‘The reluctant fundamentalist’ was on my TBR for a long time. However, when a book gains iconic status it becomes somehow less enticing because of its abundant, in your face accessibility, it doesn’t sparkle like a rare, hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
This is not a lengthy book and I finished it in two sittings. Hamid delivers formal, archaic prose as the only voice of a twenty-something university lecturer Changez. Changez accosts an American seated in a Lahori café, and proceeds to enamour him, and us, with his tale of love and loss in the land of abundance and opportunity. The American he chooses to confide his story in, is fidgety, distracted and more interested in the delicious food (perhaps the novel’s only wholesome aspect), but all this doesn’t bother Changez who religiously pivots back to his grim story that only reveals his motives as more ignoble as it progresses. After graduating from Princeton, Changez embarks on a highflying financial career, and begins his courtship of a rich American society belle. After the 9/11 attacks, he is inundated with feelings of inadequacy and betrayal both from the country and woman of his dreams.
An interview with Mohsin Hamid in 2007 with New York Times reads more like a FBI interrogation, as the interviewer either with a cheeky, familiar repertoire, or hostile suspicion (I fail to comprehend) quizzes Hamid thus:
‘I don’t think I can trust you.’
‘Is this how you felt when the towers fell?’
‘Why did you choose to silence the American in the novel?’
‘But no one is silencing you. To the contrary, you’re scheduled to visit Miami and Cambridge and Washington this week to promote a novel of which there are already more than 100,000 copies out there.’
Hamid bats her grilling mildly and amiably, and I wonder how he doesn’t get offended. Did his publicists prepare him for this reaction?
This is a discussion with a prominent, best-selling fiction author whose book was short-listed for the Booker prize. We’re in 2022, and the same prejudice and fear of Muslims and Pakistan prevails at a global level. If Hamid’s objective was explaining his protagonist’s feelings of resentment to America, it doesn’t seem to have succeeded. Some western readers dismiss Pakistanis as a mass of highly ‘un-reluctant’ fundamentalists with a government at its helm that refuses to do anything to quash those sentiments (Guardian 2012 book review of TRF). Others lift an eyebrow at this narrative where the protagonist smiles as the towers fall on TV, with a told you so! Most others, do not care, like most of us are shrouded in casual, routine apathy, unless these global events directly impact us in some way. I believe we bestow trust and merit to those who earn it, despite their race, creed and nationality, and that’s how it should be.
Do I relate to Hamid’s protagonists? The answer is no. Hamid himself is a Princeton graduate who does not harbour these feelings of resentment and has never abandoned his life and career in his country of choice. But if this is not the narrative for the average, affluent, highly educated Pakistani, then I wonder is it possible for anyone, even the average, poor, illiterate Pakistani to look at a scene of brutal, carnage of working class civilians and smile in pleasure, unless their heart is inked in evil or they’re the spawn of Lucifer (handsome though he is in his movie avatar)? Then who does this voice belong to – a minute fraction of Pakistanis brainwashed by convoluted ideology since infancy or the outsider mainstream media perception of Pakistan?
I feel the protagonist is guilty of the same logic he accuses America and his lover of, that of living in a glorious self-righteous nostalgia and a concept of his peoples’ (Muslims) former grandeur. Is it time to step out of that illusion of past glory, and start acknowledging, building and representing an urgent present, that is much more complex than what conveniently corroborates stereotypes?