There are turning points in every century which not only change the course of history all together but also give becomes the fodder for the imagination of its contemporary creative minds. The 20th century had World War II which inspired many creative minds to create their magnum opuses, their work is regarded as a classic or appraised for its timelessness. The 21st century started with a bang when the twin towers of WTC came tumbling down in the USA.
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The event sparked the beginning of a turbulent decade which was fuelled by war, racial discrimination, and religious persecution, a much contained and organized World War II all over. As our affinity with pain, the event of 9/11 has jump-started the fiery imaginations of many creative minds thus spawning a breed of fiction that deals with the pre or post 9/11 world.
Pakistani writers have been on the scene of English fiction writing for not very long but the few names who have managed to stay in the foreground include the name of Mohsin Hamid, whose first book Moth Smoke was appraised heavily and was indeed a classic. Just like many of his contemporaries, Hamid has delved into the murky and deceitful subject of the post 9/11 world and has come up with The Reluctant Fundamentalist which is an entirely fresh perspective on an already heavily discussed subject.
It tells the story of a young man Changez through a series of deviously and intricately crafted monologues where the protagonist narrates the story of his life to an ominously jumpy American who he happens to meet in the marketplace of his home town Lahore.
The cautious American, though flinching at every obtrusive sound and shadow remains anonymous the whole time yet plays a pivotal role in bringing the book to an end. On the other hand, Changez gets deeply engrossed in recounting the nooks and crannies of his unusual life to a relatively strange foreigner without a shred of apprehension, possibly because of his penchant for Americans.
Changez belongs to an upper-middle-class family in Lahore where are they considered elite, but they are not rich. Changez was sent to the USA to pursue higher education and he does graduate summa cum laude from the prestigious Princeton. Belonging to a family that had seen its days of glory in a country that wasn’t as derelict as it is now, Changez is living the ultimate American dream. He gets a job at the Underwood Samson & Company, a highly esteemed valuation firm, and is getting paid what most Americans can only dream off.
Changez, a resident of one of the biggest cities in Pakistan, falls in love with New York and rhapsodizes that he “immediately became a New Yorker” as he starts his aspiring career and Underwood Samson. (p. 20). His friendship with a fellow Princetonian, the beautiful and exotic Erica, the daughter of an elite investment banker of New York, takes a new turn as he irrevocably falls in love with her. Changez is living a dream, with a high profile and auspicious job, courting with the beautiful elite of New York and a promise of a prosperous future.
Changez’s world falls apart on his visit to Manila when the twin towers of WTC are hit in New York, 9/11/2001. a devastated and paranoid nation goes to war against those who inflicted such damages to it and those who share the skin color of the enemy became pariahs in their lands. That’s what happens to Changez when he returns to New York and finds it not as welcoming as it was a few days ago. Already coping with profiling and segregation, his troubles mount as Erica, dealing with the newly found affection of Changez, goes through a nervous breakdown, unable to let go of the memories of her deceased boyfriend Chris. She retreats to her inner self and starts living with the morbid memories of her dead love.
Things back at home look precarious as political pressure on Pakistan is doubled by the joint impact of the US and India. Thus Changez is caught in a tornado of emotional and political turmoil which escalates by his visit to Chile and Erica being missing. With shattered dreams and cross feelings about America as he proclaims that “America is only engaged in posturing”, Changez returns o Lahore and starts working as a fire-tongued lecturer who entices and insinuates his students to fight America from the intellectual front (p.101).
The ending of the reluctant fundamentalist is rather ambiguous and left at the reader’s discretion. Changez’s monologue ends and the reader found the shadowy American who’s probably agitated over what he has heard from Changez and the bleak surroundings. As the night gets darker, the American gets vexed even further until Changez walks him off to his hotel only to be followed by the burly waiter at the restaurant where they both spent their evening.
The novel ends abruptly when the American draws ostensibly a weapon from his inner pockets as he sees the foreboding waiter creeping in the shadows following them. It is usually presumed that the American is an undercover agent either from the FBI or CIA as he is acutely alert of his environment and every motion around him. Changez even alludes to his “foreigners sense of being watched” at the beginning of the novel as his guest flinches recoil at every shadow (p.19). the hint of American carrying a weapon is established at the very beginning of the novel when he reaches out for his inner pocket instinctively at the sight of the intimidating waiter which Changez innocently mistake for the American reaching for his wallet (p.3).
The second assumption that the readers make is that the American draws his alleged weapon out so that he could terminate Changez who he believes has turned into a fundamentalist. There are many references scattered throughout the whole novel where the American gets agitated or even annoyed vividly at what Changez narrates. He particularly scowls when Changez tells him that he had smiled when he saw the towers collapse but that doesn’t make him a sociopath (p.43).
But the assumption can easily be ruled out because of certain reasons. First, Changez is simply pouring his heart out before a stranger because the truth is, Changez may hate the American government but at heart, he still loves America. Bumping up on a person from the country he loves, he simply tries to be hospitable with a guest and wants to register his discontent with the US government’s policies. He simply narrates the circumstances that made him leave the country he loved so much and that every Asian or Muslim is not a fundamentalist by birth. Changez is quite oblivious to the American’s status.
A second reason that the American is not after Changez is that being an agent of either shadowy agencies of the US, he would never let his emotions or intentions be known to his target, and his constantly changing gestures and emotions are in accordance with Changez’s story are a testament that he simply bumped onto him. What really happened can be computed by a hypothetical assumption that the American is after a target as use Changez as a distraction to keep an eye on it and the target being the burly waiter. Another hypothesis is that the waiter being an infuriated Pakistani decides to teach the American a lesson and follows him.
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Either way, the intention behind Changez’s confiding in a strange foreigner can simply be attributed to the fact that even after being home, he feels homesick. He misses New York and its inhabitants and he misses Erica the most since her departure left him no reason to stay in a place where his mere presence invokes apprehensive whispers. Mohsin Hamid tries to convey the message that anyone, even the most liberals who oppose the American will and hegemony will be branded as fundamentalist as it has become the order of the day.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Karachi: Oxford, 2007.