Hanging in my child's pediatrician's office is a poster that exclaims, "a message from your doctor's heart, read to your child from the start." Often encouraged, usually resisted, reading is promoted as being as healthy for you as an apple a day, but why is reading so good for you? Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto, found that people who read fiction are more empathetic. Indeed, some would argue that all forms of fiction, including watching dramas on TV, make us more empathetic, but that is a different conversation. In a Washington Post article, Oatley summarizes why literature makes us more empathetic: "'when we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine what it's like being that person,' Oatley said. 'That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them'" (Kaplan 2016).
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is the kind of book designed to make you empathetic. The story centers around Changez, a Pakistani foreign exchange student who wins a full scholarship to Princeton. After graduating at the top of his class, Changez is recruited by the fictional firm, Underwood Samson. Changez's job at Underwood Samson is to evaluate large companies and provide counsel on how companies can eliminate "redundancies" in order to improve their value or profits. In essence, Chagnez's job is to advise companies on who to fire.
It is with Changez's work at Underwood Samson that the story really begins. For The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a tale of Changez's transformation from capitalist to "reluctant fundamentalist". Unlike the title would suggest, Changez does not become a terrorist. Rather he returns to Pakistan to become a professor who promotes greater financial independence in Pakistan's foreign and domestic affairs. Although it may seem like I am giving away the entire story, Hamid's novel is less about what happens and more about why it happens. Told as a first person narrative by Changez, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one long monologue delivered to a nameless American. During the monologue, the author invites us into Changez's head, so that as Oatley may say, we may imagine ourselves in Changez's position in order to better understand or empathize with him. What Changez ultimately wants us to understand is why he rejects America's materialism and economic imperialism.
When Changez first starts working at the prestigious Underwood Samson, he believes he has finally made it. As Changez tell us, "I was presumptuous enough to think that this was how my life was meant to be, that it had in some way been inevitable that I should end up rubbing shoulders with the truly wealthy in such exalted settings" (Hamid 85). For a period, Changez does rub shoulders with the truly wealthy. As the top performer at Underwood Samson, a whole world of exclusive invites and first class flights around the world are made available to Changez. However, as time goes on, Changez begins to question his materialistic values. "...I saw that in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one's emotional present" (Hamid 145). Changez's awakening first occurs during a trip to Chile, where he is sent by Underwood Samson to evaluate the no longer profitable book printing arm of a large publishing company. During a conversation with one of the employees, Changez reveals that his uncle is a poet and that books have always been highly valued in his family. This personal connection between his family in Pakistan and his profession in America causes Changez to regret the role he has played in casually casting aside people's jobs and ignoring the values that cannot be measured by material wealth.
The book printing division becomes a metaphor for Changez's feelings about his own country. "For we were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid and handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and - yes - conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle-elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing aways at the edge of a continent" (Hamid 102). Changez realizes that if his country, Pakistan, were a company, he would have to recommend shutting it down based on its poverty (or lack of profitably). Yet to do so, would ignore the intangible riches buried in Pakistan's history and the deep cultural values of his home.
This revelation causes Changez to literally reassess the way he looks at things. "I recall the Americaness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter war was in the offing. I was struck at first by how shabby our house appeared, with cracks running through its ceiling and dry bubbles of paint flaking off where dampness had entered its walls. The electricity had gone that afternoon, giving the place a gloomy air, but even in the dimming light of the hissing gas heaters our furniture appeared dated and in urgent need of reupholstery and repair. I was saddened to find it in such a state - no, more than saddened, I was shamed. This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of lowliness" (Hamid 124). Upon first returning to Pakistan, Changez feels ashamed of where he grew up. He sees it as being dingy and poor - a place in need of repair. However, as Changez allows the personal to affect his emotional present, he begins to once again see and feel the comfort of his home. "But as I reacclimatized and my surrounding once again became familiar, it occurred to me that the house had not changed in my absence. I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country's elite. This realization angered me; staring at my reflection in the speckled glass of my bathroom mirror I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed. It was only after so doing that I saw my house properly again, appreciating its enduring grandeur, its unmistakable personality and idiosyncratic charm. Mughal miniatures and ancient carpets graced its reception rooms; an excellent library abutted its veranda. It was far from impoverished; indeed, it was rich with history. I wondered how I could ever have been so ungenerous - and so blind - to have thought otherwise, and I was disturbed by what this implied about myself... "(Hamid 124 - 125). It is only when Changez returns to his family home in Pakistan that he fully realizes how much his job at Underwood Samson and his time in America has changed him. He is disturbed by the fact that he has come to place an emphasis on the new and expensive over the personal and historical. Although he does not say it directly, one gains the sense that Changez feels he has become corrupted or at least misguided or deceived by the superficiality of America's wealth and values.
Upon returning to the States, Changez sees his work through his newly reclaimed "foreign" eyes and refuses to recommend that the book printing division in Chile be shut down. This refusal is based around Changez feeling a kinship with the Chileans."Moreover I knew from my experience as a Pakistani - of alternating periods of American aid and sanctions - that finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power...I myself was form of indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer" (Hamid 156 - 157). Just as the Chileans will lose their jobs based on the whims on a large multinational company, so will Changez lose his place of residence based on the whims of the most economically powerful country. Changez compares himself to an indentured servant because he is not an American citizen. His ability to remain in the States is dependent on his employment at Underwood Samson, where he is sponsored for a work visa. When Changez loses his job over his refusal to devalue the Chilean book printing division, he is forced to return to Pakistan for good.
In order to support himself, Changez takes a job as a Professor. Based off his own personal experiences, Changez encourages his students to resist American involvement in Pakistani affairs. Money is a means of control, as Changes has come to realize through his work with Underwood Samson. By accepting foreign aid from America, Pakistan is accepting a certain level of American control over their own affairs, including American military bases on their soil. Changez is particularly annoyed that America will not intervene to take a more definitive stance against India, whom is threatening Pakistan with nuclear weapons. Despite wanting greater autonomy for Pakistan, Changez claims to be "a lover of America" (Hamid 1) and "a believer in non-violence" (Hamid 181). These claims would perhaps be easier believed if Changez had not told us earlier in the book that he smiled at the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Changez then goes on to explain that he is smiling not "at the slaughter of thousands of innocents" (Hamid 73), but "in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees" (Hamid 73). Despite knowing of Hamid's brutal encounters with racism, "I flew to New York uncomfortable in my own face" (Hamid 74) and his co-workers suspicions of him for growing a beard, one cannot help but feel disgusted by his admission that 9/11 caused him to smile. Though Changez does counter with the question, "But surely you cannot be completely innocent of such feelings yourself. Do you feel no joy at the video clips - so prevalent these days - of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies" (Hamid 73). Changez's feelings toward America are complex and at times, contradictory.
Changez concludes his monologue to the nameless American by telling him, "It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins...But why are you reaching into your jacket, sir? I detect a glint of metal. Given that you and I are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business cards" (Hamid 183 - 184). The Reluctant Fundamentalist concludes here.
My initial reaction was to believe that Changez had been shot by an undercover CIA operative. However, as I wrote this blog post, I began to wonder if Hamid's intent was perhaps not so cynical nor so overtly obvious. I read that Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, once said that the reason his books are so short is because he'd "rather people read his books twice than only half-way through." In giving us Changez's monologue, maybe the author is questioning if we have developed the empathy necessary to understand Changez's position. Perhaps what Hamid is secretly asking us as Changez talks to the nameless American, who is really us, the reader, is can we imagine ourselves as Changez? Empathy does not require that we agree with another person. Empathy requires us to place ourselves in another's shoes. Hamid invites us to imagine ourselves as Pakistanis and to question if as a Pakistani, we might feel the same way as Changez. Do we believe Changez deserves to live or die?
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