I had written a response to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist a while ago (read it here). Yesterday, I received a note from Irfan critiquing my take on the novel.
This is what he wrote:
Punya, I read the novel and it does not seem to me, as you interpret, that the character decides to become a fundamentalist. Notice the term fundamentalist is moderated by the term of ‘reluctance’. Which is his way of saying, “look! I am on the edge and my reluctance—which may have its own basis in many things—keeps me from going that way.” The ‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is not the ‘Fundamentalist.’ Every pedestrian, the waiter, and others strolling on the mall in Lahore come across as both regular people and also possible fundamentalists and assailants. Fundamentalism in this narrative is seen as precipitated in the reaction and paranoia of the visitor. His use of the term does not seem to me to be a reference to the Wahabist ideology that has typically come to be lumped under the rubric of fundamentalism.
In his novel, this man, that women, any one around is depicted as possibly carrying a concealed weapon that could be pulled out for attacking the visitor. It is merely a depiction, and consequence, of paranoia. That is to say, they appear in the narrative as on the verge. It goes without saying that the reaction and paranoia is adding to the ranks of fundamentalists. What do you think drones, for example, are achieving? Do you really think they are hitting al-Qaida there by drone missiles? The Islamic nationalism can be interpreted as a reaction of being pushed in the corner into the so called ‘Muslim World.’ I always used to say that this damn thing Muslim world does not exist except that we are bringing it into existence by calling it one and by uniting people by providing them with a common denominator.
I can see where Irfan is coming from, and upon reading his comments, I realize that I underplayed the importance of how fundamentalism is “precipitated in the reaction and paranoia of the visitor.” Reading his thoughts also reminded me just how tongue in cheek Mohsin Hamid’s text is – it is never clear whether Changez really means what he is saying or is just playing with the listener (and through that with the reader). That said, I think I stand by my response… though (as I had noted) my response may have been colored by the recent happenings in Mumbai.