Rushdie’s Last Lost Homeland: Kashmir in Shalimar the Clown

Andrew Teverson

In Shalimar the Clown (2005), Salman Rushdie turns to the one remaining thread of his complex cultural inheritance that he has not yet given substantial novelistic treatment: the state of Kashmir. Bombay, Pakistan, London and New York, more or less in that order, have all performed central roles in earlier works. Kashmir, the homeland of Rushdie’s maternal grandfather and one-time favourite location for Rushdie family holidays, had appeared only as a shadowy original for the Valley of K in the children’s fantasy Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), and as the point of departure for Aadam Aziz, cast out of paradise after losing his faith in Midnight’s Children (1981).

Midnight’s Children is the only novel, pre-Shalimar, to have given Kashmiri politics a more than passing glance. In that earlier work, the weight of Kashmir’s woes are heaped on to the ancient shoulders of the unwashing, expletive-loving Tai the Boatman, who believes himself to be more of a Kashmiri than an Indian, and who takes as his personal motto the political mantra “Kashmir for the Kashmiris”.(1) With heavy symbolic significance, Tai dies in the year of Partition when, “infuriated by India and Pakistan’s struggle over his valley”, he walks to Chhamb to stand in between the opposing forces. “Naturally”, readers are told, “they shot him” (37).

Shalimar the Clown is, in some respects, Tai’s story writ large. Here too we see the annihilation of the idea of Kashmir as it is caught between violent and opposing political interests. Here too, it is the ordinary village Kashmiris who suffer and die as a result of antagonisms that are fostered and manipulated by distant national leaders in pursuit of equally distant national ideals. There are differences too, however. Whilst Tai dies at the point of Partition in 1947, the two Kashmiri protagonists of Shalimar, Shalimar Noman himself and Boonyi Kaul, are born at the moment of Partition, and so come to act as mirrors of a post-Independence Kashmir in much the same way that Saleem, in the earlier novel, was a mirror for post-Independence India. Whilst in Midnight’s Children Kashmir is simply presented as the thorn in the side of Indian and Pakistani post-Independence optimism, in Shalimar it has a much grander, more global role to play. In the first place, it is offered up as a symbol of the inherent weaknesses of the US led efforts to establish a global political and economic consensus in the wake of the second world war. In the second place (and inter-connectedly) it is used to announce the decisive abortion of the idea, promoted by American neo-conservative intellectuals after the conclusion of the Cold War, that history was coming to an end because western capitalist ‘liberal’ democracy was triumphing. One form of history may have ended with the collapse of state Communism, the novel reminds us, but US machinations against Russia during the Cold War had also brought new forms of history into being that were now bearing fruit in regions such as Afghanistan and Kashmir. Shalimar, in this sense, adds other elements into the mix of South Asian politics that were not – could not have been - present in Midnight’s Children: the globalisation of the power of the United States after the conclusion of the Cold War, and the evolution of new ideologies of violence such as those given their most grotesque embodiment in the attacks on New York in September 2001. The resulting difference is that where Kashmiriness is shown, in the earlier novel, being gunned down by the opposing forces of Pakistan and India, here it is shown being crushed in a three-way power struggle between US interests, the Indian army, and Islamic insurgents from Pakistan.

As is the case in all Rushdie’s fictions, the political conflicts with which he is primarily concerned are played out micro-cosmically in the lives of his central characters. In this instance, Western interest in Kashmir is ciphered by the European-born, Jewish-American Ambassador to Kashmir, Maximilian Ophuls, who in his younger days fought in the resistance against the Nazis, but who latterly has become a secret negotiator for American interests around the globe. His involvement in Kashmir is registered through his impact upon the lives of Boonyi, whom he seduces, impregnates and abandons, and the eponymous Shalimar, her husband, who, embittered by the loss of his wife, becomes involved in guerrilla conflict. Having trained in Afghanistan using weapons that Ophuls has himself provided when the US was covertly arming Islamic terrorists after the Russian invasion in 1979, Shalimar becomes an assassin in Europe and the US, and finally murders Ophuls on the doorstep of his daughter’s apartment block.

Ophuls’ seduction of Boonyi, and their subsequent relationship – during which he gluts her with goods and comestibles before abandoning her out of hand when he loses interest in her - can clearly be read as an allegory of America’s relationship with what Rushdie calls in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) “the back yards of the world”.(2) America’s power seduces, its affections imprison, its commodities corrupt, and it abandons once it has taken what it wants. Boonyi is thus a product of America’s love for the world, and when she speaks, she speaks in the voice of Kashmir. “I am your handiwork made flesh”, she tells Ophuls:

You took beauty and created hideousness … Look at me. I am the meaning of your deeds. I am the meaning of your so-called love, your destructive, selfish, wanton love. Look at me. Your love looks just like hatred. … I was honest and you turned me into your lie. This is not me. This is not me. This is you.(3)

A moment later Rushdie removes the moral high-ground from Boonyi by having her revert to “another, older line of attack”: “I should have known better than to lie with a Jew” she says. “The Jews are our enemy and I should have known” (205). Even this, however, is part of Rushdie’s argument, for here it becomes apparent that the very thing that Ophuls set out to prevent, racial and religious hatred, has become part of what his machinations have created.

By dwelling on the atrocities of fascism, Rushdie’s novel asserts the need to recognise the honourable, even utopian, intentions behind the post-war allied efforts to impose a global consensus. Nazi atrocities, as Ophuls argues in conversation with the historian Gaston Zeller, demanded the creation of a ‘new world order’, and it was this demand that pointed in the direction of “the Council of Europe, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank”, indeed, the whole architecture of globalisation imagined into being in New Hampshire at the Bretton Woods conference. Simultaneously, however, the novel also asserts the need to recognise that those initially honourable intentions have gone sour, or at least been kidnapped and corrupted by forces more pragmatic and cynical. Hence Max Ophuls, hero of the wartime resistance, whose parents have died in concentration camps, and who started his political career as an idealist and optimist, finds himself, at the height of the Cold War, defending the American idea of a free world by manipulating religious factionalism in unstable regions, and engaging in covert, strategic arms deals with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “Ambassador Max Ophuls,” the narrator drily observes, “these days was supporting terror activities while calling himself an ambassador for counterterrorism” (272).

The transformation of Ophuls from a liberator with unquestionable moral justification into an agent of a new imperial power which, in its turn, presides over the same kinds of moral atrocity that he once fought against, is registered most uncomfortably, when he finds himself, suddenly, playing the same kind of role once played by those he despised. “When Boonyi Noman danced for him in the Dachigam hunting lodge in Kashmir” readers are told:

he thought of those feathered dead-eyed showgirls wreathed in Nazi cigar smoke, flaunting their gartered thighs. The clothes were different but he recognised the same hard hunger in her stare, the readiness of the survivor to suspend moral judgement in the presence of imagined opportunity. But I’m not a Nazi, he thought. I’m the American ambassador, the guy in the white hat. I’m for God’s sake one of the Jews who lived. She swung her hips for him and he thought, And I’m also a married man. She swung her hips again and he ceased to think. (141)

Rushdie is not here claiming that American neo-Imperial activities are identical to the activities of the Nazis in the second world war, though an unsympathetic reading might seek to interpret this episode thus. More subtly, Rushdie is arguing that whilst the US lacks the malignant and programmatic intent of the fascists, it nevertheless, in the name of self-interest, allows, even encourages, things to happen, that are not dissimilar to the things that the Nazis made happen by more direct means. It also tends to look the other way, to wilfully ‘forget’ what it does with its power, and so is surprised when it finds the rest of the world treating it in the way victims treat an oppressor. Whilst such indirection allows it to maintain the illusion that it is “the guy in the white hat”, Rushdie implies, the stance is clearly a hollow one, because the US, whether it likes it or not, is now sitting in the seat of power. “The wheel had turned,” as Ophuls realises, confronting the fallen Boonyi. “In this moment of his story he was not the victim. In this moment she, not he, had the right to claim kinship with the lost” (205).

Shalimar the Clown may be one of Rushdie’s most carnivalesque of titles, but it is his least carnivalesque novel. True, it features a village full of circus performers, and true, it uses the naming and renaming of characters to emphasise the liminality of identity (though more often than not, people fail to remake themselves by the names they select, and discover that names are made for them by circumstance). The novel also features its share of magic-realist whimsies: the man who can hear colours, the preacher who is made of iron, the giant marmot-like treasure-hunting ants, and (yet again) the telepaths who can read each other’s minds. Shalimar, however, also lacks the essential levity, the exuberant comedy, that is a crucial feature of the carnivalesque novel, and that has characterised many of Rushdie’s works to date. This is, no doubt, partly a result of Rushdie’s subject matter: genocidal massacres and the annihilation of a way of life. But Rushdie has treated bleak subject matter before, and has always found room for humour. The difference here is that Rushdie sees nothing that allows for hope in contemporary Kashmir. In Midnight’s Children and Shame (1983) – bitter though their subjects were – the knowledge remained that India and Pakistan would survive the political abuses that Rushdie was satirising, that there was an outside to the fictional world into which a more utopian hopefulness could be projected, even if it was never shown. In Shalimar, there is no hope for the continuity of the idea of Kashmir outside the fiction. Kasmmiriness is annihilated without redemption, and the slogan “Kashmir for the Kashmiris” becomes a joke, “a moronic idea” (101), “no longer an option” (311). Given this, it is hardly surprising that Shalimar is so relentlessly grim, and that the comedy apparent in Rushdie’s earlier novels is visibly, and perhaps intentionally, lacking.

That said, if there is one redeeming element in Shalimar, it resides in the next generation, as was the case in Midnight’s Children. Kashmir itself may have been annihilated, but the seduction of Kashmir by America has produced a bastard child – India Ophuls a.k.a. Kashmira Noman - a hybrid being, who lives in America and who loves her American father, but who is also in the process of discovering who her father really is, what he has done, and who her mother was. Global politics may be such that old Kashmir no longer exists, Kashmira’s story tells us, but globalisation has also generated new combinations, new ethnicities, that exist in complex relationships with the power systems that have produced them, and in which the possibility of new forms of political equilibrium reside - neither fully sympathetic to the US, nor in the arms of absolutist militants.

Not all of the political stances struck in Shalimar are convincing. It is Rushdie’s conceit that Kashmir, prior to the political dramas that have transformed it in the twentieth century, was a haven, a paradise of peaceable village traditions, and multi-cultural, multi-faith tolerance. Rushdie demonstrates this by introducing the Shalimar-Boonyi plot with a potential tragedy: Shalimar is a Muslim, Boonyi a Hindu, and they consort in secret because they fear repercussions. The reader, expectations already primed with an epigraph from Romeo and Juliet, immediately jumps to the conclusion that the star-crossed lovers will come to a sticky end as a result of religious hostility, and that the novel’s crisis will stem from here. These expectations are dashed, however, when the village decides to overcome its reservations about the conduct of the relationship and to allow their marriage: “We are all brothers and sisters here”, Shalimar’s father argues:

There is no Hindu-Muslim issue. Two Kashmiri – two Pachigami – youngsters wish to marry, that’s all. A love match is acceptable to both families and so a marriage there will be; both Hindu and Muslim customs will be observed. (110)

Rushdie, in this scenario, clearly intends to invoke and then undermine the reader’s tragic expectations in order to make a point: that Kashmir’s problems stem not from inherent Hinud-Muslim antipathy, but from a Hindu-Muslim antipathy that has been brought into being by political processes and historical forces. Whilst this point is well made, however, the implication that Kashmir, before the 1940s, was a paradaisical zone of tolerance and harmony, in which the only conflicts result from squabbles over cooking pots, seems stretched. This idea of Kashmir, of course, is yet another entry in the growing list of idealised, muti-cultural utopias in Rushdie’s fiction that are under threat from the forces of singularity and oppression: Gup in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Moorish Spain in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). In this respect, the Kashmir of Shalimar plays a familiar iconic role in Rushdie’s imaginative universe. The problems in Kashmir, however, seem too present, too rooted in a long history of antipathies, for readers to suspend disbelief sufficiently in the interests of the broader symbolic scheme. Kashmir’s religious problems did not spring into being fully formed in 1947, and each time a village elder observes that “in Kashmir, our stories sit side by side on the same double bill, we eat from the same dishes, we laugh at the same jokes” (71) the reader’s faith in the fiction is tested.

This is a minor observation, however. In general, Shalimar the Clown is a fiction of considerable power. The narrative is engaging, the political commentary is astute and provocative, and the female characters (particularly India/Kashmira) are amongst the strongest Rushdie has drawn. Perhaps the most striking feature of the novel is the effectiveness with which Rushdie conveys his sense of outrage at the systematic slaughter carried out in Pachigam by both Islamic insurgents and the Indian army. This outrage reaches a climax twice in the novel, and on both occasions the narrator is left unable to do anything more that ask questions. On the first occasion – after “a week-long orgy of unprovoked violence” against Kashmiri Hindus during which the Indian army stood by because it helped ‘simplify’ the situation - the question is ‘why’.

There were six hundred thousand Indian troops in Kashmir but the pogrom of the pandits was not prevented, why was that? Three and a half lakhs of human beings arrived in Jammu as displaced persons and for many months the government did not provide shelters or relief or even register their names, why was that? When the government finally built camps it only allowed for six thousand families to remain in the state, dispersing others around the country where they would be invisible and impotent, why was that? … There was one bathroom per three hundred persons in many camps why was that … and the pandits of Kashmir were left to rot in their slum camps, to rot while the army and the insurgency fought over the bloodied and broken valley, 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 why was that. (297)

On the second occasion – after the Indian army takes revenge on the village of Pachigam for managing to hold out against them for so long – the question is ‘who’.

Who lit that fire? Who burned that orchard? Who shot those brothers who laughed their whole lives long? Who killed the sarpanch? Who broke his hands? Who broke his arms? Who broke his ancient neck? Who shackled those men? Who made those men disappear? Who shot those boys? Who shot those girls? Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house? … Who killed the children? Who whipped the parents? Who raped that lazy-eyed woman? Who raped that grey-haired lazy-eyed woman as she screamed about snake vengeance? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that dead woman? Who raped that dead woman again? (308)

Such question-asking is characteristic of Rushdie’s fictional response to political events. Indeed, Rushdie sees the asking of questions as the principal job of the political novelist. Rushdie does not, however, see it as the job of the novelist to offer answers, and, in accordance with this belief, no direct responses are offered to the pertinent questions posed in Shalimar the Clown. This does not mean that Shalimar has nothing to contribute to the assessment of the political scenario in Kashmir, however. On the contrary, Rushdie’s question-asking serves at least two constructive political functions. In the first place, the very act of posing the question, of bearing witness to atrocity, constitutes a potent political gesture: a demand for attention and a demand for redress. In the second place Rushdie’s question-asking also functions as a plea to moderate Muslims to seek to reform their religion, and a plea to European and North American politicians to create a global political context that helps rather than hinders their progress.

‘A curse on both your houses,’ reads Rushdie’s Shakespearean epigraph. As might be expected from such an epigraph, the novel is one of cursing: it curses its satirical targets comprehensively, from head to toe, just as Boonyi curses Ophuls for his callousness. Rushdie’s curses are not mere abuse, however; they are also imperatives. Put your houses in order, he says. Reform or die.

(1) Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993) 37. Subsequent references are to this edition, and are included parenthetically in the text.

(2) Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (London: Vintage, 2000) 420.

(3) Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005) 205. Subsequent references are to this edition, and are included parenthetically in the text.