Sunday, December 20, 2009

Books: "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid

In this one of the most critically acclaimed 9/11 novels the author describes the story of a young man who would be considered as the example of American dream in the making who nevertheless through several indirect and direct factors caused by uncontrollable events in and around his life abandons the successful yet unfulfilling life for a path that is seen by many as the way of extremism.

The story starts as Changes the main character of the novel who by this time has returned to his home country, Pakistan, met a stranger in an old district of city named Lahore. He correctly recognizes the stranger to by an American, not because of his complexion or his dress but because of his “bearing”. I think this “bearing” which defines an American and of which Changes speaks of refers to several qualities that shape “American” such as sense of entitlement, crude and slightly unrespectful manner, and lack of cultural senses et cetera.

Changez’ family is one of old aristocrats of the Punjab tradition yet is on the decline with depreciating wealth. One of the drives for Changes’ success is his hunger or desire to restore his family’s fortune and maintain their social status. He excelled in his studies in Pakistan and was admitted to the Princeton University on full scholarship.

On one occasion during a vacation in Greece with his graduating class from Princeton Changez jokes about his wish being the president of the nuclear armed Muslim state. Except for Erica, a rich socialite girl from NYC, no one thought the joke was funny, because of their predisposition about association between Muslims and the terrorists.

Although throughout the novel Changez shares his story, the stranger in turn does not talk about himself at all. Through Changez’ observations the reader learns about the American as reserved, mistrustful of his environment, arrogant and attentive listener.

Changez meets Jim, an executive at Underwood Samson, who comes to like him, because of his hunger and tenacity. Jim grew up in the 70s during which great American industrial decline have caused his dad to lose his job and through which Jim learns to identify opportunities and thrive during difficult periods. Jim has an exceptional ability to judge people and he sees in Changez what made him successful.

Upon arriving in NYC Changez immediately feels at home. Sprawling urban districts, Pakistani cab drivers and Punjabi eateries combined with the wide spectrum of ethnicities have made it easier for Changez to effortlessly blend in with the city. He finds himself to be a natural New Yorker although he never felt to be an American. In fact throughout the novel Changez finds himself to dislike America, dislike how she rose to the top within last two centuries while ancient civilizations were hopelessly left behind, dislike how her policies affect the very well being of his own family back in Pakistan, and how her people seamlessly live on without regard for the reverberations she imposes on people of far away.

When Changez sees the destruction of the World Trade Centers in NYC by terrorists he smiles unconsciously. He was remarkably pleased! He wasn’t gratified with the suffering of the innocents, nor was he compelled with terrorists’ schemes but he was pleased at the symbolism of it all - how someone brought down America to her knees. It was unexpected that Changez who was educated American and who was living an American dream was pleased at America’s downfall. It was the turning point of the novel where Changez began to doubt in the course of his life, and started realizing money and success alone did not make him fulfilled.

After 9/11 Changez takes a short trip home in Pakistan. He chooses not to shave his beard upon his return even though he was well aware of the implications that it would have at the immigration and later among his colleagues. His motivations for beard could have been a form of personal protest, or symbol of one’s identity, or a simple reminder of what he left behind in Pakistan.

Changez asserts to the American that according to post 9/11 political and military leaders ofAmerica, terrorists were simply politically motivated murderers of innocent people who wore no uniforms. It is evident that his assertion implies that the American leaders through their military campaigns wreaked havoc on civilians of other nationalities without being branded as terrorists.

During a project in Santiago, Chile, Juan-Bautista, head of the publishing company befriends Changez and tells him a story about janissaries, Christian soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, who fought ferociously alongside Ottoman soldiers to erase their own civilizations so they had nothing else to turn to. Changez feels that he’s being a modern day janissary by serving America when she invades a country with a kinship to his.

Relationship between Erica and Changez grows during his time in NYC and they come to be deeply attracted to each other. Erica is attracted to Changez, because of his extremely polite and respectful bearing. However, Erica, whose long time friend and boyfriend died of cancer, has never recovered from her loss and is somewhat detached from the reality. Such predisposition for emotional breakdown exasperated by the events of the 9/11 causes Erica to fall back into her loneliness where she finds time with her deceased boyfriend. Erica eventually convinces Changez that she is of someone and that it will be better for him to move on with life without her. Changez, who in his desperation attempted not once to change the fate of his love only to see the problem getting bad to worse, finally decides to leave her and everything that he had in America behind.

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