I recently swore off Indian diaspora writing, tired of its hackneyed descriptions of brightly colored outfits and the sweet scent of jasmine wafting through warm evening air. Inevitably the protagonist will run straight into an internal conflict pitting his South Asian identity against his American sentiments, and he will be forced to make a choice, which of course will be heart-wrenching. The novel will then conclude with the protagonist realizing that he can take the best of both worlds and create his own identity, a new self that can live in harmony with his Eastern and Western identities. I will admit that some authors have done it significantly better than others. Perhaps more importantly, the problem is not that authors have not done it well, it is that it has been done to death.
So the other day when I was browsing through the sale cart at my local independent bookstore, if I had known that Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was, in fact, a specimen of this particular genre, I probably wouldn’t have glanced twice at it. But I didn’t know, and I think it worked out more favorably than expected. The greens and whites on the cover promised a politically aware narrative, and I was not disappointed on that count.
The entire novel takes place over an evening in Lahore, Pakistan, in the form of a conversation between the narrator, the young “foreign-returned” Changez, and an unnamed American listener whose particulars we learn only through Changez’s remarks. Pakistan-born and Princeton-educated, Changez lands a much-coveted job at a New York firm whose business is merciless appraisal of failing companies. His ensuing assimilation into American culture, complete with his infatuation with beautiful, brownstone-dwelling Erica is seamless and enviable until the attacks on the World Trade Center, when he finds himself almost pleased with the turn of events. Changez’s ensuing self-sabotage and inner turmoil fills the remaining pages of the novel, where we learn that the seemingly-perfect Erica is in fact troubled and withdrawn.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a well-constructed narrative, successfully capturing the disillusionment of today’s youngsters from other nations with America and its failure to live up to the ideals for which it stands. The conversational frame within which Changez shares his story is particularly engaging, interspersed with tidbits of small talk and hospitality.
Hamid’s novel falters, however, in its reliance on the tried-and-true – and therefore trite – devices of sensory comparisons between Lahore and New York, falling into the unfortunate rut of diaspora writing that has no independent identity. Hamid’s heroine Erica, the Beatrice to Changez’s Dante, is too perfect; she is too beautiful, too rich, too troubled and certainly too much in love with our hero to be believable.
Unfortunate missteps into commonality aside, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is different enough, and modern enough in its treatment of current affairs and East-West conflicts, that it passes muster. It was an enjoyable read, and although it could have done with a little more honing, it is an overall success.