Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

October 04, 2007

When Changez, the narrator-protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, returns to New York just after September 11, 2001 from a business assignment, he is stripped to his boxers by airport immigration authorities. There is a disarmingly clever little detail that Hamid works into this incident:

...I had, rather embarrassingly, chosen to wear a pink pair patterned with teddy bears, but their revelation had no impact on the severe expressions of my inspectors 

Changez has bared himself to be the childlike, adorably dorky personality he is, but no one seems to recognize that. In post 9/11 America, he feels as though his external appearance defines him.The Reluctant Fundamentalist is largely a book about such prejudices. In a café in Lahore, Changez narrates his past to an American. There is constant tension between the two, obviously mirroring the uneasy love-hate relationship between the two nations. The book is a quasi-monologue; the American remains anonymous and peeks out of the pages only when Changez either repeats his casual questions (“Oh, you ask Why”? and suchlike), or reads his mind (“I see that you are alarmed”). This allows the story to come from Changez’s-and therefore Pakistan’s-perspective, it makes us-the readers-the intended anonymous audience, and heightens the sense of mystery surrounding the American. 

The most powerful thing about the book is, not surprisingly, the love story. With some extraordinarily sensitive prose, Erica, Changez’s love, emerges as a brilliant personification of her country (whose name contains hers). Having lost Chris, her first and longtime love, Erica is only beginning to find life in Changez, when 9/11 happens. This pushes her into a depression-a heartbreaking vortex of longing for the dead Chris.

Hamid seems to warn us that this quest for a better future in an imagined past is not only Erica and Changez’s tragedy, but that of all fundamentalism. True to the novelist’s craft, he doesn’t directly condemn this backward looking ideology, but instead brings out the self-destructive tragedy of this outlook.

During their courtship, Erica responds to Changez sexually only when he pretends to be Chris. This is a poignant comment on the obliteration of identity that ‘fitting-in’ demands.Religion, apart from a few oblique references, is conspicuously absent from the narrative. Hamid is more interested in the psychology of a fundamentalist. Changez’s inspirations are not in Islam; his angst is fuelled by his sense of wounded pride (he cannot bear the fact that even Manila has a swankier skyline than Lahore), his awareness of acute economic disparity, and his alienation-induced identity crisis-issues that all of us grapple with in this “World Is Flat” age.

The novel is the perfect medium to give these issues an identifiably human voice, and Hamid’s rich prose adds to the beauty of this endeavor. (A quibble: too many words are italicized for emphasis, often unnecessarily, sometimes jarringly.) The ending, too, is a slick comment on the perpetual mutual suspicion between the two cultures.  

A telecom engineer with an incorrigible itch to write.
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October 4, 2007
10:40 AM


both the book and this review have been wonderful read

found the narration one long poem

(hardly a unwanted word)

read somewhere it took him as much time to whittle the manuscript down as it took him to write!

October 4, 2007
11:34 AM

Thanks, temporal!

I too thought his prose had a lyrical quality abt abt the manuscript:)

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