Salman Rushdi’s New Novel on Kashmir
By Dr Afzal Mirza
CA

Salman Rushdie who had earlier written ten controversial books including his infamous novel The Satanic Verses has now come out with a new novel entitled Shalimar the Clown. As usual all his favorite subjects namely politics, religion and history are present in the book but it has failed to make any headway in the bestseller charts
In this book Rushdi has tried to show how Shalimar becomes a terrorist. Besides Shalimar the Clown there are two other important characters in the story who are Bhoomi or Boonyi as he describes her and an American named Max Ophuls. The story unfolds in two small villages of Indian-held Kashmir named Pachigam and Shirmal. Pachigam is an example of a tolerant environment where Muslims and Kashmiri Pundits peacefully co-exist. The two families of Pundit Payarelal Kaul and Abdullah Noman run a Bhand Pather – a troupe that performs acts and dramas for entertaining the public on different occasions.
The heroine of the novel, an extraordinarily charming and beautiful Bhoomi ( meaning Earth) whom the novelist describes by Kashmiri name Boonyi, is the only daughter of Pundit Kaul. Shalimar the clown’s real name is Noman Sher Noman. He is called Shalimar the clown because he performs the balancing act of walking on a tight rope and also presents some clownish antics. Otherwise he is a handsome Kashmiri. The two young creatures fall in love with each other and their parents as well as the village environment is so liberal that in spite of being Hindu and Muslim the parents agree on their marriage which is solemnized by both Hindu and Muslim rituals.
On the marriage night Shalimar makes a pledge that in case Bhoonyi ever betrayed him he would kill her as well as her paramour and their offspring. So far so good and the two lead a happy life when Max Ophuls the American ambassador enters the scene. Accompanied by Indian foreign minister Swaran Singh he visits Kashmir and as part of his entertainment the Bhand Pather is invited to perform for the VIPs.
A dramatization of the legend of Anarkali was always a part of the performance in which the beautiful Boonyi acted as Anarkali. The novelist has in a separate chapter described the career of Ophuls, a teacher by profession, who comes from Belgium and when Hitler annexes Belgium he escapes to France and participates in the resistance movement against the Nazi invasion of France as a confidante of Gen. de Gualle . On being traced by Nazis he slips to England to join his boss. In the resistance movement he meets his future wife whom the novelist calls Grey Rat. Max has been shown to be a habitual adulterer. From England he goes to America and works as a professor and is picked up by the administration to replace Galbraith as ambassador to India. Rushdie has in the next chapter given a brief history of the Kashmir problem. In Kashmir when Max watches Boonyi perform he gets under the spell of her beauty and wants to have her. He so maneuvers that the troupe minus Shalimar is invited to New Delhi. After the performance he discusses with Boonyi her future as a dancer and lures her to stay back and learn dancing from a famous instructor. She succumbs to his seduction and stays back in Delhi while the troupe returns to Kashmir.
In Delhi Ophuls makes her his concubine and puts her up in an expensive flat. The luxurious lifestyle and available leisure badly influences Boonyi who gets addicted to drugs and in two years time becomes what Rushdie describes as a ”vegetarian and non-vegetarian, fish- and meat eating, Hindu, Christian and Muslim, a democratic, secularist omnivore.” He describes her physical appearance in these words, ”Inevitably her beauty dimmed. Her hair lost its luster, her skin coarsened, her teeth rotted, her body odor soured and her bulk—ah! her bulk increased steadily, week by week, day by day, almost hour by hour. Her head rattled with pills, her lungs were full of poppies.” Soon she gets pregnant and gives birth to a girl whom she gives the name of Kashmira Noman.. The diplomatic circles and media rattle with the scandal and discredited Ophuls is ordered to leave for America. However his wife comes to Boonyi and to latter’s chagrin takes the girl away offering her some compensation and safe passage back to Kashmir. The girl she names India Ophuls and flies her back to America. Boonyi returns to Pachigam.
She returns in an emotionally shattered state conscious of the situation that her husband is surely going to kill her but still there is a hope that he might pardon her. Here the author is at his best. He describes her arrival in snow-clad Pachigam in these words,” She saw them all through snow storm circling her like crows keeping their distance. She called out but no body called back. One by one they approached her …. and one by one they receded….Boonyi thought she understood. She was being punished. She was being judged in dumb show and ritually ostracized. …the snow clouded her sight and finally was her husband Noman Shalimar the Clown. What was that look on his face? She had never seen such a look before….May be she would die here beneath her husband’s blade. She was ready to die. She fell on her knees in the snow, arms spread, and waited.” Shalimar was restrained by his father and Boonyi’s father at that moment. Boonyi was taken by another rape victim of the village named Zooni to stay with her in her wooden hamlet on top of the hill a little away from Pachigam. Boonyi waited there for her husband to kill her and the time passed. Boonyi Kaul Noman never went back to live in Pachigam again. This long period of waiting and state of her mind reminds of the period Rushdie spent in hiding waiting for the lurking death sequel to the fatwa against him.
Shalimar on the other hand became introvert. He was performing but not with his heart. The politics enters his mind in revenge for what an American had done to his wife.“One day he proposed that the scene in the Anarkali play in which the dancing girl was grabbed by the soldiers who had come to take her to be bricked up in her wall might be sharpened if the soldiers came on in American Army uniform and Anarkali donned the flattened straw hat of a Vietnamese peasant woman. The American seizure of Anarkali-as-Vietnam would, he argued, immediately be understood by their audience as a metaphor for the Indian Army’s stifling presence in Kashmir which they were forbidden to depict.” Then one day he suggested to his parents that he wanted to meet his brother Anees who had joined a group of freedom fighters. “Shalimar the Clown left Pachigam the next morning carrying nothing but his clothes he stood up in and the knife in his waistband and was not seen in the village for fifteen years”. His brother Anees and his comrades who were working for the liberation of Kashmir through a secular organization that turned militant join hands with a religious liberation movement headed by Maulana Bulbul Fakh whom the author calls Iron Mullah also. This Mullah had earlier spent some time as Imam of Shirmal mosque and sowed the seeds of communal hatred. Fakh now addressed these Kashmiri young men on the other side of the border saying, “We know that the universe is an illusion and the truth lies beyond the illusion.” The author writes,”Shalimar the Clown rose on his feet and tore off his garments. ‘Take me.’ He cried ‘Truth, I am ready for you.’ ” So Shalimar got trained in Camp 22 and befriended many Jihadi luminaries who had fought with Afghans including Mullah Umar and his assistant Zahir who were destined to lead Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. In Kashmir the liberation struggle entered a militant phase. On one hand there were freedom fighters with their internal contradictions as factions asking for an independent Kashmir and those who wanted to follow religious path and wanted a merger with Pakistan; on the other they were pitted against a ruthless army headed by General Kachwa who had spent all his active life in chasing Kashmiri freedom fighters. Kachwa was for taking advantage of these contradictions. No place in Kashmir could escape the effect of this struggle and even Pachigam — a peaceful village was affected. Taking advantage of this situation the village was razed to the ground by Indian forces.
Shalimar who did not like suicide bombing and entrapping young boys and girls for the purpose by Iron Mullah was happy when Mullah and his comrades were killed by Indian forces. He returns to Pachigam, kills his wife and then heads for America traveling through Philippines and Canada and reaches Los Angeles where Max Ophuls is living after his retirement with his young daughter India Ophuls. The book begins with Shalimar working as Max Ophuls’s driver in LA and in the last chapter entitled Kashmira Shalimar kills Ophuls and is caught and sentenced to death and put in San Quentin. In a daredevil fashion he breaks out of the prison and heads towards India’s flat to kill her and is killed by her instead.” There was no possibility that she would miss. There was no second chance. There was no India. There was only Kashmira and Shalimar the clown.”

 


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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