The latter part of the above quote from the book describes perfectly how I felt after turning the final page of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. No one can blame me for assuming it was anything but a thriller given the title. Which only goes to show that one should never judge a book by its cover.
The story is told in monologue by the protagonist, Changez, to an unnamed American man in a busy Lahore café while dusk is settling in. The two are strangers and the foreigner appears to be at unease with this apparent chance-meet and the almost forced hospitality of this Pakistani man who narrates his life-story to him, that too, in excellent English.
Changez tells him (and us) of how he graduates from Princeton and finds himself living the American dream with a highly-paid job at a valuation firm and a lovely, but troubled love-interest, Erica. He suffers from identity crisis like so many other migrants but quickly makes his niche among New York's elite. Then 9/11 happens, and his world changes, along with the world itself.
The beauty of the novel lies in the effortless story-telling, almost musical in a way, which engages the reader's attention from the very first line, and keeps a tight hold of it throughout. There are no bombs and no guns- but the tension is suffocating. The reader is often made to feel that the two strangers may be enemies of sorts and this makes one jump to all kinds of strange conclusions about the end of the evening, while the writer leads you on to an ingenious little twist. Mohsin Hamid skilfully uses the power of understatement to create in the mind of the reader a sense of urgency that lasts till the ending words.
This is a rare piece of literary fiction which has made it to the international best-seller list. Maybe it's because of how closely, almost personally, the writer talks about the bipolar world following 9/11. Hamid is also a Princeton graduate, born in Pakistan but with his childhood years in the States. Maybe it's because you can't help but take a side, either for or against Changez, who is brute in his honesty and open about his idiosyncrasies. Or maybe it's just because Changez is an incredibly real man who, over an afternoon cup of tea, defines the conflicts of the past decade.
A must read for anyone and everyone who looks for intrigue in a book and likes to be left thinking.