As mentioned in my previous post, The Gathering by Anne Enright is proving elusive and so have decided to read some of the short-listed books in the same year (2007). So of course as soon as I started reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist for the 3rd time, an email arrived saying Flipkart had finally managed to find me a copy and it was on it’s way! 3 Cheers for Flipkart – I think! Coz, let me just say this at the start of this post – I’m smitten by Hamid’s book! There is no other way to describe it! No truly! It was a favourite when I read it some years ago, but like everything I read, had faded in my memory, so that although I remembered how much I liked it, I had only the vaguest sense of ‘why’, if you know what I mean 😛 The specifics were dimmed, which in no way reflects on the book, just my notorious ‘memory’. I’ll confess I picked it initially because it was the shortest of the 3 books I had to choose from and because the summary of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, seemed too depressing. Reasons though are just that, an excuse for choice! Once I had read it through, I had to read it again. It’s that kind of book! And this time I’m not likely to forget it any time soon 🙂
So here goes…it’s hard to find books that make their ‘point’ as it were within 200 pages? Don’t you think? This one does that and much more, although I must confess, Hamid does an excellent job of presenting the facts without ever appearing to be biased towards one particular view, in itself a remarkable achievement, given the sensitive subject matter. Not a word appears excessive or misplaced, indeed I thought, only in this way could this book have been written and in no other. If Hamid’s ability to find the exact words to convey an emotion, a thought, an idea is impressive, his use of ‘italics’, is equally apt and effective. If this were a textbook, mine would be excessively highlighted 😛 Who else would compare a man to a breast so convincingly?! “I was a perfect breast, if you will – tan, succulent, seemingly defiant of gravity…” The narrative moves forward at a rapid tempo, and Hamid is brilliant at creating the ominous undercurrents that give the book the feel of a thriller. His dark humor, intimate knowledge of Lahore and wonderful use of irony add depth, dimension and interest. The title is apt.
I’m beginning to understand that all the books that move me deeply are primarily about ‘journeys’ of all kinds. And this one is no different. It traces Changez’s journey from a naïve bright-eyed scholar to a wiser, ‘seasoned’ (I think this cricketing term best describes what I want to say) man. Along the way, he acquires what seems like a dream job, falls in love with what seems like ‘his dream girl’ and is living what is, for all practical purposes, a ‘dream-life’ to many of his less fortunate brethren back home – until of course he must awaken to reality. I love that Hamid doesn’t make the process easy. It’s as messy and tough as it would be in Life. There is doubt and confusion; regret and rage; happiness and despair in equal measure. Changez’s reactions to every situation are well presented and in character. You may not agree with his choices as a reader, but you must admit that if you ‘were’ him, you ‘might’ have behaved as he did. There’s a particularly chilling part (for me) that describes his reaction to 9/11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers, that struck a nerve – and I’ll be honest here – it was scary coz I knew exactly what Changez was feeling. Hamid is spot on here and most people on the sub-continent will agree, although few will ever admit it. I do. I’m not proud of it and the feeling didn’t last for more than an infinitesimal moment, and yet I’m ashamed of it to this day. I’m a citizen of this World and I consider myself a ‘good’ one – compassionate, accepting, just and fair. I’m educated and well travelled and was in fact in the US when 9/11 happened, having entered just the previous day. I witnessed & experienced the horror of the event firsthand and I remember how the whole thing had a dream-like (perhaps ‘nightmarish’ is the better word) quality to it. It was unbelievable and surreal and still is today when I think back to that time. And yet – after the initial horror had passed as it must and it does, I had the same reaction as Changez – perhaps because of our similar geographies and consequently similar sensibilities? Perhaps my natural instinct to support the under-dog? Whatever the reason, it’s hard to admit and all I can do to explain is quote a passage from the book, “But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack – death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes – no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.” Perhaps the only way anyone can hope to begin to understand (if ever), is if they live in our part of the World and have suffered as we have from being at the receiving end of America’s at best bizarre foreign policies and her seeming inability to grasp our finely nuanced politics, compounded by her refusal to accept that she ‘just doesn’t get it’. As I said, more people than would admit felt that she had this coming to her, for the way she was meddling in the Middle East. That’s not to say that they rejoiced at her misfortunes – far from it. They were just less ‘incredulous’ when it happened, although the ‘scale’ was far beyond anything that could be imagined. And for all her rhetoric, America’s reaction to the event was no different than any other country’s would have been, an action that she herself would have rushed to control or suppress (according to her policy of the moment), had it come from another – War, one that has changed the World forever in ways that only Time can tell, and not I think for the better. But hey, what do I know? And I digress – this is not about 9/11 and my views on American foreign policies, although such a discussion is inevitable given the subject matter. And yet at no point does Hamid himself endorse his protagonist’s views and actions. Clever writing!
The love-story in the book, I wasn’t too enamoured of, probably coz I realized long before Changez did that this was one relationship that was doomed from the start. Perhaps it was obvious to me as a woman that Erica was so firmly rooted in the past, that any ‘moving on’ was impossible. That said, it’s still told sensitively. This book brings home to me once again, just how fragile our Lives really are and of how little control we have over events that shape them. All we can hope to do is stay alert to every opportunity and consider every possibility as we navigate our ways forward to the best of our abilities. The book’s ambivalent endings were another high-point for me. Usually such endings irritate me and I like my loose ends neatly tied up. But here, whether regards Erica or Changez’s future, the ambivalence works coz I can hope for happiness while my heart knows otherwise. I am free to dream and what’s Life for if not to dream?
A superlative book this! Thought-provoking, challenging, clever and relevant – A MUST read! I can’t wait to read The Gathering now. It must be a powerful book indeed if it won the Booker instead of this one!
- myke’s annual re-reading list (mykesworld.wordpress.com)