In the Old Anarkali in Lahore, Pakistan, a Pakistani man, Changez, approaches a muscular, well-dressed man, the Stranger, without introducing himself or giving his name. Changez comments that the Stranger appears to be on a mission of some kind, and adds that he can tell that the Stranger is obviously American, based on his distinctive bearing, as opposed to the Stranger’s clothing, skin color, or athletic build. Changez states that because he is a native of Lahore and speaks English, he’ll give the Stranger his assistance. Although Changez’s observations seem to make the Stranger uncomfortable, a fact Changez remarks upon, Changez continues to question him.
Since The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written entirely in the first person from Changez’s point of view, it’s difficult to gauge the Stranger’s attitude when Changez approaches him in the street. The only clues come when Changez notes the Strangers behavior or facial expressions, but it’s unclear if Changez is interpreting the Stranger’s actions correctly. It’s equally difficult to gauge Changez’s tone. He tries to find common ground between the Stranger and himself, but he does so by judging the Stranger based on his appearance, much as minorities in the United States are treated. The fact that he thinks the Stranger is uncomfortable around him, but proceeds with his questioning anyway, makes Changez seem rather sinister – his deferential attitude may not be completely sincere. Changez’s choice of the word “mission” is another hint that Changez regards the Stranger as more of an adversary than he lets on, possibly that he thinks the Stranger may be some kind of agent.
Changez asks why the Stranger has come to Old Anarkali, and suggests an answer: he’s come for a cup of tea. Changez then guides the Stranger to a local cafe that, Changez insists, makes the best tea, even though it looks almost exactly like all the other cafés around it. The Stranger refuses to remove his jacket and sits with his back against the wall, even though it is a hot day and his position makes him less likely to feel the breeze. Changez notes that the Stranger’s behavior is atypical for an American—it’s rather too formal—and explains that he knows what is and isn’t typical because he has lived in the United States, where he attended Princeton University. When the Stranger asks him what he thought of Princeton, he replies that answering the question will require that he tell the Stranger a story.
The fact that Changez asks the Stranger a question and then answers it for him suggests that he is less interested in learning about his new friend and more interested in leading, or even bullying him, around the city. On the other hand, Changez could be eager to practice his English with an America and reminisce about his time at Princeton – no clear explanation for his behavior can be found, at least not yet. Similarly, the Stranger’s agreement to follow Changez to the café could mean that he is reluctant to make a scene and is still on his guard, or that he is genuinely interested in passing time with Changez. His decision to keep his jacket on and sit near a wall suggests the former (and that he has a military awareness about him that indicates he might really be an agent of some sort), while his question to Changez about Princeton suggests the latter.
While at first Changez is dazzled by Princeton’s bright students and old-fashioned architecture, he quickly realizes that his college is less impressive than it seems. There are a thousand Americans in his entering class but only one other Pakistani student, despite the fact that the United States’ population is twice that of Pakistan. Since their odds of being accepted to Princeton are considerably lower, Changez explains, the non-American students tend to be more talented than the Americans. Changez is a brilliant student and a talented soccer player, although a knee injury in his sophomore year forces him to quit the team. He graduates from Princeton with perfect grades and excellent job prospects, of which he is well aware.
Changez’s comparison of international and American students at Princeton is both a cocky statement of his talent and a frank account of international students’ experience at American colleges. On the Princeton soccer team, and at Princeton in general, his talents separate him from others instead of ingratiating him with his peers. Even at an elite university, surrounded by students of the same age with similar interests, Changez is conscious of being an outsider, though for the time being, his outsiderness is a point of pride.
The great success of Princeton University, Changez explains, is that it attracts the world’s most brilliant minds to the United States, offers them scholarships, student visas, and good educations, and then encourages them to use their ingenuity for America and American companies. For Changez, who studies finance, the company he wants to join is Underwood Samson & Company, a small but prestigious valuation firm that estimates the profitability of businesses around the world, and whose analysts traditionally go on to great success. Along with a few other Princeton seniors, Changez is selected for a job interview with the company.
Years after graduating from college, Changez has a broader and more cynical perspective than he does as an undergraduate. At Princeton, he’s conscious of his talent, and wants to put it to work for a prestigious company. As an adult, he thinks less about his own career and more generally about the ways that America maintains its power. One reason that Changez doesn’t think about these imperialist strategies as a student is that they act in his favor – he has excellent grades to show for his four years at Princeton, and even to be interviewed by Underwood Samson is a sign of respect and a promise of wealth to come.
As Changez and the Stranger sit in the café, a waiter comes to their table who, Changez notes, seems to intimidate the Stranger, who reaches under his jacket. Changez tells the Stranger that he can put his wallet away until the end of the meal. Changez also insists that the Stranger would find the waiter polite if he could understand Urdu. They both order tea, and Changez resumes telling his story.
Once again, it’s unclear what the characters really think and feel. The waiter could be dangerous and hostile to Americans, or polite; Changez could believe that the waiter is polite, or he could be concealing the waiter’s hostility from the Stranger. Finally, the Stranger could be intimidated, as Changez thinks and as his reaching under his jacket might imply (and the Stranger could have a gun under his jacket or something else entirely, like his wallet), or he could be calmer than Changez supposes.
Changez is nervous for his job interview with Underwood Samson. His interviewer, Jim, is well-built – not unlike the Stranger, Changez notes – and, tells Changez to convince him to offer him a job (this moment is the first time that Changez actually mentions his own name to the Stranger). Changez lists his academic accomplishments, his skills as a soccer player and his rapid recovery from his knee injury, which do little to impress Jim. With Jim’s prompting, he admits that he is from Pakistan, and studies at Princeton on financial aid. Jim is uninterested in Changez’s cultural background, but perks up when he hears that Changez is in the U.S. on a scholarship, noting that he must have really needed the money. He points out that most people would assume that he’s from a wealthy family, since he seems polished and sophisticated, and asks him whether or not his friends know that he’s there on scholarship.
The casual way Changez communicates his name to the Stranger establishes more trust and closeness between them, but it also underscores the strangeness of their relationship — Changez treats the Stranger like a friend, but he waits half an hour to introduce himself, and then doesn’t even bother to ask the Stranger for his name. In spite of his confidence in his abilities, the young Changez finds it difficult to “sell himself” to Jim, prompting Jim to ask him a series of uncomfortable leading questions – much as Changez asks leading questions of the Stranger. The difference between the two roles Changez plays – in Pakistan, he’s an interviewer; at Princeton, he’s being interviewed – suggest how greatly he has changed, and suggest that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of how Changez moves from being a nervous, passive character to an active one. Jim asks Changez personal questions about his financial situation, but seems indifferent to other aspects of his personality – his home, his city, his culture. As a result, his interest in Changez as a fully-formed human being is questionable.
When Changez, irritated by the personal questions, asks Jim what he’s getting at, Jim smiles and says that he, too, attended Princeton on scholarship and graduated at the top of his class. He deduces from Changez’s anger that his friends don’t know about his financial needs, and adds that he had to work to pay his way through college, deliberately choosing a job so far from Princeton that his friends would never see him working. He says that he likes Changez’s temper, and thinks he’s ambitious. Changez is impressed with Jim’s observational skills, and flattered that Jim likes him.
Jim believes that a close connection exists between himself and Changez because of their similar socioeconomic background. His attitude is almost fatherly, especially the way he laughs off Changez’s angry outburst. Jim’s insight into Changez’s character is also the first indication that Changez, at least as an undergraduate, cares deeply about his classmates’ opinion of him, and goes out of his way to control his public image.
Changez takes a moment to explain his financial situation to the Stranger more precisely. His family was once rich and powerful, but its wealth has been shrinking for generations. His relatives, both male and female, work for a living, though they continue to employ servants, live in the most expensive part of Lahore, hold memberships in various elite clubs, and attend the parties and weddings of the Pakistani elite. His family feels the same disdain for the “new money” classes that the 19th-century European aristocrats felt for the middle-classes. In general, he notes, the decline in his family’s economic strength is merely an extreme version of the decline in the upper- and middle-classes around the world. Around his Princeton friends, Changez adopts an air of wealth and sophistication, but like Jim, he secretly works to support himself and his family, choosing places where his classmates are unlikely to run into him. Changez concludes mysteriously that Jim was right to say that he had ambition, but only in “some ways.”
Changez’s observation that the socioeconomic changes in Pakistan aren’t unique paints a sobering picture of the 21st century world, in which the middle classes are disappearing, the new rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. In many ways, Western imperialism and American capitalism are responsible for the decline in Changez’s family’s fortunes: the local elite that once dominated Pakistan slowly lose their power and influence, first to the British colonists, then to businessmen, many of whom work for American companies. As an undergrad, Changez isn’t too concerned with these realities – instead of being honest about his family, he acts the way his friends expect him to act, hiding his financial situation from them (and, in a way, from himself), and pretending to be sophisticated and “exotic”—which in this pre-9/11 world is a beneficial status for him while still leaving him an outsider. In order to grow into the novel’s narrator, he’ll need to undergo a great change, but for now, it’s unclear what the change will be.
At the café, the waiter brings tea, and Changez says that the Stranger seems suspicious again, refusing to add sugar to his tea, or drink it until Changez switches cups with him.
The Stranger’s thoughts and behaviors are difficult to read through the “lens” of Changez’s point of view. Changez could be said to switch the cups out of politeness, responding to the Stranger’s discomfort, or an accidental (or deliberate) misreading of the Stranger’s expression.
Changez resumes telling the Stranger about his job interview. Jim gives him a difficult problem to solve: he has to value a hypothetical company whose only service is a teleportation machine that transports people from New York to London. Changez is surprised, but uses his athletic experience to calm himself, and goes to work solving the problem. His final valuation of the company is far too high; his mistake, Jim tells him, is to assume that many customers would be interested in a product that reassembles them in another part of the world. Jim adds that Underwood Samson excels at seeing through “hyped-up” products like the one he’s described to Changez.
The details of the interview problem bear a resemblance to the details of Changez’s life thus far: like the hypothetical company’s clients, he’s been teleported halfway around the world and “reassembled” into an educated American employee. Though Jim scoffs at the problem’s “hyped up” product, it’s clear by now that many people would be, and in fact, are, interested in being “reassembled” in the United States. Changez’s overestimation of customer interest is one of the earliest indications that his cultural background influences how he conducts work at Underwood Samson.
In spite of his mistake, Changez succeeds in gaining a job offer from Jim, since his approach to solving the problem was correct, and Underwood Samson will be able to train him to assess companies more accurately. As Changez shakes Jim’s hand, he senses that Underwood Samson will change his life and eliminate all his financial problems, as it did for Jim. Afterward, overjoyed with his success, he shouts, “Thank you God!” in the middle of the Princeton campus.
It’s unclear if Jim hires Changez because his approach is correct, as he says, or at least partly because he admires Changez’s background and sees something of himself in him. Underwood Samson’s ability to train its employees to see through hyped up products like the teleporter foreshadows the way it encourages Changez to abandon his Pakistani roots and embrace America whole-heartedly. Young and idealistic, Changez believes that working for Underwood Samson – and, following through on the symbolism of Underwood Samson, living in the United States – will help him and his family because it will change him into a confident, perceptive man, just as it changed Jim. But when Changez yells, “Thank you, God!” in the middle of a secularized American college campus, Hamid implies that Changez is still different from his peers.
Back in Pakistan, the Stranger has finished his drink. Changez muses that Princeton changed him, but couldn’t make him forget Pakistan’s tea, of which he pours the Stranger another cup.
Princeton and Underwood Samson encourage Changez to embrace America, but in the present day, Changez makes it clear that he hasn’t forgotten Pakistan at all. Meanwhile, the Stranger seems to be becoming more comfortable around Changez.