Book Reviews

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A Narrative of Suspense, Inferiority, Nostalgia and Xenophobia
and Clash of East and West Identities

Many writers like Jonathan Safran Foir, Ian Mc Evans and Don Dellilo have written about the incident of 9/11 attack and its traumatic effect on common people, Mohsin Hamid gets an important place among these writers. His The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the good example of race, ethnicity, fundamentalism, trauma, violence and power. It is all about that how a terrorist attack becomes the cause of unforgettable trauma and how it fills a common man’s life with unending complications and how it leads somebody’s smoothly running life to the path of hardship. As Grant Andrews writes:

The September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States, commonly referred to as 9/11, resulted in the most casualties of any single documented terrorist attack in history (Enders & Sandler 260). Four commercial jet airliners were hijacked by members of the fundamentalist Islamic group known as al-Qaeda, and three of these were purposefully crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City, with the fourth plane crashing in a field in rural Pennsylvania. The destruction of the Twin Towers has formed the most recognised images of the attacks, and resulted in the majority of the casualties (qtd. Hoffman 304).

Mohsin Hamid was born in 1971 raised in Lahore, Pakistan. He is an award-winning novelist who spent some part of his childhood in California. He completed his graduation from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In New York he worked on the post of a management consultant for some time after that moved to London. In 2009 he returned to live in Lahore.  It is said that with Moth Smoke 2000 he debuted his literary career. In this novel he depicts the complexities of the Pakistani class system so it is "a brisk, absorbing novel." According to the New York Times Book Review and Los Angeles Times called it "a hip page-turner" and in the opinion of Esquire it is "a first novel of remarkable wit, poise, profundity, and strangeness". Moth Smoke won the Betty Trask Award and was nominated as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.”

But The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) got him more fame. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Decibel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and won the South Bank Show Award for Literature. To the New York Times it is: “Elegant and chilling…A less sophisticated author might have told a one note story in which an immigrant’s experience of discrimination and ignorance cause his alienation. But Hamid’s novel… is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez’s class aspiration and inner struggle” (qtd).

Hamid holds dual citizenship in the U.K. and Pakistan so he is quite familiar with the living conditions of both countries. He expresses his personal memories through the character of Changez by presenting him as an ambitious man being at Princeton, he says; “This is a dream come true.”(3), he is a transnational man who faces mutual distrust and strained relationships between East and West followed by the attacks of 9/11. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by using the device of dramatic monologue Hamid focuses on the significant changes came in Changez’s life. His problems, sour and sweet experiences, fear from foreigners, memories of home, his dilemma, and dual identity- whether he is an American or a Pakistani all things are drawn in the Reluctant Fundamentalist in a pure personal way, but from the point  of view of an immigrant. The novel has compactly woven with narratives narrated by Changez. These narratives help the novelist to write about the minor shames, the small denouncements of the past, the clash between an old identity and a new one, the collision of comfort and discomfort in an adopted country that creates difficulties in the life of an Immigrant like Changez.

“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” (Hamid 1). This is the opening aphoristic line of the novel, which raises suspense in a reader’s mind that why somebody gets scared seeing a bearded man and how it can be the cause of the warning. It also raises a question that is it offensive to have a beard? So it seems here that perhaps Hamid’s purpose is to manifest that after the 9/ 11 attack on America some people started to look down upon those men or women who have the sign of being Muslim whether they had anything to do with the attacks or not. The same case is with Changez, who was fallen in victim because of his appearance and his cultural values, though he had nothing to do with the attacks. Though the Washington Post could not have said it any better when they reviewed Hamid’s book: “Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something extraordinary with this novel” (qtd).

When Changez was at Princeton, he wanted to be like a real citizen of it. And there is no doubt that his exoticism brought him an advantage as it is clear in his speech “…the non-Americans among us tended to do better than the Americans, and in my case I reached my senior year without having received a single B” (Hamid 4). Changez comes to Princeton University on financial aid from Pakistan and got a job at the firm named Underwood Samson & Company the job he never expected “_and I was confident of getting any job I wanted. Except one: Underwood Samson & Company” (5 Hamid).

But during the interview Jim’s question- “And are you on financial aid?”, compelled him to feel inferior: “I hesitated because his question made me uncomfortable…he asked “for international students to get in if they apply for aid?” Again I said, “Yes” so he said, you must have really needed the money.”(8) Further, Jim said, “That your family couldn’t afford to send you to Princeton without a scholarship?” (8) Such kind of questions are enough to make somebody inferior that’s why Changez “was getting annoyed” he never expresses his inner ideas of humiliation in front of others: “did these things trouble me, you ask? Certainly sir; I was often ashamed. But I gave no sign of this.”(65) An immigrant cannot remain untouched from such types of humiliations or inferiority. He has already seen disconformity between him and his friends by noticing little things. For instance, ‘watching his colleagues’ part with large sums of money, reminds him of the poverty in his country, and on a business trip to Manila he is mortified to discover that even this (Eastern) city is so much wealthier than Lahore: “This, I realised, was another world from Pakistan; supporting my feet were the achievements of the most technologically advanced civilization our species had ever known.”(34) He opines his feelings vehemently seeing the progress of America;

Often during my stay in your country, such comparisons troubled me. In fact they did more than trouble me: they made me resentful four thousand years ago…America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were unplanned,, unsanitary affairs, and America has universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me to be ashamed (Hamid 34).

There are so many minor or big incidents when changes feels shame or humiliation:

When I arrived…I joined the one…what is the purpose of your trip to the United States?”…in the end I was dispatched for a secondary team did not wait for me; by the time I entered the customs hall they had already collected their suitcases and left. As a consequence, I rode to Manhattan that evening very much alone (75).

Changez’ swings like a pendulum between dual identities, one is Pakistani identity and the second is American identity. On the one hand, he say; “…alcohol was illegal for Muslims to buy…” (27) But on the other hand he assures Erica’s father for it when:

He lifted a bottle of red wine and said to me, “you drink?” “he is twenty -two “Erica’s mother says on my behalf, in a tone that suggested, so of course he drinks.” Though Erica’s father says that; “I had a Pakistani working for me once,” but “never drank” here Changez assurance shows his American identity when he says, “yes I do sir (53).

When he moves to New York he himself accepts that he never became an American at Princeton: “I was, in four and a half years, never in America; I was immediately a New Yorker” (33) Another sign of his dual identity can be seen when he goes to Manila for his job there he just pretended to be what he was not, he tries to act like an American for his own advantage: “I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American” (65). But the occurrence of 9/11 calls in question Changez’s American identity because the destruction in America pleased him. Once he visits his family in Pakistan, he fully embraces his Pakistani identity in America. The major thing he does, is that he keeps his beard: “It was, perhaps, a form of protest, on my part, a symbol of my identity, or perhaps I sought to remind myself of the reality I had just left behind” (130). Even he talks about opposite things; on the one point he says that he is the lover of America and the next point he gets pleased seeing the destruction of America. It also shows his confusion that really he is a lover of America or not. To be an American he impulsively shaves off his beard suggests his choice to keep his American identity. He then keeps the beard throughout the rest of the novel as he moves back to Pakistan.  Changez’s act of growing and keeping a beard shows his Pakistani identity.

The style of the novel, it seems as the reminder of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Waiting for Gadot by Samuel Beckett because both works get ended without a certain conclusion or on an ambiguous note. “But why are you reaching into your jacket, sir? I glint of metal. Given that you and I are now bound by certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business card” (184).

The use of the word beard in the novel many times, which the suspense and terror: “Or are you watching that man, the one with the beard for longer than mine” (22), But it is not clear to the reader who he (bearded man) is. And this bearded man became the cause of discomfort for the American: “that bearded man who even now, sir continues from time to time to attract your wary gaze…” (26) From the beginning to the end of the novel this bearded man remains a mystery or suspense. Change’s speech when he says “I said I hope one day to be the dictator of an Islamic republic with nuclear capability…” (29) It also creates suspense that why he said so. While talking to the American Changez sees that he is typing something: “but you are opting to write a text message instead; very wise: often a few words are more than sufficient. As for myself, I am quite happy to wait as you navigate the keys.” (30). But again the fact is not disclosed by the writer that what the American typed and to whom he sent that message.

The fear which a person have been in another country is clearly seen in some places in this novel such as the American’s way, observing things: “the bearded man”, he seems worried seeing a “burly waiter” and “bats”, and even perhaps he has a fear to eat there anything as he thought it might have poisoned. This xenophobia is reflected so many times in it:

Ah, our tea has arrived! Do not look so suspicious. I assure you, sir, nothing untoward will happen to you, not every a runny stomach. After all it is not as if it has been poisoned. Come, if it makes you more comfortable, let me switch my cup with yours. Just so. How much sugar would you like? None? Very usual, but I will not insist (Hamid 11).

Anna Hartnell writes that:

This is the ground fascinatingly navigated by Mohsin Hamid, who as a Pakistani writer who has lived in both New York and London, shares with his central protagonist the burden of representing the racial, religious and national difference that formed the focus of post-9/11 xenophobia (qtd).

Erica is beloved of Chngez. She had fallen in love with Chris, who has died due to lung cancer. She is suffering with nostalgia throughout her whole life since Chris has died. This nostalgia adheres to her as a trauma. She always remembers the time that she has spent with Chis. She keeps things pertaining to Chris very safely; as the T shirt which Chris has given her, and his drawing paper:

…she smiled at the image, then became thoughtful and felt silent.

I haven’t done this in a long time… “Chris and I used to come to the park a lot. We’d bring this basket with us and just read or hang out for hours.” “was it when he died,” I asked that you coming?” “I stopped,” she answered, plucking a daisy, “a bunch of things (Hamid 59).

In this connection Anna Heartnell says: “Erica’s fixation on Chris and the European past that he apparently symbolizes seemingly stands in for a fantasy of the West: …suspects, there is something fictitious about both America’s post-9/11 nostalgia and Erica’s past life with her former lover.” further writes; Anna Heartnell,

Erica’s disappearance into a “beautiful nostalgia” offers a more sympathetic window onto the “dangerous nostalgia” that shape post-9/11 America. Nostalgia evidently figures a kind of return. For Erica, the World Trade Center attacks churn up old thoughts of her dead lover – “the waters of her mind”, the novel tells us, “were murky with what had previously been ignored” (83). While Erica is herself described as “stunningly regal” (17), her dead lover, she claims, elicited an “Old World appeal” (27).

Both Changez and Erica loved each other, but she could not forget her first love-Chris. Perhaps it is so she gave no any particular response Changez when he visited her: “she glanced away”… she did not notice me …without looking in my direction covered it with her other hand on her lap”(112) further he said; “she was disappointed  into a powerful nostalgia…”(113) and the thing that makes her happy is- in all likelihood she longed for her adolescence with Chris…(113) on the other hand Changes also has nostalgic feelings when he was in America he used to miss his home;

I felt peculiar feeling; I felt at home_ and longed for the settled nature of my past; perhaps it was because I missed my family and the comfort of a family residence, where generation stayed together, instead of apart in an atomized…in a prestigious house in Gulmarg, such as the one in which I had grown up (Hamid 51).
Changez also admits,

Princeton made everything possible for me. But it did not, could not, make me forget such things as how much I enjoy the tea in this city of my birth, stopped long enough to acquire a rich, dark color, and made creamy with fresh full- fat milk. It is excellent, no? I see you have finished yours. Allow me to pour you another cup (Hamid 15).

The feeling of nostalgia is still with Changez as being in Pakistan he yearns for Erica.

Another issue raised by the novel is the idea of acceptance cultures, religion of the other countries’ people. It questioned are people really ready for the warm embrace of a foreigner. Because when Changez, grows a beard for the sake of his Pakistaniness and goes back to his office, a black co-worker says to him, “you need to be careful. This whole corporate collegiality veneer only goes so deep. Believe me” (Hamid 38).

In this way The Reluctant Fundamentalist presents a study of how Eastern identity and Western identity clash in it. It seems that in the novel, it is discussed how the people belong to a different culture or foreigners are faced with different cultural predicaments, dilemmas as well as contradictions and how all these things challenge their identity.

The existential fear of an immigrant in the other country is at the bottom of this novel. He also talks about the pressures, violence, dangers of life in another country, offense, mood, and atmosphere, brought by 9/11 incident and became the cause of unhappiness for an immigrant. After reading it one can say that the plot of the novel has compactly woven with the thread of complexities, ambiguity, suspense and absurdity. Various questions arise in a reader’s mind while finishing its reading. Why did American come in Pakistan? What is his mission? Why does Changez tell him stories? Why, Erica didn’t response his love for sometimes? And what was the thing which the American shows at the end of the novel?, and there are no limits such kinds of questions that bother the reader by raising his curiosity. In other words, there are a series of such questions which cannot be answered and a reader also will never be capable of being answered. In the connection that why Changez tells stories? in this connection Anna Hartnell writes:

Yet at the same time the American’s possible identity as a government sponsored assassins render the arguably manipulative tenor of Changez’s uninterrupted narration a sign of weakness, one that recalls the frame narrator of One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade, who wards off the threat of her own impending death by telling stories (qtd).

This novel seems an absurd story of an immigrant, in which his feeling, emotions both personal (money, sport, militancy, sex and religious devotion, patriotism) and official dived in shame, pain and honour are penned well. It depicts the real picture of those immigrants who were given respect before the incident of 9/11. it also reflects that after the 9/11 incident how they suffered, due to their culture and religious profile. It draws attention that when a terrorist attack takes place than only the innocent person gets to suffer. The writing style of the novel shows that it is like a horror story without having a ghost or haunted spirit. Ab initio to the end the reader is bound by the thread of suspense, terror, curiosity, because Hamid gradually discloses the knot of xenophobia, nostalgia, dilemma of dual identity and clash of east and west identity after and before the 9/11 attacks on America.


More by :  Durga Patva

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