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09 June, 2007

Shalimar the Clown - Salman Rushdie - Book Review

We are all familiar with the sad, sad story of Kashmir. In fact, let’s shed a collective tear for this beautiful land, that hasn’t seen a semblance of peace in the past many years. Paradise, it has been, still is, but no longer a haven of peace. There is the rumble of armoured vehicles, bombs, mines and bullets shot from the most modern killing weapons as proof. Death haunts the valley. It takes the power of Salman Rushdie’s pen to script a story of the rape of this land and the disillusionment of its people in the face of unending terror.

Rushdie writes a masterpiece of literary skill and an epic-proportion chronicle of all that has gone wrong with the state in which the spectre of terrorism has arisen. His prose brings the struggle between the protectors and the oppressed with such felicity that one is, truth be told, left dazed and amazed.

But that is not the Kashmir Shalimar the clown was born into. It was the Kashmir where the Muslim Bhand Pather performers and the Hindu wazza were friends and gently ribbed each other in the halcyon days of yore. Shalimar, the clowning member of the Bhand Pathers performing group is in love with Boonyi Kaul, daughter of the village wazza, or, head chef, who can cook up delicious Kashmiri meals, minimum thirty-six finger-licking delicacies.

Tragically Shalimar and Boonyi marry, and thereby begin their trials.

Panchigam, or, village of birds - where Rushdie’s novel is set - is heaven personified before terrorist insurgency and the army turn it into a virtual hell. Bhand Pathers do their acts which include “magic real” acts and tight rope walking by the clown – Shalimar. It is the place where the local Hindu – Pandit Pyarelal Kaul makes excellent cuisines with 36 dishes minimum to feed his friends that include his friend Abdullah Noman, the village chief and Shalimar’s father. All’s well in the small Kashmiri village and its inhabitants.

Into the valley comes a Rajput General Kachchwaha, the tortoise, who as representative of the Indian army is there to protect the inhabitants against militants personified by the Gegroo brothers who, goaded by the extremists across the border, become terrorists.

The army isn’t the bunch of angels they are presumed to be in this once peaceful paradise. That we know. Headed by a ruthless man, who remains a bachelor all his life, it is ruthless when it comes to putting down rebellion. There is no softness or mercy in their training manuals, and once unleashed their passions are immitigable.

General Kachchwaha instead of protecting the villagers turns his men into an evil force and unleashes a reign of terror only matched by the Gegroo brothers’ evil deeds. Who is the protector, who is the purveyor of terror, the line is thin, the division is indistinct.

Rushdie begins with Ambassador Max Ophuls’ death and then weaves a pastoral memory of Kashmir and develops a plot thicker than Swiss cheese. Yes, it has all the hallmark of the Rushdie genius, be it in the description of the French Resistance whence the “Grey Rat” rules the internecine labyrinths, or, the tragic life of the clown whose love life is doomed from the beginning. Yes, revenge is sweet, seems to be the major theme of the novel and it’s played out beautifully in the revenge of Shalimar and that of the shamed inhabitants of Panchigam.

Particularly noteworthy are the passages where the step father and step daughter: one a hardened terrorist and the other an athletic American youngster, are involved in a cat and mouse chase and a telepathic battle of wits across America. Some of the “magic realism” such as the clown walking away into thin air from across the prison, and the situation inside the US prison are well handled. Obviously, as with his previous novels, a lot of research has gone into the writing of this book.

Moreover, the novel is not only about unrequited love but also about the friendship of the Noman and Kaul families that is disrupted by terror. Kashmir even “Kashmiriyat” will never be the same again. Reading the novel one questions the very banality of using terror to bring social justice or even to bring about political settlement. The whole exercise seems futile; the very foundation on which the use of terror is built seems shaky. Hope someone sees sense in this message that the novel sends out.

It’s a sad novel in the sense of utter hopelessness of its characters. While Shalimar is tragedy personified Boonyi, the Kashmiri beauty, is even more so by her exploitation by the prurient US ambassador. Rushdie usually bases his characters and story on true incidents. This reviewer wonders on which story he based Boonyi’s ill-fated affair with a powerful US ambassador. Midnight’s Children was based in part on the famous Nanavati murder case, which occurred in Bombay. Old-timers would recollect how it shook the placid exterior of Bombay society in the fifties.

This reviewer wishes to draw here some parallels between Kashmir and Kalimpong as portrayed in the novels of Rushdie and Kiran Desai. These are places that are going through the same genre of problems. On the one hand there are ill-informed young cadres of terrorists trained by their harsh masters and on the other the mighty arm of the law that is sent to control them or to wipe them out using the force of guns.

The people, such as you and me, caught in the middle of this tussle bears the brunt of this tug of war, as is ably described by Rushdie in this novel, and by Desai in The Inheritance of Loss. This is the stuff we have heard happening in banana republics of less developed countries. Is this where we are headed? Is this the reality behind the empty rhetoric our leaders have foisted on us in the name of democracy?

Would definitely recommend the novel if only to know the reality of Kashmir, the customs of its people, and its myriad problems. After all the truth of Kashmir concerns us all, however insulated we may be.

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