Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
February 16, 2008 7 Comments
Just finished reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Amazon, Wikipedia) written by Mohsin Hamid. The book is about the story of Changez, who grows up in Lahore, goes to the United States to obtain his bachelors from Princeton (mirroring the life of the author quite closely thus far), gets a job in one of the top financial consultancy firms Underwood Samson (the author worked in McKinsey), falls in love with a girl who still loves her dead boyfriend, and finally returns to Pakistan following emotional turmoil in the aftermath of 9/11. The book is written as a conversation that the protagonist has with an American tourist, and is quite brief. In fact, Hamid had remarked on it’s brevity:
I’d rather people read my book twice than only half-way through.
I took a while reading it since I had misplaced my copy and finally located it in my luggage. The book is a very easy read — no high flying philosophy, or cross references to Greek literature, but is quite alluring. There are so many things you identify with and you see such people around you. Changez, after passing out of Princeton thinks that the world is his oyster. He is uneasy adjusting with his high-flying lifestyle. The work (as a foreigner in one of the most respected firms in NY), the competition at the workplace, holidays, finding in unrequited love with a girl, the emotional turmoil at the contrast between his own life in a castle and his family’s in a moat, and finally giving it all up to return to a life where rewards are less monetary and more spiritual, the heightened sense of everything that is right about your country, the smell of the soil, the flower market, the food and even the beggars on the streets to regain a connection with his country all give you a sense of deja vu, a feeling that this is for real, I have seen this person somewhere.
What is also endearing is Hamid’s style. The pity remarks he makes while describing the contrasts between his country and the US. Of the heightened security in the airports he says:
Seen in this fashion I was struck by how traditional your empire appeared. Armed sentries manned the check post at which I sought entry; being of a suspect race I was quarantined and subjected to additional inspection; once admitted I hired a charioteer who belonged to a serf class lacking the requisite permissions to abide legally and forced therefore to accept work at lower pay; I myself was a form of indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer.
His descriptions of life back in Pakistan is also unique, his observing the foreigner leering at girls and noting that girls milling in the streets joyfully is such an uncommon sight that it is hard not to notice. Small things that make the book a very enjoyable read.
I was particularly struck by the sense of turmoil Changez had, and I thought it was a little exaggerated, and his response artificial. Confronted with a motherland at war and a girlfriend who commits suicide, his work slacks and he is soon fired. He goes back to his motherland, becomes a lecturer and the nucleus of anti-American protests among students. However, with his knowledge of the States, he might have been well positioned to not only know its limitations but its goodness as well, and if that little bit had been brought in as well, the book might have a different flavour and perhaps a different ending.
More reviews: Akhil Tandulwadikar