“Changez is Fundamental”
We’re going through Changez… A poor play on words, perhaps, but Mohsin Hamid uses allegory and clever plays on words throughout his intriguing 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The protagonist, Changez, is a young man from Lahore, Pakistan, who meets an American stranger.
While dining together, Changez narrates his recent past to the reluctant and incredibly tense American listener. We learn that the young bearded man was born into an established but down-atheel Pakistani family and had won a scholarship to study at Princeton, one of America’s prestigious Ivy League universities. He spent four long years working hard and foregoing much sleep in a number of moonlight jobs so as to keep up the pretense of a rich background with his WASP classmates. Upon graduation, he became one of very few applicants to be offered employment at the elite New York firm of Underwood Samson.
His tale takes a romantic turn when he meets Erica, his troubled high-society soul mate and would-be lover. We witness their budding relationship and yearn for her come to terms with the tragic death of her boyfriend so she and Changez can get together and give the story a happy ending. But, of course, that cannot be so. Why would this highflying Princeton grad and happy New Yorker (if not American) with a bright career in the cutthroat world of Wall Street have turned his back on this champagne lifestyle to return to Lahore looking every bit the archetypal fundamentalist, clad in traditional dress and obligatory beard? How to reconcile the narrative’s past and present?
In the oppressive atmosphere of a traditional restaurant in a district of Lahore, Changez’ monologue reveals all, interrupted only by his own observations of his dinner companion’s nervous reactions to an overly attentive waiter and the passing of a group of arrestingly attractive Westernized students. We are transported to this world through the delicate descriptions of the beauty of the encroaching night, the fading light, and the fragrant scent of jasmin
Post-9/11 New York and the arrival of troops and tanks in Lahore as part of the growing tension between Pakistan and India shape the backdrop for Changez’ narrative. His experiences provide a device for Hamid to comment on and question the real meaning of words such as “fundamentalist” and “truth,” and the growing friction between America and the Islamic world. As our hero goes through many changes, so does the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. As the friction mounts, we come to fear that this modest and impeccably wellmannered young man will finish his tale in a ghastly act of terrorism.
The clever twist leaves the reader/listener to question much more than one man’s story: to whom belongs the right to point a finger – the religious or capitalist fundamentalist?
I found this complex tale, so simply and beautifully told, to be unputdownable. It was one of those reading experiences in which the closer I got to the last page, the more reluctant I became, fearing what was to come and not wanting this personal journey to end.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid,
192 pages Hamish Hamilton, 2007