Monday, January 24, 2011

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Book Review)

Two strangers, one a bearded Pakistani, well aware of the surroundings and another, an American, come face to face in Old Anarkali, Lahore. Changez, the protagonist, approaches the American and offers him to have a cup of tea with him at a café, and from there on, while they have a cup of tea, one takes over the role of a listener and the other, that of a narrator.

As the late afternoon deepens into the darkness of night, with the ambiance shifting from that of a lively market place panorama in the midst of all the hustle and the bustle towards gloominess, Changez discloses his life story; the series of events that eventually led him to embark upon this new journey, in search of new “fundamentals.”

What is the significance of those confessions?

As the novel goes on and Changez unfolds his story, we enter into a territory where we have to unlock several questions and understand several devices. One of them is either to agree with Changez’s actions and confessions, or to go with the second one, that is, being able to separate the protagonist’s perceptions from what might be the actual state of affairs.

Being a dramatic monologue, we only get to hear Changez’s voice throughout the novel and get to know of the listener’s expressions and body language, only and only when Changez describes or questions them.

Observing the setting of the novel, the style, the use of italics in places stressing upon and suggesting the changing nuances, and the confession session ending within that signal meeting, Hamid has ingeniously framed this whole novel, proving how an extra ordinary piece of literature can be produced, without introducing unnecessary characters, excessive descriptions or a style, flamboyant but lacking in substance.

Despite of the fact that he is aware of his roots, the decline of his family’s social status and the vulnerability of his homeland when compared to the massive American empire, he adopts the American way of life, putting in all his energies to achieve success.

His personal world is complacent, until the day he witnesses the September 11 attacks on the television. His first reaction to this news unveils his inner feelings for America which he had for so long suppressed or glossed over, unconsciously as well as consciously.

The attitude of America after 9/11, after her people devastated and her pride injured, and in all that, Erica who completed the rhythm of Changez’s dreamlike world, vanishing in front of him into the shadows of her past, leaves Changez disillusioned with the country he had so readily adopted.

The tone changes from one of pride to contempt and then to of one that is intimate; confiding also about the weakness of his character at times when strength and substance could have saved Erica, his beloved and helped her accept him instead of drifting away into a life that had ceased to exist.

In this story of a life full of aspirations, dreams and love drowning into turbulence and disillusionments, the reader gets to see the edgy relationship between the East and the West. The representation of the American as a silent haughty observer, and the mocking and sarcastic tone of the novel at places, where Changez breaks the chain of narration to remind himself and his American listener of the present, at times gave me the impression as though it’s a conversation between the East and the West and Changez is just being used a mouth-piece.

“For we were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid and handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels, but rather saints and poets and – yes – conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle- elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.”

What eventually works as a final blow to his distraught state of mind is when it dawns upon him that he is a janissary of the contemporary world, trained and being used as a piece of equipment to fulfill the needs of American capitalism and that is when the fundamentalist becomes the “reluctant” one. This is one of the threads to the title of the novel and I would leave the rest of the threads for the readers to figure out, when they read The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The book is devoid of any obvious religious affiliations or religious fundamentalism. However, to me, what it does focus on is the way at times, nationalism flowing through one’s veins can become a force even stronger than humanism and love.

The book being Mohsin Hamid’s second novel is the kind of book that does make you think and reflect upon your own alliances and strength of character. Though, when I attended his reading session at the Karachi Literature festival this year in March, had time permitted I would have asked him why he chose “Changez” as the name of his protagonist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Although Dara Shikoh is understandable as the name of his protagonist in Moth Smoke, but for now let me do justice with the book review and leave it for you readers to figure out the answers to all these questions while you read The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke.


hena said...

you have done an excellent job :)

Bush. said...

Great review Natasha. If it's possible, can you please lend it to me after my exams. I really need a good read. Thanks.

- Bushra Akram