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Transnational Voices in Contemporary Pakistani Literature: An Exploration of Fragmented Self and Hybrid Identity in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Ajeesh A. K. and S. Rukmini


For various reasons, Pakistani literature has remained at the periphery of academic enquiry and research. As an independent nation, Pakistan is relatively young, with less than 75 years of history. The partition of 1947 and the bloodshed and violence that ensued had a strong impact on the growth of Pakistani literature and culture, as shown in the early writing of the nation which focused on the violence of partition and the sorrow of the nation. However, after 9/11, Pakistan and numerous other Muslim nations were brought into the limelight by the US. This focus had its obvious negative impacts on the perception of Pakistan as a fundamentalist nation and the base of religious extremism. Nevertheless, this unwarranted spotlight on the nation has also enabled its writers to respond to the West’s homogenous categorisation of their national, cultural and religious identity as merely fundamentalist and militant. During the last decade or so, Pakistani literature has thus been gaining momentum in the international literary sphere. Contemporary Pakistani diasporic writers have made significant contributions in shedding light on the culture, traditions, and complexities of Pakistan as a nation and the indifference of the West towards Pakistan as a mere hub of terrorism and religious extremism. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) follows a similar train of thought and attempts to demystify the complex identity of a Pakistani Muslim migrant in America before and after 9/11. This paper explores Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a manifestation of the transnational voice in contemporary Pakistani literature. It also attempts to reconfigure the notion of identity beyond the boundaries of an isolated nation and culture through the inclusion of migrants embodying hybrid identities. The paper concludes by analyzing the tenability of transnationalism as an antidote to the fragmentation of identities resulting from migration.

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1The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) basically tells the narrative of an immigrant’s estrangement caused by bigotry and ignorance. The title, the finale, and the storyline of Mohsin Hamid’s novel express the duality and fragmentation, the in-betweenness or hybridity, and the borderland identity of its main character. James Lasdun, in his review for The Guardian (2007), observes:

The novel is his monologue: a quietly told, cleverly constructed fable of infatuation and disenchantment with America, set on the treacherous faultlines of current east/west, relations and finely tuned to the ironies of mutual—but especially American—prejudice and misrepresentation. (Lasdun 2007)

2Changez is a proud American migrant Pakistani who works as a consultant at Underwood Samson. He describes his colourful American experience to an American who comes to chat with him at the story’s beginning. “This a dream come true,” he says (Hamid 2007: 3). He explains that whereas a thousand of America’s brightest students enrolled in the same year as Changez in Princeton, he was one of only two Pakistanis, and yet managed to graduate “without having received a single B.” (4). “The Americans faced much less daunting odds,” says Changez (3). He says that students like him, overseas students, were “the best and the brightest” based on statistics (4). His argument has a tinge of excitement since he depends on this narrative in hindsight after four years in the United States. For example, he says:

Students like [him] were given visas and scholarships, complete financial aid, mind you and invited into the ranks of meritocracy. In return, we were expected to contribute our talents to your [US] society, the society we were joining. And for the most part, we were happy to do so. I certainly was, at least at first. (Hamid 2007: 4)

3The phrase “and for the most part” shows his scepticism, and his final line confirms it. As a result, Changez recalls the benefits he obtained due to the United States’ economic and financial assistance in the meritocratic system. Right out of Princeton, he receives a position at Underwood Samson, a prominent consulting firm that serves as another metaphor for the United States. Through his work experiences, Changez discovers visibility in the fractures of the carapace of the US meritocratic system. Underwood Samson recruits only the most deserving pupils. The president of the company proudly announces to Changez and the other new recruits in training:

“We’re a meritocracy,” he said. “We believe in being the best. You were the best candidates at the best schools in the country. That’s what got you here. But meritocracy doesn’t stop with recruiting. We’ll rank you every six months. You’ll know your rankings. Your bonuses and staffing will depend on them. If you do well, you’ll be rewarded. If you don’t, you’ll be out of the door. It’s that simple.” (Hamid 2007: 35)

4This lengthy speech on meritocracy and consistency explains how a neoliberal capitalist society shapes a self-made man. And the tale vividly demonstrates how the self-made man tries to stand on his own two feet.

5According to Geoffrey Nash, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a successful novel because it “is able to construct a Muslim identity that is porous to the values of both East and West as it inverts the stereotypical image of the ‘Islamic’ terrorist.” (2012: 116) To emphasise his connection, Changez, in his narration, weaves New York’s TriBeCa district, the Upper East Side, and Duane Street. Along with references to the Batman and Terminator movies, Tintin comics, Italo Calvino’s novel Mr. Palomar, and music tracks such as Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69 and Aretha Franklin’s Staying Alive are all intertwined with his plot to create a sense of familiarity with the American audience. According to Janet Wilson

In staging the experience of detachment and estrangement and magnifying the ambiguity of the unknown ‘other’ through acts of ventriloquism, [Hamid] encourages the reader’s insight into those spaces between ‘the conflicting interests and positions’ that are typically associated with the East and the West. (Wilson 2017: 182)

6The same narrative technique is used to depict the political unrest, ambivalent cross-cultural interactions, and the hybrid self of the narrator after 9/11.

Narration as an Expression of Self

7Changez’s account of his life and experiences in the United States emphasises the importance of individual subjectivity and his yearning for a cohesive identity. Changez, a self-assured man, is defining himself based on his work and ability. However, he reveals himself as part of a greater system that maintains itself by hidden and systemic brutality. In every migration narrative, these narrations are plain and evident. However, in Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the American listener is placed in a café at Lahore’s Anarkali Bazar, reversing the narrative migratory tactic of East migrating to West. Even so, the migrant, in this case, the American, is voiceless. Changez expressly narrates from his point of view without giving any voice to the American, he depicts the emotions of his immediate audience while they sit together at the café, and says in the second sentence of the text that his presence appeared to have “alarmed” the American on their first encounter (Hamid 2007: 1). There are several examples of the listener’s fears, such as “worried” (5), “suspicious” (11), “uncomfortable” (102), “puzzled” (53), “ill at ease” (108). These emotional and behavioural responses are common in the emotions of any migrant’s disorientation. Meanwhile, after 9/11, the same fears may be adjusted to Changez in New York. Even if Changez’s American listener is well-travelled, his instability is amplified by the reversal of roles as he is an American migrant in Lahore. His portrayal is only recounted through Changez’s response.

8The narrator’s ingenuousness is noted on many occasions. Changez himself says he gives the American listener a “gist” of history when he explains his experience of getting shouted at as an Arab. As he was walking towards his car after working at a cable company, a man shouted at Changez, “Fucking Arab”. Changez screamed back, “[S]ay it to my face, coward, not as you run and hide”. He thinks that he was “fully capable of wielding it [a tire iron] with sufficient violence to shatter the bones of his skull” (Hamid 2007: 117-8). After the narration of the incident, Changez realises that he did not remember the physical appearance of the man and said:

But I cannot recall the man’s particulars, his age, say, or his build; to be honest, I cannot now recall many of the details of the events I have been relating to you. But surely it is the gist that matters; I am, after all, telling you a history, and in history, as I suspect you — an American — will agree, it is the thrust of one’s narrative that counts, not the accuracy of one’s details. Still, I can assure you that everything I have told you thus far happened, for all intents and purposes, more or less as I have described. (Hamid 2007: 118)

9The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus serves as the foundation for Mohsin Hamid’s monologue narrative technique, in which the narrator confronts a silent male listener in a single, continuous monologue. While Camus’s narrator-protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, addresses philosophical issues concerning religion, friendship, and death, Hamid’s first-person narrator-protagonist expresses his discontent with America’s global military and economic development to an American traveller to Lahore whom he suspects of being a covert CIA agent. Changez and his friend Jim had a conversation on the last night of their stay in Manila, and Jim claimed that, like Changez, he did not belong in America. “The confession that implicates its audience… is a devilishly difficult ball to play,” (Hamid 2007: 70) Changez says after his confession, referring to his confession to the interlocutor in front of him. Changez’s narration occasionally feels like a history lecture to the audience with its numerous allusions to historical facts. Changez makes a strong demand for the listener’s attention, even though the latter is not allowed to answer. He implies that an American should never question the integrity of his account. “You can trust me,” Changez says in his speech. “I’m not in the habit of inventing untruths” (152). Throughout the story, Changez reacts to the listener without directly incorporating the American’s or anyone else’s words since he controls other characters’ speech. The first-person narrative is told in a dramatic monologue format. It may be considered that the protagonist is speaking to himself, expressing the tensions and conflict between his Pakistani and American identities.

10Through Hamid’s reversal of the migration, Changez re-establishes his connection with his nation and relaxes in front of an American who calmly listens to him. He made use of all the advantages of being an interesting ‘other,’ since his job at Princeton gave him access to the social circles he desired. He did not participate in any community activities, and he did not demonstrate any affection for his nation. Furthermore, when Changez was hired for the coveted job at Underwood Samson, he imitated his co-workers’ actions to gain an American identity. His attempts to conceal his native identity do not always succeed. For example, when Changez visits his girlfriend Erica at her house and speaks with her father, the father discusses Pakistan’s political predicament, concluding that “you guys have some serious fundamentalism problems” (Hamid 2007: 55). Changez explains his thoughts:

I felt myself bridle. There was nothing overtly objectionable in what he had said; indeed, his was a summary with some knowledge, much like the short news items on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, which I had recently begun to read. But his tone — with, if you will forgive me, its typically American undercurrent of condescension — struck a negative chord with me …(Hamid 2007: 55)

11According to Changez, the father’s arrogance stems from a limited grasp of the greater world, which is strongly linked to the US-Pakistan relationship. Changez’s example here illustrates the inadequacies of American comprehension of his homeland, and his narration is partly an attempt to remove such homogenisation by expressing his identity. Through his narrative monologue, Changez reclaims his right to define himself and his complex national and cultural identity without the interference of another voice. Changez’s America is filled with characters like Erica’s father, a prominent person in New York’s Upper East Side, who get their information from newspaper “short news items.” Readers of such news articles are obliged to obfuscate the intricate backgrounds and long histories of the United States’ economic supremacy. Yet, Changez did not express his thoughts; he agreed with the father’s comment and replied politely, “there are challenges, sir, but my family is there, and I can assure you it is not as bad as that” (55).

The Politics of Name in Identity Formation

12Names play a crucial role in identifying and categorising individuals, a notion emphasized in postcolonial and subaltern studies where the name often refers to their individual identity and connects them to their religion, caste, or community. Hamid has used this politics of name and named the protagonist Changez: his name alludes to the character’s numerous ties with his culture and religion and a representation of his hybrid identity.

13Changez is an Eastern variation of Genghis Khan, an Asian ruler noted for his strong anti-Islam policies. Bart Moore-Gilbert makes a point saying that Changez  echoes the word “changes,” and the name “suggests a chameleon-like protagonist” (2012: 193) who is not tied to any one connection. His attitude about America shifts, as does his outlook on his employment. He becomes “the man who lives alone and supports himself by wearing a suit in a city, not of his birth” (Hamid 2007: 125) once his aspirations collapse. Changez might be “identified” with the “invader who attacks and destroys the Caliphate, the largest and most successful Muslim empire of its time,” according to Kennedy, which “distinguishes him from any Islamic belief” (2018: 6). However, since the Mongols invaded Europe as well, it echoes Changez’s feelings about the West’s imperial ambitions and casts him as a direct opponent post-9/11. The name’s obvious imperial connections also speaks to his nostalgia for a time when Pakistan and “the people of the Indus River basin” (Hamid 2007: 38) were great; when they “built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens […] and […] the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls,” and when they were “saints and poets and […] conquering kings.” (116).

14To Western readers, the name’s most obvious link is, as previously said, the fact that it incorporates the word ‘change,’ but also because ‘changez’ is the second-person plural imperative form of the verb, to change, ‘changer’ in French. To a Western reader, the name appears to imply that the character himself is indicative of the individual transformation and “development that have long been part of the self-definition of the United States and the West more generally” (Kennedy 2018: 6). This ties in with the assumption that, for immigrants like Changez to become American, they must change, since “shedding ‘old world’ difference is precisely what becoming American is all about” (Hartnell 2010: 342) — which is, of course, precisely what Changez tries to accomplish. His sole motivation for going to America is to pursue the American Dream, to climb the social ladder and reclaim some of the grandeur he believes he has lost as his family’s fortunes dwindle. In this sense, he exemplifies the individualism that characterises Western thought, particularly the notion of the American Dream.

15Changez’s hybridisation is evident even in the gap between Eastern and Western readers’ understanding of each other. This hybridisation is difficult to be perceived by readers who rigidly situate themselves in either of these binaries without appreciating the other. It reflects the fight between the East and West, for Changez, a product of two worlds, two civilisations, a hybrid with a divided identity for the most part of the story where one half of him perceives the world in one way, the other in another. It also depicts his failure to unite the two aspects of himself, and it is only when he acknowledges his hybridity, once he has integrated the two parts of himself, that he can use Western civilisation and its values against itself, as he narrates at the conclusion of the novel.

16Alternatively, it may be interpreted as Hamid, the author, advocating for a broader, more comprehensive view of the world through the book, one that reflects both the West’s and East’s ways of thinking. This, in turn, should allow for a more open world where society would become more accepting if people respected that there are several points of view and ignored a dichotomous and restrictive mindset. Because Changez “brings his native and immigrant experiences to the fore,” as Gasztold puts it, “Hamid’s protagonist challenges preconceived ideas about who ‘we’ and ‘them’ are” (2015: 18). Understanding that diversity and fresh viewpoints should be appreciated and considered as valid in “facilitating mutual understanding” (2015: 21) and might lead to the dismissal of difference and erasure of the conceptions of “us,” “them,” and Other.

Hybridity, Fragmentation and Assimilation of Identities

17Changez’s problems stem from his desire to be recognised as both American and Pakistani. Because assimilation is (unofficially) America’s immigration policy, there is not much space for Changez’s Pakistani culture. According to Shirazi’s “classical diaspora perspective” (2017: 17), migration in America is a one-way street that leads to perfect integration and commitment to the “gracious” new host nation. To pass as an American, Changez must conform to American norms, to the “national culture determined to assimilate differences only as past, as history” — he must convert his heritage, his culture, to history, since otherwise, “integration on any terms is no longer possible.” (Hartnell 2010: 342) There are no half-truths or transitional areas in America, and split loyalties have no place here. For Hartnell, “American culture places [an absolute claim] on its newly arrived immigrants, a claim that remains peculiarly indifferent to the dynamics of cultural exchange that might recognise the values brought to America by its migrant population” (342). Alternatively, America’s assimilation programme “absorbs the immigrant” (339) and incorporates diversity, fresh viewpoints, and information “into the logic of the same” (338). When a society is homogenised, there is little place for new ideas and tolerance for new cultures, for otherness and must inevitably stagnate the more assimilation is promoted as the ideal integration strategy. Changez’s agony at attempting to pick America over Pakistan, his effort at integration is a sign of his hybridity in and of itself. He would have had little trouble adapting to US society if he had not felt pain in repressing his culture since it would have demonstrated that his Pakistani culture/identity meant nothing to him. Since he is compelled to remain in the centre of the East/West split because the US would never accept him until he chose to stay there, the suffering implies hybridity. The more this narrative is forced on Changez, the more he recognises it for what it is: an attempt to erase diversity and homogenise a nation such as Pakistan with a diverse history. Simply said, there is no tolerance for heterogeneity, complicated identities, or “divided” allegiance in Changez’s America.

18This is a reality Changez encounters after 9/11, for example, when he feels “uncomfortable in my own face: I was aware of being under suspicion” on a flight returning to New York following a business trip in Manila (Hamid 2007: 85). Because of the West’s preconceived conceptions of what 1) a Muslim looks like, and now, post-9/11, 2) a terrorist looks like, he gets picked out. As “the practise of terrorism” was “explained” as “Islamic” after 9/11, the term “‘Islamic Terrorism’ is used to describe and explain the events of 9/11.” (Morey 2011: 136) In retrospect, Changez wonders if “I believed at all in the firmness of the foundations of the new life I was attempting to construct for myself in New York,” since “the power of my blinders shocks me […] so stark […] were the portents of coming disaster” (Hamid 2007: 106). He actively dismisses reports of “Pakistani cab drivers […] being beaten to death; the FBI […] raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s homes; Muslim men […] disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centres for questioning or worse.” He is “clad in [an] armour of denial” (107-8). Both his avoidance and denial, according to Ghosh, “expresses his agony at having to choose between America and [the East]” (2013: 51). The most severe clash he has with America’s dread of otherness occurs when he is “struck by [America’s] determination to look back,” and wonders if the history that the US appears so enamoured with “contained a part written for someone like me” (Hamid 2007: 131). At this point, he begins to consider who he is seriously and his position in American culture and comprehend the fragmentation of his identity.

19But how does Changez conceal his Pakistani identity to begin the assimilation process? One such event occurs on a trip to Greece at the start of his stay in the United States which he takes with a group of fellow Princeton students. Changez is outraged by his friends’ disregard for their elders throughout the trip, as it contradicts his values and his “traditional sense of deference to one’s seniors” (Hamid 2007: 24). However, because he does not attempt to express his dissatisfaction, he represses his cultural beliefs — most likely to avoid standing out and being perceived as one of them. Even though he perceives himself as the “well-liked […] exotic acquaintance” (19), he wants to be viewed as one of the affluent Americans. This is crucial because it demonstrates that Changez is aware of how the Americans view him. He is mindful of their orientalist preconceptions and beliefs which allow them to objectify him, regard him as “exotic” and, by definition, as Other. As a result, he recognises and is aware of his own “Otherfication” even before his disillusionment and “lives with the knowledge that his identity is constructed in the gaze of others” (144). Despite this, the journey “creates the illusion that he might actually become one of them” (Gasztold 2015: 18) since he is so enamoured with the prospect of being accepted into the Us-group that it effectively blinds him to reality. Of course, once the reader realises he is viewed as Other, his attempts to blend in become worthless since “Changez’s immersion in American society is illusory and […] will only bring disappointment and frustration in its wake” (Gasztold 2015: 18). This circumstance exemplifies Çakirtaş’ and Karidy’s views on culture and hybridity, which argue that this is a case of two cultures — two value systems, Pakistani and American — interacting in a conflicting manner. Changez is a hybrid because he thinks one thing but does nothing to alter the situation. He is caught in the centre of “two contradictory cultures which induce cultural hybridity” (Çakirtaş 2017: 7).

20Changez tells his American interlocutor that he followed Underwood Samson’s ideals to the letter, at least at the beginning of his career, and that he was successful. Changez acknowledges that worthy is synonymous with American, and as a result, he strives to show his American identity more deliberately and passionately. A trip to the Philippines adds a new depth to the contrast between the United States and Pakistan, where he was born. Changez is “trapped in a Third World sensibility” because of “global inequality” and “resists globalisation as merely Westernization or Americanization.” (Liao 2012: 135) He is undecided about which side he is on. On his trip to the Philippines, Changez uses his dual identities to his advantage. He expected to find Manila to be like Lahore and was partly eager to be on the East side of the globe, but was surprised to see a city much like New York, with its “glittering skyline and walled enclaves for the ultra-rich.” (Hamid 2007: 65) When he realises that Manila is unlike anything he has ever seen in Pakistan, he uses his American identity to feel superior to the Filipinos. As he observes his colleagues in leadership positions owing to their Americanness, he maintains his American identity: “I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American.” (Hamid 2007: 65) The entire process of de-Easternising himself and embracing Western standards was meant to create an authoritative man from the United States to overshadow his Pakistani ethnicity and eventually conceal his origins: “[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 most of all, by my companions.” (71) He is embarrassed and troubled by his behaviour. However, he dials down his Pakistani side and suppresses it while strengthening his American side because he wants the Filipinos’ respect and is embarrassed to be from a city he considers to be poorer than Manila because he connects value to financial success.

21Changez strives to distance himself from his homeland and his ethnic identity to take advantage of the numerous external incentives available at his employment and in New York City. Initially, he seems content with his work, riches, and prestige in New York, and he is glad to be a member of American society’s inner circle. On a cab journey, he immediately detected a driver’s accent. Even though he could tell he was from Pakistan by his accent, he refuses to acknowledge it. He “wakes up” from his cultural sleep on the way back to Lahore, when “he begins to dismantle the American side of his identity” (Ghosh 2013: 51). As he examines the house he grew up in “through the eyes of […] that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so irritated me” (Hamid 2007: 141), he realises that “I was a man lacking in substance and thus easily influenced by […] others” (141). He effectively foregrounds his fractioned, hybrid identity by recognising that he has embraced an American/Western way of looking at things. In the end, it is his home that allows him to integrate his Westernised worldview with his split identity: he cannot see the place he calls home and loves dearly as simultaneously being lowly and untidy without feeling divided and broken. Because Changez has accepted the binary thinking of the West, i.e. that East and West cannot be the same thing, if the West is favoured, the East must be its polar opposite. He only realises how fractured he is when he comes home and discovers the ramifications of his view. Finally, after this and the broadcast bombings of Afghanistan — “Pakistan’s neighbour, our friend” (113) — he sees the holes in the American façade: its bigoted attitude about non-Westerners. Now he “is no longer capable of such thorough self-deception” (114). Since he can no longer ignore reality, he realises the catastrophic impact America’s “war on terror” has had on his home and the people he considers neighbours. It “ignite[s] in him feelings of displacement, dispossession, and resentment toward [the] American socio-political and cultural system,” prompting him to “reinstate his Muslim identity” by growing a beard (Shirazi 2017: 17). The beard itself is both a revolt against American post-9/11 policies toward Muslims and a challenge to people who perceive the world via stereotypes (Gasztold 2015: 24). Wearing a beard is a purposeful and visible display of this aspect of his self that may risk his integration into American culture. However, it also transforms his sense of self by emphasising inherited rather than adopted legacy (Gasztold 2015: 24-5).

22However, one occurrence stands out above the rest in terms of confirming his fractioned identity. On a business trip to Valparaiso, Chile, which is described in detail in the second half of the novel, he cannot concentrate on his work. Instead, he turns his attention to the developing Pakistan-India conflict. Changez has thus returned his concentration and sight to his homeland, away from America and the West. Nonetheless, he is torn: he also asks why America has not intervened and pressed India by “informing[ing] [them] that an attack on Pakistan would be treated as an attack on any American ally and would be met with the overwhelming force of America’s military” (162-3). This demonstrates that he still values America’s “imperial and neocolonial ambitions to become a dominant nation in the twenty-first century,” as well as its efforts to “establish its total control over” the world (Shirazi 2017: 24). Throughout the journey, he keeps turning his eyes back to Lahore, seeing it reflected in “Valparaiso’s former aspirations of grandeur” (Hamid 2007: 165). The more time he spends there, the more he notices that in Underwood Samson’s “constant striving to realise a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one’s emotional present”, a realisation that enables him to discover “latent traits of imperialism” (Ghosh 2013: 50) in the firm, traits that he had previously been able to ignore. The sentence “In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision” (Hamid 2007: 165) is significant because it indicates that Changez has begun to accept his twofold, hybrid perspective. He has begun to accept his Pakistani identity and is now attempting to reintroduce it to his worldview, in turn broadening his perspective. Though he returned to Lahore, it is clear that American culture has influenced Changez’s perception of global affairs and individuals. He uses this knowledge to organise rallies and protests for more autonomy in Pakistan’s internal and international issues, which the international media ironically labelled anti-American. This hybrid perspective also enabled him “to take quick stock of a person”, a quality that “is in no small measure modelled on that of (his) former mentor, Jim” (Hamid 2007: 192).

23His rebirth helps him let go of the toxic aspects of his American identity, as he quits his work at Underwood Samson the next day and returns to New York. He continues to think on America’s role in international events, as well as his own, and says,

I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; [its] constant interference in the affairs of other countries was insufferable. [] in each of the major conflicts and standoffs that ringed my mother continent of Asia, America played a central role. [] [And] 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. It was right for me to refuse to participate any longer in facilitating this project of domination. (Hamid 2007: 177)

24This cements Changez’ transformation in identity and devotion: he is no longer “willing to renounce the principles that have formed his Pakistani self for the sake of American materialism” and heartless capitalism (Gasztold 2015: 19). He aims to “look about [him] with an ex-janissary’s gaze […] free […] to consider […] the whole of [American] society” (Hamid 2007: 177-8): he seeks to turn American culture, its concepts, and values against itself to weaken and fight authoritarian cultural systems. Changez, who now has “experience of both the Western and Eastern worlds” (Gasztold 2015: 17), may criticise US culture by using its values against it. Apart from that, he is filled with doubt and despair, comparing his resignation from Underwood Samson to “the end of a romantic relationship” (Hamid 2007: 179), indicating that his identity is no longer solely Pakistani: he keeps parts of his American identity even as he returns to Pakistan. It becomes more evident in the following passage: “I had returned to Pakistan, but my inhabitation of [America] had not entirely ceased.  I remained emotionally entwined with [it], and I brought a piece of [it] to Lahore” (193). He recognises that “it is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship” (195-7), and he seems to accept that portion of his identity will be American; that his identity will be hybrid. This acceptance helps him to develop his identity, even more, transforming his previously shattered hybrid identity into a more harmonic and balanced one.

25He finds a position as a finance lecturer at a university in Lahore and uses it as a platform for his “ex-janissary skills,” organising non-violent demonstrations. According to Changez’s definition of terrorism as “the organised and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers”, “the lives of those of us who lived in lands where such killers [terrorists] also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage,” which he believes is what the demonstrations are about (Hamid 2007: 202-3). Of course, in reality, we know that Changez’ statement is partially true; according to classified US military documents released by WikiLeaks in 2010, there were approximately 66,500 civilian casualties in the war in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, accounting for roughly 60% of the total reported dead (“Casualties of the Iraq War”). As a result, the people of the Middle East appear to be nothing more than collateral damage of the US “War on Terror”. Changez leverages the concepts of non-violent protests to deliver a message to the West, essentially pitting that culture against itself, a crucial element of hybridity, to draw attention to the treatment of civilian casualties as mere collateral damage.

Transnationalism as an Antidote to Fragmentation

26The interaction between Changez and Juan-Bautista demonstrates how meeting the Other who lives outside of American capitalist nationalism allows for a shared closeness that crosses borders and generates a transnational shift to a sense of self that allows for more diversified and intermingled allegiances. By allowing Changez to meet the Other whose life he is about to disrupt and by enlightening him about the janissaries, Juan-Bautista can penetrate Changez’s armour of denial as he clings to his American Dream. This causes a shift in Changez’s thinking, making it impossible for him to continue as he was and plunging him into serious introspection, leading him to see himself as a “modern-day janissary” betraying a “country with kinship” to his and even his own country, when he was actually “predisposed to feel compassion for those, like Juan-Bautista, whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for irrational reasons” (Hamid 2007: 173). In this meeting between Changez and Juan-Bautista, we see the model for a meeting between adversaries resulting in boundaries being blurred by a relationship that invites one to know the Other and see oneself through the eyes of a perceived enemy. Changez tries to achieve the same while conversing with the American while attempting to enter the psyche of the American “through a process of osmosis”:

Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us. (Hamid 2007: 197)

27Changez believed that a connection might pervade and transform one’s identity, as seen in this text. He feels that by spending time together and developing a shared intimate connection in which the American gets to know Changez and sees himself through his eyes, the planned execution will be hard to carry out. It will be impossible because American nationalism’s borders would have been questioned, and the American will have experienced a cosmopolitan shift that recognises the possibility of obligations outside the national.

When the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present in your human social life, you may like or dislike him, agree or disagree with him; but, if it is what you both want, you will eventually make sense of each other. (Appiah 2006: 99)

28In sitting with the American and recounting his experience, he hopes to build this bond.

29The transnational alternative provided and exhibited in Changez’s conversion to Juan-Bautista is a way of being in the world that accommodates many and mixed loyalties and allows for greater connection and understanding across boundaries. Exploring Bender’s understanding of cosmopolitanism as an experience,

one’s engagement with difference, whether marked by pain or any other condition of difference, provides an experience that prompts both a reaching out and a self-reflexive awareness [] That experience reorients us to the world around us whether in a small or large way. And it is foundation of cosmopolitanism. (Bender 2017: 121)

30Changez narrates his narrative of Erica and Underwood Samson and the components of American nationalism they symbolise to let the American understand himself through the eyes of the Other while also forcing the American to bring the Other out of the abstract and into reality. According to Bender’s reasoning, which was built on Appiah’s theory of cosmopolitanism as conversation, cosmopolitan experience and shift in thinking occur when one is confronted by one or more unsettling differences that prompt an internal inquiry followed by introspection that leads to a “partial understanding of the other and an enriching partial re-understanding of one’s self” (Bender 2017: 121).

31Changez utilises Erica and Underwood Samson’s tale in the same manner that Juan-Bautista utilised the janissaries’ narrative to let the American view himself through the eyes of someone else. They are used as symbols to convey the American Dream’s promises and everything it stands for while also demonstrating how American nationalism contradicts those promises based on myths of difference and superiority. Erica, an allegory for the (Am)erica that is alluring, full of promise, beauty, and adventure that morphs into a tragic, lonely, and inward-looking figure hypnotised by myths of its past, and Underwood Samson (US), the economic power of the United States that promises to change Changez’s life.  On the surface, Erica and Changez’s job at Underwood Samson represent for him the American Dream. However, beneath the surface, American nationalist myths of special blessings and privileges lead to dangerous blindness that allows America to rationalise global capitalist imperialism, which goes against the spirit of transnationalism.

32The novel’s depiction of a transnational setting is multi-faceted. To begin with, it may be found in Changez’s character: a Pakistani who not only accepts but also participates actively in American economic hegemony before rejecting and aggressively fighting it. However, the struggle is not limited to the US and Pakistan, or the West and the East: as Medovoi observes, Changez’s conflicted identity is exacerbated when he travels on business to “third spaces”, in this case third world nations (2011: 647). Wallerstein’s notion of a core / semiperiphery / periphery global system is in action here. Changez is taken aback when he learns that the Philippines are wealthier than his native country, and when he is presented with the structure of the capitalist world order all at once, he fights to find his place within it as a Pakistani who has found success and a home in New York’s economic district. Changez later establishes eye contact with a Filipino jeepney driver while going in a limousine with his American co-workers. He has a crisis of loyalties when he switches from the jeepney driver, with whom he shares “a sort of Third World sensibility,” to a fair-skinned co-worker. “I felt like I was play-acting when in reality I should be making my way home, like the people on the street outside,” Changez complains, gazing out of his limousine (Hamid 2007: 66-7). Manila, in the end, functions as a mediator for Changez’s divided identity; it refers to an intermediary step on the civilisational ladder (from Changez’s perspective), and it triangulates Changez within a complicated system of imperial power relations.


33With The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid invites the reader into a world that promises one thing and delivers another. We do not find the anticipated tale of how a young man who is first enamoured with the United States becomes attracted to anti-American activities out of mere hate for the country. Rather, The Reluctant Fundamentalist combats implicit biases and portrays the tale of Changez, who initially embraced the American culture and identity for personal and financial success, and his connections to his homeland or its religious and cultural sentiments were either absent or repressed. However, upon self-introspection after his encounter with Juan Bautista, he is awakened to the indifference and brutality of the culture that he embraced. This ultimately leads to his return to his homeland. This return home could be interpreted as an end to his search for an identity. This is not to claim that he has returned to Pakistan as a true Pakistani devoid of the cultural influences of the US, but instead, he returns to his nation as a transnational individual carrying within him pieces of the US that will enable him to perceive the world from multiple perspectives. This ability to perceive the world, not as a binary but rather a heterogeneous mixture of cultures and identities, is the ultimate hallmark of a transnational individual. The novel’s conclusion leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination. It is unclear if Changez and his teashop companions confront the American, whether the American grabs a pistol and kills Changez, or whether they just go away as friends. Changez refers to their “shared intimacy,” which has brought them closer together, and to the fact that not all Pakistanis are “potential terrorists,” just as not all Americans are “undercover assassins” (209). While many have interpreted this conclusion as a frightening foreshadowing of violence, I see these last words as a sign of optimism, a signal that, in the end, it is possible to have a common understanding that transcends local allegiance.

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Electronic reference

Ajeesh A. K. and S. Rukmini, Transnational Voices in Contemporary Pakistani Literature: An Exploration of Fragmented Self and Hybrid Identity in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant FundamentalistAngles [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 12 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Ajeesh A. K.

Ajeesh A. K. is a research scholar from the School of Social Sciences and Languages, Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore, India. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in transnational aesthetics in the works of Pico Iyer and Kazuo Ishiguro. His research interests also include domains such as hyperreality, posthuman studies and gender and identity studies. Orcid Id: 0000-0002-9801-0826 Contact: ajeeshak9387 [at]

S. Rukmini

Dr. S. Rukmini is Sr. Assistant Professor of English at VIT, Vellore. She has presented and published over 30 research articles and projects. Her specialization is related to a cross-cultural approach towards Indology and Digital Humanities. Department of English, School of Social Sciences and Languages, VIT, Vellore, India. Orcid Id: 0000-0001-8414-3145. Contact: rukminikrishna123 [at]

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