A rooftop café in Lahore overlooking the bazaar, drinking tea. Western-educated Changez talks to an unnamed American, telling him of his life story – a scholarship to Princeton, top of his class, snapped up by an elite global valuation firm. There appear to be no limits for the young, good-looking Pakistani. He thrives on the pressures of expectation and a potential relationship with the beautiful Erica promises the opening of doors into Manhattan society.
But in the aftermath of September 11, Changez’s world exponentially changes – and so does he. His relationship with the mentally unbalanced Erica shifts, his relationship with his work colleagues and his beloved America shifts, his relationship with his family shifts. And, ultimately, his relationship with himself radically shifts.
Talking to the stranger (The Reluctant Fundamentalist is, in reality, a monologue), Changez voices slow but certain changes in his attitude, initially as a direct response to the changed attitudes towards him. Like the slow reveal of his story as dusk settles over the city and the undercurrent of threat pervades the night air (just who is the unnamed American?), Changez’s disillusionment came about in a nuanced, progressive manner.
Now an enemy of his adopted country, there’s no political or religious grandising. That the story is a political allegory of the conflict of the two cultures and the iniquity of power and status, there’s no doubt. The secular Changez is the voice of moderation, a fundamentalist in the most fundamental way. But he is also looking for his own identity – he is a Pakistani angry with his country’s reliance on the US but also angry with Pakistani global politics.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an extraordinary achievement – a highly personal story yet infused with complex issues of nationhood, capitalism, elitism. Published in 2007, it is as topical today as then. Shortlisted for the Man Booker, it lost out (somewhat surprisingly, selected as it was by The Guardian as one of the books that defined the decade) to Anne Enright’s The Gathering.