Salman Rushdie has been making news recently with his knighthood being questioned by Muslims across the world who believe that he misrepresents Islam in his writings. Well, his novel, "Shalimar the Clown" wouldn't help redeem his tarnished image in the Muslim world; if anything it probably made him more unpopular. The novel is set primarily in Kashmir, a long disputed territory between Pakistan and India; also, one of the most picturesque places in the world that I happen to have visited twice. Released in 2005, "Shalimar the Clown" did not make any waves in the literary world and understandably so.
The novel is weighed down by its long drawn out descriptions that makes the reader's interest sag. Rushdie's descriptions of Los Angeles and Pachigam were empty and dead. For example LA as a "decentered promiscuous sprawl of this giant invertebrate blob, this jellyfish of concrete and light" makes it seem like Rushdie held his paintbrush too long and too hard. His language distances the reader from the very places that Rushdie wants the reader to embrace and understand. Pachigam, a pastoral paradise apparently, has no concrete image to offer of itself, so the reader is always on shaky grounds, and thus his disbelief is seldom suspended. The reader never loses himself in the story!
The plot spans through three decades, and human emotions like jealousy, revenge, hatred, and love make for an intricate storyline that switches between the past and the present. The two main characters to house both the past and the present are Shalimar the Clown, a rope artist in a local circus of a small village in Kashmir, and Max Ophuls, a one time US Ambassador to India. "We are all brothers and sisters here,...There is no Hindu-Muslim issue." claims Abdullah, Shalimar's father, leader of a Felliniesque band of traveling players, and this pretty much is the underlying conflict in the entire novel. The rest of the story basically questions this proclamation. Kashmir was home to both Hindus and Muslims before the 90's, and the two communities lived in harmony and even shared a bonhomie that was marvelled at by Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. Then came the 90's with the devious and bloody insurgencies on both sides of the Indo Pak border, the Kargill stand-off, and many such hate based initiatives, and the 'Kashmiriyat' of Kashmir was put to test. Rushdie's novel explores the impact of the 90's on the sensibilities of Kashmiris who all of a sudden faced an onslaught of religious fundamentalism and nationalistic propaganda in their idyllic paradise within the heart of the Himalayas.
Here is a novel that held tremendous potential, but Salman Rushdie failed to tap it. If he were to have done so he would have brought the ethnic strife in Kashmir on to center stage for the world to see. He could have achived what Khaled Hosseini did with his 'The Kite Runner' and "A Thousand Splendid Suns"for Afghanistan; placed Kashmir on the world map! Alas, Mr. Rushdie, with his unconvincing protagonist 'Shalimar', a clown turned 'terrorist' who is unable to be the reader's 'knight'-in-armor and sweep the reader off his feet!
"Shalimar the Clown" need not be on your 'to read' list, unless of course you are curious about Kashmir, and even then you may perhaps be better off going here!