Format: Paperback
Language: English
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099498094
Pages: 649
Price: INR 237
Awards: Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction (2005)

I’ve been a reader for some time now & I’ve read a few good books but none of them have made me realise the power of fiction. Until now. Until I picked up ‘Shalimar the Clown‘.

Had anyone ever given us a non-fiction book about the issues related to Kashmir as raised in this book, we’d have probably abandoned it after 100 pages or so & I’m not lying or judging anyone when I say that, since that is pretty normal. That is perhaps since most of us have been watching the same thing over & over again in the news since what seems like eternity & we think we know everything about it & we love to have an opinion on the same, but guess what – we know absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. ZERO. And that is perhaps where ‘Shalimar the Clown‘ succeeds so well – in enlightening the reader about atleast some of the aspects of the Kashmir issue, if not all.

Okay, here goes the story – Maximilian Ophuls, a WWII hero, former US ambassador to India & subsequently the CIA counter-terrorism chief, is knifed to death at the doorstep of his daughter India by his mysterious Kashmiri driver who calls himself Shalimar the Clown. What first looks to be a political assasination turns out to be a extremely personal one, linked to a woman in their past.

ShalimarTheClownPretty simple, right? Except that Salman Rushdie is no mean writer. What Rushdie does is that he weaves an epic narrative that transcends time, space as well as continents as we follow the lives & fortunes of the major players of this tale. We see ourselves transported back in the past, to a time when Kashmir was still what the Great Mughal emperor Jehangir pronounced as ‘Paradise on Earth‘, where Muslims & Kashmiri Pandits practised secularism & tolerance towards each other & treated each other like brothers in bond, where the bond was strong enough to see a village of Muslims stand up for the honour of a Hindu girl, where the marriage of a Hindu & a Muslim was viewed not with skepticism but celebrated as a victory of the culture this paradise nurtured for centuries, where the people were willing to stand up for their principles of love & kinship even when faced with budding extremism.

We’re then whooshed away to Europe, where bloodshed & strife is rife in the midst of World War II, as a young Max Ophuls establishes his reputation as a master forger in the Resistance against the Nazi forces & through his acts of daring and espionage, he is elevated to hero-like status. We cheer as he crosses enemy lines in a record-breaking flying adventure & seduces a high-ranking German official much to the utter disbelief of one & all. He also finds love & later marries a fellow spy (which eventually crumbles in the wake of his infidelities). Years pass by & then he is appointed as US ambassador to India, where he arrives to resolve an impending Indo-Pak border crisis & charms his Indian counterparts, winning their love & respect. Until he decides to go in pursuit of a love that is doomed from the very start, the cost of which must be eventually paid with his life.

Then there is Shalimar the Clown, who ditches his vocation of a public performer & turns to terrorism to avenge the betrayal of the love of his life. You feel his anguish & deep pain as his innocent self dwindles away in his chosen path of violence & revenge, the wronged husband whose wrath will destroy anything that comes between him & his sole mission of seeking vengeance against all those who have wronged him.

And there is that woman – the Woman – a free-thinking spirit feeling trapped in a closely-knit community, who wishes to fly away to distant lands & like the legendary Anarkali (a character she plays in her dance troupe) who desires the forbidden love of a prince. When she finally recognises an opportunity & seizes it with both hands, she realises to her misfortune that perhaps the grass wasn’t really greener on the other side of paradise. Her actions & decisions ultimately shape the lives of everyone around her & symbolically, that of Kashmir.

As the norm goes, Rushdie invokes themes of magical realism & verisimilitude – lovers talk to each other despite being miles apart, they touch each other tenderly without actually touching & the ghosts of past keeps haunting the present lives of these characters, appearing in their dreams & nightmares.

And then comes an integral part of the story despite technically being a sub-plot in itself – Kashmir. Being of Kashmiri descent himself, the issue of Kashmir is obviously close to Rushdie’s heart & we watch the paradise turn into living hell for its residents as Kashmir is hammered & smashed by militants as well as that uniformed military force that calls itself the Indian Army, whose actions are no less questionable than those of the extremist groups. One passage that is particularly striking & is immensely moving as the beautiful village of Pachigam goes up in flames is as follows –

“Who lit that fire? Who burned that orchard? Who shot those brothers who laughed their whole lives long? Who killed the sarpanch? Who broke his hands? Who broke his arms? Who broke his ancient neck? Who shackled those men? Who made those men disappear? Who shot those boys? Who shot those girls? Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house? Who killed that youth? Who clubbed that grandmother? Who knifed that aunt? Who broke that old man’s nose? Who broke that young girl’s heart? Who killed that lover? Who shot his fiancée? Who burned the costumes? Who broke the swords? Who burned the library? Who burned the saffron field? Who slaughtered the animals? Who burned the beehives? Who poisoned the paddies? Who killed the children? Who whipped the parents? Who raped that lazy-eyed woman? Who raped that grey-haired lazy-eyed woman as she screamed about snake vengeance? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that dead woman? Who raped that dead woman again?”

Rushdie can often be brutal like this & you can feel the words tearing away at your heart, tearing away at that conscience of yours, tearing away at your ignorance.

Though Rushdie tries not to take sides & presents matters from the point of view of everyone involved (including that of the Indian Army, justified on few counts), he is critical of the tactics employed against the people by the terrorist groups & the Army – against the latter, he skilfully uses satire to bring out the bitter ironies in the much-tainted AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) & the extremities carried out under the same, something I feel Indians really should be aware about.

I don’t really have anything to complain about, except maybe a fairly ordinary last few pages (not to mention a final flourish towards the end), but I don’t really how it could’ve ended otherwise. Maybe it’s just me trying hard to find some fault with this book.

Shalimar the Clown‘ by Salman Rushdie is undoubtedly an important book & I highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to understand the Kashmir issue. A must read for fans of literary fiction & should you decide to read this, be prepared to be mesmerized by one of the most sublime storytellers of our times.

“There was no India. There was only Kashmira, and Shalimar the Clown.”

Overall Rating: 9/10

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