Book Review – The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez, a Pakistani boy goes to Princeton University, lands a plush finance job in New York City but falls victim to the hostile behavior of the nation after 9/11 and eventually returns back to his country. This statement is a full review in itself because stories like this are too well known and don’t evoke surprise anymore. Going deeper inside however, the book has many layers which people interpret differently. An American man has come to interview Changez in Pakistan, and that is how his life’s story unfolds. He talks about excelling in college, grabbing a coveted job, his unsteady relationship with Erica (rumored allegory for Am-Erica) who remains his love interest but has a troubled life of her own and is unable to accept Changez. He works for a firm that helps in company takeovers and while on work abroad one day he watched the twin towers being taken down, which to his own surprise was a moment that for a fraction of a second pleased him. This incident sets the reader’s perception of him, and clearly not many will understand that the author’s intention wasn’t to make Changez happy about people being killed but to reflect the kind of joy on seeing a small guy in school beating up the big powerful guy. The ensuing ethnic discrimination and the brewing disappointment with the realization that the work he was doing took away people’s jobs made him no longer want to stay in America and he returned to Pakistan.

The book ends with open ended questions and probably wants the reader to reflect on their own understanding of the situation. It’s unclear in the end whether Changez, who has returned to Pakistan, has now become an Islamic extremist or not. It is also unclear whether the American man, sitting across the table and interviewing him, actually came with a purpose of killing Changez or not, for he is now leading the anti-America protest in Pakistan. This story is the author’s way of showing that an educated man who didn’t care about religion took the rebel path due to his realization of the real big bully that is not clearly visible to many, and dovetails with the adage that America has made its own enemies.

What is also worth reading is the complexity of emotions Changez goes through, that many of us might relate to. While fully prepared to call America his home, get married to a beautiful girl there and live a comfortable rest of the life, he had to cut short his vision and return to his old place, a drastically different place. The American dream, which is too familiar around the world but is volatile and often interrupted due to various reasons has a unique way of selling itself. In return, it often asks people to lose their own identity and take part in what America believes in. As implied in the book, Changez tried to be a part of the American elite with an Ivy League degree being his primary ticket and working for a global firm that took him places while judging weak companies to takeover. He was made to realise one day however that while he did his job, he was like a soldier captured to fight against his own kind of people, a pawn for America’s capitalists ruthlessly appraising firms in small developing countries to takeover. The infatuation with America cracked, and combined with the discrimination he felt after 9/11 turned into motley of love hate feelings. The ideology and ambitions of a man from a developing country striving for a better life, but at the same time the continuous inner struggle for there is a bit of his homeland that still resides inside of him is well captured in the book and gives us a good reason to check out other stories by Mohsin Ahmed.

Pakistan and India may be terrible neighbors but the aspirations and mindset of the urban generation is strikingly similar. Changez, with his dream of making it big in corporate America resembles that of many Indians’, and perhaps the feeling of alienation could be shared too by many. The book doesn’t say what’s right or wrong and in no way judges those who choose to go abroad, but just reflects a reality in which often the young generation finds itself; a reality where talent is desperately seeking an opportunity no matter where, but ultimately realizes that he or she is just a small speck in a larger scheme of things which go beyond logic and welfare. Maybe, a utopian answer to this conundrum lies in more of such educated and forward-thinking people getting into domestic politics or growing domestic businesses for improving local lives and reducing the impunity of any country having so much influence over theirs or else, there’s always a chance that when pushed to the limits someone, however much reluctantly, can become a fundamentalist.

Overall, the book has debatable thoughts at some places but will definitely make you think about your own life if it shares even an iota of similarity to Changez’s. It’s short enough to read during a long flight and will help you develop a point of view, whether for or against people like Changez or USA.


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