The Reluctant Fundamentalist
To Celebrate, or to Decry, Religion: Fiction by Zadie Smith and Mohsin Hamid
In White Teeth by Zadie Smith and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, the authors demonstrate the different ways that religion can become a factor in cultural tradition and in friction between different racial groups and nationalities. The character of Changez Khan in The Reluctant Fundamentalist becomes a defender of jihadi ‘fundamentalist’ actions through outside events and as a reaction to American aggression, rather than as an expression of true internal Islamic beliefs. Other characters, however, associate him with the Muslim faith due to his country of origin and culture, and religion appears inextricable from culture throughout the novel. Smith’s approach diverges to some extent from Hamid’s, as White Teeth explores the extent to which its characters try to form precise identities through tension with their original religions and cultures.
For example, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the first physical characterisation of Changez given to the reader is his ‘beard’, in the opening paragraph. Although the vernacular here, which Changez maintains throughout, is extremely polite and initially phatic (as his first sentence is ‘Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?’: a phrase that could even appear willingly subservient) the unnamed American is ‘alarmed’. Hamid then exhibits the implied assumptions, which the American has presumably made in order to be afraid, in the sentence, ‘Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America’. A beard within in the setting of Lahore implies a commitment to the Islamic faith, as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Hanbali and Shia schools of religious law encourage men to grow beards in order to emulate the Prophet. The setting is only revealed to the reader later, however, so all they have to infer Changez’s alarming qualities from is the second half of the sentence, ‘I am a lover of America’. As this implied statement of his foreignness completes the description of his traditionally religious appearance, Hamid links culture and religion as associated and equal threats to a white American citizen.
Changez describes the past relationship of Erica and Chris after she has left him, saying ‘Perhaps the reality of their time together was as wonderful as she had, on more than one occasion, described to me. Or perhaps theirs was a past all the more potent for its being imaginary. I did not know whether I believed in the truth of their love; it was, after all, a religion that would not accept me as a convert. But I knew that she believed in it, and I felt small for being able to offer her nothing of comparable splendour instead.’ If Erica and Changez’s relationship is interpreted as representative of his ultimately unsuccessful infatuation with the West, then it is significant that the previous love between two Americans is a ‘religion that would not accept (him) as a convert’: he cannot replace the American Chris or truly emulate his life. Hamid therefore may be implying that to the West, religion and culture are inextricable. The description of these two Americans’ relationship specifically centres on ambiguity over how much was ‘imaginary’, although Changez questions through emphatic italicization whether the truth of this American religion matters as much as this particular individual’s faith: ‘I knew that she believed in it’. Hamid continues the lexical field of religion in his mention of its ‘splendour’ as well, a word often associated with ‘God’s light’, and when Changez sees Erica later at the clinic, he describes her as looking ‘devout’ and starved, as though she has been ‘too consumed by prayer’ to eat. Changez also describes the downfall of Erica as ‘powerful nostalgia’, clearly echoing the condemnation of ‘crippling nostalgia’ in America. This force is a connection that Changez cannot understand, as he is outside of it, and acts as an illogical compulsion. This conceptual metaphor, stretching across the novel as it does, frames an American presence as a religious one, as though to clarify to Hamid’s Western audience that patriotic connection to the United States could be as mystifying and threatening to someone from Pakistan (even one capable of being comfortable in America) as Islam could potentially be to them. Arguably, as personal religion does not affect Changez’s life in isolation, but the confusion and appeal to faith over logic of American nostalgia does harm Erica, Hamid even portrays the appeal of America as a more powerful dogmatic religious force within the novel than Islam itself.
Changez identifies himself with the ‘janissaries’ of the Ottoman empire, observing ‘I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine’. This ‘kinship’ is one of both race and religion, which form a more convincing, familial connection than his geographical one to America when he lived there. Although the janissaries were Christians forced to serve for a Muslim army, suggesting that the Islamic religion itself is not inherently exploited by others or indeed necessary to the allegory, the fact that he sees himself as metaphorically serving another religion as well as a rival nation reinforces the idea of Americanism as a religion. The location of this epiphany corroborates a prioritisation of ideological ‘kinship’ over geographical loyalty: in Chile, there is nobody he knows or cares about, but Juan-Batista influences him significantly due to the anti-American outlook that they share. His decision to grow a beard also stems from this visit: religion is again an instrument in resentment against a nation.
In White Teeth, Smith portrays Islam disconnected from culture through the character of Millat Iqbal, as Smith contextualises his conversion to the fundamentalist group K.E.V.I.N. by Western culture more than by the traditional Muslim upbringing that Samad had, which he tries to bestow upon the more academic twin Magid through sending him to Bangladesh. Millat’s obsession with American gangster movies influences his journey into fundamentalism: when trying to reject thoughts of the films, the recurring reference to Goodfellas in his mind, ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’, becomes ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Muslim’. This clear parallelism may emphasise the lack of any original, purely introspection-inspired motivation behind his desire to join K.E.V.I.N., but Smith is also demonstrating that this decision originates from a compulsion towards the clear order of an organisation like the mafia. Unlike his twin, Millat has stayed in multicultural, confused London as a second-generation immigrant with little sense of his roots, and as a result his mind is a ‘mess’ of West and East, requiring any structure or connection to his own culture. Ironically, by joining this organisation, he also rejects his cultural roots by turning away from his father’s form of Islam and guidance. The organisation of young men are all seeking their own religious origins through the ‘fundamentals’, as Millat describes ‘clean living, praying (five times a day without fail), fasting, working for the cause, spreading the message’, although he admits that it ‘pissed him off that were not pious thoughts’ and hesitantly adds ‘And that was enough, wasn’t it? Maybe. Whatever’, teenage vernacular imbuing his introversion with a dismissive shallow attitude towards deeper faith. The missing connection to culture and faith here is therefore within the mind, and in the deeper contemplation or compassion that these directionless young men lack.
Samad is a displaced Muslim character, similar to Changez. Although he has moved to a Western culture, however, Samad clings to his faith in the face of Smith’s diverse London, what Irene Pérez Fernández describes as a ‘multicultural space where a homogenous cultural identity is questioned’ or ‘a hybrid reality that for (Smith) is not extraordinary or magical but a part of (her) ordinary life’. He maintains a single identity, unlike the more confused second-generation characters, through his religion and his deeper mental connection – untainted by Western contextualisation unlike his son. He sees his roots as intrinsic, as he explains to Arthur: ‘”I don’t eat [pork] for the same reason you as an Englishman will never truly satisfy a woman … It’s in our cultures, my friend.” He thought for a minute. “Maybe deeper. Maybe in our bones.”’ His pause for thought, replicated by an actual break in the reported speech, and the anaphora of ‘Maybe’ subverts his actual word, as though he is uncertain about this supposedly certain fact of his identity. Smith also appears to criticise this interpretation within the text, however, by having him drink and commit adultery: his loyalty appears to be to a cultural ideal of religion rather than the religious tenets themselves. Smith also declares ‘If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister.’ Religion does not act alone here; Samad commits the ‘sinister’ act of effectively kidnapping his own son due to an idea of cultural tradition in his head rather than a commitment to Allah, as the surroundings provide a cultural external force: Magid could have simply become more devout anywhere. He appears to be far more certain in his religious identity than Millat, but the maintenance of cultural traditions in combination with Islam causes him to tear his family apart.
Contrastingly, Smith evokes a complete rejection of roots through the character of Clara Bowden and her decision to leave behind religion. Her family are also inextricable from their identity as Jamaican Jehovah’s Witnesses, so Clara has consciously decided to disrupt that emotional connection as well as their inherited culture. Smith hints, however, that due to her upbringing, she may always be resisting an urge to relapse into faith. When she chastises her mother for influencing Irie, Smith undermines her words: ‘”Hortense, I don’t want you filling her head with a whole load of nonsense. You hear me? Your mother was fool to it, and then you were fool to it, but the buck stopped with me and it ain’t going no further. If Irie comes home spouting any of that claptrap, you can forget about the Second Comin’ ‘cos you’ll be dead by the time it arrives.” Big words. But how fragile is Clara’s atheism!’ The mention of ‘the buck’ stopping with Clara acknowledges that faith is her cultural legacy, and while ‘it ain’t going no further’ appears to emphatically deny the possibility of Irie succumbing, the fact that she has to violently warn her mother away demonstrates how ‘fragile’ Clara’s resolution is. The abrupt two-word sentence ‘Big words’ also imparts a cynical, unimpressed narrative voice through a bathetic contrast with the previous sentences’ dramatic invocation of ‘the Second Coming’. These ‘big words’ stand out as denial particularly because Clara is such a practical character, as demonstrated by Smith when the character gradually decides to break away from religion: ‘The more blessed she felt on earth, the more rarely she turned her thoughts toward heaven. In the end, it was the epic feat of long division that Clara simply couldn’t figure. So many unsaved. Out of eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses, only 144,000 men could join Christ in heaven.’ By rejecting her own roots and religion, Clara also rejects ‘division’. This loss of identity is therefore actually quite positive within context: unlike Samad, Clara’s lack of connection to her culture is a choice, and therefore she can derive meaning from it rather than clinging to religion.
The critic James Wood criticised Smith as participating in a common contemporary trait of ‘hysterical realism’, a ‘fear of silence’ that prioritises dense stories and sub-stories over any real portrayal of human beings. This accusation of social and theoretical ‘glitter’ may appear justified in the use of religion as interconnected with her theme of cultural and racial roots, rather than as a personal experience tied to the characters, but it could be argued that the confusion of motivations behind each character’s interaction with religion only accurately reflects modern misconceptions. As Smith replied, her writing is a response to confused times: ‘laughter in the dark’, with a ‘useful employment’ of both head and heart in order to create empathy and analysis. In terms of reception, some have also criticised The Reluctant Fundamentalist for its avoidance of Islam as a religion, separate from culture and country, and the narrator’s personal religious views. Radicalisation expert Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens accused the novel of deliberately building a ‘far too simplistic’ parallel between Islamist fundamentalism and western capitalism, by portraying Changez’s reluctant turn towards fundamentalism as solely a reaction to American politics rather than admitting any real reinvigoration of his Muslim faith. However, the blur between religion and culture within the novel reflects the reality of incorrect assumptions made by Western society overall, similar to the stranger who calls Changez an ‘Arab’ in Chapter 8.
The criticism of religion in these novels depends on a relationship between culture and religion: when characters are separated from their family’s country, their link back to it is through religion, whether forced onto them by the assumptions of others or chosen themselves in a quest for meaning. Hamid’s novel, in considering a wider clash between West and East, focuses on how religion can be a part of assumptions made against another culture: an instrument in cultural biases rather than a choice made by an individual. On the other hand, Smith displays religion as a tie to your roots, which her characters chase after or reject based on their comfort within a multicultural London. Either way, the contemporary writing styles of the authors naturally lend themselves to a political interpretation about the confusion and aggression brought by this ambiguity between culture and religion in a post-9/11 world.
Food Imagery in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist explores the life of Changez in the United States as a young Pakistani man. Throughout the novel, the author switches between two distinctive cultural settings: the United States and a tea shop in Lahore, Pakistan. Additionally, the author also explores the value of food and beverages in certain cultural backgrounds. Hamid uses food imagery to convey cultural values throughout the novel. Throughout the novel, Hamid shows the different views cultures have on alcohol and during which occasions it is used.
Even though Changez may seem like a character with strong religious morals, he is not. While talking to Erica, he mentioned that “alcohol was illegal for Muslims to buy and so [he] had a Christian bootlegger” (27) deliver alcohol to his house. Changez’s relationship with alcohol does not stop there, since he “[polished] off a third of a bottle of whiskey before [he] was able to fall asleep” (100) after watching television and feeling down. Additionally, this was not a usual nor regular occurrence for Changez as he has received the news that Americans were invading Afghanistan, which infuriated him. The use of alcohol in the Pakistani culture is used in a secretive way, yet in Changez’s case it is used as a method to relieve stress or fall asleep. The author highlights the fact that Changez’s morals and loyalties are not straight as a Muslim man, which could also influence the way his character is perceived. Contrarily from the Pakistani population, Americans use alcohol as a form of celebration or in a special event. When Changez went to have dinner with Erica and her parents, the father’s first suggestion was to ask if Changez drank as “he lifted a bottle of red wine” (53). On the other hand, Erica’s mother replied “He’s twenty-two (…) in a tone that suggested, so of course he drinks” (53). Since Erica’s father thought that none of the Pakistanis drink, both of the parents’ replies were stereotypical assumptions towards Changez and his culture. One thinking that as a twenty-two year old, it is obvious that he will drink since it is passed legal age in the United States. The other parent saying that since he once had a Pakistani working for him who did not drink, then all Pakistani men were non-drinkers. Although something that Erica’s parents may not have known is that “many Pakistanis drink; alcohol’s illegality in [Pakistan] has roughly the same effect as marijuana in [America]” (53). Hamid suggests that not knowing cultural background, it could lead to assumptions and misunderstandings, which happened in this case with Changez and Erica’s father. This leads to how the author uses alcohol to represent different cultural values throughout the story: Changez, a representation of Pakistani men, does not have his morals straight with alcohol as Americans do, who drink as a form of enjoyment.
The author, during many occasions in the novel, makes use of food imagery to connote the different ways food is valued and shared in both backgrounds. The Pakistani culture is shown to have authentic food and have people to have pride in it, too. Changez explained to the American the significant role food played in his hometown, and generally in Pakistan. Changez mentioned how “[the American] must not pass such an authentic introduction to Lahori cuisine” since it was a “purely carnivorous feast” (101). The author illustrates s that “Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in [their] food” (101) which shows the value of food in that culture. The traditional meals such as “kebab of mutton, the tikka of chicken, the stewed foot of goat…” (101) express the value that Pakistanis have for their meals. On the other hand, although not quite as sophisticated, Changez recalls him sharing “tea and cucumber sandwiches” (59) with his family in the foothills of the Himalayas. This emphasizes the idea of the value of sharing food with those close to you, since it is a precious gift. However, in the United States, sharing meals and food is not viewed as a value, but more as a common thing to do. For Changez, the fact that Erica “spread jam on a croissant, gave half to [him]” (19) seemed quite normal, since he got used to the American culture. Erica seamlessly shared her croissant with him, which exemplifies that it is something she does without thinking, and is not viewed as a ‘value’ but more as a norm. A gesture as small as sharing a sandwich or croissant has different meaning behind it in different cultures. Hamid shows the importance and value of sharing food in the Pakistani culture since they pride their food as opposed to the Americans, who share theirs without having second thoughts.
Furthermore, Hamid uses the quality of the food to express the value of it between the two distinctive cultures in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The Pakistani culture does not value the appearance of the food, but more the inner quality and what it brings to a person. The author evokes this through Changez, who has experienced both the luxury and simplicity of food in different cultural areas. At Erica’s house one night, he “ate only bread and drank only water, a tasteless meal” (107) that eventually kept him full. Even though his family was said to be wealthy, he enjoyed “tea and cucumber sandwiches” (59) with them although it was not a lavish meal. In contrast, Hamid makes the American culture value the sophistication of their food more than its quality. Changez described how “the setting was superb, the wine was delicious, the burgers were succulent” (54) in the home of Erica’s parents. Changez describes the settings and food in a particularly formal way, which demonstrates how sophisticated the food is to Americans. Erica and Changez have also experienced a quite fancy picnic with “wine, fresh-baked bread, sliced meats, several difference cheeses and grapes – a delicious (…) and a rather sophisticated assortment” (58). Once again, in a picturesque background, the author shows the value of the American culture by luxurious food and contrasts it with Pakistani’s value of simplicity. This demonstrates the author’s opinion on the importance of sophistication in the United States as opposed to Pakistan.
All in all, by using specific food and beverage imagery, the author manages to create and convey specific cultural values throughout the novel. Hamid explores different ways alcohol is valued, as either a way of celebrating or a way of relieving stress. Moreover, food sharing was also portrayed as an important value for both cultures in different ways, showing that they are somehow similar despite their differences. Also, the plainness and the finesse of the food also brought up the idea of the importance of quality in America versus Pakistan. Hamid conveys different aspects of how food is valued in the United States and Pakistan by creating important scenes where it is used to explore distinctive cultural values and backgrounds.
Silencing the American: A Limitation or Success?
Following a tradition in anything is easy. The pattern is set, the style defined. Only your originality is required and there you go with the flow. But it is certainly very difficult to go against the main current, challenging traditional stock and daring to create your own methods and ways. You risk it all. You are never sure of what might follow as your reward of changing the track, never certain about how the world might react to the shift. But that’s the dare!
Mohsin Hamid, in his famous novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, turns out to be daring enough as to build a separate track for himself to walk on. He chooses a method which is uncanny in the world of writing, giving the one-sided perspective of his Pakistani protagonist while skillfully holding back the reactions of an interlocutor, the American. He seems to have had a lot in mind before daring to forward his work for publication and we can observe that this silencing of the American (read “America”) becomes the strength of the novel rather than a limitation as any traditional, stereotypical writer would have assumed.
Whatever reasons Hamid had in his mind for this silencing of the American, the readers feel a sense of satisfaction in the first place. This urge to be heard, to be given freedom of expression and to have a platform where they could raise a voice (though in a very technical way) has been a desire suppressed in all types of colonized or ex-colonized subjects. The reader enjoys this silencing to a great extent as he feels satisfied from within, not only to have a sort of catharsis through Changez, but also to feel powerful against the ever-dominating suppressor. It feels good for some post-colonial readers to realize by the end of the novel that it wouldn’t allow America any ‘opportunity to respond to the developing critique mounted against it.’ The novel thus becomes something more effective than a reflective mirror for America.
The readers witness Changez’s level of satisfaction while reading the episode of the collapsing Twin-Towers and Changez’s reaction:”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” (Hamid 43). But at the same time, the gestures of the American pull the readers back to the fear again. ‘Your disgust is evident, indeed,’ comments Changez, ‘your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist’ but even that is settled immediately with Changez’s explanation for his feelings. He then, admits his own sense of perplexity at his sense of pleasure at the slaughter of thousands of innocents. He reflects: But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack – death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes – no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees (Hamid 43). Observing that these words only serve to strengthen the discontentment of his American listener; Changez challenges: But surely you cannot be completely innocent of such feelings yourself. Do you feel no joy at the video clips – so prevalent these days – of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies? (Hamid 43).
Another reason of the success of this method is, surely, the involvement of the readers. By silencing one side, Hamid has opened a window of perspectives for the readers as it is entirely up to them to imagine the reaction or response of the American in the way that they choose. Although Changez does guide the readers regarding the gestures and responses of his companion, still the readers have a wide range of choices to pick from and adjust the reaction with that. The readers guess what might be the American’s reaction on receiving a call on his mobile in the presence of Changez. Is he nervous in picking up? Why does he prefer the text-mode over receiving the call? The readers assume many things: Will you not answer it? I assure you, sir, I will do my utmost to avoid eavesdropping on your conversation. But you are opting to write a text message instead; very wise: often a few words are more than sufficient (Hamid 18).
Again, at another point, the readers can assume whatever they feel about the reaction of the American when the ‘lights have gone.’ Changez narrates the gestures of the American in such an interesting way that one cannot help but getting amused over his reaction: But why do you leap to your feet? Do not be alarmed, sir; as I mentioned before, fluctuations and blackouts are common in Pakistan. Really, you are overreacting; it is not yet so dark (Hamid 36). Changez’s description of the American’s reaction is quite sufficient for the readers to evaluate his cowardice: It was nothing more than a momentary disruption. And you—to jump as though you were a mouse suddenly under the shadow of a hawk! (Hamid 36).
Here the pun is self explanatory. The reaction of the American is cowardly, and is compared to the reaction of a mouse under the Hawk’s shadow. The readers can, very rightly, assume that this comparison is between Changez and the American. The power is being shifted, though only symbolically. We can visualize and have a freedom of imagination as far as the American is concerned. Whatever words we want to put into his mouth, we can, whatever actions we want to associate with him, we can. Hamid is giving us an opportunity to actively participate in his novel and the readers, knowingly or unknowingly, get carried away with the flow while giving their own interpretations to the reactions of the American.
Reference: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
True or False: Analyzing Behavior in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the author directs the reader’s attention to the sense of distrust and suspicion that many Americans notably have toward Middle Easterners and Muslims in general after 9/11. By doing so, Hamid is forcing the reader to confront this truth and either relate to it or feel guilty in the realization that it is a reaction based primarily on biases in the media’s description of a terrorist. America’s idea of a terrorist in post-9/11 culture has essentially been boiled down to a Disney villain-esque portrayal of Middle Easterners and Muslims, with the perceived enemy being a dark-skinned, long-bearded, turban-wearing replica of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. Through a carefully constructed narrative that uses one-sided dialogue between the characters Changez and “the American,” Hamid throws this prejudice in the face of the reader, but also cleverly allows room for varying interpretations of the true nature of Changez—is he harmless, or is he exactly what many Americans fear he might be?
The narrator, Changez, is constantly reassuring the American he is telling his story to that he is not in harm’s way. The first few sentences of the novel bring awareness to the reality that the typical Middle Eastern Muslim’s appearance frightens many Americans and puts them on edge. Changez says, “Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America” (1). Having established the commonality of this notion of prejudice toward the bearded-Muslim in American culture, the author proceeds to arouse the reader’s own xenophobic tendencies by portraying Changez as an individual who is overly eager to convince the American character of his innocence. An example of this is evident when Changez is discussing the tea brought in by the waiter. He says, “Do not look so suspicious. I assure you, sir, nothing untoward will happen to you, not even a runny stomach. After all, it is not as if it has been poisoned. Come, if it makes you more comfortable, let me switch my cup with yours. Just so” (11). The fact that the author does not give the American character any dialogue contributes to the dubious nature of Changez because we can only know what the American is thinking or saying via the narrative reaction of Changez. Hamid purposely employs this literary device in order to keep the reader feeling guilty about prejudices but also to retain some degree of truth in the suspicion of ill-will as well. After all, Changez does act bizarrely by approaching the American unsolicited and diving into a lengthy and intimate discussion of his past. Who does this? It is suspicious, and that is exactly what Hamid seeks to capitalize on. There is truth in the argument that Americans—and people in general for that matter—often attribute malevolence to a stranger who is overtly friendly and generous without any known pretext. This could be viewed as unwarranted paranoia, but the fact that this is the method used by many criminals to gain their victims trust also means that it’s naive to not be skeptical as well. It is a dichotomous predicament that evokes notions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and begs the question: Is it paranoia if the suspicion is validated? Such is the case with Hamlet, as he is ultimately murdered just as he feared he would be. Hamid chooses not to provide closure and instead leave the scene up to interpretation.
Hamid seems to enjoy toying with the reader’s feelings toward Changez. Changez’s relationship with Erica can be seen as a parallel to his desire to be accepted and embraced by a nation that is plagued by xenophobia. Erica’s inability to relinquish herself from her past mirrors Americans inability to accept changes (read: Changez) that threaten to erase the nostalgia of pre-9/11 America. Erica wants to love Changez, but she can’t; just as America can’t seem to shake the overwhelming prejudice toward Middle Eastern Muslims despite wanting to view itself as a country tolerant of all races, creeds, and languages. By developing this tragic love story, Hamid aims to create sympathy toward Changez. Why can’t Erica and America accept him for who he is? Why does Changez boss ridicule him for growing a beard? It’s just a beard. At the same time, Hamid also insinuates that Changez is growing resentful of American intolerance. Changez says:
Sometimes I would find myself walking the streets, flaunting my beard as a provocation, craving conflict with anyone foolhardy enough to antagonize me. Affronts were everywhere; the rhetoric emerging from your country at that moment in history—not just from the government, but from the media and supposed critical journalists as well— provided a ready and constant fuel for my anger. (167)
By calling it “your country,” Changez has removed himself from any identification with America. He goes on to say that “[s]uch an America had to be stopped not only in the interest of the rest of humanity, but also in your own” (168). Changez anger and commitment to “stop” America’s current course of anti-Muslim sentiment raises the question, what did he do? This question is never directly answered in the novel. Changez acknowledges this question, saying, “What did I do to stop America, you ask? Have you really no idea, sir? …I will tell you what I did, although it was not much and I fear it may well fail to meet your expectations” (168-9). Despite promising to answer this question, Changez never actually does. He mentions that he became a “lecturer” at a university and “persuaded [students] of the merits of participating in demonstrations for independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs;” however, this hardly addresses the “affronts” that angered Changez so much (179). The open-endedness of this question hints at the idea that the answer is found in the reader’s own interpretation of the end of the novel. Does Changez stop American arrogance and intolerance by showing an American his good nature and friendship by sharing a lunch, divulging intimate details about himself, walking him home, and ending the meeting with a handshake? Or is there something more sinister in the fact that he has the American cornered in a dark deserted street while the waiter “rapidly clos[es] in” and “wav[es] at [Changez] to detain [the American]” (184)? Does Changez stop American intolerance the way the Trenchcoat Mafia kids stopped the bullying at Columbine? Does he subscribe to Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence to address racial intolerance, or Malcolm X’s philosophy of “any means necessary”? Changez claims to be “no ally of killers,” and yet, he also admits to “intervene[ing]” in a “scuffle” that ends up with him having “bruised knuckles” (181; 179). It wouldn’t be accurate, therefore, to say that Changez is completely non-violent and morally incapable of inflicting harm. But to what extent Changez is violent is a question left up to the reader.
Hamid’s brilliant use of the narrative to create both suspicion and guilt in the reader results in a thought-provoking acknowledgement of American paranoia post-9/11. The author’s contrived suspicion toward Changez assists us in identifying our own preconceived notions, either about Muslims or Americans, or both. Many individuals sympathetic to the plight of Muslim acceptance in America post-9/11 may have their own generalized ideas about America’s extent of racial intolerance and, ironically, they may be guilty of their own intolerance toward Americans as a whole. Hamid acknowledges possibility that the reader will be dismayed by the American character’s distrust of Changez, or even have suspicion about the American, and Hamid nurtures this suspicion by purposely portraying the American in a dubious and indiscriminate manner. Hamid even ends the novel with the suspicion that it is the American who is the “undercover assassin,” not Changez (183). Why else would someone so apparently nervous around Middle Eastern Muslims be in Pakistan? Not for vacation, presumably. Still, there is no other real suspicion that is raised about the American in the novel, and the American’s capability to do harm with the ambiguous “glint of metal” in his jacket would appear to result more from a sense of obligation to defend himself from a perceived threat rather than to assassinate Changez (184). Perhaps Hamid is revealing that our suspicions about both characters are completely unfounded on a logical level. Maybe the American is just taking out a “business card” and the waiter just “wants to say goodbye,” as Changez postulates (184). Why must we be so pessimistic and assume that something bad is about to happen, particularly between a Pakistani and an American? These are questions that Hamid raises, and through the narrative he shows us that people tend to let personal biases get in the way of seeing something for what it is and not what it could be. How we as readers interpret the characters in the novel will illuminate the extent to which 9/11 has affected our judgment of ourselves and others, and in this way, Hamid is providing us with a valuable lesson of introspection.
Changez’s Relationship with Erica
Mohsin Hamid’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is an intriguing story of questionable identities and betrayal. The protagonist, Changez, finds himself in a teahouse in Lahore, Pakistan, where he engages in an extended monologue describing his life journey, in the company of an American stranger. Readers are presented with the thrilling and fascinating life of the young Pakistani man, but are also positioned to observe the way Changez’s actions and choices are, to some extent, influenced by the protagonist’s relationship with Erica.
In the initial part of the story, Changez is seen as a very successful individual, graduating ‘summa cum laude’ from the prestigious Princeton University, and being employed as an analyst at Underwood Samson, one of the best valuation firms in New York. Additionally, during his holiday in Greece, he meets Erica, a ‘stunningly regal’ girl who comes from an ‘affluent’ family and seems to impose a ‘magnetism’ upon Changez. At this early stage of the novel, Hamid positions the readers to envisage Changez’s apparent achievement of the American Dream, while also drawing on the positive impact that the ‘lioness’ exerts on the protagonist, as his social life strongly develops, as a result of Erica’s continuous invitations to various events, while his performance at work is better than ever, Changez being ranked first among all starting analysts at the firm. However, the protagonist soon discovers that despite Erica’s magnetism and ‘charming’ personality, ‘something in her eyes (is) broken’. At this point in time, readers can sense that Changez starts to become concerned with Erica’s situation. Nevertheless, his concern is yet to have a negative impact upon his life, and despite her being ‘lost in a world of her own’, the two still manage to sustain their relationship. Except for Changez feeling ‘ashamed’, not even the fact that the protagonist has to pretend being Chris to satisfy Erica shakes their relationship, and does not strongly affect the two lovers. However, the unquantifiable tragedy of 9/11 takes both lovers by surprise and plays the role of the catalyst for the decline of both Changez and Erica.
The collapse of the World Trade Center is seen by the readers as one of the main turning points in Changez’s life, as he suddenly finds himself in a new, unknown environment. He is the subject of racial discrimination on the airports in Manila and New York and is verbally cursed on the train and in the parking area of the New Jersey company. Moreover, Hamid positions the readers to observe the mental breakdown of Erica, which seems to be caused mainly by the theme of death present in New York at that time. Her collapse is obvious for the readers, as she is very fragile and brittle, and nostalgia seems to have taken over her life. Consequently, her relationship with Changez slowly deteriorates, and contributes to the protagonist’s frustration and self-denial, and perhaps adds to the list of countless reasons why he decides to take a trip to Lahore. When he returns, though, he finds Erica living at a clinic, being on the verge of psychological collapse, and Hamid outlines, through Changez’s words, that it ‘pains him’ to see her so ‘detached’ from the real world. At this point, readers sense that Changez is strongly affected by his broken relationship with Erica, as he feels that he has lost her. With these thoughts in mind, he travels to Valparaiso with the purpose of a work assignment, but when he returns, and subsequently loses his job at Underwood Samson, he is told that ‘Erica is gone’. These three words clearly contribute to Changez’s internal suffering, as besides seeing his American Dream collapse, the girl he loves is ‘vanished’. While it’s not the main reason for his permanent departure from America, Erica’s disappearance might have played a role in the protagonist’s decision to return to Lahore. Some readers might think that Juan-Bautista’s story of the janissaries and the fact that Changez has to leave the country due to legal constraints are the only two reasons behind his choice of leaving America, but some might argue that the emotional pain that Changez suffers from throughout the later sequence of his American journey, which is mainly caused by Erica’s collapse and the two lovers’ separation, also plays an important role and affects him to a great extent.
In the final part of Hamid’s novel, readers are positioned to envisage that Changez becomes nostalgic and ‘detached’, thinking of Erica in just the same way that she was thinking of Chris. This gives readers the impression that Erica’s relationship with Changez has affected and still affects the protagonist’s life and decisions to a great extent, as he himself admits that ‘(he) remained emotionally entwined with Erica’ and that during some nights, instead of sleeping he imagines spending a day in her company. Hamid successfully presents readers with the melancholy that surrounds Changez’s life as a result of his now artificial relationship with Erica, and positions them to empathise with the protagonist, who seems to have developed some very dangerous ’emotional scars’ and appeals to become overwhelmingly similar to Erica. Indeed, their relationship affects him to such an extent, that he seems unable to find his place of belonging anymore. Through the use of an inconclusive ending, Hamid leaves space for the readers’ imagination, but most might state that Changez’s situation is very critical, as he himself might become the victim of the ‘illness of the spirit’ from which Erica so profoundly suffered. This thought best illustrates the extent to which Changez’s relationship with Erica affects him, and also alters his choices, as his identity is strongly shaken by her disappearance.
Throughout his American journey, Changez’s relationship with Erica affects him emotionally to a great extent, as her detachment and fragility pain the protagonist. Moreover, their relationship also alters his decisions, as many of the crucial choices that Changez makes throughout the novel are caused, in part or in full, by Erica’s influence. In addition, despite her disappearance, Changez is also strongly affected by their relationship when he returns to Lahore, as he seems to fall in the same nostalgic and melancholic state of spirit as Erica was in the past, a state that can only negatively impact on the protagonist.
Comparative Study of Reluctant Fundamentalist and Auden’s Poetry within the Premise of Power and Tyranny.
The ability of a text to channel a cogent political viewpoint is exemplified within ‘The Unknown Citizen” (1939), in which Auden sympathises with those impacted by political acts of the 20th century manifested within political ideologies fronted by unjust intentions in misrepresenting people for political power. Additionally, in “September 1, 1939” (1939), Auden denounces the dilution of morality in the contemporary era emanating from the rise of autocracies surrounding WWII. Similarly, Hamid’s 2007 novel, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, both repudiates the impact of capitalism on the individual, further denouncing the effect that economic power has on the morality of individuals.
Auden deplores the impact political acts have on individual lives to a substantial extent through the ‘Citizen’. He censures the false façade of political regimes, claiming to represent the people and civil aspirations, however in reality having egotistical motives to enhance their own power. Thus, Auden condemns the impact of this selfishly-motivated hunger for power, sympathising with the victims of economic and bureaucratic political acts; the powerless individual. Influenced by his cynicism following the rise of totalitarianism in Communism in the 20th century, Auden’s identifying of the subject with an alphanumeric identity, “JS/07 M 378”, conveys the loss of both identity and humanity of the individual under extremist ideologies, assessed in Mussolini’s fascist autocracy in Italy. Additionally, Auden’s satirical elegiac form conveys his disapproval of the rise of the modern bureaucracy, revealing his genuine concern for the modern world and the disparity between those in power and those without, imparting to the responder a warning of the dangers of secularised power. This is exposed within the capitalised form of state sanctioned institutions, “The Press”, “The Union”, sardonically conveying the power of the “State” over the individual.
Similarly, Hamid repudiates the impact of economic ideologies on the individual such as Capitalism, however contrastingly reveals how some individuals may resist economic oppression. Embodied within the dominant capitalist America, Hamid denounces the overarching power of economics within the 21st century. Through his bildungsroman, Hamid symbolises Changez’ initial embrace of such power within his metaphor, “something of the outside is now within us”, however juxtaposes this with the loss of culture and identity, “something of us is now outside”. Hence, Hamid deplores the impact of capitalist ideology and its disposition to induce conformity. However, following racial discrimination after 9/11, Hamid reveals the ability of radical individuals to confront and reject compliance, contrary to Auden’s forced political conformity and oppression. This is conveyed through Changez’ character transformation from “a lover of America” to one who is cynical toward capitalist power of the West, alluded to Changez’ language of imperial conquest, “they all seemed to proclaim; We are America, the Mightiest nation in the world”. Through the personification of America, Hamid alludes to the Empire of Genghis Khan, which translates to Changez in Urdu, meaning part of an Imperial Force, in which he is, working with the US to develop American economic power. Due to Underwood Samson’s global reach, he exacerbates the divide between the wealth of capitalist America and the comparatively impoverished regions of the Islamic world Underwood dictate.
Reprimanding the dilution of morality in the 20th century as a result of political acts, Auden addresses the impact of WWII through “September 1, 1939”. Auden’s more esoteric poem, centred around the outbreak of WWII, repudiates the elected neutrality of the United States’, utilising the metaphor of the “fort”, revealing his condemnation of the nation’s retreat into cowardly self-interest. Repudiating this “neutral status”, Auden creates meaning through suggesting a unified moral obligation to defend the “collective man”. Auden’s denunciation of the moral degradation of man is justified within his use of the ignorance of contemporary society, utilising the classical reference in Thucydides to convey how dictators abuse an “apathetic” population to accomplish their ends even in a democratic society such as America. However, the form of dictators within such democracies is not political, but rather is economic power, with Auden’s allusion to capitalism’s dictating of society evident, “where blind skyscrapers… proclaim the strength of Collective Man”. Additionally, in an anguished tone, Auden aligns with Thucydides, condemning the repetition of mistakes, stating “we must suffer them all again”. This is extended through the form of the poem, with the repetition of 11 lines within 9 stanzas suggesting this cyclic failure throughout history. However, Auden ultimately condemns that this neutrality and negligence of morality is unsustainable to humanity through his metaphor, “but who can live for long in an euphoric dream?”, which suggests that the era of “low, dishonest” politicians that seek isolationism in a period of necessary unity will end when the US joins their “collective man” in global conflict.
Similarly, Hamid denounces erosion of morality in the 21st Century, however as a result of the power of monetary value as opposed to political tyranny. Changez’ adoption of the Western world is denounced through Juan-Batista’s “janissary” metaphor, inferring “they were ferocious and utterly loyal; they had fought to erase their own civilisations, so they had nothing else to return to”. Through this admonition to Changez, Hamid’s metaphor extends to condemn the erosive effects of economic imperialism on the degrading of cultural values that manifest morality. Hamid additionally challenges the lack of morality within the machinations of Underwood Samson, symbolising capitalist values of the 21st century, through Juan’s rhetorical question, “does it trouble you to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?”. Hamid’s characterisation of Juan, neglecting capitalism, juxtaposes that of Changez, confronting the wider implications of capitalist values; Juan juxtaposes the capitalist values of Underwood Samson.
Both Auden and Hamid are attuned to the individual’s discontented response to vast historical events. Such a theme is exemplified within “Achilles”, which denounces actions within politics through the state of totalitarian regimes, “Citizen”, sympathising with those impacted by political acts of the 20th century manifested within political and “September”, denouncing the dilution of morality in the contemporary era.