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… from an interview with Rushdie that could have as easily been conducted on twitter.

Q. Have you read anything by Chetan Bhagat?
A. Nope.

Changez returns to his hometown Lahore after a stint in the US that includes graduating from Princeton and working for Underwood Samson, a prestigious valuation firm. Seated in what appears to be a dhabha in Lahore, he engages an American stranger in a monologue about his past life in America and what led him to come back. Hamid’s writing style is engaging, and the adopted politeness with which Changez narrates his story is endearing. The theme of identity and nostalgia are reminiscent of books by Jhumpa Lahiri, but Hamid does not let his main character wallow in nostalgic self-pity, but lets him handle the identity issue with reserved dignity. The aspect of the narrative that left me a bit confused was the reason for Changez’s eventual return to Lahore. Somewhere between his heightened sense of self-identity in the post 9-11 world, his unrequited love for Erica who can’t get over her last boyfriend’s death, and the stand-off between Pakistan and India following the attack on the Indian Parliament, Changez finds cause to return.

An interesting passage in the book involves a conversation between Juan Batista, the head of a publishing company in Chile, and Changez who has been sent there to value the firm that could leave Juan Batista without his job. Juan Batista asks Changez if it troubled him that he made his living by disrupting the lives of others. Changez responds that they just value, and are indifferent to the consequences. Juan Batista then tells him about the Janissaries – Christian boys that were taken from their families at an early age where they had not formed any memories they could go back to, and trained to be ferocious and utterly loyal soldiers of the Ottoman army. “They fought to erase their own civilization”, says Batista, “so they had nothing else to return to.” This is Changez’s moment of truth. Given the US pressures on Pakistan in the post-9/11 operations, Changez comes to think of himself as a janissary of this powerful nation working against his own people.

Yet this leap of logic is a hard one for the reader to make. Changez’s work is within the corporate world, his valuations could result in job losses for others in the US and has got nothing to do with US military operations. Moreover, US dealings with Pakistan is largely one of association. The Pakistan-India rift is portrayed as one where the US supports India against Pakistan, perhaps to render import to the message that Hamid tries to convey of the US being a superpower imposing itself on a small country. Even if so, the association that Changez makes with his work within corporate America and the political landscape, characterizing himself as a janissary in this imagined battle of the US against Pakistan ends up being a weak one. He has not been personally affronted by the sporadic post 9/11 backlash. His love interest with Erica does not suffer because of the differences in their backgrounds. The main pretext for Changez’s return ends up being the political one, and that does not stand strong on its own ground.

Hamid’s writing style, as I noted earlier, is engaging enough to make you want to read through to the very end. Changez’s personal story as recounted in the first half of the book in engrossing. He is 22-years old, just out of college, and yet he demonstrates the maturity of one much older. The contrast and conflict between one’s past and present are captured well. The reasons that lead up to the final denouement aside, the novel is a very fine read. A movie based on the novel is being directed by Mira Nair, and set to release only in 2013.

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