I picked this book up after I looked it up on the Booker Long List. The only other book that competed for my attention was Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. But this one came out winner simply because of the theme.
Ever since 9/11 happened, anyone who has kept up with the pulse of New York City will know that New Yorkers are still reeling under the shock. Matters are not helped any, by the site of a barren Ground Zero. But this book is not about that. There are no incidents of grief and of loved ones lost. Instead, this is a story of one man, who was so absorbed in his own problems of identity crises, love and the exhilarating independence of a Wall Street job that picks up the tabs, that he fails to notice the world crumbling around him.
Of course the symbolism of the fall of the twin towers is not lost upon him. Watching it unfold from a hotel room in Manila, Changez, our protagonist, narrates with little remorse, the triumph that finds its way into his heart as the fall of the towers “brings America to her knees”. Yet when he returns, the only indication of the devastation of New Yorkers is in the state of Changez’s love interest, who, for the record, is white and does not like him “in the same way” – those two facts are totally unrelated – and is utterly consumed by the demons of her past who include her dead boyfriend and the ghosts of people of the 9/11 tragedy.
Add to it Indo- Pak tensions – I was not surprised that this was given a significant bit of print – and Changez feels an inexplicable and ill-advised need to return to Pakistan. Once home, he is urged by his family to remain untangled in the politics of the situation and upon their urging, Changez finally boards the flight back to America. Mohsin Hamid brings out the conflict within Changez beautifully in this part of the book.
Changez returns to Wall Street a changed man. Hamid symbolizes this change by means of the beard that Changez chooses to keep even in America. The author offers an outsider’s view every once in a while when a colleague whispers racist comments behind his back or when a random stranger leaps out at Changez in a parking lot calling him Arab. And suddenly we see a different picture. A bewildered Changez watches his carefully constructed life in America fall to bits, much like the twin towers of 9/11. A heartbroken, disillusioned and seething Changez returns to Pakistan to fuel the fires of burning fundamentalist issues within the student community in Lahore. And that is where we find him as he relates the entire story to a stranger.
It will not be fair to reveal the concluding part of this story. Let us just say that there is no definite conclusion. The book speaks to the reader at many levels, initially through the genteel and then through the raging emotions of Changez. Hamid describes the immigrant dream come true and then we watch, horrorstruck, as his almost perfect life is torn apart, thread by thread. Hamid tells a poignant tale of a man, too polite to tell the woman he loves of his true feelings, coming to terms with her illness and her failure to make room for him in her life. Even in the enthusiasm of his first days in his new job, Changez takes in America with a child-like wonder, yet having the decency to feel ashamed of himself and his reaction to Pakistan on his first visit home.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a delightful yet touching read. You cannot quite decide whether to take sides with Changez, and you find your opinion of the man quite mixed right through his dreamlike life in the first half of the book up to the turmoil in the second half. And if you’re like me, you’ll turn the page even after the period in the last line of the book, hoping to see more.
Title: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Notes: Man Booker 2007 Shortlist