"Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else."
Salman Rushdie stands out in the universe of English fiction for politically charged writing. As a storyteller of the highest class, his trademark tendency is to take on sensitive themes from history or current affairs without pulling punches. His characterization, plotting and language flow are not ends in
themselves but means to burnish grand topics that affect the lives of millions. In Shalimar the Clown, he plunges into the viscera of terrorism's interconnectedness - how dots of violence, justice and revenge link together across time and space into blood-soaked lines.
India Ophuls is a disoriented young woman in Los Angeles, daughter of Maximilian Ophuls, America's former ambassador to India. Fond of sports such as archery and boxing, she longs for the hidden truth about her lost Kashmiri mother, of whom it is forbidden to speak. "The ambassador had entombed her memory under a pyramid of silence." (p 18) Max hires a Kashmiri chauffeur, Shalimar, and suddenly chooses to break his self-imposed reticence and denounce the destruction of Kashmir on television. He raves eloquent about fanaticism, bombs, the tragedy of the pandits (Brahman scholars or learned men), rapes of young girls and fathers set alight. Shortly after, Shalimar, "the loyal traitor, the protector turned assassin", slashes Max's throat with a kitchen knife outside India's apartment.
The story enters flashback mode from this point to the Kashmir Valley of the early 1960s, when Shalimar is an acrobatic clown in the village of traveling actors, Pachigam. He is in love with a pandit's daughter, Boonyi, in a period when Kashmiris are connected by deeper ties than blood or faith. Before the partition of the Indian subcontinent, Pachigam has a "pot war" with the neighboring village of Shirmal over crummy motives that would, in hindsight, seem innocuous little quarrels. In this supposed golden age before the advent of terror, Kashmiris pander to sorcery, protective charms and prophetesses - hallmarks of Sufi tolerance. Shalimar's birth, for instance, scares his mother, who has a premonition that the boy "would have much to do with lost treasures, fear and death". (p 75)
Boonyi's bewitching looks enthrall a colonel in the Indian army camp near Pachigam, but she turns him down with scorn. Indian military presence in the Valley is unpopular, but voicing dissent is illegal and dangerous. Shalimar's brother Anees joins a fledgling local liberation front, in whose pursuit an intelligence agent comes to the village. The agent of state gets mysteriously murdered. An "iron mullah", preaching resistance and revenge against infidels and idol worshippers, rises to fame in Shirmal. During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the maulana (master) proclaims a revolt against Indian troops and the pandits, but is foiled by a chef's comic grotesque act.
Shalimar marries Boonyi with the village's consent, but the happily-ever-after script is shattered by the visit of former ambassador Max to Kashmir. Boonyi, a restless and ambitious girl, senses opportunity and dances into the dignitary's heart. Max's unhappy marriage with an eccentric anti-Nazi, resistance-era wife gets "shipwrecked on the rock of the gold-digging Kashmiri beauty". (p 187) By the time Boonyi ceases to be attractive to Max, she is pregnant and the news gets leaked to the Indian media. Max's alleged oppression of Boonyi becomes "a sort of allegory of Vietnam" and he quits the country and diplomacy in disgrace. Boonyi's illegitimate child, Kashmira, is renamed "India" by Max's ex-wife and taken away to the United States for a troubled upbringing.
Betrayal by his beloved instills a murderous rage in Shalimar. The village declares Boonyi dead to bring his ferocity under control, but he is not ready to forget or forgive. Meanwhile, rising communal hostility of majority Muslims against the pandits leads to a reassessment that the syncretistic Kashmiriyat was an illusion underneath which forced conversions, temple-smashing, persecution and genocide were the norms.
About the end of the 1971 Bangladesh war, Shalimar resolves to seek and assassinate Max. "The invisible enemy in the invisible room in the foreign country far away: that's the one I want to face." (p 249) He vanishes from Pachigam for 15 years, joining his brother Anees' front, threatening and extorting businesspeople for "liberation".
Gradually, Shalimar attains perfection in merciless slaying. "In the hot coals of his fury, honor ranked above everything else, above decency, above culture, above life itself." (p 258) He crosses the Himalayas to receive sophisticated training from "our Pak allies", and rediscovers the "iron mullah", who is brainwashing hundreds of jihadi recruits that "at the root of religion is this desire, the desire the crush the infidel". (p 262) The camps run by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence emphasize that for a true warrior, "economics was not primary, ideology was". (p 265) Shalimar graduates from Pakistan to terrorize "godless people" in Tajikistan, Algeria, Egypt and Palestine.
Back in the Kashmir Valley, the Lashkar-e-Pak (LeP) imposes "Islamic decencies" on women, beheading the recalcitrant. In 1989, as the popular insurrection peaks, LeP bars Hindus of Shirmal from watching television with the Muslims and rakes up anti-pandit violence. The Indian army's harsh crackdown on village after village does not spare Pachigam's once-thriving populace. This is paralleled by Muslim fundamentalist attacks on pandits, their properties and temples. Forgotten victims of ethnic cleansing, displaced Hindu minorities are "left to rot in their slum camps to dream of return, to die while dreaming of return, to die after the dream of return died". (p 297)
Shalimar returns to the now-destroyed Pachigam and slaughters Boonyi, who had been atoning in the wilderness since her ruined affair. He moves to the Philippines and, after a gory spree with the Abu Sayyaf, he is smuggled into the US. He ingratiates himself to Max as a driver and Man Friday before terminating him with maximum force. India, the forlorn daughter of the ambassador, begins to hear the fugitive Shalimar's demented screams inside her head and goes to Kashmir to unearth the fate of her unknown mother. At Boonyi's grave, an antidote force gets into her mind that "made her capable of anything". (p 366)
Upon India's return to the US, Shalimar is arrested and sentenced in Los Angeles. She crafts a psychological torture for her parents' killer through an avalanche of hostile accusatory letters. "A female demon was occupying his head, jabbing hot shafts into his brain." (p 375) Alive for six years on death row, Shalimar escapes prison in a jailbreak and heads straight to slake his thirst for India's blood. In the final frame of the drama, India, reincarnated with her mother's given name Kashmira, shoots Shalimar down with an arrow from her golden bow before he can plunge yet another knife into another quarry.
How did an innocent and demure rope-walking clown transform into an international terrorist? Rushdie is suggesting that personal motives are never too far behind in the generation of a killing machine. Shalimar is an imperfect Islamist who is convinced of the necessity of objective jihad but cannot let go of his personal vendettas. The fact that Max recovers from his scandalous past and goes on to become "US counter-terrorism chief" is secondary to the fact that he had ensnared Shalimar's wife. The fact that Max is "part arms dealer, part kingmaker, part terrorist himself, dealing in the future, which was the only currency that mattered more than the dollar" (p 336) matters less than his inglorious past misdeed, which catches up in the macabre form of a possessed assassin.
Rushdie is not playing down contexts of warfare or Islamism in the mass manufacture of programmed jihadi robots, but is asking probing psychological questions about the subjective rationales that breed cruelty and turn milquetoasts into marauders. He seems to be asking if the germ of hate is not inherent in individuals, a seed that is nourished to fruition in the requisite soil of opportunity.
Shalimar the Clown has the usual Rushdie punch lines, unexpected inflections, punned names, wildly funny situations and almost normal craziness, alternating with truly brilliant passages on the nature of power, the emptiness of urban existence and the loss of a dream-like Kashmir. It is above all a tale of how the construction of the enemy can spiral into a global enterprise with global fatalities.
Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie, Random House, New York, 2005. ISBN: 0-679-46335-6. Price: US$25.95, 398 pages.