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A Bit of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”
Never an American, Immediately a New Yorker

Mohsin Hamid [Carolin Seeliger]

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a brief novel by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani writer who went to school at Princeton University, about a Pakistani man called Changez, who goes to school at Princeton and is hired by a prestigious Manhattan firm shortly before 9/11. The whole novel takes place in a tea shop in Lahore. It is Changez’s one-sided conversation with an enigmatic American, who never says a word. It takes place after the 9/11 attacks, which Changez found himself somewhat approving of when, on a business trip to Manilla, he saw the towers fall on television and “smiled.” The italics are his. “Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” Reviewers call that sort of thing “provocative,” the equivalent of calling John McCain a maverick.” It means nothing, adds nothing. For now let's just call Hamid's elegy to the sardonic (like that portrait of his, to the right: a little game of dare, as long as you don't) a good read. I’m not yet through the book, about which I’ll write more soon. Here, for now, is a colorfully spot-on passage about New York and Changez, whose name, of course, is a play on words on the French word for change, but also an open-ended admonition, if not an order, to change.

… for me, moving to New York felt, unexpectedly, like coming home. […] Urdu was spoken by taxi-cab drivers; the presence, only two blocks from my East Village apartment, of a samosa- and channa-serving establishment called the Pak-Punjab Deli; the coincidence of crossing Fifth Avenue during a parade and hearing, from loudspeakers mounted on the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Association float, a song to which I had danced at my cousin’s wedding.

In a subway car, my skin would typically fall in the middle of the color spectrum. On street corners, tourists would ask me for directions. I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker. What? My voice is rising? You are right; I tend to become sentimental when I think of that city. It still occupies a place of great fondness in my heart, which is quite something, I must say, given the circumstances under which, after only eight months of residence, I would later depart.

Certainly, much of my early excitement about New York was wrapped up in my excitement about Underwood Samson. I remember my sense of wonder on the day I reported for duty. Their offices were perched on the forty-first and forty-second floors of a building in midtown—higher than any two structures here in Lahore

would be if they were stacked one atop the other—and while I had previously flown in airplanes and visited the Himalayas, nothing had prepared me for the drama, the power of the view from their lobby. This, I realized, was another world from Pakistan; supporting my feet were the achievements of the most technologically advanced civilization our species had ever known.

Often, during my stay in your country, such comparisons troubled me. In fact, they did more than trouble me: they made me resentful. Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Harcourt, 184 pp., $12.10 at Amazon (hardcover).

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