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The dilemma of living in a cross-cultural society discussed in “My Son the Fanatic”

Q: Discuss how the story “My Son the Fanatic” by Hanif Qureshi focuses on the dilemma of living in a cross-cultural society.

Parvez is a Pakistani immigrant living in England. He works as a taxi driver and has assimilated to Western ways of life. His son, Ali, seems to have embraced the lifestyle of his British peers. Parvez, however, is growing more and more suspicious of his son as he notices apparent changes in Ali’s behavior. The taxi driver talks about his worries to his colleagues and to Bettina, a prostitute who has become Parvez’s friend. All his "dreams of doing well in England” (which include a happy wedding and a safe job in accountancy for Ali) crumble when his son confesses that he is disgusted by his father’s neglect for Muslim precepts about prayers and his father’s disregard of the ban on alcohol and pork meat. Increasingly disturbed by his son’s religious fundamentalism and contempt for assimilation, Parvez one night repeatedly hits Ali. The son reacts with only a question: "So who’s the fanatic now?”
In a conversation between Parvez and his son, Ali, Parvez says: “‘I love England….They let you do almost anything here.” Ali, replies: “That is the problem”. For Ali that is the problem; he believes his father has sold out on his culture for the West. Thus, while Parvez has adopted an Anglo- Pakistani, hybrid culture, which is more concerned with the values of his adopted country, and with Ali reverting back to Parvez’s original culture, there emerges a kind of ‘culture clash’ between father and son. This is seen when Ali talks about how, “the skin of the infidel would burn off…” and Parvez looks “out of the window as if to check that they were still in London.” Their views seem incompatible; Parvez cannot believe that these words are coming from his own son.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the practices of multiculturalism have caused some problems in various Western countries. Because of these problems, multiculturalism, as a current sociopolitical movement, has faced intense criticism and has been accused of causing Islamic fundamentalism. In his short story “My Son the Fanatic”, through a father-son relationship, Hanif Kureishi, focuses his attention on one of the most troublesome issues of our day – the relationship between fundamentalism and multiculturalism – and proves that multiculturalism cannot be considered as a cause for the present crisis in the world.

In “My Son the Fanatic”, Hanif Kureishi, as a hybrid Englishman, a Pakistani Briton, focuses on the changing attitudes of young people in a multicultural country, Britain, in the twenty-first century. He examines the reasons why young generations of immigrants in Britain are being converted to Islamic fundamentalism. Kureishi proves that fundamentalism is a form of extreme alienation of the young generation, and it is being used by the young as a way of excluding the other cultures who have excluded the culture of this young generation. Through successfully chosen characters, the father Parvez and his son Ali, Hanif Kureishi reflects the rising tension between Islam and the West, and also finds a chance to criticize both fundamentalism and liberalism. Kureishi, as a postcolonial author, tries to redefine English national identities in Britain. His story shows that the roots of today’s problems related to Islamic fundamentalism can be found in the colonial history of the West, and it is not easy for the colonized to forget what the colonizer did in the past. Kureishi not only criticizes the West for its colonial past but also warns the British Muslims about their religious practices. He attempts to attract the attention of the British Muslims on Islamic religion and its applications in the modern world.

The author indicates the fact that multicultural societies have developed under colonial and imperial rule during the twentieth century, but in the twenty-first century, they have to be ethnic and religious potpourris in the West. Today, multiculturalism has nothing to do with the problems related to Islamic fundamentalism. Multiculturalism can thus be the only solution for these problems, rather than the cause of them.

Interestingly, the story turns the whole concept of identity, and expectations of different generations, on its head. For we soon learn that it is the son, British born, who has lost his ‘British’ identity, whereas the father, the migrant worker, has embraced not only his ‘British’ identity but also wholeheartedly taken to the host country’s values, customs, food, etc. in fact to the extreme. The son has become very religious and in his zeal begins to lead an austere lifestyle. Not only does this alarm his father but it results in Ali becoming increasingly alienated by his father’s lifestyle and habits.

The portrayal of Parvez is beautifully done by Kureishi. What we have in him, is a lovely, endearing man, with whom we, as readers, begin to identify from the very first paragraph — beginning to see everything from his point of view. As the story progresses, however, he almost becomes a caricature of an Asian migrant from the subcontinent of India — a ‘fanatic’ in his own way, a migrant who has gone to such extreme lengths ‘to fit’ into British life. ‘We have to fit in!’ he belligerently reminds his son –even to the extent of eating forbidden, haram food. So much so that he begins to elicit loathing from his son. The son, though born in the UK, has conclusively freed himself from his father’s world of sin and instead turned to religious piety.

The story begins in medias res (Latin for "in the middle of things”), a technique that subverts chronological order and starts the narration at a point when important events have already happened. The story thus begins when Ali’s process of becoming a Muslim "fanatic” has been going on for some time. This stylistic choice is designed to capture readers’ attention and implicate them in the narrative. From the very first sentence, "Surreptitiously, the father began going into his son’s room,” readers become accomplices of the father and closely identify with his point of view and his bewilderment at his son’s fundamentalism. Readers would normally expect to see the old generation tied to ethnic and religious traditions; second-generation immigrants would be keener to assimilate. This process of subverting readers’ expectations is carried to the extreme as Kureishi’s short story ends with no immediate closure and no reassurance of any possible resolution in the future.

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