This conversation made me think of some of my own experiences while traveling abroad. On a coach tour of Britain once I bristled inwardly when my dining companions – a south African couple and an elderly Australian, all polite and well-meaning but also largely uninformed about the world outside their backyards – made a stereotypical remark about Indians. I don’t even recall the specific point (it was probably something innocuous like one of them being surprised that I could speak fluently in English) but I remember the brief, intense feeling of indignation. It was unnerving to experience this, because I’m not patriotic in the way the term is normally used, and I’ve been dissociated from many of the important elements of Indian-ness: religion, rituals, strong family ties among them. But there was clearly something at work under the surface. (Of late I've felt similarly when a foreigner who has no understanding of the evolution of Indian cinema and the function it serves for the country’s mass audience makes a disparaging remark about Bollywood; never mind that I enjoy making fun of it myself.)
Mohsin Hamid’s powerful novella The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of a man who is surprised by the intensity of his reactions when he perceives a threat to his cultural identity. Changez is a young Pakistani who graduates from Princeton University and then gets a job working as a “fundamentalist” at a prestigious valuation firm named Underwood Samson. The company shares more than its initials with the United States: from the moment Changez begins working there, and living in New York, he feels like he is part of a great melting pot. When he first speaks of this, while describing a “new-hire induction” celebration, there is a mixture of pleasure and unease in his tone – happiness at being accepted combined with apprehension about the subsuming of his individuality. Even as he and his colleagues toast each other, something inside him rallies against being homogenised, and it’s interesting that he expresses this in military terms.
I looked around as we raised our glasses in a toast to ourselves. Two of my five colleagues were women; Wainwright and I were non-white. We were marvelously diverse…and yet we were not: all of us, Sherman included, hailed from the same elite universities – Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale; we all exuded a sense of confident self-satisfaction; and not one of us was either short or overweight. It struck me that shorn of hair and dressed in battle fatigues, we would have been virtually indistinguishable.“Beware the Dark Side, young Skywalker,” a colleague tells Changez at the induction party. This is said in jest, but the Star Wars legend of a youngster who betrays his own kind for an evil Empire, in the process losing his soul and turning into a mechanical man, will uncomfortably resonate with Changez’s own integration into American life. Later in the narrative, he will hear about the janissaries, “the Christian boys who were captured and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world…they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to”. These analogies will tap into his deep-rooted fears: the fear of contributing to the wealth-generation of the most powerful empire in the world even while his own country languishes in poverty and he feels like a stranger on each successive visit to Lahore. The fear of a shrinking “global world” where “global” is defined in terms of the US model. The fear of becoming, inadvertently, a foot-soldier in America’s march of progress.
It’s important to note that Changez doesn’t hail from a very orthodox background. His family is part of Lahore’s old rich, now struggling to keep up with the times, and most of them, the women included, are working professionals. At one point his mother, worried about his refusal to get married, asks him if he’s gay: it’s a hesitant question, not indicative of complete openness between mother and son, but in more traditional Pakistani households it would not have been possible to even broach such a topic. And nothing in Changez’s own attitude suggests the sort of conservatism that might lead to a reflexive hitting out against the Western way of life: he has an easygoing relationship with his colleagues and friends in New York, he has “experienced all the intimacies college students commonly experience”, and American pop-culture references come naturally to him, as they do to most urban youngsters around the world. **
And yet this young man, who would certainly at some point have thought of himself as a citizen of the world, unconfined by narrow domestic walls, slowly becomes defensive about his identity. Early on, he has already been discomfited by little things: watching his colleagues part with large sums of money, for instance, reminds him of the poverty in his country, and on a business trip to Manila he is mortified to discover that even this (Eastern) city is so much wealthier than Lahore: “I felt like a distance runner who thinks he is not doing too badly until he glances over his shoulder and sees that the fellow who is lapping him is not the leader of the pack but one of the laggards.” But after the 9/11 attacks and the racial profiling that accompanies it, he becomes ever more conscious of the need to define himself, and this leads to disaffection with his adopted country.
Changez’s dilemmas are complicated by his feelings for a girl named Erica, a fellow Princetonian; they become close but she is haunted by her memories of a deceased boyfriend, and an awkward lovemaking scene shows us that Changez’s relationship with her mirrors his relationship with the US – he can possess her only by pretending to be someone he is not, by relinquishing his own sense of self. However, Hamid is too sensitive a writer to use the relationship as a mere symbol. It’s a movingly explored subplot in its own right (seen in isolation, it reminded me of the central relationship in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood) and it gives us crucial insights into Changez’s character in emotional rather than ethnical terms. There is more than one indication that if this relationship had worked out it would have been easier for him to resolve his other conflicts.
But this is not to be, which is why we get Changez’s story in the first person a few years after he left the US for good and returned to Pakistan. In a charming narrative device he doesn’t directly address us; instead he’s talking to an American tourist whom he encounters one evening in Lahore and has a long conversation with over tea and dinner (we never hear the tourist’s voice, only Changez’s). His general tone is deferential and hospitable, but there are traces of bitterness, even sarcasm, when he speaks of America. And though Hamid ends the book on an ambiguous note, refusing to divulge the extent to which Changez has traded one fundamentalism for another, we understand how an unbridgeable divide, an atmosphere of mutual distrust, can be created between cultures. That the protagonist here is a “normal” young man, easy to identify with (and not the fundamentalist suggested by the menacing close-ups on the book’s cover and its green-and-white colour scheme), makes this understanding even more potent.
** Significantly, though Changez relishes the symbolism of the 9/11 attacks and the way they brought a mighty power to its knees, he admits to being moved by the deaths of beloved characters on American TV shows. Don’t we all know of people who, despite having been weaned on American pop-culture (Hollywood films, music, sitcoms), felt a peculiar sense of vindication about the events of September 11?