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Literary Review

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Fiction

The return of Salman Rushdie

HASAN SUROOR

After a lean phase which, incidentally, included The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has regained his touch, and with some style.


Shalimar is also one of his most accessible novels, though, in an age of instant gratification, it still seems unfashionably demanding.


Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, 17.99.

AFTER Fury, the novel Salman Rushdie published in 2001, did not work, there was a rush to declare that his reign was over. Even his diehard admirers tended to conclude, sadly, that he had started to run out of steam and his best was behind him. But, happily, with his new work, Shalimar The Clown, he has proved them wrong. Arguably, this is his most important book since The Moor's Last Sigh, and the most political since Midnight's Children, which got him two Bookers and put him on the world literary map. It is also one of his most accessible novels, though, in an age of instant gratification, it still seems unfashionably demanding.

Shalimar was longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize but then inexplicably excluded from the shortlist. And, ironically, this happened even as the chairman of the jury, John Sutherland, heaped praise on it saying, in a review, that Rushdie was "at his best" here.

Surprise omission

Rushdie's omission from the shortlist surprised even his detractors, of which there is no dearth in London's dog-eat-dog literary climate. But then, don't we all know how arbitrary prizes are? When Rushdie decided some years ago to move to New York, he was reported as saying that there was too much "bitchiness" around in London; or words to that effect. It would seem that things have not changed much, and Rushdie still arouses strong passions in the circles that matter.

It is important to recall that when Fury was not shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize, even his fans did not feel like shedding tears for it because the book truly did not deserve it. But this time there is no doubt that Britain's most prestigious literary prize stands diminished without a book that towers above most of the contenders on the shortlist.

After a lean phase which, incidentally, included The Satanic Verses — a book that became famous thanks only to the "mullahs" — Rushdie has regained his touch, and with some style. Shalimar is vintage Rushdie, whose characters, even in their most absurd or dark moments, remain human.

Their behaviour may be cruel, condemnable and seemingly inexplicable but seldom beyond understanding. It is through their motivations that Rushdie explores what he described, in an interview, as the idea of the "worlds in collision" — the clash of "two alternative realities competing for the same time and space". Presumably, these alternative realities are love, tolerance, freedom and debate on the one hand, and hate, anger, intolerance, extremism and violence on the other.

Masters or victims?

Shalimar is peopled with characters who, as an old and lonely Russian widow living out her last years in an alien American city notes, live "between the memories and the daily stuff" — their lives determined as much by external factors as by their own actions. Rushdie told an interviewer that the question, "Are we the masters or the victims of our times?" has assumed an "extra edge" in today's increasingly interconnected world where people are no longer in control of their own fates.

To call Shalimar a novel about Kashmir is to miss the sheer sweep of Rushdie's canvas. Although Kashmir is the reference point of the book, it is only as much about Kashmir as Midnight's Children was about the Emergency or The Satanic Verses was about Islam. In his broad sweep of contemporary history, Kashmir becomes a symbol of a "paradise lost", the passing away of an innocent age. One British critic has commented that Rushdie uses Kashmir's "fall from grace into grief" as a microcosm of a period in which (according to Rushdie) "an age of fury was dawning and only the enraged could shape it".

The difference

You might argue that the idea of an "innocent" past is a myth. Of course it is a myth, as is the idea of a "golden age". But things were not always so bad. There was a time in our own living memory when, as Shalimar reminds us, a Kashmiri Muslim boy and a Hindu Pandit girl could literally flaunt their love without fear of being blown up by terrorists; when Shalimar, the clown — the would-be-assassin — was capable of loving and being loved; and when Kashmiris did not kill Kashmiris.

Of course, even then people grumbled about how awful the "present" was ("The present is already too much for me. I can't cope with the future as well", says one character); even then people lied; they fought; they hated; they robbed; they waged wars. But grenades and Kalashnikovs? And killing of innocent people? That was less common.

Network of tales

So, what's the story of Shalimar? As always with Rushdie, it is not so much about the story as about how he tells it. It is about the narrative — sprawling, yet compelling. The novel opens in Los Angeles with the murder of Max Ophuls, a former U.S. diplomat (still, no mean fixer in his old age), who spent time in Kashmir and has an illegitimate daughter (appropriately?) named India from a Kashmiri woman with whom he had had an affair. His murderer is his own obedient and loyal chauffeur, Shalimar. Yes, the same Shalimar, the clown, who — we later learn through flashback — was so full of love and laughter: capable of loving and being loved. So, what went wrong? What made him so angry and full of hate for a retired and lonely man?

Well, thereby hangs a tale in which, as it unfolds — traversing geographical, political and cultural boundaries — we realise how intertwined our lives are, with "everyone's story slipping into everyone else's story", in Rushdie's words. And, we learn, how actions can have astonishingly unintended consequences and how history has a way of catching up with those who try to dodge it. Neither the clown nor Max are able to escape it.

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