The radicalization of the man from clowning to killing

Salman Rushdie's latest novel reminds us that nationhood and identity are not one and the same.

shalimar 88 (photo credit: )
shalimar 88
(photo credit: )
For 20 years, Salman Rushdie has been warning us about the dangers of extremism, and now it seems we are ready to listen. Unfortunately, this statement is only half-true. Ever since the Ayatollah Khomeini put a bounty on Rushdie's head, propelling The Satanic Verses to No. 1 on bestseller lists and Rushdie into hiding, the 58-year-old Bombay-born novelist has been an enduring symbol of freedom around the world, especially in America, a nation that loves its freedom fries. But symbolism survives the literary world about as well as it does the deep fryer which is not well at all, especially since reading Rushdie's novels like guidebooks to the new world order is like saying William Faulkner's novels make a great guide to the failures of Reconstruction. Removing the flesh and sinew of storytelling guts them of any educative value, let alone beauty. No book that Rushdie has published to date will be more tempting to approach in this reductive fashion than his latest, Shalimar the Clown. The novel begins in Los Angeles where Max Ophuls, a former US ambassador to India, is butchered to death by his Kashmiri Muslim driver, who goes by the name Shalimar the Clown. The book then tacks backward and finds the germ of the assassination in a long-ago betrayal. For obvious reasons, the most eye-popping section of the book for many readers will be the chapter dealing with Shalimar's radicalization. Rushdie bombards the reader with the kind of details that have made terrorism tales the new true crime. We hear about the camps he trains in, the exercises he performs; we hear about how he is forced to stand naked before Talibanic leaders, who betray their ideology by taking on boys as love slaves; we even hear about how the camp is funded by an awkward mixture of Pakistani intelligence, American greenbacks, and, of course, Saudi sheiks. At the end of it all, Shalimar is a killer. But this is just one of many evolutions in Shalimar the Clown‚ which packs more name changes than a week in the life of Sean 'Diddy' Combs. Shalimar is born as Norman Sher Noman, and his lover arrives in the world as Bhoomi, which later becomes Boonyi. They live in a country called Kashmir, “perched up in the mountains like a tasty green sweetmeat caught in a giant's teeth,” caught between two countries that used to be one, now referred to as Pakistan and India. FOR A BRIEF and poignant window in their village of Pachigam, it doesn't matter whether one is Muslim or Hindu; they are all Kashmiris. Rushdie previously cast life in this part of the world as a Garden of Eden scenario most notably in Midnight's Children but there is an even more plangent tone to Shalimar the Clown. Before partition and then the arrival of extremism, Pachigam is known for two things: its theatrical players and its waza chefs. The former's specialty is clowning, while the latter's is a meal called “36 Courses minimum,” a special feast that takes a whole year to recover from. From feasting to famine, and from clowning to killing, this metamorphosis is the backdrop for all of Rushdie's characters, which occasionally makes this a difficult novel to follow. Shalimar the Clown is a book without a center; it is more like a dragon that consumes its tail as it proceeds forward. It begins in Los Angeles, cycles back to Kashmir, moves onward to France and England and then America, but progresses nowhere. Civilization constantly erodes toward chaos. Its characters do not sit still long enough to have “character.” In America, we like to say character is destiny. As Rushdie says of Kashmiris butchered simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, “Their characters were not their destiny.” Once readers accept this kind of destabilization, they can enjoy the moments of hope in this book for what they truly are: moments. For example, early on, when a mullah descends on Pachigam and uses a powerful legend to draw villagers to a mosque, he is chased out of town before the tenterhooks of fundamentalism can fully sink in. One of the waza chefs turns his pots and pans into a suit of armor and marches on the newly constructed religious site, with humor as his only weapon. The mullah leaves. But eventually he returns, as do Indian soldiers intent on squashing the Muslim uprising. And so the cycle of violence as it has been called in the Mideast and elsewhere spirals to a fever pitch, with the crackdown by Indian troops being among the most bloody. Cleverly, Rushdie portrays these events through the bureaucratic language of military reports, revealing how war remains a “process” for those at the top, stripping it of any humanity. HERE IS HOW one man was convinced of his allegiance with extremists: “He was beaten, obviously. Then his beard was set on fire. Then electricity was offered to his eyes, his genitals and his tongue. Afterwards he claimed to have been blinded in one eye, which was an obvious lie, an attempt to blame the investigators for a previously existing condition. He had no pride and begged the men to stop. He repeated his lie, that he was just a schoolteacher, which offended them. To assist him they took him to a small stream containing dirty water and broken glass... He lost consciousness to avoid questioning, so when he woke up they chastised him again. In the end it was deemed correct to let him go. He was warned that the next time he would be killed. He ran away screaming, I swear I'm not a militant. I'm a schoolteacher. These people were beyond saving. There was no hope for them.” There is no redemption from punishment as rigid as this, it would seem, only escalation. Indeed, in the past, Rushdie has been able to wield the power of storytelling as his Excalibur in the battle against humankind's tendency to kill, rape, and murder. We may be terrible, but we can begin again that is the lesson of stories if one is a humanist. Shalimar the Clown‚ however, is a book about the dark side of storytelling, about its occult power, and everyone abuses it here. Max Ophuls, for instance, begins the book as a Jewish freedom fighter in Europe during World War II. Metamorphosis is a tool for good. He forges papers for people fleeing Belgium; he infiltrates the Nazi SS by seducing one of their own. For his heroics, he is given a seat at the table in New Hampshire after the war as the Allied Powers carve up the world. Fast-forward to his ambassadorship, and power has corrupted him. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he uses his supplicants to fetch women, to provide him pleasure. On a trip to Kashmir, he spies Shalimar's wife Boonyi and decides he must have her and he does. One needn't possess an X-ray machine to look through this action and see an impassioned statement about Kashmir, the land of Rushdie's grandparents. And this book works powerfully as that alone. But it also begs us to read it as something more. It is also a tale about the people of Kashmir. It reminds us that nationhood and identity are not one and the same. People are too mutable to be contained by borders, too good at shape-shifting. And yet, wars are fought in spite of this knowledge. Sometimes a person fights for an idea; other times he does so simply because someone has stolen his wife.