Salman Rushdie’s eighth novel for adults, Shalimar the Clown (2005), is mainly concerned with the disputed region of Kashmir, though there’s an extended passage set in France during the Second World War, and the the opening and closing episodes of the story take place in Los Angeles. Kashmir has been the subject of conflict (including three wars) between India and Pakistan since Partition. The villages that feature in Rushdie’s story are in Kashmir Valley itself, near Srinagar. Rushdie presents the valley as idyllic, even Edenic, figuratively a garden, rich in flowers and other plant life. (In the book’s opening chapter, when India Ophuls asks the title character where he’s from, and gets the answer “Kashmir”, she thinks “A driver from paradise”, p. 11.) It is high in the Himalayas and difficult to access because of the surrounding mountains. It is cold in winter and relatively cool (in comparison to parts of India) all year round.

“Shalimar the Clown” is a nickname: the character’s official name is Noman Sher Noman, and he’s the son of the sarpanch of the village of Pachigam, Abdullah Noman. Noman Sher Noman is born in 1947 at around the time of independence and Partition (like Rushdie himself and some of his other major characters, notably Saleem Sinai and his alter ego Shiva in Midnight’s Children). Another child is born in the village at the same time as Noman. She is Bhoomi Kaul, daughter of pandit Payarelal Kaul, but as soon as she’s able to speak for herself she makes it clear that she doesn’t like the name “Bhoomi” and will be known as Boonyi instead. This pattern of characters being known by names other than their given ones is repeated throughout the novel.

Boonyi’s mother dies in childbirth. Her given name had been Pamposh, but she preferred “Giri”. The young girl’s father thinks there are too many Kauls, but his attempt to adopt another surname doesn’t stick. Boonyi’s daughter will be known as “India” until she’s 24. That’s the name bestowed (or imposed) by her father’s wife. By the end of the story, though, she has resumed the name that Boonyi gave her: Kashmira. The youngest of Noman’s three older brothers, Anees, who becomes a militant Islamist, acquires the nickname “Baby Che”, not by choice. The Indian Army colonel whose assignment it is to “protect” the region against Pakistani incursions, while keeping its inhabitants under control, would like to be known as “Hammer” but becomes “Tortoise Colonel” instead. If the names by which people are commonly known reflect who they really are, then there’s often a noticeable gap between that and their official identities.

When they’re 14, Boonyi and Noman fall in love and before long have sex in a “flower-carpeted” (p. 256) meadow above the village. Afterwards, Noman says:

“Don’t you leave me now, or I’ll never forgive you, and I’ll have my revenge, I’ll kill you and if you have any children by another man I’ll kill the children also.”

“What a romantic you are,” she replied carelessly. “You say the sweetest things.” (p. 61)

A temporary replacement teacher named Gopinath, who is also acting as a spy for the Tortoise Colonel, discovers the relationship between Boonyi and Noman and informs on them to the village council or panchayat, with an offer to “restore” Boonyi’s “honour” (p. 108) by marrying her. Boonyi is appalled by this offer but is afraid that the panchayat (of which Noman’s father is the sarpanch and Boonyi’s parent another member) will force her to accept it. In the event, though, the panchayat, while censuring the young couple for their “licentious and rash” (p. 110) behaviour, accepts too that they have a duty to protect their children.

Abdullah then mentioned Kashmiriyat, Kashmiriness, the belief that at the heart of Kashmiri culture there was a common bond that transcended all other differences … “So we have not only Kashmiriness to protect but Pachigaminess as well. We are all brothers and sisters here,” said Abdullah. “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.” (p. 110)

The Hindu and Muslim villagers of Pachigam are well used to getting along. It’s even been known for some pandits to eat meat occasionally, and the Muslim women have never worn veils. However, the wedding will be attended by relatives from far and wide, and the determination to follow both Hindu and Muslim customs causes some tensions, which are tactfully smoothed over. The wedding goes ahead.

Although she loves Noman, as soon as the marriage is solemnized, Boonyi begins to feel stifled and trapped. She can’t imagine living in the village for the rest of her life, which is the prospect before her. She promises herself that, as soon as the opportunity to escape arises, she will take it. Some time passes before she gets her chance. When it comes it is Maximilian Ophuls, newly appointed US Ambassador to India by Lyndon Johnson, in succession to the influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who provides it.

Max, originally “a Frenchman with a German name” (p. 141) — actually the name of a German film director, but Rushdie doesn’t explicitly allude to that — was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Strasbourg. During the Second World War, he daringly escaped to Clermont-Ferrand in the as yet unoccupied part of France in a specially built plane designed by Ettore Bugatti to break the world speed record. He fought with the Resistance but was soon called to London via an escape line based in Marseille. This was a great privilege — “it was most unusual for the services of the Line to be made available to a nonmilitary individual just because de Gaulle wanted him to join the Forces Françaises Libres …” (p. 167).

As it turned out, it appears that de Gaulle wanted only to shut him up. Max had written some papers, arguing the need to establish international institutions like those which would be established after the war as the Council of Europe, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. De Gaulle told him that the implementation of his proposals would “deliver us, bound and gagged, into the power of the Americans, which is to say a new captivity following immediately upon the old one. This I shall never permit” (p. 170).

After this, de Gaulle ignored Max who was recruited by Airey Neave to perform a Keynes-like role at Bretton Woods:

“We see you as one of the main chaps. You don’t have to be affiliated to a national delegation. We need you to chair working parties, do the deep work, give us structures that will stand.” (p. 173)

If de Gaulle turned out to be correct about those structures delivering France, bound and gagged into the power of the Americans, that might be no bad thing, according to Max.

Instead of the weakness of Paris, the effete house of cards of old Europe, he would build the iron-and-steel skyscraper of the next big thing. (p. 173)

From that point on, Max was very much in the American camp. When LBJ appointed him ambassador, he was expected to take a hard line with India. The Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was hostile to India, because of India’s receipt of weapons from the USSR and the fact that some prominent Indian politicians supported North Vietnam.

Johnson liked the dictator of Pakistan, Field Marshall Mohammed Ayub Khan, so much that he was even willing to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s growing intimacy with China. (p. 178)

Max is inclined to be more sympathetic to Indian interests than either the President or the Secretary of State but he finds that his developing relationship with Boonyi influences his position. Having left Noman and Pachigam to become the ambassador’s kept mistress, Boonyi is puzzled by her husband’s reaction. He has sent her conciliatory, pleading letters:

They were letters that humiliated both their author and their recipient, letters that had no business existing, that should never have been sent. Such thoughts should never have come into being, and would not have, were it not for the enfeebled mind of that man without honour whom it was her shame to have espoused. (p. 195)

The reader later learns that the letters were a ruse on Noman’s part: an attempt to lure Boonyi back so that he could carry out his promise to kill her. In the meantime, though, Boonyi complains about them to her new lover, expressing her perplexity in a kind of code. She refers to her abandoned husband as “Kashmir” (while occasionally slipping up and using a personal pronoun to mean the region, something the ambassador fails to notice). In her complaints, the ambassador himself becomes “Indian armed forces”.

However he, the ambassador, took careful note of her passion, and was plainly moved when she was at her angriest, when she castigated “Kashmir” for his cowardice, for his passivity in the face of the horrible crimes committed against him. (p. 197)

So, sympathy for what he takes to be his lover’s predicament leads Max to become more critical of India’s actions in Kashmir, and the famously charming diplomat comes to be seen in India as just another American politician in thrall to Pakistan. The reader (if nobody else) sees that a public, political stance has been constructed on private, personal foundations.

Something similar happens with Noman/Shalimar. He is recruited into the jihadist organization of Maulana Bulbul Fakh. Bulbul Fakh is one of the “iron mullahs”, giants who have apparently grown spontaneously out of the rusted iron of discarded weaponry stewn across Kashmir, left over from previous wars.

The mullah insists on the primacy of ideology and belief over merely worldly aims. It is essential that his fighters be committed to “the Truth”, though this Truth has a paradoxical quality: it’s not what it appears to be.

“… The infidel speaks of universal truth. We know that the universe is an illusion and that truth lies beyond that illusion, where the infidel cannot see …” (p. 267)

Shalimar, who has since childhood been a trained performer in the bhand pather troupe led by his father, is able to convince Bulbul Fakh that he’s a true believer. He will fight for the liberation of Kashmir’s Muslims from Indian control, for as long as necessary, but his real objective is far beyond that: he is determined to kill the (now former) US Ambassador who stole his (now formerly) beloved wife. Shalimar fights for years in Pakistan, then in the Philippines.

When Shalimar finally gets his opportunity to cut Max’s throat, almost severing his head, outside a Los Angeles apartment building, it seems obvious at first that the assassination must be a terrorist act, politically motivated. Quite apart from the octogenarian’s history in India, which had ended in scandal, there was his later clandestine role:

But even in this, his newfound invisibility, he is ahead of his time, because in this occult soil the seeds of the future are being planted, and the time of the invisible world will come, the time of the altered dialectic, the time of the dialectic gone underground, when anonymous spectral armies will fight in secret over the fate of the earth. A good man is never discarded for long. A use is always found for such a man. Invisible Max will find a new use. He will be one of the makers of this new age, too … (pp. 212–3)

Of course! Why wouldn’t a battle-hardened, veteran Islamic fighter want to slaughter this man? But the authorities soon discover the personal history of betrayal and change their tune. The case is handed over to the regular homicide detectives. Clearly it has no political ramifications.

They don’t see that the motives at play are both personal and political. The private and the public are inextricably tangled up together. To attempt to separate them is wilfully to insist on seeing only part of the picture.

Flying is a recurring motif in the novel, and it’s sometimes associated with escape. As we’ve seen, a young Max escapes from Nazi-occupied Strasbourg in a state-of-the-art racing plane. In his memoirs, he will later write “Entering the Resistance was, for me, a kind of flying” (p. 166), combining a sensation of soaring with the awareness that he could crash or be shot down at any moment.

Shalimar the Clown acquired both his nickname (and eventual nom de guerre) and his unrivalled skill as a tightrope walker in his father’s bhand pather troupe. He could forget about the rope and feel that he was flying, and it was this ability that made it possible for him to escape from prison.

I’ve previously discussed six of Rushdie’s novels in Talk about books:

Midnight’s Children 30-Apr-2021
Shame 03-Jun-2023
The Satanic Verses 09-Feb-2023
The Moor’s Last Sigh 13-Aug-2023
The Ground beneath Her Feet 22-Oct-2023
Fury 05-Jan-2022

They’re listed in order of publication of the novels. My posts didn’t follow that order, so I’ve included the dates of the posts in that list.

It will be some time before I post anything about his more recent novels. I haven’t yet read any later than Shalimar the Clown, though I intend to read most of them. But first I want to go back and reread some of the ones I’ve already written about. I’m more or less satisfied with what I said about Midnight’s Children, and have no great wish to say any more about either Shame or Fury.

However, I don’t think I’ve come anywhere near doing justice to the three novels in the middle of that list, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Ground beneath Her Feet. I’d like to read them all again soon and and write something more substantial, a long essay or a monograph, using what I’ve already posted as a foundation: I’m thinking of something like 15,000 words, but we’ll see how it works out. I’m unlikely to post it on Talk about books but I’ll let you know when it’s done and where (if anywhere) you can read it.