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
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