The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Book Review

Mohsin Hamid’s second novel is out. It has made to several bestsellers’ lists and invokes a theme central to our times. I am posting a well written review by Mahi here that in spite of its subjectivity expresses the viewpoint of an intelligent and informed reader. This review was written exclusively for Jahane Rumi and therefore I am grateful to Mahi for this special gesture. Hope he continues to contribute here!

Book Review By Mahipal Reddy* 

The title, with a play on the word Fundamentalist, is the high point of this book. The protagonist, Changez, earns a living in New York assessing fundamentals of companies, which he is increasingly reluctant to do, compelled by a growing affinity for his homeland Pakistan and under-attack neighbor, Afghanistan, in the aftermath of 9/11. The reluctance eventually prompts a return to Pakistan, where
Changez recounts his adult life to an American visitor.

The style of narration – a monologue – is a clever choice and one with the potential for a novel, satisfying reader experience. But the portrayal of the American man through quick references within the monologue exposes the limitations of this format. Additionally, the man is made visible only though stereo-typical cultural differences and tourist apprehensions, which lends a tone of condescension to the narrative. It may have been intentional, but seemed unnecessary.

The book suffers from an underlying lack of depth. The seminal phases of the story – Changez’s acceptance of American undergraduate life and the American dream, the slipping away of his never-truly-started love life with an American girl, his rapid disenchantment with America and its foreign policy excursions and his choice to move away from that life to Pakistan – take place without triggering a reflective commentary or insight from the author. In other words, the book remains a superficial story, even while the reader is expecting something more fundamental all the while. Is that the reader’s fault? Perhaps not.

Having approached the book with excited expectations, partly due to the title and partly the author’s background, I was disappointed. The title promised an insightful dance on the difficult subject of fundamentalism, with a certain gravitas, but it faltered to achieve this goal. In fact, one felt that the author did not attempt to delve further into the intent of the book’s catchy title. There are many specific instances of disappointment in addition to the overall reaction of one, but the one that qualifies for mention is the ending. Throughout the book, the author builds a theme of some impending finale/disaster, which never materializes. Clearly the author conveyed something in his mind, but it leaves the reader lost and wondering if the author pulled a prank.

To me this actually captures the essence of the book – promising much but delivering a insipid tale.

Language-wise, the book is obviously written in competent English, but one cannot say more. It is not a book you read to enjoy the medium, the skill of expression.

* Mahi set sail in India and is adrift in the US. He has traveled a little, lamented that he isn’t from Japan but hopes to get back to India in the near future. He likes to read but reads little. Enlightenment he waits for, convinced God can move faster than him.

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Selections from Shah Hussain’s poetry

“In the new Lahore lies buried Shah Husain and with him lies buried the myth of Lal Husain. Still, at least once a year we can hear the defused echoes of the myth. As the lights glimmer on the walls of Shalamar, the unsophisticated rhythms of swinging bodies and exulting voices curiously insist on being associated with Husain. This instance apparently defies explanation. But one is aware that an undertone of mockery pervades the air – released feet mocking the ancient sods of Shalamar and released voices mocking its ancient walls. Husain too, the myth tells us, danced a dance of mockery in the ancient streets of Lahore. Grandson of a convert weaver, he embarrassed every one by aspiring to the privilege of learning what he revered guardians of traditional knowledge claimed to teach. ” Full article here

 Here are a few Kafis with translations….

Ni Mai menoon Kherian di gal naa aakh
Ranjhan mera, main Ranjhan di, Kherian noon koori jhak
Lok janey Heer kamli hoi, Heeray da wer chak

Do not talk of the Kheras to me,
O mother, do not.
I belong to Ranjha and he belongs to me.
And the Kheras dream idle dreams.
Let the people say, “Heer is crazy; she has given her-self to the cowherd.” He alone knows what it all means.
O mother, he alone knows.
Please mother, do not talk to me of Kheras.

Sujjen bin raatan hoiyan wadyan
Ranjha jogi, main jogiani, kamli kar kar sadian
Mass jhurey jhur pinjer hoyya, karken lagiyan hadyan
Main ayani niyoonh ki janan, birhoon tannawan gadiyan
Kahe Husain faqeer sain da, larr tairay main lagiyaan

Nights swell and merge into each other as I stand a wait for him.
Since the day Ranjha became jogi, I have scarcely been my old self and people every where call me crazy. My young flesh crept into creases leaving my young bones a creaking skeleton. I was too young to know the ways of love; and now as the nights swell and merge into each other, I play host to that unkind guest – separation.

Main wi janan dhok Ranjhan di, naal mare koi challey
Pairan paindi, mintan kardi, janaan tan peya ukkaley
Neen wi dhoonghi, tilla purana, sheehan ney pattan malley
Ranjhan yaar tabeeb sadhendha, main tan dard awalley
Kahe Husain faqeer namana, sain senhurray ghalley

Travelers, I too have to go; I have to go to the solitary hut of Ranjha. Is there any one who will go with me? I have begged many to accompany me and now I set out alone. Travelers, is there no one who could go with me?

The River is deep and the shaky bridge creaks as people step on it. And the ferry is a known haunt of tigers. Will no one go with me to the lonely hut of Ranjha?

During long nights I have been tortured by my raw wounds. I have heard he in his lonely hut knows the sure remedy. Will no one come with me, travelers?

Courtesy – Najam Hosain Syed