Set in the years following 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist tackles, through the engaging, articulate words of its narrator Changez, what it is to be a Pakistani living in the suspicious, terrorism-altered Western world.
The novel is brief, and the narration takes place during the course of one long evening in a Lahore café. The reader, addressed as ‘you’, takes on the persona of an American businessman or CIA agent – the exact occupation and reason for his presence in Lahore is never made clear – and is approached by a bearded young gentleman, who invites himself to join ‘you’ at ‘your’ table. Over the course of cups of tea, snacks and a delicious evening meal, the stranger, who introduces himself as Changez, becomes a friend, describing his life during the years he lived in America, interspersed with snapshots of Lahore life.
Changez arrives in America as a student of Princeton University, where he studies for a business degree, graduating with high honours and successfully gaining a training contract at top valuation firm Underwood Samson. Upon graduating, before his employment begins, he goes on a celebratory holiday to Greece with some wealthy university friends, among them a girl named Erica. Changez soon falls for Erica, but has to content himself at first with being simply friends – Erica is still mourning her first boyfriend, who died from cancer a year earlier. Back in New York, Changez accustoms himself to his working life with alacrity, displaying excellent financial and business skills and reaching first place amongst his peers quickly; at the same time he maintains his relations with Erica, visiting her in her parents’ home and accompanying her to parties and restaurants.
Changez is on a work assignment in Manila when the World Trade Centre is attacked on 11th September 2001. Although at first pleased to see America ‘brought to her knees’, he is concerned for Erica and the victims of the city in which he lives. Upon flying back to New York he finds life there markedly different – beginning when he is strip-searched at the airport and treated as a foreigner, despite having lived there for years. This is the turning point of the novel, from when Changez begins to feel uncomfortable in America and starts his revolt against his company and its capitalist values.
Against a background of war raging between America and Afghanistan, and India and his home country of Pakistan, Changez becomes increasingly uneasy. His relationship with Erica reaches its peak when he succeeds in making love to her, but after this she falls into a decline, unable any longer to repress the memory of her dead boyfriend. After a short trip home, Changez returns to find Erica in a clinic, where he goes to visit her. Becoming increasingly uneasy in New York, he eventually begins to question his values upon a trip to Chile, where an elderly publisher discusses the janissaries of the Crusades with him, with whom Changez can instantly identify. He stops work and resolves to leave his job at Underwood Samson.
Once fired from his job, he is forced to leave America and return to Lahore. Before doing so he attempts to visit Erica once more, but is told she has gone missing. A visit to her mother provides him with a copy of the novel she had written, but not published, as a memory of her, and with it Changez returns to his birthplace, where ‘you’ now find him.
As the evening draws to a close, Changez offers to walk ‘you’ back to your hotel. Along the way he explains that in Lahore he is a university lecturer, and has become something of a mentor for his more politically-minded students, some of whom have been implicated in recent political violence. It becomes apparent that a group of men, including the waiter from the café, are following ‘you’, and despite Changez’s reassurances he appears to be involved in a sinister plot with them. The novel ends ambiguously with ‘you’ reaching into your jacket – perhaps for a business card, as Changez suggests, or perhaps for a gun. It is up to the reader now – are you a simple businessman or a CIA agent looking for Changez? Only you can decide.