Monday, September 08, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist...

"Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services as a bridge."

This is how the story starts at a café table in Lahore where a bearded Pakistani man is talking to an American stranger. The dusk has set in and slowly as the camaraderie builds, the bearded man unravels the tale that has brought them to this fateful meeting.

Time goes back to four and half years ago, when the now bearded Pakistani, Changez was offered an admit along with scholarship to the Princeton University for his education. In 2001, as he explains, he tells that he was hardly a radical. Being the smartest chap in his graduating class at Princeton, he is snapped by 'Underwood Samson', an elite firm that specializes in the valuation of companies. He thrives on the energy of fast and competitive life of New York living the American dream. He is accelerating in his career in the elite Manhattan society, rubbing shoulders with some of the best talent in his area of expertise.

But things take an unexpected turn after one of the bloodiest attack ever in human history, the 9/11 attack rocks the shores of the US. And from then on, we begin to see how Changez, begins to turn his back on America, even though this was the land that offered him all he wanted in life. He is non-supportive of the policies and the actions of the US government, which inflicted injustices on the world, despite his earning a lucrative American salary, and his infatuation for an American woman, Erica. A 'Yes-No' situation suffocates him.

"No country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America," says Changez at one point while talking to the stranger.

On the day of the 9/11 attacks, Changez was in Manila on a business visit and on his return to the US he is treated by the immigration staff as a suspect just because of his identity. He is marked for a life of American success and affluence, he drinks, he sleeps with his American girl friend without any religious qualms but few things just choke him. His Muslim identity, in the wake of the 9/11, begins to bother him although from a different perspective.

His job life continues but his doubts multiply. Soon he realizes that in his Manhattan life, something less visible or unclear is attacking him internally. In the constant strive to realize a financial future, he is not spared for the critical personal and political issues that affect one's emotional presence. That's how business is, where one's final output on the plate counts and not the price of one's emotions. But human expressions, beliefs, opinions and views explode beyond a particular threshold and so was Changez's.

Did he sacrifice his identity in pursuit of status? Changez has already begun to ask himself these questions when he sees the twin towers fall, a mighty attack on the American pride. Many events in the surrounding world further alienate Changez's interest in work: the tensions escalating between India and Pakistan, and the United States caught up in displays of patriotism following the attack, etc. The turning point in Changez's life occurs in Valparaiso, Chile where he has gone to evaluate an old publishing company targeted for a takeover. Over lunch, the publisher tells him the story of Janissaries of the Ottoman empire, who were captured Christian boys trained to fight against their own people.

Changez feels..."I was a modern-day Janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine..." and finally takes a conscientious decision and returns to Lahore.

Hamid, who himself attended Princeton and worked in corporate America, aptly captures the ups and downs, the triumphs and the traumas of Manhattan life through the lenses of Changez. I would consider this as a failed love story between a Pakistani and the American Dream, though many of the readers would have expected a tone of religion and faith from the title of the book. But there is barely any mention of it. To me it was a story about confusion, self-abnegation, regret and malice, all these assuming flagitious shades post 9/11 attacks period.

Though the author has made many generalizations about the US but what I felt was, as the plot develops, Chengez is trying to communicate his displeasure at being branded a fundamentalist, which he is not. His personal world and his views never had a tinge of fundamentalism, but he is looked upon as one just because of his place of origin, his blood and his roots. I also think that the ending was a bit hurried, because I had read somewhere that Hamid actually wrote a 1000 page manuscript which finally boiled down to a 184 page publication for this book. The plot could have taken a much better contour.

'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' was an easy read, thoroughly gripping. This is Hamid's second book and he spent close to seven years banging his head to give the final framework to his plot. The plot is a potpourri of fiction, history and polemics and is dotted with examples of great writing and once such piece is as below.

"Perhaps we currently lack wealth, power or even sporting glory—the occasional brilliance of our temperamental cricket team notwithstanding—commensurate with our status as the world’s sixth most populous country, we Pakistanis take an inordinate pride in our food. Here in Old Anarkali, that pride is visible in the purity of the fare on offer; not one of these worthy restaurants would consider placing a western dish on his menu."

I enjoyed reading this book and hope anyone who reads it likes it too. Just a question, I found the name Changez to sound a bit Frenchish, or is it my bad to think that way?

This book, 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' was short listed Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007.

Keep reading and remain connected.

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At 5:06 PM, Blogger RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

A very well-written review. Makes me want to read the book.

As for the name Changez - to me it sounded rather Chinese!


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