The Reluctant Fundamentalist Essay Example

In The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Pakistani narrator Changez extensively gives an account of his years spent in America and what led him to move back to Lahore. He speaks to a nameless American visitor, whose responses are only made known to the reader through Changez’s reactions to them. In fact, Changez is acutely aware of the American’s behaviour and comments frequently on his observations. By addressing Hamid’s use of second-person narration, I will argue that perceptions of Changez as "the other" similarly shaped the characters’ experiences both before and after 9/11. While after 9/11 Changez experiences forms of racism that he is not exposed to prior this moment, he is nevertheless fetishized as a "model minority" before 9/11 in ways that show his inability to assimilate fully into the U.S. Ultimately, the novel reveals how racial difference, whether understood "positively" or "negatively," fundamentally shapes and confines white American perceptions.

Stereotypes are by definition, widely held. Regardless of the nature of one’s intentions, it is arguable that “there can be little doubt that the human mind is inclined to think with the aid of categories” (Monteith, Sherman, Devine, 1998). Speaking from a theoretical analysis of stereotypes from the University of California, Davis, stereotypes can arguably be understood as a process by which we digest and organize the “overwhelming amount of information” available in this vast world. Thus, it is in human nature to make generalized assumptions and predictions based on surface observations as well as the culturally constructed connotations that are involved. In our attempt to make sense of the world, “stereotypes are easily activated and applied in the context of social judgment and behavior. Indeed, the ease with which stereotypes appear to be activated has encouraged some to sound cautionary notes regarding the unchecked use of stereotypes.” That is, with the application of stereotypes comes the risk of prejudice. Those who are wary of appearing prejudiced will often make attempts to suppress stereotypes.

In a survey conducted by Pew Research Center stereotypes it was found that one-quarter of U.S. adults think half or more of Muslims in the U.S. are “anti-American,” while an additional 24% say they think “some” Muslims are anti-American” (2017). This exemplifies a broad idea assigned to a particular cultural group, and a widely held one at that. Furthermore it was found that most Americans consider Muslims to be apart from mainstream American society and that those whose appearance identifies them as stereotypically Muslim commonly experience discriminatory treatment. One individual notably explained: “A lot of people do not understand Islam. They think it is ISIS, and that is not true.” This statement, along with the other statistics come together to support the notion of interracial misunderstanding, by virtue of recognizing otherness.

By having the story told in a monologue format, the reader must rely on Changez’s voice alone. Rather than being given objective descriptions, the audience receives information about the American only via Changez’s comments about them. This approach clearly reveals an attention to detail possessed by both parties; atleast perceivably. For example, at once instance Changez declares that it was not his companion’s skin colour or dress that was uncovered his national identity but rather his “bearing” (Hamid, p. 2). Changez continues to reassure the American, that he was merely making an observation, as though the American was visibly offended by this generalized statement. Although, we cannot be sure what the American’s reaction was. Changez makes several remarks along these lines throughout the novel, in order to communicate the American’s personality. The narrative structure creates a sense of restlessness on Changez’s side, as he is continually noticing and analyzing small details.

Not to mention, by having an entire novel told by one voice, with no dialogue to interrupt or respond, a feeling of isolation is created as though Changez is an outsider. This is reflected in the treatment that he receives from the American characters from his years studying at Princeton and his career at the valuation firm Underwood Samson. For example, Changez along with other Pakistanis are all reduced to the label of “Muslims” and stripped of speciality in the eyes of non-Muslims after 9-11. Even amongst his corporate fellows, Changez experiences “looks of concern” (p. 74) and “suspicion” from white Americans. Furthermore, he is aware of being watched in this way. Later on, despite his mother’s advice to shave, Changez grows a beard and is subject to “random” searches, suggesting that such a beard had suddenly become a symbol for radical anti-American intentions. Before 9-11, Changez’s experience is that of acceptance. He is generally loved by professors and corporate superiors for his exceptional work ethic and rare politeness. For similar reasons, an American girl named Erica lends her affection to Changez, while she ignores her numerous other pursuers. Although this earlier interracial treatment is reflective of a positive bias towards Pakistani immigrants, Changez is limitedly defined by racial difference nevertheless. Even though his cultural differences are accepted and even celebrated, he is ultimately marginalized; dehumanized and beheld as a spectacle. In this respect both positive and negative cultural biases are seen as similar in the way that one become confined to a culturally constructed ideal by the other. Whether that ideal be “model minority” or radical anti-American, it is impossible to apply a broad claim about an individual. Whether romantic or fearful, stereotypes provide a limited definition of an individual based on some surface detail.

Another aspect of the narrative that is important to note is the description of Lahore which Changez provides. He describes his hometown to the American by pointing out the highlights, good and bad. In attempts to provide an adequate synopsis of the culture in Lahore, Changez addresses the American, and thus the reader, as sight-seers. Changez’s description of Lahore places the audience at a safe distance from reality. “The narrator’s rendering of Lahore is designed for touristic literary consumption, including gastronomic recommendations and local titbits such as one might find in a guidebook” (Ilot, 574). This reinforces or is atleast in line with the audience’s existing perception of Pakistani exoticness, honing it down to produce a streamlined image.

When referencing Hartnell, Ilot suggests that the narrative employed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist “helps to expose the residual Orientalist traits evident in the touristic impressions of Lahore, in which menace and threat are the flipside of the exotic allure of the Other. The double bind of selling a product to a western audience and simulta- neously resisting entrenched western discourses on terror and stereotypes of Muslims is one that is carefully balanced in the novel by its perpetual ambiguity,” (575). In other words, Changez’s commentary reveals and withholds details in a way that the reader is able to recognize suggestiveness but is unable to come to a clear conclusion about what is being suggested. His mysterious narrative occupies a space that is just within the scope of the American understanding. Ilot mentions an American Foil and how it, along with “the accompanying need to explain places and norms as to a cultural outsider[,] demon- strates an ‘authorial self-consciousness’ as to the likely and/or intended audience for the novella’s consumption…

…As such, the foil created for the reader is an uncomfortable one, and one that readers might resist in the act of reading if they do not want to be aligned with the perspective of the hostile American” (Ilot, 575).

Ilot goes on to say, “If we, as read- ers, understand ourselves to be impartial judges of Changez’s testimony, it provokes a vastly different reading to that engendered if we align ourselves with the monologue’s internal addressee.” Changez addresses the American but does so in a way that could also relate to the reader. At times, he seems to address the reader directly, contesting to the racial biases that the reader possibly holds themselves. By targeting a certain type of audience, this narrative also challenges the reader’s perceptions and exposes their own racial prejudices.

No matter how hard the reader tries, they will inevitably possess some sort of racial bias, a recognition of difference. On the one hand, and in my personal experience, the reader might have chosen to supress “negative” impressions. The reader might be compelled to disassociate themselves from the American and his biases, as confronted by Changez, and interpret our narrator as culturally aware and impartial. On the other hand, one might be suspicious of Changez and interpret him as hyperaware, perhaps in line with post-9-11 stereotypes. The instance when Changez smiles at the 9-11 newscast from his hotel room might cause the reader to question their reading of the entire novel thus far, calling them to re-evaluate their perceptions, or it might reinforce their current reading.

Whichever route the reader takes, Hamid ultimately exposes a reliance on cultural cues to make assumptions and predictions.


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