Review: Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie

by Avishek Basu Mallick on November 7, 2013

Shalimar the clown

Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2005
ISBN: 978-0679783480
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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Shalimar The Clown is a one-time read, especially for those not acquainted with Kashmir and its strife. Salman Rushdie weaves his normal magic with magic realism, but the results fall short of the lofty objective.

In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for parodying the Quran in The Satanic Verses. Thousands of Muslim youths stood up to claim the most prized bounty of the Arabic world – Rushdie’s head.

One of them lost his way and found himself in Kashmir. Won over by the beauty of the land, he became an actor in a group of bhand players – he became Shalimar the Clown. He falls in love with the beautiful Boonyi and marries her only to be cuckolded. Blinded by anger and humiliation, he takes the path of terrorism and kills Boonyi and her lover, the larger-than-life Maxmillian Ophuls, only to come face-to- face with his step-daughter.

If a biographer charts Rushdie’s life from the Ayatollah’s fatwa (which, by the way, has been turned into a video game) to the last page of Shalimar The Clown in a form of magic realism not unlike Rushdie’s own, he might come up with the above mentioned text. It is difficult to think why not. The eponymous character must be someone who must have tormented Rushdie in his nightmares, and which continues to affect his world view – a young Muslim executioner crazed by the betrayal of his Prophet and misguided by the “iron mullahs” to sacrifice himself at the altar of Islam. Noman Sher Noman is a double non-entity as his name suggests – neither he nor his “alter-ego” has the power to stop his wife from eloping with a white man in search of pastures greener than the verdure of Kashmir. It is only when he becomes Shalimar the killer and slays his nemesis in front of his own daughter’s house that the world takes note of him.

There are references galore. Rushdie portrays Kashmir as the Garden of Eden after Eve (Boonyi) took a bite out of the fated apple – a paradise without peace. Our Eve is tricked away into the snake Max Ophuls’ nest of empty promises, temptation and sin and she makes the biggest sacrifice she probably could to enter the Garden again – only to see that it has changed, much like her.

Max Ophuls is a representation of the British regime whose divide-and-rule policy created India and Pakistan with Kashmir the heart torn asunder. These two great countries would never reconcile to become one and the chinar forests of Kashmir are mortally endangered by the rising threat of terrorism. Co-incidentally, Boonyi is another name for the chinar.

And there is the daughter. As Kashmira, she is the Kashmir that was “heaven on earth” once – an innocent baby forsaken by her mother into the hands of a cold stepmother. She grows up to become India Ophuls – a juxtaposition of her mother’s motherland and her father’s surname. Nehru-Mountbatten anyone?

The ending is meant to be Rushdie’s take on India’s war on terrorism. Depending on whose shoes you put yourself in – Shalimar or Kashmira – when you read the novel, you will form an opinion of what the ending was.

Clearly Shalimar the Clown had all the makings of a masterpiece. Where it came up short was in its raison d’etre. For a story which traverses the first page of the Bible to the last chapter of jihad, revenge is a weak core. Shalimar the Clown would have been a crackling political thriller or a mighty fine revenge saga but not both together. His non-fictional work, Imaginary Homelands, was reviewed much more satisfactorily.

I find Rushdie very similar to Sanjay Leela Bhansali. There is a lot of beauty in what they do but very little substance. Rushdie’s writing fills your senses up like camphor but sublimes to leave nothingness behind. A one-time read, especially for those not acquainted with Kashmir and its strife. Watch what the author has to say for himself here.

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