The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

By Ekta R. Garg

May 8, 2013

Rated: Bookmark it!

A bright student from Pakistan finds himself floundering in a post-September 11 world when his intellectual prowess slowly loses traction because of his Muslim faith and brown skin.  Despite the fact that he knows he can find better opportunities for a career in the U.S., the student returns to Pakistan to do what he can for his own country.  Several years later he meets an American and recounts for that American his personal history.  Mohsin Hamid provides readers with this sensitive tale told in an innovative way in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The book begins as Changez meets an American stranger in the marketplace of Lahore.  Changez begins a casual conversation with the stranger, and slowly he shares his experiences of living in the United States with this new acquaintance.  The two share a cup of tea and then a meal as Changez recounts with great fondness his time in the West.

Changez makes the long trek from Lahore, Pakistan, to Princeton, joining some of the academic elite of the United States.  As a top student, he excels at Princeton and finds himself invited for an interview at a top valuation firm to join their company and learn the almost-exclusive trade of appraising the worth of businesses.  A new millennium has begun, and Changez realizes he has entered the golden sector of American society: with a sought-after career and a new girlfriend, nothing seems poised to hold him back.

He travels to the Philippines for his first assignment for work and spends a few months there.  The night he prepares to return to the States, he turns on the TV and witnesses the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York.  He has an inkling of the magnanimity of the event as he watches the news unfold:

“I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”

However, Changez doesn’t realize at the moment that his world has changed irrevocably.  And why should he have suspected so, he muses to the stranger.  After all:

“I was the product of an American university; I was earning a lucrative American salary; I was infatuated with an American woman.”

But the world has, indeed, changed, and Changez learns this the minute he returns to the U.S. and must endure extensive questioning at immigration.  His positive experience of America begins a slow spiral into a negative one that contains a hostile subtext.  Clients of his firm begin looking at him differently.  He begins to fear for his family’s safety in Pakistan.  And his girlfriend confesses that she cannot let go of a key experience in her past.  Suddenly everything he loved about the West comes to represent the things he no longer wants, and eventually he decides to return to Pakistan and do what he can for his own people.

Author Hamid handles the potentially explosive plot in an inventive way.  He uses a combination of first person to relay Changez’s portion of the story and second person when Changez addresses the mysterious stranger.  This structure brings the reader right to the table where Changez and the stranger share space, and it allows for the tension and the mystery to build as readers will wonder exactly where Changez’s tale will end.  From the conversation Changez sounds like a well-adjusted citizen who remembers his time in America with a great deal of fondness, albeit with some mixed emotions in certain points of his story.  This will lead readers to question the title and understand its full weight on the last page.

Readers can make it through the entire book in less than 12 hours, and yet the story will stay with them for several days afterward and demand a second reading soon thereafter.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist presents the challenges many members of the Muslim population surely had to face because of the common factor of their faith with the 9/11 terrorists.  Natives of the Western world will benefit from reading this book; it presents an insightful examination of this extended conflict of terrorism between the United States and select countries.

I highly recommend The Reluctant Fundamentalist not as a way to gain a blind sympathy for one faction or the other in the “war on terror” but as a way to gain a deeper understanding of the way the September 11 attacks changed life for several sectors of society and culture.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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