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Politics as personal

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a thrilling monologue that needs to be read-and heard-from cover to cover.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2007 18:31 IST

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Author:Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Penguin
Imprint: Viking
Pages: 184
Format: Hardcover
Price: Rs 295

In Robert Browning’s celebrated poem ‘My Last Duchess’, the narrator is addressing a gentleman who remains out of the reader’s view throughout the poem. The Duke tells him of his wife whose portrait hangs on the wall “looking as if she were alive” and goes on to explain how she “had a heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad/ Too easily impressed”. By the time he goes on to tell his listener that she smiled a little too often at a little too many men, and that he then “gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together”, we can see the invisible listener recoil — and we recoil with him.

To make matters more uncomfortable, the Duke ends with a complete digression by which he shows his companion a statuette of Neptune “which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” Thus, we recognise the presence of a complex, translucent character simply by listening to his words as they ricochet off another (invisible) man.

In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the dramatic monologue is conducted by Changez, who starts his conversation by approaching his ‘listener’ on a Lahore street with “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you?” In the one-way mirror behind which the reader fixes himself, Changez goes on to narrate the story of a period of his life much before he approaches his listener on the first page of this novella.<b1>

Like Browning’s Duke, Changez not only lets his ‘invisible’ listener know of events that occurred in his life — events that left him, a Princeton graduate, working at a top-end valuation firm in New York, a changed man — but he also lets him have a peek into his soul. The gift of the gab as presented on print has never been so sharp as it is in Hamid’s latest work.

At one level, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about the fissures that have been created across the world after September 11, 2001. Hamid’s anti-hero, Changez, is just one of the many people who have fallen through the cracks and have been left split. What makes him so believable — especially to the urbane subcontinental reader — is that he is like us: one foot firmly set in the cultural ground of his own backyard, modern Pakistan; another foot in the globalised world of Americana where one knows one’s Paltrow from one’s Spears.

But Hamid has not only anchored his story in a post-9/11 world to investigate a clash of civilisations in one man. He has also dredged deep in Changez’s soul to depict a personal catastrophe and its lingering aftermath. It is the personal becoming the political, the political colouring the personal that is depicted with astoundingly clear cloudiness in this slim, major book. Changez’s life in America and his love for the American way of life are given additional flesh by the fact that he falls in love with Erica, a sensitive, upper-crust American.

The book is full of unobtrusive details that allow the reader to see America, Erica, Americans, Pakistan, modernity, Pakistanis through Changez’s eyes — all presented to us through one 12-chaptered monologue.

Two disasters in Changez’s life occur almost simultaneously. The world is turned upside down after September 11, 2001, and he loses the love of a good American. Other catalysts such as night-glow images on TV of Afghanistan being pummelled by American bombs and Erica’s downward spiral into depression that arises out of a manuscript being rejected only spur Changez to cross over to the ‘other side’.

Through the narration we realise that the two events — 9/11 and Erica distancing herself from him — become conflated in Changez’s mind. Whether the goulash of the politics and the personal served to him in a chalice poisons his vision or clears it, Hamid never lets us know.

To engage the reader for 184 pages with one man talking non-stop to another — narrating, teasing, theorising, whining, lecturing — is a truly impressive feat. Hamid pulls it off grandly in a style reminiscent of the Russian masters. The ever-persistent notion of his American listener’s life being threatened by Changez — and the reader is only given hints that the former may not have good intentions himself — makes The Reluctant Fundamentalist a delicately thrilling novella that leaves our ears ringing when we close the book.