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By uncovering certain ambiguities in Changez’s ideological rhetoric, the paper will portray how Changez’s analysis of American corporate fundamentalism branches from his absence of a sense of belonging to a foreign culture and from a feeling of displaced identity.
[Keywords: Mohsin Hamid, Reluctant Fundamentalist; post-9/11 America; Pakistan, alienation, fundamentalism, identity, ideology]
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a perfect instance of how an author can create an inevitable situation of artistic dread and verbal control. It is also a praiseworthy example of how an endless tension between identical polarities of understanding and alienation can be continued across the pages by altering the narrative voice in terms of its tone, texture and reliability. The work of literature is exclusively occupied by the overwhelming voice of Changez, its storyteller and principal character. The enchanting openness of his personality and the fresh charm of his appearance ensure a fascinating one-sided exchange.
His monologue starts with a proper and apparently kind offer to be of help to an American, who slowly settles into the role of a silent speaker and whose ethnicity is brought into the reckoning within the first three lines of the novel: “Excuse me, Sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America” (1). A set of conventions, which involves racial stereotypes prevalent in a post-9/11 world, is ignored in a space of a few sentences. Changez appropriately recognizes the man as an American by his ‘bearing’, not by the colour of his skin or his dress inclinations. It seems to Changez that the latter is on a ‘mission’. Both of these words – ‘bearing’ and ‘mission’– undertake powerful nationalistic implications as the novel advances. Changez encounters the American foreigner at a tea shop in Lahore and takes him on a fabulous ride to Changez’s past and expresses him about his time at Princeton, his profession at Underwood Samson, his journey with associates to Greece, his love affair with Erica, about Erica’s departed concubine Chris, his ultimate disappointment with his career and America in broad, his homecoming to Pakistan and succeeding part as a university lecturer and a strict promoter of disinterest from America. The themes of contradictory instincts of integration and exile constitute the root of the novel.
Near the start of his American familiarity, Changez’s desire to assimilate with America is apparent but this ambition is bonded with an idiosyncratic motivation to stand out – to noticeably proclaim his attitude with an air of official propriety. He reports with composure, “At Princeton, I conducted myself in public like a young prince, generous and carefree” (11). Further, he asserts with a positive amount of pride and conceit: “I have never, to the best of my knowledge, had any fear of solitude” (19). His self-contented happiness at having been accepted by people at Princeton is manifested through the line: “Most people I met were taken in by my public persona” (11). These attributes in him changes and the rest of the novel shadows the story of Changez’s growing loneliness in a quantity of domains of life. To begin with, Changez’s story makes it clear that he is hardworking, chivalrous, and generally recognized. He, as a narrator, may not be reliable. Through his sole voice, we are obliged to heed to it. While recounting his interview at Underwood Samson to the American, he creates a deviation that is slightly hubristic. The truth that Changez expresses his story in actual time makes it extra convincing.
There is a nonstop parallelism between the actions happening in the tea shop in Lahore in the current moment and the America of Changez’s past, which gives the storyline a feeling of unified eternity. Moreover, the distinctive way Changez describes the city of Lahore, with the imprecise onsets and partings of anonymous, unidentified figures is charming and also articulates in detail his acquaintance with the place. On the contrary, there is an unruffled impartiality in the manner of his description of America, with the probable exception of New York – a city with which he appears to be still nostalgically associated. His enthusiasm at getting employment at Underwood Samson and the liberty and economic wildness it offers is complemented by a troublesome feeling of cultural-dislocation: “In a subway car, my skin would typically fall in the middle of the color spectrum.
On street corners, tourists would ask me for directions. I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker” (33). Moreover, soon it leads to dissatisfaction with the gross dissimilarity in scientific and industrial progression between America and Pakistan which makes him induce, with a definite degree of emotional homesickness, the past splendors of the country that would be Pakistan. Ironically, the primordial Indus Valley civilization is compelled to challenge with the modern America: Often, during my stay in your country, such comparisons troubled me. In fact, they did more than trouble me: they made me resentful. Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. (34)
In the understanding of Irfan Khawaja there is unquestionably no purpose to think that the modern populaces of Lahore are the same folks who once occupied the ‘Indus River basin’. Changez then takes a broad view and attempts to forge an invented identity. Also opposed with what he progressively identifies as the intruding supremacy of American neo-imperialism, he needs to associate himself with alternative standard so as to be in the position to stand up to it. With disappointment, Khawaja concludes the disconnections that are produced between assimilation and isolation in Changez’s essence: Changez, then, is not just the victim of a notional identity, but of multiple and conflicting ones.
As he moves through life, when he does move, he cannot help but think of himself as a member of some ‘we’ – but he cannot, for that, seem to settle on one ‘we’ to adopt, or even a consistent set of them. He is, at different times in the novel, a Third Worlder, a Muslim, a Pakistani, a member of the Indus River Basin Civilization, a New Yorker, and a Princetonian. (59)He might not be scared of seclusion, as he claims, nonetheless he undoubtedly is not comfortable with it, powerless as he is to travel forward in life alone. While employed at Underwood Samson, he acquires gratitude and is normally treasured. However, he appears to be alienated steadily by the way the company worked and the fundamentals within which its viewpoint stood. Maybe he starts to discovery hidden qualities of colonialism in Underwood Samson and attempts to free himself from it. Therefore, when he says ‘I could, if I desired, take my colleagues out for an after-work drink—an activity classified as “new hire cultivation”—and with impunity spend in an hour more than my father earned in a day!’ (Hamid 37), he performs that not only with childish excitement but also with a feeling of minor repentance.
At the same time, the cultural boundary is further expanded when he is directed on a venture to Manila where he discovers himself divided between a longing to be observed by the Filipinos as one of the “members of the officer class of global business” (65) and a unwillingness to routinely tell Filipino officials of his father’s age: “I need it now” (65). He is neither accepted as an American nor as an Asian which provokes him to mirror on the dissimilarities in the ways in which a courteous address is made to an old person in English as well as in Urdu. Moreover, Changez’s feeling of loneliness and exile is heightened because of the American ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan in the later part of October in that same year. He is primarily elusive, ‘preferring not to watch the partisan and sports-event-like coverage given to the mismatch between the American bombers with their twenty first-century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesmen below” (99). His evasion suggests his reluctance to take a place in respect to this political occurrence.
To a deeper sense, it articulates his distress at having to pick between America and Afghanistan – a country he compassionately calls ‘Pakistan’s neighbor, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation’ (100). At this moment he starts to disassemble the American side of his individuality. The anger quickens the progression of disassembling of Changez’s American identity and this procedure concludes in an answer to the 9/11 event that shocks Changez as much as it surprises the reader. This reaction distances Changez in the reader’s, particularly an American reader view point. This passage of climax merits to be cited in its fullness: The following evening was supposed to be our last in Manila. I was in my room, packing my things. I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realized that it was not fiction but news. I stared as one—and then the other—of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased. (72)
The important point here is the straightforwardness and frankness with which he utters this to an American listener. He makes reference to his own surprise at the thought of being ‘pleased’: ‘So when I tell you I was pleased at the slaughter of thousands of innocents, I do so with a profound sense of perplexity’ (73). However, shortly he declares that he has taken up with the representation of the incident – his desire derived from the conception that “someone had so visibly brought America to her knees’ (73). The failure to detach the real from the representative is an additional attribute that personifies Changez’s inner feelings. Nonetheless, the writer shapes the story up to this level in such a way that the reader, even though having lost his compassion with Changez, does not find him unreliable as a character. Moreover, during the time of the disastrous 9/11, his affiliation with Erica also changes.
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