Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a story rife with nostalgia for earlier, more innocent and idealistic times – acknowledging along the way that those earlier times were not so innocent and not so bereft of cruelty. This nostalgia for better times is a theme that runs throughout Hamid’s story of Changez, a young Pakistani from the city of Lahore who emigrates to the United States to attend college and begins a career in international business that exposes him to the ugly underside of American foreign policy and the consequences of that policy for the smaller, weaker countries that fell in America’s path on the way to global dominance. Nostalgia for a more innocent, happier past is like a narcotic to Changez, who decries its prevalence in the psyches of those around whom he has lived his life, including in his native Lahore:
“Some of my relatives held onto imagined memories the way homeless people hold onto lottery tickets. Nostalgia was their crack cocaine, if you will, and my childhood was littered with the consequences of their addiction . . .”
Well into his story, Changez, who has pursued a successful career with the fictional company of Underwood Samson (note the use of the name “Samson” as a metaphor for the deceptively weak who only appear formidable on the surface), begins to ruminate again on the propensity of Pakistanis and Americans, including Erica, to long for the fictional innocence of their youth:
“I had been telling you of the nostalgia that was becoming so prevalent in my world at the onset of the ﬁnal winter I would spend in your country. But one notable bulwark continued to hold ﬁrm against this sentiment: Underwood Samson . . . an institution not nostalgic whatsoever. At work we went about the task of shaping the future with little regard for the past . . .”
Changez’s love for Erica, whose nostalgia for an early-life relationship with the deceased “Chris” has dominated her approach to personal relationships, remains largely unrequited because of her inability to move forward and his growing disenchantment with the Western world that had previously served as a model of modernity and efficiency. It is the events of September 11, 2001, however, that spur the most profound resentment for the march of time. The terrorist attacks against New York City and the Pentagon are a catalyst for a resurgence of the jingoism and naiveté that Changez had hoped was a part of the distant and permanent past. As he describes his growing disillusionment with the formerly admirably United States, he emphasizes the cultural and psychological transformation triggered by those attacks:
“. . . it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the ﬂags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the ﬁrst time I was struck by its determination to look back.”
Erica, the love of Changez’s life, is, like the name of the firm for which he works, a metaphor for the perception of past innocence and invulnerability. Her nostalgia for a lost life that may never have existed is for Mohsin Hamid a microcosm for America’s nostalgia for a history that never quite lived up to its ideals.