Mohsin Hamid’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ Attracts Attention
By Ras H. Siddiqui

 


Mohsin Hamid at the book-reading and booksigning session in Corte Madera

At the time of this writing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid stands at Number 6 on the New York Times weekly list of hardcover fiction bestsellers and will, in all likelihood, move up further towards the top.
Mohsin has recently been on a whirlwind tour promoting his new book in the United States during which he visited northern California, specifically Stanford, San Francisco and the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Corte Madera, where I caught up with him. He is a Pakistani English language novel writer from the city of Lahore, currently residing in London. He has also spent quite a number of years in the US, attended Princeton University and Harvard, and worked in New York.
There are mainly three reasons why Mohsin Hamid attracts immediate attention. The first is his one and only other novel “Moth Smoke” which won critical acclaim and launched him as the leader of a handful of writers from Pakistan who write fiction in English. Senior Pakistani writers like Bapsi Sidhwa are better known, and several Indian-origin novelists have already become quite famous in the United States. But here comes a Pakistani who is making an impact. That fact alone should be enough to attract interest in his direction, but in the end it his unique delivery and storytelling talent that will impress the global reader.
Most of what America sees from Pakistan today is men with beards denouncing its actions. The fact is that lines at the American Embassy and Consulates in Pakistan are always long and populated by “clean cut” men and unveiled women wanting to visit or immigrate just do not sell on American TV. The many “moderates” there do absolutely nothing for viewer ratings but that subject is for another time.
When I walked in, fashionably late (I do not deny my own Pakistani roots) to become the 31st member of the group listening to Mohsin Hamid at the B&N in Corte Madera, he was engrossed in explaining that his narrator and lead character “Changez” exhibits an “ethnic” sense of being a Muslim and not a religious one. He added that his book was not meant to be a boring political dissertation. “At the end of the day, it is really a love story,” he said. It is a tale of lovers, the Pakistani male Changez and the American female Erica. But after having read the book, I ask if it is really that love that we should focus on? We will return to that aspect during the conclusion of this review.
The beautiful Erica bares a great deal to Changez on a Greek island. But this has to be one of the strangest one-sided courtships ever. Changez shows a level of patience and sensitivity with Erica that would make Pakistani males both proud and in demand here in the American heartland. But there is that one “Elephant in the Living Room” called 9/11 that acts as the spoiler of all things.
Changez is affected by this new World Trade Center development in many curious ways. While Erica is in love with another man, or in reality his memory, Changez, is living his American Dream (where hard work and dedication can pay big dividends). But then why is his reaction to 9/11 so distastefully confusing? Here, if one reads between the lines, Mohsin Hamid has given the American reader a controversial slice of what he/she already believes. Pakistani Americans especially will not be happy with that slice. But then again we need to remind ourselves that this is a fictional novel that we are reading..
“A lot that happens in the novel is meant to be discovered as it happens,” said Mohsin. He described this as a continuing “internal conversation.” He said that he started this novel in the year 2000. He also pointed towards the curious style of English which is used by his narrator in this novel, one that is taught in certain private English schools in Pakistan and is supposed to show a superior upbringing. The character Changez in this novel is so educated and incorporates some of that language style to show off his superior upbringing, making up for the lack of his monetary wealth.
Mohsin Hamid describes his work as “half a conversation.” “I do half the work and the reader does the other half,” he said. “I come from a place (Pakistan) where people don’t read novels very much.” He pointed topraise that he received from one reader in Pakistan for his first novel “Moth Smoke.” The reader said that it was his favorite novel and the only one he had ever finished reading!
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is easy reading (I finished it in one evening). Mohsin mentioned that he actually wrote a 1000-page manuscript which resulted in a 184-page publication. “Novel writing is like a marathon,” he said. He added that everyone has a story to tell, but few people spend seven years banging their heads on telling their story (making them true writers). “The title is many things,” he said. “This guy Changez is not very religious. He is not a religious fundamentalist,” said Mohsin.
In an answer to my question on how his work will be viewed in Pakistan, he said that the book would be released there the following week. He added that his first work “Moth Smoke” actually was made into a TV series there.


Ras Siddiqui with Mohsin Hamid

The writer mentioned the fact that failed love affairs often result in anger. He added that his novel has sought some inspiration from “The Fall” by Albert Camus. You may pick up some of that flavor here. But there is a great deal more that will puzzle readers as this “half a conversation” reaches them. For starters, curiously, the American that the narrator Changez tells his story to, never seems to talk back.
There are streaks of great writing that one encounters in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” One example that I liked was from Changez and his one-way conversation with the shadowy American: “I hope you will not mind my saying so, but the frequency and purposefulness with which you glance about — a steady tick-tick-tick seeming to beat in your head as you move your gaze from one point to the next --- brings to mind the behavior of an animal that has ventured too far from his lair and is now, in unfamiliar surroundings, uncertain whether it is predator or prey!”
Describing his feelings for New York: “I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker. What? My voice is rising? You are right; I tend to become sentimental when I think of that city. It still occupies a place of great fondness in my heart, which is quite something, I must say, given the circumstances under which, after only eight months of residence, I would later depart.” This is a far cry from his “uncharitable” response Changez had shown on 9/11.
Describing Pakistan today through the lens of Lahore city: “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.”
The reception that Changez receives at the airport in America is not without its fallout. “For despite my mother’s request, and my knowledge of the difficulties it could well present me at immigration, I had not shaved my two-week-old beard.” Changez adds: “It is remarkable, given its physical insignificance — it is only a hairstyle, after all--- the impact a beard worn by a man of my complexion has on your fellow countrymen.”
The ending of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is almost too hurried, as if written to meet a writer’s deadline. 9/11 and the over-reaction to possible India-Pakistan war shape a quick change of personality and direction within Changez, whose reluctance is, directed more towards the fundamentals of capitalism than religion. And as in any review, one just does not give away the ending, especially one which readers will certainly have differing opinions on. The love story with Erica does drag on a bit long. But as mentioned earlier during this review, let us hazard a guess as to what the writer may be embarked on in this novel. .
Whether it was planned or not, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a romantic story, but not only about the romance between Changez and Erica. This is quite possibly a failed love story between a Pakistani and the American Dream. There is confusion, regret, malice, denial and even a strong attraction shown towards that dream here in this book. It is the Pakistani talking for a change, engaged in his half-conversation with the American. And that Pakistani is trying to communicate his displeasure at being branded a fundamentalist. The question is whether America going to listen, or is it too busy expressing its love for another? That speculative take on this novel could just possibly add to the appeal of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” and launch Mohsin Hamid as a long term literary presence here in America . The essential ingredient, the writing talent, is already there so he is off to a great start. ("The Reluctant Fundamentalist " is recommended for mature readers)

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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