Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, our latest book in our book club was a gem. It was short and dense, made me think about how I waste my time, one of the most important steps on the way along the “know thyself” route. It was a book ideal for introverts and was about the internal reflections one has once in a while. Shalimar the Clown, by one of my favourite authors Salman Rushdie, is another attempt at knowing oneself (as all good literature is) but this time in a different way. Salman Rushdie is more concerned about “us” and others and how the troubles in some seemingly remote part of the world affect those who think they are safe and sound in their glass houses. In that way Shalimar the Clown might even be an orientalist novel especially after September 11 and other terrorist attacks that tainted the “safe west” closing the gap with the tumultuous nations of the “east”.
Shalimar the Clown is the story of Maximillian Ophuls, his daughter, his lover and his lover’s ex-husband who happens to be his driver and aide. Although the book opens with the first section (India) with Max being brutally murdered by Shalimar the Clown in front of his daughter India, this is the shortest and least revealing of the multiple story lines. Things get more interesting in the second section (Boonyi) which talks about Max’s lover and her life in Indian Kashmir in the 60’s before the situation got out of hand. The third section (Max) is a further flashback, this time about the French Resistance during World War 2 and how Max got to be a war hero. The fourth section (Shalimar) is the story of Shalimar the Clown, Max’s driver and it picks up from the beginning of the conflict in Kashmir and brings us to the present when Shalimar becomes a freelance assassin. The denouement is in the section called Kashmiri and here the novel gets corny, but more on that later.
There are three main locations in the novel: Indian Kashmir squeezed between the islamofascists trying to “liberate” Indian Kashmir and the jawans of the Indian Army; Nazi Occupied Alsace (France) squeezed between the Nazis and the Allies; and Los Angeles during the race riots after the Rodney King incident where things are not so bad compared to the other two. In all cases there are clear divisions among people who used to live together and who, with time, drift apart. Rushdie’s point is that tragedies transcend time and place and where we stand changes the name tags of the groups in question. Who is the rebel, who is the terrorist, and who is the freedom fighter? Who has the right to kill for his ideals? Who is evil and who is innocent? When do we call an incident a massacre, when do we call it an internal conflict and ask the oppressors to calm down and hope for the best? Where do you draw the line for a religion? When does somebody’s right becomes somebody else’s oppression?
LA riots were temporary, and the French-German problems are gone just like the border between them that has dissolved already. However the saddest, happiest and the best section of the book takes place in Kashmir. The English have left the area, but as usual they have managed to draw some lines which become fault lines of animosity between the colonised for years to come. At the height of the conflict, American intervention for “peace and freedom” enters center stage personified by Max and Boonyi, his lover. America comes to save the innocent and the innocent goes to bed with the savage. As one Turkish politician Mr Inonu once said, dealing with a superpower is like going to bed with a bear, she hurts you even when she tries to love you.
Picture from Kashmir, Somewhere Close to Where the Novel Takes Place
Picture from www.travelblog.com
As I read about Kashmir, the Hindus and the Muslims, the religious divisions versus the amalgamated Kashmiri identity ruined by “envy, malice and greed”, I thought about Bosnia and the Serbs; Turkey and the Kurds, Armenians and Greeks; Bulgaria and the Turks; and Cyprus, the divided island. I have no personal ties to any of these places but reading about best friends betraying each other for “lofty” ideals, star-crossed lovers never to be reunited, family members ostracised for honor, mothers being tortured with their sons’ agony, nationalism fueled by hatred of the unfamiliar, bigotry fed by greed – it is impossible to stay aloof. What Rushdie talks about might not have happened in Kashmir and I am sure he was blamed in India and Pakistan for inventing things or yielding to separatist pressures to denigrate his home country and his fellows in religion. All that is mentioned in Shalimar The Clown could have happened and most probably did really happen in Bosnia, Turkey, China, Greece, Israel, Iran, Russia and Cyprus as well as Kashmir. All these places where people used to “value what was shared far more highly than what divided” before nation-states and nationalism.
Picture from www.travelblog.com
As I read about Kashmir, the Kashmiris of Boonyi, Shalimar’s village Pachigam and the rival neighboring village Shirmal, I thought of modern day Turkey where a good number of people are similarly stuck between a rock and a hard place just like the Kashmiris. Same goes for the lenient, open and cerebral (as opposed to corporal) version of Islam the Kashmiris practice with their many gods and open outgoing women. The incoming Jihadis ironically fed by Max Ophuls are shocked to discover the localised Islam unfamiliar to their austere wahhabi version. This also has a mirror image in modern Turkey with the sufis and the alevis who have their own interpretations of Islam blended with the pre-Islam Anatolian religions such as shamanism and eastern Christianity.
Picture from www.travelblog.com
The book is a tough read, similar to all of Salman Rushdie’s work. As usual, the reader knows what’s going to happen and reads anyway to find out how things happen and how things that happen are told. It’s like reading a classic. But patience pays off since the the magic realist characters in Shalimar The Clown are strong and interesting and the prose replete with foreshadowing, intricate details, real people and local trivia and is as bubbly as the better books by Rushdie (such as Midnight’s Children and Ground Beneath Her Feet). Max Ophuls (Michael Caine would be a great) starts as the only child of a bourgeois family of French Jews in Strasbourg but grows into an international man of mystery. Joy Press in the Village Voice rightfully calls him a Zelig because he seems to pop up all over modern history entwined with real people who made the world what it is today: Max Ophuls the French resistance hero, re-builder of the world’s nations after World War 2, American ambassador to India during the cold war, counter-terrorism expert after the cold war. Max Ophuls, the father of the World Bank, the IMF and the Council of Europe as well as the US backed Taliban after the Afghan War, Max Ophuls the Hollywood slicker who appears in Jay Leno when he pleases and seduces the hottest women in Los Angeles in his speedy sports car even in his eighties.
Boonyi and India in my mind are one and the same, and any voluptuous Bollywood actress would be a nice fit here. Shalimar on the other hand would be a more difficult one to pick, possibly Adrian Brody, innocent yet vicious, sad but despicable. But the best characters were to be found in the Kashmir villages, dominant mothers you get in Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels, jolly fathers such as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof and one strange Indian Army officer (“Tortoise by name, damned hard-shelled by nature”) I cannot place anywhere, yet quite interesting and lovable in a novel but not so much in real life.
Boonyi or India (Riya Sen)
Picture from iwallpapersraj
Rushdie might have had a hard time writing about France under the Nazi occupation, and seems more comfortable with Kashmir. This I found interesting since life in Strasbourg, London or Los Angeles should have been a lot more familiar to him compared to a village in Kashmir but then again maybe I am becoming a WOG reading too many of his novels and missing the point. It would be nice to know how much of this was told by his Kashmiri grandparents or was what he saw traveling in his youth. Or maybe this is just his memory being selective and remembering the better parts and suppressing the gloomy side of a life soaked in nostalgia.
The failures of the book come towards the end. There is a love affair which looks terribly Bollywoodish, almost as if Rushdie got bored and wanted to finish up the book by tying all the loose ends. Otherwise Shalimar the Clown is his best novel in the recent years.
We began our book club meeting by voting on the next book as usual. Dubliners by James Joyce was chosen by the majority. I was quite happy with this because it’s always nice to read a classic and this would not probably not be a book I would read on my own.
After the voting was done with, the discussion over Shalimar The Clown that lasted for more than 3 hours was lively even though the front of the discussion was quite clear. Everyone but me (me and my high expectations) had been pleasantly surprised by the book with the exception of Hikmet who claimed that Rushdie was a poseur. He also said that he did not feel anything towards any character (I believe Rushdie’s choice was intentional and made the “magic” more “realistic”) and finally stated that it was a well written book but he felt cheated and patronised. His point was that Rushdie tries too hard. Too many big words, too many fancy characters, too much happening with little substance.
I agree with some of Hikmet’s points but whatever Rushdie does and does not accomplish is all done in style. See this little poetic piece about what was and was not done in Kashmir:
“…to dream of return, to die while dreaming of return, to die after the dream of return died so that they could not even die dreaming of it, why was that why was that why was that why was that”
As the food and drink weighed us down in the nice restaurant by the Bosphorus we began to realise we were all enchanted by the discussion and the wine. This might have been one of the best books to talk about so far yet most of us were on the same side. It was a pleasure similar to the discussion of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago a few months ago.
As we reached the end, satisfied, having sated our (intellectual and culinary) hunger, I felt a little uneasy because the whole night we had been discussing India and Pakistan and on the next table were an expat couple (their timidity signaling a preliminary stage of their dating) one American born Indian (an ABCD) the other asian/oriental. If they end up reading this post I’d like to apologise to them, but they can rest assured that we had the best intentions in the world. And I do not mean it as in the proverb which seems to sum up one of the morals of Shalimar The Clown, “the road to hell is paved with the cobblestones of best intentions”.