"Excuse me, Sir, may I be of any assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America". Thus starts Mohsin Hamid's second novel, 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' which talks about Pakistan, America, a broken love-affair, a man's identity crisis, among many other things.
I must tell you that when I first looked at the cover, I thought of it as another addition to the plethora of books on how life changed for Muslims in America after 9/11. After going through a few pages, I was completely drawn into the novel, especially its monologue style of writing, which according to me is its striking feature. When asked why he chose to write it this way, Mohsin Hamid said that the monologue style exemplifies the anxieties and perceptions of Americans and Muslims towards each other.
The novel is set in a restaurant in Old Anarkali in Lahore. The protagonist or the anti-hero of the novel is precariously named Changez, derived from the barbaric warrior Genghis Khan, who was called Changez in Urdu. Changez engages an American (who possibly is on a mission) in a conversation over a cup of tea (several cups I should rather say). He tells the American about his days at Princeton, which eventually gets him a job at Underwood Samson, a valuation firm. Changez feels that his life in America is like a dream as he describes his first day at office. "This, I realized, was another world from Pakistan; supporting my feet were the achievements of the most technologically advanced civilization our species has ever known."
While Changez should have been happy with what life in America had offered him, inside, there is a deep-rooted resentment about the standard of life in Pakistan compared to that of America. "Often during my stay in your country, such comparisons troubled me. In fact, they did more than trouble me... Now our cities (Pakistan) were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had Universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity, was for me, to be ashamed."
Changez falls in love with an American girl Erica, who too reciprocates his love and all seems to working fine for Changez till 9/11 happens. Changez describes the tragic incident in a rather unusual way, "I stared as one - and then the other - of twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And I smiled. Yes, despicable it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased." But Changez loses out on Erica, who after being exposed to the trauma and the fear of the 9/11 world, rebounds to her psychiatric problems.
Life goes on for Changez who is upset when America unleashes her fury by bombing Afghanistan. Changez avoids watching TV and as he puts it, "preferring not to watch the partisan and sports event like coverage given to the mismatch between the American bombers with their twenty-first century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesmen below." Although, Changez has a great future ahead of him, and he personally does not suffer from any hate-crimes, a feeling of alienation engulfs him. As Changez struggles to find answers to the questions about his identity, he, meanwhile is sent to Chile to evaluate a book publishing company. The owner of this soon-to-be bankrupt company Juan-Bautista is able to look through Changez and it is his comparison of Changez to Christian Janissaries that eventually makes Changez leave his country of dreams - America, for his beloved motherland - Pakistan.
On his arrival back home, Changez takes some time to get used to the lifestyle of his country and eventually gets a job as a university lecturer. Younger, immaculate and clear, Changez is among the most popular figures at the university. The scar America has left on him ceases to heal and he 'advocates disengagement from America'. He urges the students to demonstrate peacefully for greater independence in Pakistan. Well, there are times, when the demonstrations turn violent and Changez himself has to spend a night in prison. Changez's stance against America wins him many supporters in Pakistan but it also rubs the government authorities in Pakistan and America, the wrong way. Changez's colleagues warn him that he could be "intimidated or worse".
Hamid is not lethal in criticizing America's war policy but rather offers a well thought reason for America's adventures in Afghanistan and elsewhere. "As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority."
It is late midnight and all the establishments in Old Anarkali market have closed. Changez offers to accompany the American man, whom he is narrating his days in America, to his hotel. On their way back, they hear some footsteps and the American man feels that they are being followed. Possibly in an act of self-defense or to complete his mission, the American man reaches into his jacket and Changez hears a 'glint of metal'. What happens next and who is the fundamentalist has been left for the reader to decide...