Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review—The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A perplexing shift to hatred of America

In Mohsin Hamid's new book, an erstwhile high-flying finance whiz kid narrates the story of his life over the course of a single evening to an American, whose identity remains suspect till the very end. Changez –– a native Pakistani –– was the blue-eyed boy of leading management firm Underwood Samson. Backed by an elite education from Princeton, he had it made. Liked by superiors and respected by peers, he was on his way to corporate superstardom. His love for the beautiful Erica ensured him a spot in New York's high society. But 9/11 changes all that. The premise of Hamid's book is robust, and in better hands, this book could have explored the precarious relations between communities and how imagined grievances play a part in bolstering hatred of the "other".

This one, however, falls short of locating a coherent core. The book traces the protagonist's journey from foolish optimism to inexplicable hatred. The turnaround comes about in the Philippines where Changez is deployed for a project. A Filipino driver exchanges a cursory aggressive glance with him. Changez is baffled by it; he thinks it's the driver's envy at seeing a fellow Third World person of color do well and meld with the white, all-American crowd. To Changez, this realization is no less than a shock, for it indicates to him that he is still sensitive to such a sensibility.

From here to his sociopathic reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 (seeing the Twin Towers fall like a pack of cards, he smiles to himself), Changez's shift is not only baffling but consternation-inducing. There is no vantage point more strapping than imagined victimhood, and this gives him the leeway to make accusations against American mores and foreign policy without justification in fact. One often spots phrases such as "American undercurrent of condescension" and "the denial of gratification –– that most un-American of pleasures". Hamid makes no attempt to explain these views which are liberally espoused by Changez –– the reluctant fundamentalist. One can't help bristle at this undercurrent of animosity.

After the September 11 attacks, Changez returns to the US after a holiday in Lahore without shaving his two-week-old beard. As he explains, "It was, perhaps, a form of protest on my part, a symbol of my identity, or perhaps I sought to remind myself of the reality I had just left behind." One can understand identity as a socio-economic construct but for all purposes, each of the reasons Changez gives himself to keep his beard are personal and, if I may add, superfluous. Doubtless, a beard is an inconsequential appurtenance, but in a climate of suspicion triggered by an atrocity that snuffed out 3,000 innocent lives, does it make sense to score political brownie points over one's appearance? What is so wrong with not arousing suspicion? Why this gratuitous aggression?

India also figures in the narrative as the belligerent big brother out to ruin Pakistan with America's support. What Changez calls intimidation –– referring to the ten-month long Operation Parakram in which Indian troops were deployed along the Indo-Pak border after an attack on the Indian Parliament –– Indians call pusillanimity. Pakistan's involvement in stoking terror on Indian soil is an open secret among intelligence circles. Yet, as with America, Changez's dislike for India flows as a river with a steep gradient –– so powerful is the current of victimized accusation that any scope of a rational discussion is drowned out.

In the final analysis, Changez comes across as a confused soul. He is filled with self-loathing for leaving his country for a better life abroad, but does not feel the need to fully integrate himself with the American way of life. Even so, he has no compunction in milking the bountiful cow dry. This, as so-called "loony right-wing commentators" would tell you, is the scourge of multiculturalism.

Erica's story, which showed promise in the beginning, fails to integrate with the book's larger premise, leaving one wondering why she had to be knocked off mysteriously after intermittent episodes in a mental asylum. Besides, Hamid stretches the reader's suspension of disbelief to breaking point by including a Soviet era-type undercover assassin. That said, the ending does spring a genuine surprise. Read the book for its tautness, but don't expect to come away enriched.

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This review appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The original link is here.