Saturday, November 25, 2006

Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie

Category: Fiction

Format: Trade Paperback, 416 pages

Publisher: Vintage Canada

Price: $21.00

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.

Some history:

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 more about it here


Booklogged said...

Lotus, I have never read SR either. Your review of Sahlimar the Clown is excellent and you make it sound like a book I want to read. Not knowing anything about the history of the region, I hope it will not be too confusing for me. I do like jumping head first into new territory, though.

Lauren said...

Wow your reviews are so detailed!! I think you could probably convince me to read anything lol

Anonymous said...

Nice introduction; feel very much like reading it right away. Thanks!

Joy said...

UGH! Your review is positioned over your background of flowers, so I can't read it. Hmmmm I'm assuming it's just what I'm seeing, so I'm not sure how to fix that. ???

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Joy

Sorry about that - must have been a temporary blogger glitch!

Will respond to all comments when I return - just taking my daughter to her Bollywood-Jazz dance class! :)

Sai said...

Hey Lotus:
I had the same problem as Joy when I opened your blog on explorer. However it works perfect when veiwed on Mozilla Firefox. I wonder why?

You are so articulate! I haven't read SR's books myself. But a lot of his readers have complained about the verbosity of his work.

Beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus,
This book looks really interesting. I remember you had talked about it in an earlier post. Your daughter takes a bollywood jazz class? That is so wonderful. I wish they offered things like that here. I would sign Zoe up in a heartbeat! Oh, have you read the book "The Namesake?" I currently have it on my Amazon wishlist. I'm so behind in my reading!

Lotus Reads said...

Booklogged, thank you! :) Although this is a tale about politics, it is also very much a tale about love and other human emotions, about betrayals, revenge, unfulfilled desires and dreams. I wouldn't think you'd need to know about the Kashmir issue before you read the novel, but a little background information might be nice.

I'm like you, I dive straight into a novel researching its history as I read!

Thanks Laurenand ShashiKiran, I hope you will read it!

Hollydolly *Blush* Such a nice thing to say, thanks! Didn't "Midnight's Children" win the Booker? If I'm not mistaken it also won the Booker of Bookers, so I'm sure it's a great novel. I also hope to read it some day soon.

Sai Aha! Browser compatibility issues does seem to be the problem - I have been using Mozilla ever since it started so I hadn't realized that my page doesn't load completely on IE from time to time. THanks for pointing that out.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi beenzzz

Yes, she takes the Shiamak Davar Dance Class and loves it! They have a huge performance on the 10th and S's group will be dancing to a song from "Laage Raho Munna Bhai".

I've read "The NAmesake" and watched the movie, too. It's a beautiful story of immigration and the conflict in cultures and values between the East and West.

a.c.t. said...

I've never read any of his stuff either, but have to say, have been curious. The wordiness does put me off though...

ML said...

Lotus, I'm with you on long winded paragraphs and descriptions. Sometimes they really lose me interest when a simple sentence or two would capture the moment just as well, if not better.

Thanks for the brilliant review!

Smoothieshake said...

hey lotus, great review! the only book I've read my rushdie is East West, which is a collection of short stories. I also found that his wordiness really got to me, and I skipped over passages so that i could understand what was going on. His writing style made me not want to read his books, because as much as prose is important, there is such a thing as too much prose. I wish I could say I am going to read this book next, but I'm going to stick to lighter reads for now and pick this up on a looooooong plane ride somewhere, because it still seems like a good book.

Susan in Italy said...

Hey, Thanks for getting to this book! I know Random House was the one who asked you to read it (and CONGRATULATIONS, BTW!) but long ago, I was one of those people who asked if you were a big Rushdie fan and if you would read Shalimar since it had just come out in Italy then. Funny.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, act

Yes, I know what you mean...after he won the Booker, not once, but twice, I have been very keen to sample his writings, but never really made time to do it, until now.

You're welcome, ML! How are you doing with the "Stacks" challenge?

Thanks, Sruthi I remember your "East West" review and what a fine one it was, too! I'm just glad to know that you skipped over passages, too! :)) Yeah, he really tends to be a little too verbose at times, but despite all those extra passages I have to confess I really enjoyed the story of Kashmir - it even made me cry a couple of times. The book I really want to read is "Midnight's Children", but not immediately, one needs long breaks between Rushdies! :)))

Hi Susan I suspected it was you who had asked me about Salman Rushie and "Shalimar", but didn't want to say anything just in case I was wrong ( I have a terrible memory) but I'm so glad you remembered our little blog conversation and I'm thrilled that the first book I chose to review from the four I received was "Shalimar". Hope the review was helpful to you.

monideepa sahu said...

Great review. Will go out and buy a copy pronto. I enjoyed Shame and Midnight's Children, but can't say the same for Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Dont know whether children would enjoy that kind of book, and I didnt either.

BTW, your floral background is lovely. But I wish you would rtain the layout of your home page for posts, coz its much easier on my tired old eyes to read against a plain, light background.

Keep reading and keep posting.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Monideepa

Thanks so much for the very helpful comment. Glad you enjoyed the review and I apologise for my blog's bad behaviour but I think it is, for some reason, incompatible with the Internet Explorer browser - I would suggest accessing it through Mozilla, hopefully it will align itself correctly. Sorry for the inconvenience.

kimananda said...

I must confess, I was so taken with Midnight's Children (which did indeed win the Booker of Bookers, and well-deservedly, too!) that I can't bring myself to read any other SR book, for fear of losing that magic. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And there is definitely a Kashmir connection there, too.

Lotus Reads said...

Kimananda How lovely of you to stop by. I feel rather lucky to have read "Shalimar" first for no matter how wonderful a read it is, my instincts tell me "Midnight's Children" has no comparison!

Anonymous said...

"Shalimar" is Rushdie's grand allegory of Paradise (love and beauty) and Hell (greed and hatred), of East and West. Beautifully set in divided Kashmir (Hindu/Muslim) and then divided Strassburg (German/French) then resolved in the Purgatory of Hollywood, Rushdie exposes the conflicts of religions, ideas, family ties and sex.

The themes are as current as Mumbai, and as enduring as human nature. Enjoy the parallels with Dante (a backward tour of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory by the protagonist), a bit verbose, and hopelessly pretentious, but a lasting work of 20th Century historical fiction.

Read it! Thanks for your review.