Format: Trade Paperback, 416 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
Whenever friends or acquaintances learn of my love for South-Asian fiction, I am asked the inevitable question: Have you read Salman Rushdie's "........."(fill in any title you want here) and I am almost embarrassed to have to reply to them in the negative. I have no good reason for not reading an SR, except to say the opportunity never really presented itself until now. A few weeks ago Random House asked if I would like to read "Shalimar the Clown" and I jumped at the chance because not only was it a Rushdie, but also, it was set in Kashmir a place I am drawn to because of its handsome people, beautiful scenery and its precarious position in the world (political pundits say that if a nuclear war does take place, Kashmir is where it will be, after all it is the only place in the world where two nuclear forces are staring down at each other across the Line of Control.)
The book opens with the killing of Max Ophuls, ex US ambassador to India, in Los Angeles on his daughter's doorstep. His death, believed to have been carried out by an Islamic fundmentalist, has no witnesses. In flashbacks we learn that Max Ophuls during his tenure as Ambassdor in India falls in love with a beautiful but uneducated Kashmiri village belle, Boonyi Kaul, who leaves her family to become his mistress...such being the lure of his position and power. A bulk of the story is about what happens to her after she becomes his mistress and what happens to her family, her husband Shalimar the Clown and her native Kashmiri village, a village of theatrical performers and cooks,which she leaves behind. Shalimar, a tightrope walker is understandably devastated when Boonyi leaves with the American ambassador and starts to fall apart, his beloved Kashmir seems to mirror his descent by falling into a madness of its own.
It is not easy for an author to wed large social and political conflicts, such as the conflict over Kashmir, to personal lives, but in "Shalimar The Clown",through the lives,loves and tribulations of the 4 main characters, Boonyi, Shalimar the Clown, the Ambassador Max Ophuls and India, his daughter, Salman Rushdie deftly does just that. Through some great storytelling he acquaints us with the history behind the "rape" of the beautiful valley of Kashmir.
When India gained its independence from Britain on 15 August 1947, the Asian sub-continent was partitioned into Hindu-dominated India and the newly-created Muslim state of Pakistan. Kashmir which had a larger Muslim population was expected to join Pakistan, but, it was ruled by a Hindu Maharajah who dithered over the issue because ideally he would have preferred to remain independent of both countries. While he agitated and fussed, Islamic militia from Pakistan began pouring into Kashmir and to counter them the Maharajah had to call on India to send troops to Kashmir, thus began the oppressive military presence and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the beautiful and formerly peaceful valley of Kashmir.
Rushdie's book not only turns the spotlight on that bit of history but also explains the genesis and growth of the JKLF ( The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front), a Separitist movement,fighting for the Liberation of Kashmir from both India and Pakistan, the growth and ferocity of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of the Pure - one of the most feared groups fighting against Indian control in Kashmir),the banishment of the Hindu Kashmiri Pundits and so on. Rushdie does this with an impressive storyline, a fascinating cast of characters and a blend of fables, superstitions,folk tales, and legends which keeps the reader engaged in the story...don't you just love a book that educates even while it entertains?
If I do have a critique about the book it is that Rushdie tends to be very wordy and around the middle of the book the sheer weight of what I thought were long-winded passages,took its toll on me. I shut the book only picking it up again once I had agreed with myself to skip any long descriptions or anything I deemed not really contributing to the story. Having said that however, this is a powerful and "essential" story; powerful because strong emotions such as love, revenge and jealousy are the engines that drive the narrative and essential because the plight of the Kashmiri people needs a ear. Sure, the newspapers cover the crisis in Kashmir all the time, but there is nothing quite like a novel with characters a reader can come to care for and love, to really make us interested in a cause.
I'd be happy to read another Salman Rushdie soon, so write in and tell me what Salman Rushdie novels you have read and liked (or disliked) or what you plan on reading.
For a concise reading on the Kashmir dispute, go here
An update (13 Dec): Recently President Musharraf said that Pakistan would give up its claim on Kashmir if India accepts a four-point resolution, including autonomy for the region under a joint government with Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri representation...read more about it here