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SHALIMAR THE CLOWN by Salman Rushdie. Random House, 2005. Hardcover, 416 pages. $25.95.
Clowns—Fiction; “Subway Suspect is Shot to Death by London Police”—Nonfiction. Revenge—Fiction; “Little Known of Dead Man, but Muslims See a Backlash”—Nonfiction.
As the semicolons suggest, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction, possible from impossible, freedom from freedumbdeadandsilent. Orwellian doublespeak is heard on both sides of the semicolon; each claiming to be truth’s light.
One side can be found on the Op-Ed page of the July 23 New York Times with the horror-headlines above. United States government advisers for national security and homeland security wrote: “The terrorists we face today aim to remake the Middle East in their own grim image—one that, as President Bush has said, ‘hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent.’ … We know that we, and not the terrorists, are on the right side of history: people everywhere prefer freedom to slavery and will embrace it whenever they can, because freedom is the wish of every human being.”
The flip side of the same counterfeit coin can be found on Al Jazeera’s website in Osama bin Laden’s letter published one day before the 2004 U.S. presidential election: “I say to you that security is an indispensable pillar of human life and that free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom … No, we fight because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression.”
Counterfeiters proclaim freedom and security while making us feel less free and secure in our global village. Neither side cares about the dreams of ordinary villagers. Perhaps magically giving voice to these real dreams is one of the roles of a writer of magical realism. Besides being a source of entertainment, such a writer can also serve the powerless. A different truth emerges when we hear voices that don’t hold press conferences. In Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie brilliantly and generously gives voice to Kashmiris who are looking for their own version of freedom but are instead caught in the middle of tragic games played by government and extra-government leaders, by oppressors and oppressed.
Freedom! [Kashmir’s] inhabitants had come to the conclusion that they didn’t much like India and didn’t care for the sound of Pakistan. So: freedom! Freedom to be meat-eating Brahmins or saint-worshipping Muslims, to make pilgrimages to the ice-lingam high in the unmelting snows or to bow down before the prophet’s hair in a lakeside mosque, to listen to the santoor and drink salty tea, to dream of Alexander’s army and to choose never to see an army again … Freedom to choose folly over greatness but to be nobody’s fool. Azadi!
If this talk of politics is disheartening, read Rushdie for the joyride of verbal gymnastics and for the smile that is sure to fly across your face as word play flits across the page. His inventiveness has matured since his breakthrough,Midnight’s Children; but the non-stop, always-on, brilliant associations of popular-classic culture, Bollywood-Hollywood cinema, and personal-political life, still please the reader, stimulating and sometimes even overwhelming all senses like a great film does.
Shalimar the Clown feels like a hybrid of Schindler’s List and Mission Kashmir. Not exactly family fare, this exceptional story, culled from history, brings to life four marvelously rendered characters: a Kashmiri, Muslim villager—Shalimar the Clown; his aspiring and adulterous Hindu wife—Boonyi; her worldly, Jewish paramour of convenience—Ambassador Max Ophuls; and the secular daughter born of Boonyi and Max’s sad-sack sex—Kashmira. The settings for the loving promises, loveless betrayals, and hateful vows of vengeance swerve between fascist Europe, riot-torn Los Angeles, and terrorized Kashmir. The reader, like an IMAX viewer, gets pulled into this larger-than-life CinemaScope of love and revenge.
Though Shalimar the Clown is not a movie, this masterpiece is something more than a novel. Rushdie brings alive a dying Kashmiri folk theater form—bhand pather—to tell his panoramic story of the ties that b(l)ind Shalimar, Boonyi, Max, and Kashmira. Bringing together elements of Shaivism and Sufism, bhand pather incorporates myth and satire to dramatize contemporary life. Rusdhie skillfully weaves the bhand pather into the novel’s surface story: Shalimar and Boonyi fall in love as part of the village troupe of bhand pather actors, dancers, and acrobats led by Shalimar’s father, Abdullah Noman; it is at a re-enactment of the epic film Mughal-e-Azam that Max falls for Boonyi’s considerable charms as the ill-fated court dancer, Anarkali; and as the charm of the old, folk ways disappear along with bhand pather itself, modernity turns Boonyi and Shalimar’s wedding vows into a monstrous caricature of marriage—and tradition—at its frayed end.
But bhand pather is not used to only move the narrative along. Rusdhie’s special genius here is in how he integrates the folk form into the very fabric of his novel. In Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie is this bhand pather’s maskhara—the jester—lampooning modern-day kings and their ambassadors by exposing corruption. Like Abdullah Noman, Rushdie perhaps “experienced the bizarre sensation of living through a metaphor made real. The world he knew was disappearing; [a] blind, inky night was the incontestable sign of the times … The shadow planets Rahu and Ketu existed without actually existing, pulling and pushing, intensifying and suppressing, inflaming and stifling, dancing out the moral struggle within human beings.”
In Shalimar the Clown Rushdie sheds light on our shadow sides. At the end of the long night, we are not certain if human unity (old-new, East-West, Hindu-Muslim, husband-wife) is viable in the violated, entwined world we live in. A novel that begins with such belief in the possibility of love ends with ambiguity. What may have once existed in Kashmir—fabulously free families living faithfully side-by-side, undivided by religion or infidelity—feels like a mission trampled upon, a mission impossible.
Having recently celebrated rakhi at home, Rajesh C. Oza still believes in the ties that bind. As for those counterfeiters who think otherwise, Shakespeare says it best, “A plague on both their houses.”