read it as, Erica=America and Chris=innocence and to have Erica, Changez has to become Chris

I found that interesting too! Infact, Chris was short for Christian (isn't that so?), so I am not sure that Hamid was trying to insinuate that Erica as America was flirting with the exotic east (Changez) while clinging to the old religion/tradition (Christianity). It makes my head spin a little! :)

August 15, 2007 9:15 PM  

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