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Reading Groups: Winning belts in mental judo

03 June 2009

Nicholas Holtam on The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A WHITE HOUSE aide resigned in April after having agreed to a photo shoot of Air Force One, the Presid­ent’s plane, flying low over New York. His “poor judgement” prompted workers to evacuate their offices, as the incident revived the trauma of 9/11.

At much the same time, after 100 days in office, President Obama was taking steps to redefine the relation­ship between the United States and Pakistan. What happened on 9/11 was both personal and political, as is Mohsin Hamid’s book. It explores the consequences of 9/11 through the experiences of a young Pakistani, Changez, who has lived in the United States.

The novel is a “conversation” with a quiet American, which takes place over a meal at a café in Lahore. You can read it in “real time”: I couldn’t put it down.

As a scholarship student at Prince­ton, Changez was always an outsider. After graduation, at work in New York, he was immediately a New Yorker. Underwood Sampson (US), the prestigious consultancy for which he was recruited, was an aggressive meritocracy. He worked hard, and did well.

The firm’s guiding principle was to focus on business fundamentals. Changez was not reluctant to accept these, and it is assumed that we will admire him and them. At work, he learned a systematic pragmatism, a sort of professionalism. If you did well, you were rewarded. If you did not, you were shown the door. It was simple.

Changez loved America: it was a land of opportunity; and he loved being the best of the élite graduate re­cruits at US. “We were taught to recog­nize another person’s style of thought, harness their agenda, and redirect it to achieve our desired outcome; indeed one might describe it as a form of mental judo for busi­ness.”

I do something similar as a pastor, where the task is to get inside the experience of people who may be very different from me. But the point of this story is that Americans (and perhaps British people, too) find it difficult to get inside Islamic and Pakistani experience.

Gap-year students and mission­aries, as well as those who travel for business, know the ways in which you can find yourself and lose yourself when travelling abroad. Even holi­days give a taste.

When he went to Manila, Changez did what he had never done before, and pretended to be an American. He got more respect from others that way, as a member of the officer class of global business.

I learned to tell executives my father’s age, “I need it now”; I learned to cut to the front of the lines with an extraterritorial smile; and I learned to answer, when I was asked where I was from, that I was from New York.

Inwardly, he was often ashamed of himself.

In the Lahore café, Changez does all the talking. An American reader might get drawn into this “conversa­tion” as the other party, the listener; but Pakistan is part of the Common­wealth, and Changez played soccer and cricket, and speaks English with­out an American accent.

So the British reader is more likely to be able to get inside both of the people at this meeting, and be a third party eavesdropping on their conver­sa­tion. Had Tony Blair decided that Britain could play that sort of part politically in the wake of 9/11, the world might look very different now.

This book is the product of global networks — education, business, culture, religion. In it, nationalism is also transcended by the diversity of a cosmopolitan city — the New York Pakistani taxi drivers and the local deli.

Is it possible for us to have strong national identities and be patriotic, without limiting our love for others, especially those who are different? This is much harder to achieve where terrorism is a reality and has created a climate of fear. It is also much harder in an economic downturn.

Our histories shape us as people and societies, and a love story is inter­twined with the political and busi­ness. The young Pakistani outsider meets an upmarket, beautiful, but emotionally damaged American. He makes contact with her in ways that none of her other friends can, but the death of her childhood sweetheart has given her a grief that possesses her. She is unable to adapt and find a future.

The bats at dusk in Lahore provide another metaphor:

I marvel at their ability to navigate the cityscape; no matter how close they come to these buildings, they are never involved in a collision. Butterflies, on the other hand, tend to splatter on the windshields of passing automobiles . . .

The United States’ inability to adapt pragmatically to the new world is seen as a terminal failure, whereas Changez has been able to define himself in a new way that is not about dominance, and depends on his having found the fundamentals of Islam.

What might have looked convin­cing through the Bush presidency is questionable after even a few months of President Obama, with whom the United States looks more able to adapt. On the other hand, the funda­mentals of Islam may be politically benign, but the same cannot be said of Islamic or any other fundament­alism. The continuing conversation needs our close attention.

The Revd Nicholas Holtam is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-141-02954-2.


How much does Changez reveal about himself during his monologue? And what do we learn about the voiceless American stranger?

How did Changez recognise that the man he befriended was an American?

How effective did you find the form of the monologue as a method of story-telling?

Would Changez’s story have been different if his family in Pakistan had still been wealthy?

Jim says: “Power comes from becoming change.” How did Changez’s life prove the truth of this statement?

How did Juan-Bautista affect Changez? 

When do you think the turning-point came in Changez’s attitude towards the United States, and what are his main criticisms of the country?

How would you describe Changez’s relationship with Jim?

What impact did the end of the story have on you? Were you surprised by it?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 July, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. It is published by Virago at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84408-182-0.

Book notes

Jeannette Walls relates the story of her dysfunctional childhood. She and her sister were the children of an alcoholic father, who lived in a fantasy world, always believing his inventions would succeed. He racked up debts when he spent more than he earned doing odd jobs, and the family frequently had to flee creditors. The girls’ mother, a painter, left the girls to fend for themselves, even when very young. Walls tells the story as she sees it, through the eyes of herself as a child.

Author notes

Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States, in 1960. She was educated at Barnard College and Columbia University, and she currently works as a columnist for MSNBC.com. She lives in Virginia with her husband, and is working on her third book. Her first, Dish: The inside story on the world of gossip, was published in 2000.

Books for the next two months:

August: Twenty Questions Jesus Asked by Elizabeth Rundle

September: The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

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