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The Reluctant Fundamentalist Essay

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Mohsin Hamid’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, is a framed narrative that explores the inflective journey and internal struggle for a sense of inner contentment. The author tackles these incredibly complex themes through the confronting story of a young Lahore man. Adapting himself towards a patriotic American society and diluting his personal contentment through the suppression of his own Heritage. Hence Hamid’s intentions behind the allegorical name of ‘Changez’ for ‘Change’. Hamid makes it quite clear early on in the text, that Changez is quite an unreliable narrator. Changez claims to the ambiguous American that he immediately felt at home in New York, however this is completely untrue as he also establishes his alienation from those around him, conveying the early stages of perversion to Changez’ sense of contentment. “The world around me was like a movie, and I was watching it, rather than living in it. It didn’t strike me at first, but it came from feeling out of place.”
Studying abroad at Princeton University, Pakistani protagonist Changez is already faced with socialist and cultural disparity the moment he arrives at Princeton. Aiding the detachment he possesses from other students economic status, he adopts three on campus jobs, to maintain the mask of a Princeton persona. “At Princeton, I conducted myself in public like a young prince, generous and care free. But I Also quietly acquired three on campus job, in infrequently visited locations, so such a persona could be afforded.” After Changez gains employment at Underwood Samson, (a prestigious establishment firm) Changez gains what he didn’t at Princeton. Wealth, status and travel, just like the elite. Despite acquiring the defining factors, he so desired to possess, his ethnicity is still apparent to his peers, appearing as an exotic acquaintance, rather than an American. Changez state to the American man, “It was then in Greece that I felt, for the first time uncomfortable in my own skin.” It’s here that Hamid expresses his views, through the barbed words of his character, how it feels to be a foreign outsider, in a capitalist American society. Creating a rift, between his cultural identity and personal sense of being uncomfortable with himself.
After being hired by Underwood Samson, Changez is introduced to the guiding principles of the company. “Focus on the fundamentals”. Through this Changez develops the ability to function both respectfully and with self-respect in a hierarchical environment. This section of the text’s revolving story is important as it show’s Changez creating and wearing the mask, playing the role of an American. Much like Hamid’s second allegory of ‘United Samson’s’ for ‘US’, as his workplace starts to accept his new capitalist driven identity, so does America. He is asked on the street’s constantly for directions, as if he was a local resident and due to his economic status, was well known for working for a business that contradicts his cultural Pakistani values. The more Changez begins to wear this cloak of an American identity, the more he begins to live by it, feeling comfortable once again. Content in his own skin.
When Changez arrives to the Philippines on a business trip, awaking to the realisation that he is assimilating excessively, “I had started to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American.” Hamid implies, that Changez has learnt, that hierarchy class and appearance affect professional status. Ergo when Changez is admired and looked up to by the lower working class Philippine’s, Changez adopts the ‘thinking of an American’, viewing their city as “Poor and dirty” rather than “rich with culture” like he was taught to view/respect, as a child at home in Lahore. Aside from talent, it’s this identity crisis, of an outsider pretending to be a local that Jim finds mirrored within himself and later hires Changez, re-programing his worldly perception. Everything changes after the events of 9/11 Occur, including Changez’ contentment due to his altered social class in society. Hamid display a cruel yet undeniably real insight, through the sharp, critical views of Changez. Returning to a traumatized, racist and stereotyping America was detrimental to both, Changez’ feeling a sense of comfort within himself as well as his stripped title of a ’New Yorker’. “I was the only non-American in our group, but I suspected my Pakistaniness was invisible, cloaked by my suit, by my expense account and by most of all, my companions.” After all the years Changez had spent, diminishing his sense of identity by taking on the persona and values of an American, he was now in the spot light once again, ridiculed for his heritage. The shock/attacks of 9/11 forces Changez to confront who he really is and becomes disoriented as a person. Changez’s identity crisis becomes paramount, perplexed by his own reaction to the attacks, “When I saw the images, I just stopped and then I smiled.” In Valparaiso, Changez is enlightened by a recording company owner named Juan bautista, another of Hamid’s allegories, which is Spanish for ‘John the Baptist’, who baptised many, including cleansing Jesus Christ himself. Changez connects with Juan, who becomes his spiritual mentor. He acts as the catalyst to Changez’ cultural awareness and integrity, facilitating him in showing what he had become. They share stories of the past as Juan teaches Changez to enjoy local culture again like his Pakistani identity always had and about the concepts of the janissary’s, that Hamid had so cleverly incorporated into the text, in contrast. Having found happiness again within himself over discussions of his cultural Lahore home, Changez becomes disengaged from Underwood Samson, the corporate ethos and the power of America and what it represents. Whilst a doorway had closed, another had opened. With questions still at hand, Changez sense of contentment within his own identity had started to become a little clearer to himself and that detached from American society. He only feels comfortable in his own skin when it’s covered by a layer of “forced upon American values” and “acting like someone I am not.” “All I knew was that my days on focusing on the fundamentals were done.”
Changez becomes a political lecturer in Lahore, which finally allows him to feel like he’s on the pathway to finding his own sense of contentment again, for who he is. He rejects the fundamentals and claims, “I was a modern day janissary, a servant of the American empire.” Whilst the pages come to an end, Hamid leaves Changez’ final state of contentment up to the reader. He leaves the strong message that having a sense of identity is significantly hard, when we’re always changing, always adapting. Hamid expressed through Changez’ rollercoaster ride from Lahore, to Princeton, to New York and back again that nobody should be judged by their class, skin or financial state. That it’s hard being an outsider, when we’re all an outsider somewhere in the world. We all want the same things in life, to some extent or another. To feel self-contempt. To have a sense of well being in our own skin.
Mitchell Francia

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