Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST by Mohsin Hamid


Book Review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Source: Google Images)

Book Details. . .

·         Title: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
·         Author: Mohsin Hamid
·         Genre: Fiction
·         Publisher: Penguin Books India (2008)
·         Pages: 225 Pages
·         Rating: 3.75/5

Behind The Book. . .

At a cafe table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with an uneasy American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful encounter . . .


Changez is living an immigrant's dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by the elite valuation firm of Underwood Samson. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his budding romance with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.

But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his budding relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. And Changez's own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.

Book Synopsis. . .

The catastrophic 9/11 episode which shook the entire world by its brutality and deadliness, has been dealt with in various writings and enactments across the world. While the calamity was undoubtedly disastrous in terms of the loss of lives and property it caused, it was also unprecedented for the loss of propriety it inflicted on the mankind, especially for the Muslims across the world. Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (TRF) is yet another powerful representation of the catastrophe and (more importantly) its aftermath through the eyes of a migrant.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the introspection of an inward & outward journey of the protagonist, Changez journey of life reflecting his frame of mind ranging from academic & professional excellence in US to finding love to disenchantment with US. The novel is a dramatic monologue wherein he shares his experience as a Paki-American right from his graduation days when he strives to carve out a niche for himself in the corporate world by targeting a job with the topmost consulting firm to 9/11 incident and the impact it has on the individual identity of the Muslims migrants living in the America.

The story unfolds over a day’s event when a person named Changez (a returned migrant from US) confronts a foreigner (possibly an Amaerican) in Pakistan and shares his views and story with him. Changez has been an exceptional scholar who completes his Bachelor's degree in Finance from Princeton University. Post graduating from an American university, Changez finds himself placed in his dream consulting firm which would prove to be a perfect launching pad for his professional career. As his life progresses further, he encounters Erica and is instantly smitten by her love. Though, his feelings towards Erica are not exactly unilateral, the lady finds it hard to reciprocate it completely as her past continue to cling to her mind and soul. Nevertheless, his life seem perfect with lucrative & respectable job, his lady love Erica blooming with mirth, his constant appreciation & recognition by his peers and seniors until the catastrophe strikes and the whole scenario changes to grim.

The 9/11 attacks marks a paradigm shift in the behavior of the people towards the Muslims. Anyone with the beard or a Muslim name is treated with suspicion. The series of events and developments around him makes Changez restless and cognizant of the change which is creeping in with regard to his country and countrymen. Infact, the incident actually gives him the nudge to introspect about his identity and his standing & feelings about US and also about the ones left behind in Pakistan; something which starts a tug of war within him creating turbulence & estrangement with the alien land and people. The transformation that follows makes Changez leave the high profile job with his dream firm and return back to his country with his people to share with them the grief, fear and degradation.

How do Changez’s career moves post his graduation in finance? Whether Changez is able to make reconciliation with the Erica’s past which still is not completely detached from her? How does their love fares amidst the tests of true love and individual indentity? How do 9/11 incident turns Changez’s world upside down and also of many of the Muslims living abroad and what are the repercussions of the attack on the mind of normal Muslim living in US?

Grab a copy of the book to unearth the answers to above and experience Changez’s journey and transformation from professional brilliance to solidarity for his country and countrymen.


My Thoughts. . .

As I had said above, the last decade started with, what could surely be termed as one of the brutal attacks on the mankind, the terrorist attack on WTC, which (fortunately) awoke the world and, more particular, the US to stand unified in the war against terrorism. But this (unfortunately) not only caused the loss of life and property but also loss of propriety, humanity and religion with every person with a beard on the face and Muslim as the religion construed as a terrorist, as much as they start suffering from hostility from their counterparts, mates and workmates. TRF is an honest attempt by the author to recount the experiences and undergoing of a Muslim at an alien land post 9/11 attacks. More importantly, it’s an equally inward journey as much as it’s an outward progression of a person in quest of its identity and solidarity towards his people and place.

There are some books which have the tendency of holding your attention right from the beginning. Though in the interim the background of the book aroused my curiosity, it was the beginning statement which gave me that final nudge to go for it. The starting lines "Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America" are inquisitive enough to hold onto readers’ interest to explore this piece of writing further. And I can assure, you won’t be disappointed as apart from the story treatment, the book scores high because of its writing style which is unique, simple yet engrossing.  As pages further roll by, the reader finds himself wondering as to why an academically brilliant Princeton graduate with a rewarding job is wandering on the night streets of Pakistan.

Speaking about the writing style, the whole story is portrayed in second person from Changez's vision as he shares his thoughts and journey with an American stranger in Pakistan. The author quite meticulously scripted the book and the reader can actually relate to Changez when he narrates his tale to the American stranger. The genuineness with which he confesses his partial indifference / affirmation to the incident and also his growing solidarity to his country and countrymen is indeed remarkable. One can feel the modulation and pitch contour in his tone as relives those peak and valleys moments again while narrating the same.

While the references to Pakistan culture and delicacies wherein Changez offers dinner & beverages to the stranger adds icing on the cake and gives an insight to the country's inherent civilization, the other characters like Erica (as Changez’s love interest struggling with depression from the death of her childhood sweetheart), Jim (as Changez’s boss and friend in his consulting company) etc. perfectly cements Changez’s story taking it forward in an apt and inquisitive manner.

The best thing about the book is that it strongly makes one question the basic realm of existence. Despite the fact that Changez is never really directly impacted by the growing discontent for Muslims in US and is never really targeted for being the Muslim, he chooses to introspect his identity and role. He could have easily chosen to be silent and blind to all the developments and continued his plush job, drawing handsome salary, enjoying the lifestyle which remains a distant dream for many to perceive. But he decides otherwise and chooses a side, giving up everything he ever had and returning to his country, amongst his countrymen for justifying his purpose of existence.

There are three things which might just not go well with some of the readers. First, as stated above, the whole book is written in a single narration style (a monologue – one way conversation - from Changez speaking to a foreigner) which might irk some of the readers but (quite oppositely) it worked for me as a distinguished style of story-telling. Further, the book has to be read more as an account of paradigm shift in people’s mindset towards a whole community basis one incident and rather than a fictional story, per se, something which again might go unfavorably with some of the reader base. And finally, the ending of the book, which has been (in a way) left open for the reader’s to surmise and interpret basis their intuition, again something that might annoy some readers.

The cover page of the book is appealing with a person clad in white kurta-pyjama peeping out of something like a minaret. The printing, font and word spacing are decent enough to grant reader a comfortable read.

The Final Word. . .

Compelling and page turner, The Reluctant Fundamentalist turns out to be a welcome read with an apt mix of all the ingredients that are bound to arouse reader’s curiosity. This one is strongly recommended to all book lovers for the sheer simplicity with which the contentious subject of alienation (caused to a community due to 9/11 attack) has been dealt with through a simple yet provocative view point of a Pakistani migrant.

A must read for all for its differentiated style of writing, sophisticated way of dealing with the subject and more importantly for the inherent honesty with which it is being delivered. Being a short read of just about 200 Pages, this one surely deserves your time.

Rating: 3.75/5

Five Favorite Quotes. . .

1.      I met her eyes, and for the first time I perceived that there was something broken behind them, like a tiny crack in a diamond that becomes visible only when viewed through a magnifying lens; normally it is hidden by the brilliance of the stone.
2.      But as I reacclimatized and my surroundings once again became familiar, it occurred to me that the house had not changed in my absence. I had changed. I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country's elite. This realization angered me; staring at my reflection in the speckled glass of bathroom mirror I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.
3.      I had not shaved my two week old beard. It was, perhaps, a form of protest on my part, a symbol of my identity.
4.      Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one's boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be.
5.      Often, during my stay in your country, such comparisons troubled me. In fact, they did more than trouble me: they made me resentful. Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed.

About the Author. . .

Mohsin Hamid is an acclaimed and award-winning Pakistani writer. He has written two other novels, namely, Moth Smoke and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia. His novels are considered contemporary and depictive of modern South Asian fiction. He is known to be experimental in his writing, opting for unconventional styles such as the use of dramatic monologue.

Mohsin Hamid spent his childhood in the United States, and later returned to Lahore where he studied at the Lahore American School. He went back to pursue his higher education, and graduated from Princeton in 1993. He then attended Harvard Law School studying Corporate Law, and took up a consulting job with McKinsey & Company based in New York. He currently lives in Lahore with his wife and daughter, alternating his time between Lahore, London, and the United States. He regularly writes journalistic pieces on art, literature, and politics for the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian.

Where to grab a copy. . .



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