The Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s classic poem fixes his gaze on an innocent wedding guest and does not relent until he has told him his long and angst –ridden tale. In much the same way, Changez, the narrator of Mohsin Hamid’s slim but powerful new novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist sits down a considerably less innocent and increasingly ominous American listener in a restaurant in Old Anarkali in Lahore and unburdens himself in an elegant monologue.
In a voice that attracts and engages from the word go, Changez tells the story of how his great American dream- that could easily be the American dream of so many from the sub-continent- went sour after 9/11. As the Lahore afternoon melts into a spring evening and then finally into night, Changez tells how he, a scion of a classy but no longer such a rich Lahore family, made it to the magic world of the Ivy League club. He joined Princeton, swimming successfully through the net of standardized admission tests, essays, recommendations, interviews that the American academic system flings far and wide to get hold of the best and brightest. He even got financial aid, that topping that makes this dish virtually irresistible. In return he was expected to contribute his talents to the society that he was joining and Changez did that happily- at least at first, making it to his senior year without receiving a single B. He even began to romance Erica, a beautiful, honest-to-goodness American girl He went on to be recruited by a highly sought after New York valuation firm, a firm that guaranteed a youngster a base salary of eighty thousand dollars and a branding that ensured that after two or three years with them the young analyst could enter the next stage of the dream- an admission to Harvard Business School. Changez took to all this with an unbridled enthusiasm, enjoying for the most part the apparent logic of a system that puts so much stress on efficiency and professionalism- to all effects and purposes, an uncompromising meritocracy. He enjoyed being a New Yorker, so much at home there and so much bang in the middle of the anonymous mix that the Big Apple brings about that people even ask him the way. Apparently there his race, religion, colour do not matter; only his ability to contribute to the American system does. And his attempt to become part of the ruling class reaches its height when on a professional trip to Manila, he finds himself assertively ordering around men who are his father’s age and answering “ New York” when asked where he comes from.
But the American persona is only skin deep and that too not worn with total comfort. Changez is and will remain a Pakistani. He likes eating at the Pak Punjab Deli, is excited that New York taxi drivers speak Urdu, lives like an Asian prince on campus but does three on campus jobs too. As he says: “ Princeton made everything possible for me. But it did not, could not, make me forget such things as how much I enjoy the tea in this, the city of my birth, steeped long enough to acquire a rich, dark colour, and made creamy with fresh, full-fat milk.” The dichotomy of his existence comes to the fore is a sudden climactic moment when he sees the twin towers of New York crumbling into dust on his TV screen. “ I stared as one- and then the other- of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” He hardly believes it himself that a man who has studied in an American university, received an American salary, loved an American woman could react in this fashion but people reacted in all sorts of ways to the “fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.” Changez reaction is the reaction of an outsider to the overbearing brashness and arrogance with which he has been forced to live, by the lure of obvious benefits and under cover of high-sounding values.
After that the ground begins to slip from under his feet. His skin and religion can no longer be ignored as America goes into xenophobic overdrive. Erica is increasingly obsessed with her former lover- now dead- and Changez can only helplessly watch as she withdraws into herself and then into a mental institution and then finally vanishes. Changez loses interest in his job, searches his soul for his true identity, even grows a beard and while asked to value a publishing firm in Valparaiso spends his time visiting the house of Pablo Neruda. Correctly deciphering his tussle, the publisher acquaints him with the concept of the janissary- young Christian boys who were trained to fight in the Ottoman army against the Christians themselves. Is he a modern-day janissary, Changez asks himself, as the US goes to war against Afghanistan? Is he helping fuel a system that is raining death on his co-religionists?
Resentment takes over- resentment against the system that he sees as increasingly dominating, arrogant and unfeeling. And resentment at himself for having become, or tried to become, part of that system. He decides to opt out, accompanied by the inevitable suspicious glares and questioning of motives. Back home in Pakistan and comfortable in his own skin, he becomes a sort of leader of anti- American protests as the war with Afghanistan and Iraq continues. As he tells his American visitor, that after 9/11 : “ You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantums…..” And yet he cannot take America out of his system- he still subscribes to the Princeton Alumni Weekly and dreams of a life with the long lost Erica because “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 preciously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us.” An ominous suspense builds up towards the end of the novel. Who really is the American visitor? Just a helpless listener to the tale or a man on a mission?
Hamid handles difficult issues with a deft and sensitive touch. The double vision of an outsider who can see both the good and bad of a society, the desire to belong in a new and successful environment combined with the undeniable feeling that at some level one is always going to belong somewhere else, the shock of finding out that despite all the necessary qualifications one can never truly be a first citizen in a foreign land- these and other issues are explored gently but resolutely in this spare and gripping narrative.