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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Mohsin Hamid's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"

On the very first page of Mohsin Hamid's (right)recent novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist",Changez,the narrator reassures the American seated across him in this fashion"Ah,I see I have alarmed you.Do not be frightened by my beard:I am a lover of America." This little passage captures very accurately the paranoia generated across the west by so much as a skullcap or a beard sighted in the street,post 9/11."The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is the story of Changez,who has manged to bag a scholarship to Princeton,growing up in a very traditional household in Pakistan.He yearns to be accepted among the upper echelons of society,longing for the exalted status his family once enjoyed.He is brilliant,charms people with consummate ease, and manages to bag a coveted job in an upmarket evaluation firm,in between falling for Erica, an American and a fellow-student at Princeton.

How Changez starts to turn into the very creature he loathes-a stereotypical,snobbish American with a holier-than-thou attitude,and his resulting inner conflict,forms the crux of this beautifully crafted tale about the search for identity in a fractured,paranoid world.The most striking feature of this slim novel is the author's effortless mastery of the first person narrative.He is narrating this tale to an American stranger,who may or may not be a secret agent.The carefully restrained tone of the narrator,and the dripping,excessive politeness works well to keep you on the edge always,just in case........

For me,this novel is a slap in the face of those self-proclaimed "progressives" who claim that literary fiction is unreadable,complex or not entertaining enough to be commercially viable(selling more than 100,000 books in the US alone,it is a NewYorkTimes Bestseller).Moreover,this is literature at its purest:The book is filled with several witty and ironic vignettes,interspersed with grim reminders about the Muslim immigrant's sense of alienation.When Changez steps aboard a plane,with a two-week beard,he is greeted with furtive stares and scared silence:overnight he has become a "security threat"

Here is one of my favourite passages from the book:Changez being stopped at the airport days after 9/11

"The officer who inspected my passport was a solidly built woman with a pistol at her hip and a mastery of English inferior to mine;I attempted to disarm her with a smile."What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?",she asked."I live here",I replied."That is not what I asked you,sir",she said,"What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?".Our exchange continued in much this fashion for several minutes.In the end I was dispatched for a secondary inspection in a room where I sat on a metal bench next to a tattooed man in handcuffs."

This is Hamid's second novel and he follows up his impressive debut "Moth Smoke" in triumphant fashion.

You can read the NewYorkTimes review of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" here

Catch more stuff written by Mohsin Hamid here