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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

May 12, 2016

ReluctantFundamentalistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist is a provocative, even unnerving novel, particularly (I think) for readers from the United States of America. That’s partly because of the story Changez (Urdu for Genghis, itself an evocative name), the book’s narrator, has to tell. It’s partly because of the setting in which the characters exist. And it’s partly because The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written in the second person, forcing the reader into the story as a participant. But mostly it’s because Mohsin Hamid is a terrific writer who frames his story beautifully within the context of a single evening in Lahore, Pakistan where Changez and “you” meet for tea, dinner, and then a walk along the darkening streets back to “your” hotel.

In the course of the evening Changez recounts the story of his life, particularly his life in America—studying (and excelling) at Princeton, working (and excelling) at an elite management consulting firm in New York City, dating a beautiful, wealthy, yet troubled American woman, and most importantly, living through the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.

As with many people, Changez finds the destruction of the World Trade Center towers (and the threat later that year of war between India and his homeland—Lahore is the largest Pakistani city bordering India) reveals emotions and loyalties he had not previously recognized.  He grows a beard, questions the meaning of the work he’s doing, and eventually returns home, teaching at a local university.

The ending remains ambiguous, as does the title.  Is the Changez the reluctant fundamentalist?  And if so, which Changez?  The one who was a rising star in the New York business world (where his company excelled at identifying the “fundamental value” of a company)? Or the one who’s a professor popular among student activists for his outspoken defense of Pakistan’s sovereignty?

Or is the reluctant fundamentalist someone else? Perhaps the somewhat mysterious waiter at the cafe, who coincidentally (or not?) is following his two customers as they walk away?

And what about “you”? The American who has traveled thousands of miles to a remote (for an American) and bustling city, and who seems to have some connection with one of the many security and intelligence agencies that have proliferated in your country’s government in recent years. Who is the reluctant fundamentalist? By what definition? And what does that mean for how we live together…or not?

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