I read this book – ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid almost 10 years after the fatal 9/11 attacks took place in the USA, shattering the myth of the invincibility of American security. I was in school back then and had no semblance of the gravity of the situation except that there was a mourning prayer at the school assembly for the unfortunate victims.
Reading this book later, in my post-graduation with the context of the Afghan war and Taliban and Al Queda gave me a wider perspective to the event – which went before and beyond the attacks. I have watched and read more on the issue ever since, but none stayed with me as much as the Reluctant Fundamentalist, which captured the social and political aftermath of 9/11 from the point of view of a Pakistani man living in America.
Now, after more than 8-10 years, I again felt like going back to the book and writing on it – maybe because once again, America is on a brink of losing its political culture of democracy and equality, which we as Indians have been taught to look up to.
The book begins with its protagonist Changez starting a conversation with an American stranger in a street at the centre of Lahore. He begins to tell the story of a period in his life, far away in time, when after graduating from Princeton, he started working as a financial counsellor for an important company in New York.
Like many others from the developing part of the world, Changez had moved to America in the hope of finding success and money. He had always objected to the condescending manner in which minorities were treated in America, but the suspicion and insecurity that was generated in America against the immigrant ‘brown’ population post 9/11, disenchants him and even makes him antagonistic to the country which, in his opinion, was losing the values of democracy and inclusivity that it once stood for.
It is during this phase that Changez starts moving toward being a fundamentalist, reluctant because it was not a deliberate decision, but rather an unconscious urge to free him from the atmosphere that threatened to undermine his identity as a Muslim.
The book tries to explain why there is so much hostility in Pakistan towards the USA, and it stems from the anger against what America is doing as well as what it isn’t doing. Looking from the perspective of Changez, we are able to understand and even sympathize with an average Pakistani who is caught between the politics of its dominant neighbour, indifferent America which had once been its ally, and its ambivalence towards the identity of Islam which undermines its ability to confront the threat of militant groups in their own country.
The writer does not go the extent of describing the humiliation and torture suffered by those who were apprehended by the authorities on mere suspicion and racial bias, things which we know as bitter facts today. But the subtle discrimination that the protagonist feels, coupled with his own changing perceptions and insecurities with the people, gives us an inkling of the charged atmosphere of the times, of a country which prides over its commitment to liberty, equality, justice and democracy.
Let us now also look at the political and social atmosphere of our own country in the past 5 years. The passing of the Citizen Amendment Act that threatens to disenfranchise its own citizens, the inauguration of Ram Mandir that opened the wounds of some of the most violent riots we had ever seen, the lynchings that are a direct consequence of the dangerously irrational laws on cow protection and love jihad – we may very well be pushing so many of our own youth towards fundamentalism.
Suddenly for many of the aspiring and liberal-minded youth, religion would become a marker of their core identity. Many would have to bear it against their wishes, by facing discrimination and hatred in the workplace, educational institutions and residential colonies.
Many would move back into their protected and segregated spaces. Worse still, many might be influenced by religious leaders and political opportunists decrying that their community is in danger and embark on a dangerous path of extremism and perhaps violence. The reluctant fundamentalists like Changez will be ever on a rise, threatening, not only to tear apart the very fabric of secularity but also their own selves and their families.
The Book not only highlights the political issues faced by the world at large in the post 9/11 world. It shows, how, sometimes, our personal issues find an outlet in political confrontations and simultaneously, how politics intercedes in our personal lives, till the lines are blurred. The conflict in the mind of Changez between patriotism for his homeland and abortive respect for the country he had adopted to make his living, is interwoven with his personal tragedy.
In his course of conversation with the stranger, he confesses his love for Erica (an American woman) and we understand how he had to compete with a dead man (Erica’s ex-boyfriend) for the attention of the women he desires. His world is scary because professionally and personally he is searching for an identity he does not know exists.
Returning to Pakistan, Changez devotes his time to teaching young students and encouraging them to offset the US hegemony, very well aware that some of them have even strayed on the path of extremism.
The novel ends with the end of the conversation, and the readers are left with many questions. Who is the stranger that sought Changez in Pakistan and wanted to hear his story?
Are Changez, and many like him, justified in adopting extremism as recourse to stand against the political and cultural subjugation of their society and nation? And what indeed is the American justification to their own misplaced sense of nationalism which makes them destroy and then create their adversaries? And finally – what lessons, we as Indians should learn from the Americans?