With trademark political overtone, Rushdie’s latest epic tale of love and revenge reflects the dichotomy of oppressive globalism and the inherent natural stability of organic civilization. Central to this story lies the premise that, left alone, human nature will stride toward acceptance and understanding; forced to face a tenuous notion of survival beneath the threat of occupying force, instincts turn dark, and paradise falls.
‘There was no moon. The white furnace of the galaxy burned across the sky. The birds were sleeping. Shalimar the Clown climbed the wooded hill to Khelmarg and listened to the river flow. He wanted the world to remain frozen just as it was in this moment, when he was filled with hope and longing, when he was young and in love and nobody he loved had died.’
Here, paradise is the lush Kashmiri village of Pachigam, where we find young love between Hindu and Muslim teenagers, Boonyi and Shalimar. In a show of pride for Kashmiri culture above all else, villagers in both religions embraced a wedding; for a short time this idealism lifts and unites the village in the age-old hope that love conquers all. It is not long before Boonyi’s infidelity and the invasion of Pakistani forces shatters the illusion and begins the slow and pervasive undoing of Pachigam.
‘The summer of 1965 was a bad season. India and Pakistan had already engaged in battle, briefly, in the Rann of Kutch far away to the south, but now the talk was all about war over Kashmir. The rumble of convoys was heard, and the overhead roar of jets…Fear was the year’s biggest crop. It hung from the fruit trees instead of peaches and apples, and bees made fear instead of honey. In the paddies, fear grew thickly beneath the surface of the shallow water, and in the saffron fields, fear like bindweed strangled the delicate plants. Fear clogged the rivers like water hyacinth…’
It is amid this threatening political climate and the onset of her own adulthood that Boonyi allows herself to be wooed and whisked away by the dashing Max Ophuls, the US Ambassador to India, and soon she finds herself an unglamorous and aging concubine in the illusory, shimmering heat of LA (“all treachery, all deception, a quick-change, quicksand metropolis”). Shalimar, whose introspective qualities turn bloodthirsty caught in the blinding yoke of jealousy, gets pulled into a local band of terrorists and silently vows to find and kill his ex-wife and her lover. He soon masters the sly skills of a jihadist assassin, and is reborn. Both he and Ophuls display sinuous and morphing identities as their paths inexorably cross: Max, after surviving an on-the-run lifetime as a resistance fighter, document forger, and spy, lets his guard down just enough to become vulnerable to the shape-shifting “clown” from halfway across the globe whose penchant for revenge has spanned twenty years. It is a morbid dance, one that ultimately entangles Max and Boonyi’s now-adult daughter, India, who also finds herself struggling with the concepts of identity and justice. Here Rushdie reminds us that within the grand inevitability of birth, love, and our own mortality, life has an elegance that cannot be dulled even by the darkest emotion. It is the surreality of war, of uneven prosperity, of power and greed that is truly tragic. The full impact of this message occasionally gets lost amid the many emotive characters, each vying for the title of most wretched, and a scattering of awkward pop culture allusions that distract from Rushdie’s powerfully universal themes. The sad truth is, our current global state of affairs is not far from this muddled mix of competitive rhetoric and celebrity infusion, so perhaps even in its garishness, Shalimar the Clown is an apt reflection.