About a lost paradise

Print edition : November 18, 2005

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie; Jonathan Cape; pages 398, Rs.595.

IN his latest novel Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie returns to the place where it all began. Kashmir in Midnight's Children, and that spring morning early in the century when Saleem Sinai's grandfather Aadam Aziz, kneeling on a tussock of grass, hits his head and feels three drops of blood roll down his nose. This moves him to declare that he will never again kneel before man or God, and creates a hole inside him - a hole that will remain all his life.

At this point, Kashmir is still the paradise on earth that Jehangir celebrated. It is the mountains, the chinars and the tranquil Dal where ancient Tai the boatman rows Aadam to the perforated sheet that becomes his destiny. Tai, it may be recalled, died in 1947 protesting against the dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.

That paradise, and how it was ripped apart, is the story of Shalimar the Clown.

It is 1947 when Rushdie takes us to the Kashmiri village of Pachigam, a village of players who perform the traditional entertainments known as bhand pathers, or clown stories. Abdullah Noman, the headman of the village, realises that times are changing and that entertainers have to be good cooks as well, able to prepare the legendary wazwaan, Banquets of Thirty-Six Courses Minimum. Although this step will be detrimental to the neighbouring village of Shirmal, whose business has always been the wazwaan, Abdullah goes ahead with his scheme - setting off a war between the two villages. This pot war, which is a hint of things to come between the two countries of India and Pakistan, drives the Gujar prophetess Nazarebaddoor to immure herself in her hut. "The age of prophecy is at an end," she tells Abdullah's wife Firdaus, "because what's coming is so terrible that no prophet will have the words to foretell it."

Soon after, the players are invited to perform at the Maharaja's Dussehra celebrations in Srinagar's legendary Shalimar garden. It is a cold October, the snow is falling and there are two pregnant women with the troupe; but all preparations for the performance and the banquet are on, including the giant effigies for the Ramleela - and yet there is no sign of an audience. Terrified whispers reach them that an army of kabailis is on its way from the newly formed Pakistan; the Maharaja has fled; a shepherd named Sopor has been crucified for pointing them in the wrong direction; and the troupe must depart without performing. "And when the actors and cooks departed from the Shalimar Bagh they left behind the giant effigies of the demon king, his brother and his son, all filled with unexploded fireworks. Ravan, Kumbhakaran and Meghnath glowered across the trembling valley, not caring whether they were Hindus or Muslims. The time of demons had begun."

At the heart of Rushdie's new novel, then, is the Ramayana myth. Fourteen-year-old Boonyi, sitting in Khelmarg waiting for her lover Shalimar the Clown, thinks of Sita waiting in the forest hermitage at Panchvati near the Godavari river. "Sita was left alone, but Lakshman had drawn a magic line in the dirt all the way across the mouth of the little hermitage and warned her not to cross it or to invite anyone else to do so. The line was powerfully enchanted and would protect her from harm." But then Ravan, appearing as a mendicant at Sita's door just outside of the magic line drawn by Lakshman, begins to sing her praises. Sita Devi lets him into the house. What prompted her to do so? Was it in spite of the magic line - or because of it? Boonyi wonders. "`Jatayu, you have died for me,' Sita cried out. That was true. But how could the responsibility for everything that followed the abduction, the eagle's fall, the countrywide search for the missing princess, the mighty war against Ravan, the rivers of blood and mountains of death, be laid at the door of Ram's revered wife? What a strange meaning that would give to the old story - that women's folly undid men's magic... . The dignity, the moral strength, the intelligence of Sita was beyond doubt and could not so trivially be set aside."

And so Boonyi interprets the story differently: "However much Sita's family members sought to protect her... the demon king still existed, was hopelessly besotted by her, and would have to be faced sooner or later. A woman's demons were out there, like her lovers, and she could only be coddled for so long. It was better to be done with magic lines and confront your destiny. Lines in the dirt were all very well but they only delayed matters. What had to happen should be allowed to happen or it could never be overcome."

And so, when after their lovemaking Shalimar tells Boonyi that he will kill her if she sleeps with any other man, we realise that this is another one of those dangerous things - a magic line that will set off a sequence of events in their destiny. Boonyi runs off with the American Ambassador, Max Ophuls, of her own will, and has a daughter with him; he abandons her and leaves, leaving her to return to Pachigam, where the villagers had declared her dead. Shalimar now begins his quest for vengeance.

Love, possession, betrayal, revenge: this is the story of Shalimar the Clown, as reflected in the second epigraph of the novel, Mercutio's curse from "Romeo and Juliet": "A plague on both your houses!" But there is also the story of Kashmir, a paradise loved, possessed, betrayed and lost, as reflected in the other epigraph, from Agha Shahid Ali's The Country Without a Post Office:

"My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.

I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.

There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me."

Kashmir, its ancient chinars, imperious mountains, crystal lakes, peach and apple blossoms, papiermache paisleys, saffron fields, bees, ponies, gurgling rivers, green glades, Khelmarg and Sonmarg - this paradise is the other great theme of the novel. As Abdullah Noman reflects, "Paradise too was a garden - Gulistan, Jannat, Eden - and here before him was its mirror on earth... . To be a Kashmiri, to have received so incomparable a divine gift, was to value what was shared far more highly than what was divided."

It is only in Kashmir, after all, with its tradition of Kashmiriyat, that a Muslim tightrope walker can fall in love with a Pandit girl called Bhoomi - who becomes Boonyi, the chinar - and find the entire village supporting them in their desire. As Shalimar tells himself, balancing on his rope strung between the tallest chinars in the glade: "The words Hindu and Muslim had no place in their story... . In the valley these words were merely descriptions, not divisions. The frontiers between the words, their hard edges, had grown smudged and blurred."

The destruction of this paradise is the story of Rushdie's new novel. This destruction is depicted most acutely in the story of Shalimar's betrayal and Boonyi's banishment to the wilderness of a Gujar hut; but it is also shown to us in the gradual, inevitable rise of terror in the valley, in the advent of the iron mullah Bulbul Fakh, a remarkable Rushdie creation, and his followers; in the inevitable spread of khaki in the valley; and finally, in the horrific allure of the terrorist camps where young Kashmiri men are trained to rip off their clothes and surrender themselves totally to the cause.

The Kashmir sections of the novel are of course the most powerful; the rest of the novel, about the shadowy American Ambassador Max Ophuls, Second World War hero and now internationalist, and India Ophuls, daughter of the liaison between Max and Boonyi Noman, is a far weaker mixture laced with elements from kickboxing, Klingon, and night-vision goggles a la Silence of the Lambs. They do not quite work; and Rushdie's attempts to make a statement about terror in the contemporary world, although this is clearly important to him, remains disjointed at best. We do not know, ultimately, what that sense of honour is that drives Shalimar to do all that he does: indeed, we do not see him at all after Boonyi leaves him, except as a shadowy killer with a thirst for revenge. More importantly, we do not know - although Rushdie asks us to look at this - what it is that sends men across continents and cultures to spread terror and slice throats.

Rushdie never does pick a small canvas. Midnight's Children was about the death of freedom in India; The Moor's Last Sigh about the destruction of his beloved Bombay (now Mumbai). After two less than impressive novels, Shalimar the Clown sees Rushdie return, if not with a bang, then certainly with a most interesting novel about terror in the contemporary world, and a heartbreaking evocation of a paradise that men have destroyed.

First he paints an achingly beautiful picture of the valley in all the resplendent glory that moved Jehangir to exclaim, in three unforgettable lines, that this was paradise on earth. And then, scene by scene, we witness the devastation of Kashmir, the shrivelling of its orchards, the drying up of hearts, the fracturing of the valley, and the pogrom against the Pandits: "[A]nd 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."

And even before the destruction of sweet little Pachigam takes place, we are almost resigned to see it happen - but it is still a gut-wrenching sight:

"Pachigam was the earth, the grabbee, helpless, and powerful uncaring planets stooped low, extended their celestial and merciless tentacles and grabbed. 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 that youth? Who clubbed that grandmother? Who knifed that aunt? Who broke that old man's nose? Who broke that young girl's heart? Who killed that lover? Who shot his fiancee?...Who slaughtered the animals? Who burned the beehives? Who poisoned the paddies? Who killed the children? Who whipped the parents? Who raped that lazy-eyed woman? 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?" And on and on, with chilling precision, until we are told of the end of the village, and its return to eternity:

"The village of Pachigam still exists on the official maps of Kashmir, due south of Srinagar and west of Shirmal near the Anantnag road... . Second attempt: The village of Pachigam still existed on maps of Kashmir, but that day it ceased to exist anywhere else, except in memory. Third and final attempt: The beautiful village of Pachigam still exists." Shalimar the Clown is an imperfect but affecting novel from one of our most important writers.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is an Indian Administrative Service officer, currently on deputation in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. The views expressed in this review are her own.

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