Conflicted Identities in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Terrorist”

At the table of an unassuming cafe in Old Anarkali market, Lahore, Changez relates the story of his citizenship within America and charts the nature of his stay. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid is able to successfully employ a rare style of dramatic monologue which allows Changez to create all of the narrative, without any permeation or interruption from the ‘American’ who remains deliberately covert to enhance the storyline’s mystique. Hamid uses both structural and linguistic techniques to explore the theme of conflicting identity. In fact, both within Hamid’s novel and within another novel of displacement, John Updike’s Terrorist, there are several characters who appear to express opacity in terms of their true identities.

Changez’s friend and failed lover Erica seems to lack any genuine conviction to redevelop her identity after the loss of Chris, her late boyfriend. Changez claims that she became dangerously introspective, stating ‘Her eyes turned inward,… she was struggling against a current that puled her within herself,’. The repetition of ‘her’ creates a centralized image of self-entrapment. Culture is an important pointer regarding where an individual possesses a certain identity, for example Changez feels a sense of belonging in the world of commerce, with Underwood Samson. However, when culture changes, such as the catalytic movement of 9/11, some individuals become displaced from previously solid foundations. Hamid uses dramatic monologue for two key reasons, with the intent of searching deeper into many of Changez’s moral questions, inside views and beliefs. It also purportedly distorts the legitimacy of the truth, after all, the charisma and pride of Changez would certainly be reason enough for the mild embellishment, which is acknowledged by Changez himself, stating ‘it may be that I am inclined to exaggerate these irritants in retrospect,’ which is an interesting self-acknowledgement. Changez’s identity is seen with clarity throughout the novel, of course, he is a hybrid, he didn’t fit in either of racial appropriations in America. However, in the early months of Changez’s residence, he takes a belonging in New York, claiming ‘[he] was immediately a New Yorker’. The word immediately in italics highlights the fact that Changez has rapidly found an identity in the metropolis.

The comic ‘cosmopolitan’ description of the hustle of New York ensues a series of unanswered questions in the novel, quintessential of the elusive Changez. For example, Changez makes several references to homosexuality which could infer that perhaps Changez’s identity is different to his facade of righteousness. His reluctant friendship with Jim seems to emphasize this point, however Changez evades this question from the American. Unanswered questions are commonplace in the novel, leading to assumption and prejudice about the way in which Changez acts. This element of sub-textual activity is prevalent too in Updike’s novel Terrorist. Ahmad, the radical Muslim schoolboy, proves that a level of unexpected underlying emotion exists within multiple characters. He, explicitly advocates a method of life that is ‘clean and pure’, regarding sexual activity and interaction with ‘godless’ Christian Americans. However, it is clear that a permeation of natural emotion embroils the radical into a state of moral turpitude. The lust narrated exemplifies this dichotomy between religion and humanity, Ahmad takes an interest in Joryleen’s ‘breasts’ and ‘lips’ which are both cultural symbols of sexuality. An intelligent analogy of this disparity between the fullness of one identity and the permeation of a subdued interfering identity is regarding Ahmad’s eye. It reads “As Ahmad widens his eyes, staring into so much injustice, Jack notices that his irises are not plain black but with a greenish tinge in their brown, a pinch of Mulloy in him.” This description indicates an identity-based imperfection, perhaps proving that there is a range of characters within one identity; it is for the individual to decide which one prevails.

Identity in the form of belonging with Erica is an odd case. Erica seems to accept her receding nature and is unchallenged by Changez to re-emerge from the darkness of her misguided acquiescence after the death of Chris. Her identity certainly changes after the event of 9/11, claiming it had ‘churned up old thoughts’. Changez notices a bruise on the ‘top of her rib cage’ which could be read allegorically as a bruise from the scarring events of the terror attack. Erica takes an interest in the isolate nature of islands, Changez observes that the decor and artwork in her ‘penthouse’ resemble islands. He states, “As we were leaving her room, I noticed a sketch on the wall. It depicted under stormy skies a tropical island with a runway and a steep volcano; nestled in the caldera of a volcano was a lake with another, smaller island in it – an island on an island – wonderfully sheltered and calm.” The phrases ‘sheltered and calm’ indicate an unhealthy comfort. There are clear struggles within Erica’s mind, whether to move on and develop new relations, or whether to move ‘one step within herself’. Changez fails to intervene which is a criticism of his actions in the novel, after all, she only ignites and accelerates her own downfall as she lacks challenge or check in the way of friendship.

This situation recalls that of Ahmad in Terrorist. When thoughts stay in an incubatory fashion, they tend to become overly complex, stressful and dangerous. The mind has an ability to embellish or over exaggerate certain issues, which could lead to more harmful circumstances than if these thoughts were mitigated. Contextually, Ahmad has never met his father, his thoughts of his father are most definitely positive and of demigod-like praise. The father left his family when Ahmad was young, and most importantly was irreligious and secular, the opposite of the sacred Ahmad. Ahmad over years of thought and concern moves to the false conclusion that his father is a man of moral and strength, which in fact is not correct. Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, comically states ‘[Ahmad] has no illusions about his father. I’ve made it very clear to him what a loser his father was’ In fact, Ahmad does of course have these stated illusions and thus it is an interesting concept of such thoughtless delusion.

Changez, at the culmination of the novel, is involved in a complex moral dichotomy regarding his true identity. In a manner that recalls Camus’ The Fall. Hamid’s inclusion of the culturally external ‘Juan Bautista’ ‘added considerable momentum to [his] inflective journey, a journey that continues to this day.’ Bautista questions ‘plunged [him] into a deep bout of introspection’ which led Changez to evaluate his circumstances in America, disbanding his ‘janissarian’ operations. Opposing the question, often there is a need for another individual to catalyze the thoughts and provoke introspection to discover an identity. The self-comforting nature of the mind perhaps allows substandard values to fester and normalise, which takes another person to deconstruct. Whilst the novel does comply to rushed time constraints at the finale, Changez does act rationally with his morals in a bid to relinquish his ‘focus[sing]on the fundamentals’. His return and rediscovery of what is important in his life leads him back to the differing land of Pakistan. A large move in terms of culture, but it seems that America had rejected his perceived identity, an identity that once served him an ‘advantage’ in the business arena. Ahmad’s morals do subvert his external facade in the end of the novel when he reconsiders taking the lives of innocent people in the name of Allah. It takes Jack Levy to catalyze this moral reboot and thus again, the fight of a ‘divided man’s conversation with himself’ requires the nature of a stable identity, regardless of their mundanity, to reinvigorate a new, more morally cooperative identity. Levy says ‘Thank God.. You saw the light!’ This light seems to present immorality as darkness and moral courage and strength as a light.

Changez and Ahmad certainly do share similarities in their evolution of moral identity. They do also share a similarity of the need for another person to intervene or provoke thoughts within themselves. The fight of mental identity seems to create an element of detachment from society, demonstrated by Erica. Extensively, it seems as if those who lack moral groundings are quick to cling on to any form of stability, such as Changez does in the early days of his residence in New York. 9/11 clearly provokes thoughts and feelings about the good and bad of American society for the protagonists. The way that the immigrant Changez experiences blatant racism as a result of his ‘skin’ seems to prove that perhaps identity is portrayed by others onto him. Hamid clearly uses the dramatic monologue to effect, as we see deeper introspection by Changez regarding his moral compass, a technique that allows the reader to challenge his or her own conception of identity.