On the right side of wrong – a review of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, packs a punch. Despite its neat format, it manages to take on grand themes while keeping the plot very tight. The reader is introduced to narrator Changez Khan at a teahouse in Lahore, Pakistan. “Come, tell me, what were you looking for?” he asks a mysterious and nameless American, inviting him to sit down for tea. Changez begins telling his story, with intermittent pauses for remarks about curious passerbys and the Pakistani food brought to their table. Slowly, the story unfolds: Changez, hailing from a once-aristocratic Pakistani family, got his undergraduate degree from Princeton. Mesmerized by the world of the rich and successful, and driven by a desire to reclaim his family’s lost glory, he landed a job at fictitious valuation firm Underwood Samson in Manhattan. During this time, he also initiated a relationship with fellow Princetonian Erica, portrayed as a talented writer haunted by past trauma.
Changez quickly climbed the corporate ranks but maintained a certain disdain about the underlying values of the world of high finance. While away doing a valuation on a music recording business, he turns on the TV and sees the Twin Towers collapsing. This is clearly a pivotal point of the story; Changez describes how his initial reaction was to smile, at “the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.” For the first time in the book, Changez’s behavior is something else than impeccable. Upon returning to New York, he is met by discriminating slurs while growing increasingly disillusioned with the dream of meritocracy and Americanness. The phrase “focus on the fundamentals”, Underwood Samsons informal slogan and a call to corporate rationale, begins ringing more and more hollow. And at the same time, America is building up an aggressive foreign policy, tension rises in Pakistan and Changez finds himself at a crossroads between two identities.
It is easy to view The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a story about how discrimination and prejudice eventually lead to alienation. But our group discussion centered more on how Changez develops his integrity and moral character, stepping up to slay the proverbial dragon that is his insecurity about himself – an echo of Shakespeare’s classic lineTo thine own self be true. While having a clear political undertone, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is above all about finding one’s inner voice and doing the right thing. The title of the book itself – a play on Changez’s two phases of fundamentalism, first as a corporate soldier and then as a critic of America, neither of which he felt comfortable surrendering to in its entirety – suggests that idealism is incompatible with intellectual honesty. It suggests that in order to be true to ourselves, we must step away from preconceived notions and cut our own way through the underbrush. In a time of increasing political and social polarization, perhaps that is a message we should all give heed to.