by Johnny Vaccaro
As residents of America, U.S. citizens rarely consider themselves in a state of precarity. They are secure in their homes, and only dramatic occurrences change this bubble of safety they have made for themselves. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist shares this dramatic occurrence and the aftermath through the eyes of Changez and 9/11. Though the novel does not focus directly on the impact of 9/11, the attack shapes the rest of the novel and rattles Changez’s world and views. Changez’s narration is unique to other 9/11 novels: this time an Easterner tells his story to a mute Western perspective. The Reluctant Fundamentalist proves a point about the assumptions one makes in the face of trauma and how one often follows an us vs. them dichotomy without recognition.
Humans exist in a state of precarity. Regardless of one’s standpoint in society, one exists in some form of precariousness and instability. This is a basic state of existence for humans and the only problem with this is that not all recognize their precarity on this planet in the same way. Currently, most of the world understands that 9/11 was “…a precarious moment for the nation, a moment in which this precariousness could have been recognized as a basic condition of life everywhere” (Darda 119). In our world, this should have been the turning point where we broaden viewpoints and accept that others lead more precarious lives compared to America. In Changez’s world, this point comes far before 9/11 (though the attacks certainly served to prove Darda’s point about the precariousness of humanity), happening in Manila at his job. He locks eyes with a jeepney driver while conversing with his colleagues in the backseat. Changez senses a sort of hostility in the man’s eyes, which he later chalks up to be “that he and I shared a sort of Third World sensibility” (Hamid, 67). Next, Changez immediately sees his colleague in a different light and recognizes the divide between them is deeper than he first thought. This experience begins to make Changez evaluate the position he is currently in and determine how deeply disconnected it is from his position at home. He realizes how consumed by the Anglophilic view he is, and starts to slowly distance himself from it. This is before 9/11 entirely, and Hamid intentionally draws us to this point to prove that things have started to change for Changez before the attacks. Readers may not focus deeply on this moment until their attention is brought to it because the dismissal of his realization is quick as he moves on to talk about emails from Erica. However, this is the moment that the reader notices a shift away from Westernized Changez that has been the focus thus far.
Everyone reacts differently to a traumatic event in their lifetime: some are more affected than others and some try to forget. An outsider’s, Easterner’s, perspective on 9/11 is rarely cashed-out. Since it was a tragedy that impacted America, the victims and families of victims are all considered American even if not the case. Mohsin Hamid touches lightly on the fall of the towers that it barely takes up a page, as Changez is not devastated nor his world rattled until he returns to New York. In his hotel room in Manila, Changez remarks upon seeing the towers fall: “I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees” (Hamid, 71). This startles his American audience, and the reader is struck by his words and seemingly flippant dismissal of the victims and their families. Changez assures the American man he speaks to that this is not the case, that “I am no sociopath, I am not indifferent to the suffering of others” (Hamid, 72). Hamid makes this an alarming passage for a reason: to pose the question, do we jump to conclusions about Changez after that statement, or do we understand him more because of it? His reassurance that his joy at the shock is separate from his mourning of the victims makes Western readers feel more offended than curious at his words. This is where we Westerners begin to fall victim to our interpretations of the character. The reader may begin to spiral into a cycle of mistrust and judgement on Changez’s character without realizing it. Hamid develops this novel so that the reader is unsure of every move both characters make, Changez and his American accomplice. There is no clarification of their positions through the entirety of the book; it remains entirely unclear if anyone is being threatened let alone which character. Our opinions hang in unbalance, and the reader walks a precarious line of victim and suspect. Changez begins his narration of the book by stating this clearly to the audience and to his American acquaintance, saying “since I am both a native of the city and a speaker of your language” (Hamid, 1). This is what Dunja Mohr says about Changez’s words, “The rhetoric of us vs. them no longer applies as Changez inhabits a position between” (94). This is a quick and clear way to show that he has a foot in both sides of the world without drawing attention to the obvious “us vs. them” dichotomy that presents itself further into the book, and this is how Hamid’s novel is unique.
Mira Nair’s adaptation of the novel into the 2012 film spins an entirely different story, though it maintains a similar distrust of character motives. Nair gives the previously anonymous American a name, occupation and motive to be speaking with Changez. Bobby Lincoln is set up as a CIA agent posing as an American journalist, their discussion turns into a pre-arranged meeting, and the novel’s allure of miscommunication disappears. However, while we do lose the anonymity that is key in the novel, we now see another viewpoint and additional dialogue. The novel does remain open-ended, but Nair decides to give the film a definitive ending. Changez and Bobby’s shared belief in humanity is what prompts Changez to give up the potential whereabouts of a kidnapped professor, while the CIA puts Bobby under more pressure. The unspoken mistrust in the novel is clear when Bobby mistakes Changez’s text message to be something more nefarious and shoots one of Changez’s rallying students before the CIA agents pull him away. Only upon inspecting the phone that Bobby has taken from Changez, does Bobby realize that he has completely betrayed Changez’s trust: it really was a simple text message to his sister. The later scenes show Bobby listening back to the first line spoken by Changez: “Would you please listen to the whole story and not just bits and pieces, do I have your word?” (Nair). Bobby only then realizes the betrayal of his actions and becomes aware that he was caught in his own firm belief system and acted without patience or understanding. Though the film and the novel deliver the same message, the film conveys it more directly. The novel lets readers come to the conclusion that one needs to reevaluate their own reactions and interpretations, while the film shows it outright through Bobby’s judgement. In the novel, the ending is so ambiguous that we are left to our own self-fabricated ideas in determining any conclusion we want to about Changez’ involvement in fundamentalism; Hamid gives us sparse contextual clues as to what is happening beyond the story Changez is telling, leaving the author’s desired meaning open to interpretation.
Throughout the book we see the American’s reactions to Changez, using the narration given to try and glean any information we can about the other silent party in the conversation. Changez indicates that he is startled easily, “The lights have gone. But why do you leap to your feet? Do not be alarmed, sir….” (Hamid, 60). It is entirely up to the readers to draw their own conclusions: if the blackout was intentional, did the American jump up, ready to defend himself? Or was he simply nervous about a sudden, surprising darkness? This is one of the most notable passages where the reader starts to suspect both parties could be there for different reasons. Changez makes offhanded comments throughout the next few chapters, remarking “…that there continues to be something about our waiter that puts you ill at ease” (Hamid, 108), and the casualness and polite air that Changez carries makes the reader unsure of what to make of both characters. Closer to the end Changez orders desserts and remarks effortlessly that “When you sit in that fashion, sir…a bulge manifests itself through the lightweight fabric of your suit, precisely at that point…where the undercover security agents of our country…tend to favor wearing an armpit holster…” (Hamid, 139). The American seemingly begins to readjust his position to conceal this, but Changez assures the man that he is certain that the bulge is that of a travel wallet, and didn’t mean to imply otherwise. With Changez brushing it off and any former suspicions the reader is still lost as to which side is “good” and which side is “evil” in the dichotomy that is often referred to in times of a crisis. Hamid leaves the reader with some final thoughts on this dichotomy on the last page of the book when Changez is amiably walking our unknown American back to his hotel.. “I hope you will not resist my attempt to shake you by the hand. But why are you reaching into your jacket, sir? I detect a glint of metal. Given that you and I are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business cards.” (Hamid, 184). Hamid’s audience now feels forced to pick a side: is Changez plotting something, and is the American moving to defend himself? Or is it simply a chance meeting, with Changez telling his story to a slightly wary but entirely innocent American tourist? The questions the reader has to ask seem endless when the author does not give up any details about the characters. The conclusions are left to the audience to draw, and Hamid does this intentionally. However, what we do not realize is that we are not forced to pick a side. Changez walks a line between American and Pakistani, and though he feels strongly about the invasion and bombing of the Pakistani people he still begins his introduction to the readers with the phrase “I am a lover of America” (Hamid, 1).
Hamid continuously aims to “put the reader into a confused position of narrative judgement and resentful (re) identifications and re-evaluations” of each character (Mohr 93). Hamid is hinting that the reader’s interpretation (or misinterpretation) of our characters will depend on the reader’s own ideas and conceptions of who the suspect and the victim are in this scene by leaving the ending open. Hamid’s audience must ask: “what frames are conditioning our understanding of Changez and the American?” (Darda 112). The ambiguous ending forces the reader to consider that every story has multiple of sides, and that an interpretation of a story is based on a person’s conceptual framework that they have inserted into the text unconsciously. The fact that this information is never confirmed nor denied underscores the fact that we must draw a personal conclusion and fill in the blanks about the characters.
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid constructs the book in a way that leads us to question not only every character’s actions, but our own prejudices about race and status as well. The reader makes a choice to follow the black and white version of the story, or to realize that Changez falls right between both America and Pakistan. The identity of the anonymous American is meant to symbolize the reader of the book (presumably from a Western perspective) listening to an Eastern standpoint. The conclusions we draw about Changez and about the American express what we have been conditioned to judge about people. In other words, Hamid’s novel poses the question: how harmful is the “us vs. them” dichotomy and why do people think in such a basic way? The novel digs at the question: what have we been conditioned to think about Easterners after 9/11? The Reluctant Fundamentalist hands us these questions with the knowledge that it has not led us to any certain conclusions that readers must come to those on their own.
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Golimowska, Karolina. “The Ambiguity of the ‘Other’ in the Post-9/11 Novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid and Home Boy (2009) by H. M. Naqvi.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 401, 2014.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
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Nair, Mira, director. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mirabai Films, 2013.
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