Cryptic in Kashmir
Matt Thorne

Shalimar the Clown
Salman Rushdie.
Random House. Pages 398. Rs 595.

Shalimar the ClownIT’S impossible to read a line like "an open city was a naked whore" without picturing Salman Rushdie as Woody Allen’s Isaac Davis in Manhattan, pushing his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose, wiping the sweat from his fevered brow and peering down at the typewriter, feeling sheer delight at the bombast of his own prose. However, such lapses are rare in Shalimar the Clown, which has little of the pompous offensiveness that torpedoed Fury and serves instead to remind the reader of how well Rushdie can create mood, when in top form.

Like Fury, Shalimar the Clown is powered by rage. Rushdie has always grabbed whatever he wants from literature and pop culture (on page one alone, he brings together Scheherazade; the Star Trek language, Klingon; and Sigourney Weaver) and there is nothing wrong with this tactic. Indeed, it seems a perfectly sensible way for a 21st-century novelist to view the world, but such borrowing only works when it is in the service of a narrative strong enough not to be overburdened by the name-checking. Here the story holds up admirably.
Rushdie takes a while to set up his story, beginning with a long description of the life of 24-year-old India, daughter of a man named Max Ophuls (no relation to the famous filmmaker). We learn that India likes watching porn in hotel rooms and delights in the notion that her naked body is a female version of her father’s (Uh-oh, the reader may worry, please not another Yellow Dog). However, Rushdie’s use of the "seductive daughter" clich`E9 gathers fresh power when her father is murdered, turning potential salaciousness into the motor for a much more tragic tale.

India’s previous suspicions about her father’s Kashmiri driver, Shalimar, are validated when he is revealed as the murderer. But before she gets her showdown with him, Rushdie takes us back to Kashmir and Shalimar’s birth, and his romance with a woman named Bhoomi (aka Boonyi). Shalimar’s real name turns out to be Noman Sher Noman (a suitably sinister name for a killer). The sections in Kashmir are enormously detailed, and almost every character gets at least a short story’s worth of adventure, but this fecundity is Rushdie’s trademark, and he never loses sight of his plot.

Shalimar, a Muslim, and Boonyi, daughter of a Pandit, have an interfaith marriage disapproved of by the Iron Mullahs who come to Kashmir. Many in the town dislike the couple so much that boys even rape Boonyi’s friend, but the biggest threat to their marriage comes from Boonyi’s sense of discontent and entrapment.

Fed up with Shalimar and the restricted life that she’s suffered since her marriage to him, she seeks any opportunity for escape, the best of which turns out to be a visiting Max Ophuls, Ambassador to India.

Before she initiates a relationship with him, she has a contract drawn up, demanding a life of luxury in return for fulfilling his every desire. What she doesn’t seem to realise is that she is swapping one prison for another, and beginning a chain of events that will end in multiple murder.

Rushdie addresses many geopolitical, philosophical and theological questions in his novel, but this is not polemic. There are intensely passionate anti-war passages, but these somehow don’t impact on the main narrative in the way these might.

After Shalimar is arrested for Max’s murder, the latter’s daughter writes him a letter in which she states: "You murdered two human beings because of your egotism," yet her own desire for revenge seems to align her in some ways with the cuckolded clown.

Given that Rushdie’s authorial voice is so rich, and that he reveals his aesthetic interests in almost every sentence, it must be his deliberate decision to refrain from hinting which of his unsympathetic characters he stands closest behind. In denying the reader this knowledge, he turns his novel into a closed system, as menacingly cryptic as Shalimar himself. And in lieu of judgement, Rushdie’s final, best (and very Nabokovian) joke seems to be that there is no better punishment for a multiple murderer driven by honour than to be the star of a novel written by an author who doesn’t care for him.

—The Independent