The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you.
Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that
you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to
be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker
of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.
How did I know you were American? No, not by the color of your skin; we
have a range of complexions in this country, and yours occurs often among
the people of our northwest frontier. Nor was it your dress that gave you
away; a European tourist could as easily have purchased in Des Moines your
suit, with its single vent, and your button-down shirt. True, your hair,
short-cropped, and your expansive chest -- the chest, I would say, of a
man who bench-presses regularly, and maxes out well above two-twenty-five
-- are typical of a certain type of American; but then again, sportsmen
and soldiers of all nationalities tend to look alike. Instead, it was your
bearing that allowed me to identify you, and I do not mean that as an
insult, for I see your face has hardened, but merely as an observation.
Come, tell me, what were you looking for? Surely, at this time of day,
only one thing could have brought you to the district of Old Anarkali --
named, as you may be aware, after a courtesan immured for loving a prince
-- and that is the quest for the perfect cup of tea. Have I guessed
correctly? Then allow me, sir, to suggest my favorite among these many
establishments. Yes, this is the one. Its metal chairs are no better
upholstered, its wooden tables are equally rough, and it is, like the
others, open to the sky. But the quality of its tea, I assure you, is
You prefer that seat, with your back so close to the wall? Very well,
although you will benefit less from the intermittent breeze, which, when
it does blow, makes these warm afternoons more pleasant. And will you not
remove your jacket? So formal! Now that is not typical of Americans, at
least not in my experience. And my experience is substantial: I spent four
and a half years in your country. Where? I worked in New York, and before
that attended college in New Jersey. Yes, you are right: it was Princeton!
Quite a guess, I must say.
What did I think of Princeton? Well, the answer to that question requires
a story. When I first arrived, I looked around me at the Gothic buildings
-- younger, I later learned, than many of the mosques of this city, but
made through acid treatment and ingenious stonemasonry to look older --
and thought, This is a dream come true. Princeton inspired in me the
feeling that my life was a film in which I was the star and everything was
possible. I have access to this beautiful campus, I thought, to professors
who are titans in their fields and fellow students who are
philosopher-kings in the making.
I was, I must admit, overly generous in my initial assumptions about the
standard of the student body. They were almost all intelligent, and many
were brilliant, but whereas I was one of only two Pakistanis in my
entering class -- two from a population of over a hundred million souls,
mind you -- the Americans faced much less daunting odds in the selection
process. A thousand of your compatriots were enrolled, five hundred times
as many, even though your country's population was only twice that of
mine. As a result, the non-Americans among us tended on average to do
better than the Americans, and in my case I reached my senior year without
having received a single B.
Looking back now, I see the power of that system, pragmatic and effective,
like so much else in America. We international students were sourced from
around the globe, sifted not only by well-honed standardized tests but by
painstakingly customized evaluations -- interviews, essays,
recommendations -- until the best and the brightest of us had been
identified. I myself had among the top exam results in Pakistan and was
besides a soccer player good enough to compete on the varsity team, which
I did until I damaged my knee in my sophomore year. Students like me were
given visas and scholarships, complete financial aid, mind you, and
invited into the ranks of the meritocracy. In return, we were expected to
contribute our talents to your society, the society we were joining. And
for the most part, we were happy to do so. I certainly was, at least at
Every fall, Princeton raised her skirt for the corporate recruiters who
came onto campus and -- as you say in America -- showed them some skin.
The skin Princeton showed was good skin, of course -- young, eloquent, and
clever as can be -- but even among all that skin, I knew in my senior year
that I was something special. I was a perfect breast, if you will -- tan,
succulent, seemingly defiant of gravity -- and I was confident of getting
any job I wanted.
Except one: Underwood Samson & Company. You have not heard of them? They
were a valuation firm. They told their clients how much businesses were
worth, and they did so, it was said, with a precision that was uncanny.
They were small -- a boutique, really, employing a bare minimum of people
-- and they paid well, offering the fresh graduate a base salary of over
eighty thousand dollars. But more importantly, they gave one a robust set
of skills and an exalted brand name, so exalted, in fact, that after two
or three years there as an analyst, one was virtually guaranteed admission
to Harvard Business School. Because of this, over a hundred members of the
Princeton Class of 2001 sent their grades and résumés to Underwood Samson.
Eight were selected -- not for jobs, I should make clear, but for
interviews -- and one of them was me.
You seem worried. Do not be; this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and
there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your
wallet, as we will pay him later, when we are done. Would you prefer
regular tea, with milk and sugar, or green tea, or perhaps their more
fragrant specialty, Kashmiri tea? Excellent choice. I will have the same,
and perhaps a plate of jalebis as well. There. He has gone. I must admit,
he is a rather intimidating chap. But irreproachably polite: you would
have been surprised by the sweetness of his speech, if only you understood
Where were we? Ah yes, Underwood Samson. On the day of my interview, I was
uncharacteristically nervous. They had sent a single interviewer, and he
received us in a room at the Nassau Inn, an ordinary room, mind you, not a
suite; they knew we were sufficiently impressed already. When my turn
came, I entered and found a man physically not unlike yourself; he, too,
had the look of a seasoned army officer. "Changez?" he said, and I nodded,
for that is indeed my name. "Come on in and take a seat."
Excerpted from The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.
Copyright © 2007 by Mohsin Hamid. All rights reserved.
Posted with permission of the publisher.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.