Empires and their self destructive nature.

Empires often self destruct because they over reach themselves, they alienate their own citizens or lose control of their colonies. The novel refers to the British and Moghul empires but it is the American empire that is the focus of the novel. Erica is one of the symbols of this empire –she has many of its positive traits-beautiful, sexy, creative, popular-celebrity-like. Ameriac has a similar reputation throughout the world-music, film, televison. It has attracted travellers from the rest of the world. Erica declines however just as America will eventually fall as a superpower.

Erica becomes increasingly detached from reality and her grief is slowly killing her.She still looks pretty good on the outside but is crumbling within. Whilst she has exerted a physical presence, the US has controlled others through financial means. Erica’s decline begins with a traumatic event: Chris’s death. She dwells on this and is unable to move on. 9/11 begins the decline of America. America also struggles to move on and turns its grief into a dangerous patriotism. Erica implodes and America explodes-by bombing the heck out of Afghanistan. Instead of targeting specific terrorist groups it indisciminately attacks countries. Thus it has aresponse which is inappropriate. And this response ultimately contributes to its decline. Maybe the country will become detached like Erica and stop taking care of itself.

Nostalgia-poison and salve?

It can be good –Changez remembers his time in America fondly, despite his negative attitude to their foreign policy. It soothes the pain for the former Pakistani elite. ( with consquences). It can ease the pain of loss- Changez longs for American shrimp. He recalls the beauty of the American nation-the Empire State Building, New York at night. We all know the pleasure of looking at a childhood photo or hearing a song from our past. Yet for Erica, it is unhealthy. It consumes her from inside until she presumably takes her own life. By the novel’s end, it is driving America into a future of unsustainable consequences. It is also a form of ‘cocaine’ for Changez’s family-unable to deal with their new world. Nostalgia can numb the pain but also be destructive. Changez questions whether the remembering is real or justified eg was Chris so good? Was pre 9/11 so good? Or is the country regressing to a time before the national sense of security was destroyed. Nostalgi can turn people to drugs, alcohol, suicide, violence towrds others. So it must be handled with care.

Identity/Belonging –is it transferable?

Changez is grounded and stable at the start and Erica is drawn to him because of this. It turns out to be more than just his demeanour, it is also his loyalty to his homeland. Changez is a foreigner at Princeton, yet the old fashioned manner he has is an advantage in the new corporate world. Yet, this world changes his identity and gives him a sense of belonging in America. At Underwood Samson, ne sees himself as a trainee in the company, not a Pakistani. Thus he is symbolically accepted by the nation. He is assimilating into its culture via financial pursuits. Changez, for a time, becomes, a New Yorker. It is not until 9/11 that he realise that America is acting against the interest of Pakistan. When Wainwright playfully warns Changez to beware the dark side( Star Wars), it is a clue to his later moral dilemma. Changez begins to see his colleagues as resembling an elite, corporate battalion. Later her realises he must choose between national loyalties, but we watch him become a ‘reluctant’ traitor to his homeland. When trouble come he clearly chooses Pakistan. In Chile he learns he cannot have dual citizenship in terms of loyalties. America’s actions will destroy the livelihood of Chileans as their military actions are killing Afghanis.

Changez never really fitted into the USA. And 9/11 exacerbated his sense of not belonging. He begins to see it through his ex-janissary’s eyes and accepts that America is a place he might have to fight against.

The Many Faces of “Fundamentalism”

As we have seen repeatedly, Hamid crafted The Reluctant Fundamentalist to be open-ended and multifaceted. The title subject of the novel is no exception; in fact, it embodies the complexity of the story as a whole. When you picked up the novel, did you expect the story to be the way it is? Did you expect Changez to be the way he is? Considering the political atmosphere and media bias of our post-42 Incidentally, Changez surmises it is Pakistan and America’s shared British Imperial backgroundthat makes Americans respect an anglicized accent. That Changez’s nostalgia for America compromises his loyalty to Pakistan.

Hamid does not craft us the simple ‘other side of the story’ we mightexpect to read. Instead, he tells us the more mundane—and therefore more real—tale of Changez’s love affair and later falling out with the United States of America (read

also: the United States and Erica). In the context of this ordinary tale, Hamid challenges us to reevaluate our conception of the word “fundamentalist.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fundamentalism (in its non-religious and non-political sense) as: “a

movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.”

Hamid definitively separates Changez from the stereotypical “reluctant fundamentalist” when Changez openly disapproves of a terrorist plot—the assassination plan in which his student was purportedly involved. The American’s subsequent distrust of Changez underscores the stereotype’s strength: even after having heard Changez’s whole story, the American still seems to suspect him of being a terrorist.

Being a professor makes Changez guilty of his student’s supposed crime, though only by association. As he says in Chapter 12, being a Pakistani has the same effect because, “The lives of those who [live] in and in which such killers [fundamentalist terrorists] also [live have] no meaning except as collateral damage” (178). In the American government’s eyes, it makes him guilty by association of the 9/11 attacks and justifies America’s own acts of violence.

Incidentally, when Changez asserts, “I am no ally of killers,” he is referring to both terrorists (those who perpetrate “the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniformsof soldiers”) and to America (the country that “inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away”) (178, 182).

So what are the four versions of “reluctant fundamentalist” with which Hamid replaces the stereotype?

First is Changez in terms of his appearance. His Pakistani ethnicity and his beard stereotype him as a religious extremist. Changez is neither religious nor extremist; he is a secular person and an academic—the latter implying his carefulness and open-mindedness in making judgments. He may now be anti-America, but he never (or so it seems) condones extremist views or tactics. In post-9/11 New York City and even in Lahore, Changez’s appearance gives him the impression of Islamic fundamentalism even though he is clearly not. All this makes him at most a “reluctant fundamentalist.” As Changez states after describing his reaction to 9/11: “…I have not, I suspect, entirely surprised you. Do you deny it? No? And that is of not inconsiderable interest to me, for Changez reacts to the American’s accusation

“How could I be certain, you ask, if I had no inside knowledge? I must say, sir, you have adopted a decidedly unfriendly and accusatory tone. What precisely are you trying to imply? I can assure you that I am a believer in non-violence; the spilling of blood is abhorrent to me, save in self-defense. And how broadly do I define self-defense, you ask? Not broadly at all! I am no ally of killers; I am simply a university lecturer, nothing more or less. I see from your expression that you do not believe me. No matter, I am confident of the truth of my words” (181).

we have not met before, and yet you seem to know at least something about me. Perhaps you have drawn certain conclusions from my appearance, my lustrous beard…” (75-6).

Second is Changez as he appears at the end of the novel; he has become fundamentally opposed to America’s generalized and dangerous view of South Asia and the Middle East. He devotes his career to encouraging Pakistan’s resistance of American and other international interference.

Third is Changez on assignment in Valparaiso. Until then, he has been an

enthusiastic “fundamentalist” in the way his employer defines fundamentalism. He is

loyal to the mission of attaining maximum efficiency and profitability regardless of the

human cost. After 9/11, Changez becomes disheartened regarding this mission. He agrees, reluctantly, to take the assignment in Valparaiso; when there, he finds himself no longer able to devote himself to “the fundamentals.” The invasion of Afghanistan has made him all too aware of the human cost of “fundamentalism” and he decides not to participate in it any longer.

Fourth is the American. Just by being American, he is complicit in the brand of

terrorism that Changez says America inflicts upon far-away lands. (Just as Changez is, in

America and the American’s eyes, complicit in the other kind of terrorism.) This makes the American a fundamentalist in the manner of Underwood Samson; in terms of stereotypes, he is dedicated to the “American ideals” of profit and efficiency and blind to the “collateral damage.” As Changez says on page 182, America is not reluctant in its actions. America is reluctant not to act but to listen—to open its ears to stories like Changez’s—which would make its actions seem less justified. Though the American is willing to hear Changez out, he is watchful and distrustful right until the very last line of the novel. By making the American a “fundamentalist,” Hamid implicitly makes the reader one, too.

In so doing, he asks us to evaluate our own values and biases.

In complicating the term “fundamentalist,” Hamid reclaims it. He challenges the singular, terrorist associated conception of fundamentalism and makes us do the same. Hamid does not ask us to agree with one particular view of fundamentalism, or of the current international situation. He does ask that we exercise caution and compassion in our judgments. He suggests exploring the intricacies of truth, though more difficult, is better than accepting a pre-packaged stereotypical definition or perspective.


In this section, we learned that:

Hamid’s purposeful ambiguity forces the reader to consider many definitions and viewpoints.

The extended metaphor of America/Erica suggests that, like Erica, America will cause its own decline from the position of world superpower.

Underwood Samson’s Philosophy

Focus on the fundamentals. This was Underwood Samson’s guiding principle, drilled

into us since our first say at work. It mandated a single-minded attention to financial detail,

teasing out the true nature of those drivers that determine an asset’s value” (98).

Hamid on the multiplicity of identity

“People often ask me if I am the book’s Pakistani protagonist. I wonder why they never ask if I am

his American listener. After all, a novel can often be a divided man’s conversation with himself.”xii

In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, nostalgia acts as both a remedy and a poison. On the one hand it can numb the pain of reality momentarily by returning the nostalgic to a safer, happier time. On the other hand, it can destroy relationships, lives, and even empires.

Even though Changez makes America his home for a time, when it comes down to it, his loyalty belongs to Pakistan. Changez’s conversation with Juan-Bautista makes him realize that, by participating in the world of American finance, he has become like a janissary. He is fighting against his own homeland, only his uniform is a suit rather than battle fatigues. Through the course of the story, Changez learns he cannot morally be a ‘dual citizen’ of America and Pakistan. Moreover, he cannot remain an Underwood Samson “fundamentalist” and transfer his loyalty to America; he must become an “ex-janissary” and return to the land of his birth to fight for its power and independence.

Because of its subjectivity, foreignness (or outsider status) is a universal experience. Hamid makes each of his characters an outsider in some way in order to underline this fact. Changez’s example demonstrates the abruptness with which one can transition from insider to outsider. Even in Old Anarkali, it is unclear who is the outsider—Changez or the American.

In the title of his novel, Hamid questions the post-9/11 American concept of the word

“fundamentalist.” He makes the meaning of the phrase “reluctant fundamentalist” fourfold,

asking us to challenge both the stereotypical terrorist-associated definition of fundamentalism and our own perspectives and biases.

Now that you have read this section, consider the following questions:

Was it possible for Changez to save Erica? What does your answer to this question say about the possibility of rescuing America from its star-crossed course?

According to Hamid, do you think that nostalgia is more harmful than helpful, or vice versa?

What does Hamid imply by making the reader’s position in the story ambiguous in terms of outsider/insider?

We have discussed four variations on the term “reluctant fundamentalist.” Can you think of additional variations that the story suggests?

Suppose Changez’s entire narration is an act of nostalgia: for America, Erica, and a time when he was ignorantly happy.