Both the book and the movie are crucial to the debate that should occur regarding the fundamentalism and militancy that besets Pakistan today. PHOTO: FILE
Set against the social and political upheaval following the infamous 9/11, Mohsin Hamid’s book is skilfully brought to life in the movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Instead of the somewhat stilted, ‘Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?’ with which the book starts, the movie launches straight into old Lahore (sadly, a Lahore recreated and filmed in Delhi, given the potential volatility of the subject), with an electrifying qawali.
And very soon, images of the qawals’ paan stained uvulas are interwoven with disturbing scenes as an American couple on the street is attacked, the man roughly bundled into a car. The screams of his companion as she runs after the speeding car are muffled by the sonorous beat of the devotional music.
Mira Nair, the award winning director was one of nine filmmakers who made short films (11 minutes nine seconds and one frame long) relating to 9/11 soon after the event, so she is not new to the theme.
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair displays a sensitivity to the medium. By changing the somewhat static setting of the book which is entirely based on a monologue taking place in a local chai khana(tea house) in Lahore, to some deft camera work which follows the main character Changez from Pakistan to the US, Philippines, Turkey and back again, obviously aware that what worked for a book would not work as well for a cinema audience.
Other changes, and there are several, might irk those extremely passionate about the book, but they worked for me.
Riz Ahmed as Changez has the speaking eyes and sensitive face associated with his character, an extremely intelligent young man, capable of carving a more than satisfactory niche for himself in a new country without losing his identity. It is through him that the theme is played out, of America’s role in creating ‘fundamentalists’, whether reluctant or otherwise. Changez embodies the changes wrought on the world stage as a result of this American role, through 9/11 and beyond.
Interestingly, Changez meaning ‘change’ in French was not a deliberate choice, Hamid says.
Kate Hudson (Melissa Gilbert on Junoesque lines) as Erica is magnificent. There is something extremely likeable about Hudson, which once again is most apt, because isn’t there something extremely likeable about the US and its people?
And yet her relationship with Changez falls through, as does his professional life in the US, even though he attains positions that the rest of his class at Princeton can only dream of. When likened to a Janissary, although this comparison is made from a business point of view, Changez applies it to himself as a man working for those who are hostile to him. He resigns from his job, causing his boss Jim(Kiefer Sutherland), to switch uncannily from a fatherly patron to an employer with…did he have fangs, or was I led to imagine it?
Definitely, one is led to see many things, such as the resentment harboured by the people of the third world, who after all are only a handful of them terrorists, against the US. The transformation undergone by Changez, the son of a once wealthy, educated family can be traced to many things, but the revulsion, shock and anger on the actor’s face during an excessively intimate examination by immigration officials at the airport says enough.
Riz Ahmed is a talented actor, but he is also the biggest flaw when towards the end of the movie he gives a speech in Urdu. The unsuitability of an actor clearly not at home in his mother tongue being cast in this role is immediately obvious. The character he portrays has spent almost his entire life in Lahore, the son of an Urdu poet to boot. This flaw is all the more regrettable since that speech did not live up to the rest of the screenplay and could have been dispensed with, its sentiments conveyed by some other means: note for Ami Boghani (who also worked with Nair in ‘The Namesake’) and William Wheeler, who have otherwise done well as screen writers.
The rest of the cast…Om Puri as Abu, and Shaban Azmi as Ammi…have they ever not done a good job?
They’ve certainly done well here, as also Meesha Shafi in her role as the distinctly vampish sister. And Liev Schreiber, who in the book was the man the monologue, was addressed to. For a man whose height probably dictates his every role, he plays the American agent Bobby with immense sensitivity (no pun intended), creating layer upon layer of personality, helping to make the entire movie as worth watching, and thought provoking as the book.
Both the book and the movie are crucial to the debate that should occur regarding the fundamentalism and militancy that besets Pakistan today.
Some friends were away for a month. Opening their fridge to give it a quick clean before they returned, I was stunned to find it covered in mould because it had been switched off and its door shut while still damp. Mould had penetrated even the rubber lining on the door, and the empty ice trays contained green fungus cubes.
Cleaning that fridge took a very long time.
Whoever takes over the governance following elections faces a similar prospect. Genuine efforts to clean up and rebuild the country will take generations. To imagine that this job can be tackled within days, weeks or even months is to delude oneself and others, because corruption, like that mould, has infiltrated every level of society; and education, health care, law and order and justice, are all in grave need of attention.
Article 25 A of Part II of the Constitution of Pakistan outlines the fundamental right of its citizens to education. It holds the State responsible for providing free and compulsory education for all citizens between the ages of five and sixteen. Yet most children of this age across the country work for an income and do not attend school. They have few options, with the cost of living what it is.
Every single political party with much thumping of fists and elaborate sloganeering has promised a greater allocation of funds for education if elected, and, the Jamaat-e-Islami, not to be outdone, has promised one hundred percent literacy by the end of its tenure should anyone (be so rash as to) elect them.
It remains a mystery how any of this is to be achieved, and on which prior performance records these parties base their claims. The PPP ended its tenure not only without fulfilling its promises, but the GDP during its current tenure declined. Also quite unexplained is where they plan to obtain the necessary funds. In a statement last November, the IMF is quoted as saying that ‘Pakistan’s growth remains too weak, the underlying inflation high and the trade balance heading in the wrong direction,’ which is another way of saying that the economy is completely stuffed.
The problem has to be tackled on multiple fronts: the quality of the (exceedingly) substandard education currently available must be improved, and politically motivated interference in syllabi prohibited; education must be made affordable for children belonging to underprivileged families, and provision made to replace their loss of earnings if these working children who contribute to the family income, attend school instead.
I teach English as a second language (ESL). My new students are unable to put together a single sentence in correct English despite having studied English throughout school and college, where they also study history, microbiology, biology etc. You wonder how well these other subjects are taught. Not too well, judging by the fact that these young women are under the impression that the year 2013 belongs to the 20th century. They are shocked to discover that they are a century behind times.
This is an intelligent nation; its intelligence has simply been warped. Education can and must be provided, but the process will require solutions outside the box, involving entire communities in the process.
With a population almost at 200 million, Pakistan spends just over 0.25 per cent on healthcare, and has an extremely high rate of infant and maternal mortality, malaria, tuberculosis, and certain cancers, such as breast cancer, the latter in fact the highest in Asia. At the same time the ratio of doctors and nurses per person is extremely low. Less than half the children in the country are immunised, and currently, the process of immunisation is proving as dangerous as its absence, with immunisation workers being targeted by militants.
It is as important to remove unqualified and dangerous ‘medical’ practitioners as it is to provide good qualified ones. In the meantime general health can be improved by providing efficient waste disposal and better access to safe drinking water, removing sources of malaria and launching a relentless campaign of public awareness against the breeding habits of mosquitoes and militants alike, keeping in mind that more than half the population is unable to read.
With criminals targeting not just civilians but also prosecutors involved in public judicial cases, law, order and justice obviously do not exist. It is in fact no longer newsworthy that lawyers themselves increasingly indulge in some of the worst forms of hooliganism, unchecked by their mentors. These mentors, the highest judicial officials in the country are too busy interfering in matters beyond their remit, and fail to attend to those that fall within.
Will militants and other vested interests allow these elections to take place? Let’s hope so, and look forward to a happier future than the present has been.
When one lives cheek by jowl with people of other faiths, saints jump boundaries and the barriers of animosity fall.’
Bapsi Sidhwa’s first collection of short stories, Their Language of Love, has a rather Mills and Boon-ish name, but otherwise much to recommend it.
The first of the eight longish short stories, A Gentlemanly War, is about the war between India and Pakistan in September of 1965, when Zareen is driven out of the trench in her garden by glistening snakes agitated when the soil was moved. Zareen, afraid to remain so close to India with her children, shifts to Pindi from Lahore, and is no less agitated by the move, blindly filling her suitcase with silk saris shot through with gold thread, leaving more practical possessions behind.
The book is set against a background of fact similarly shot through with fiction, such as the Murree Brewery (here belonging to Zareen’s father and later her brother Rustom), and their home requisitioned by Ayub Khan to serve as the State Guest/President House. There’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the young foreign minister to whom (rather than to the Field Marshal) Rustom is forced to hand his mother’s war donation. The situation is acutely prescient, the awkwardness palpable. Rustom’s reservations regarding the wisdom of giving the cheque into the foreign minister’s hands in the absence of witnesses to the exchange is sharply drawn. Rustom blushes. His callow lack of sophistication at finding himself in this predicament is transparent. Mr Bhutto also blushes.
The ending to this story is naive. Can a strategic miscalculation in war simply be ‘an unacknowledged compassion’ between the warring sides, commonalities notwithstanding?
If I were teaching creative writing and gender studies, I would quote this book’s simple prose, and strong women, its keen understanding of cultural and interpersonal issues, powerful message of amity between cultures, and its humour, never more present than inBreaking It Up, the most engaging story in the collection.
Breaking It Up, first published in the 1980s, was later expanded into the novel An American Brat, but rejected by a new publisher, who I imagine is kicking himself to this day. It was eventually published in 1994. In it, Feroza, Zareen’s daughter now in the U.S., wants to marry blonde, Jewish David. What upsets her parents most about David though is not his non-Parsee-ness, but ‘the pair of over-developed and muscular thighs’ bulging, almost bursting from a pair of frayed shorts.
And so Zareen, agitated once more, rushes to the U.S. in an attempt to storm the romantic citadel just as, in her mind’s eye, those hairy thighs could potentially storm the citadel of her daughter’s virginity. What follows is the funniest, most perceptively sympathetic account from everyone’s point of view, Zareen, Feroza and David.
Roshni’s story lends the book its name, Roshni, a newly married azIndian Parsee, and her struggle to settle into a new life in the U.S. with her husband. Himself new to the U.S., Nav’s brash and rather jarring character and his wife’s learning to live with it is sensitively, almost tenderly dealt with, as Roshni, a gentle but strong young woman, perceives Nav’s inexperience but allows herself to be impressed. Together they work out their roles, and their own language of love.
Sehra-bai, once a confident and ornamental feature of the Parsee community and now old and bed ridden, is looked after by her daughter. The frustrations and trials of both are dealt with gentle humour. Sehra-bai’s friend Hirabai the plump wife of Sehra-bai’s bank manager has ‘shimmied through her years in Lahore like an even keeled boat,’ now arriving ‘at the calm shore of an arthritic and liver-spotted old age without rancour’. Sehra-bai’s story will resonate especially with those who have cared for an elderly relative.
A married American expatriate in Lahore features in two stories as Ruth, disconcerted to find herself attracted to several men; she attributes it to ‘the sexually charged atmosphere a somewhat segregated community’ creates. The stories include Raj Tribhuvan Roy, once in actual fact Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities.
The subject of minorities winds through this book: Parsees in Zia’s ‘Islamic Republic,’ Pakistanis and Indians amongst Americans in the U.S., Americans in Pakistan, and the Partition of India with its bloody wrenching away of one community from another. That last one is what the final story in the collection is about, Defend Yourself Against Me, possibly the least attractive story in the book, but the one with the most important message.
The Trouble-Easers carries the other important message, that when one lives with people of other faiths ‘saint jump boundaries, and the barriers of animosity fall.’ This message, an important one today, is that it is possible to question one’s ingrained beliefs.
Published in Pakistan by Readings as Ilqa Publications, this book definitely makes you think.