Shalimar the Clown

Salman Rushdie

In the 398 pages that comprise Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, “Shalimar the Clown,” he carries us spellbound from Hinduism to Nazism, Krishna to Allah, and Kashmir to California. Along the way, he examines and shatters traditional notions of love, vengeance, nationalism, seduction, and betrayal.

By the end of this journey, Rushdie forces readers to realize that when all masks and motives are stripped away, there are no winners and losers, only interconnected individuals with a present to be lived and a past to be learned and retold.

Throughout, Rushdie uses a subtle, potent, but sometimes misleading foreshadowing to bridge the numerous perspectives of the novel which gradually reveal the secrets that are pressing to be let go from page one.

The novel is told in five parts, each narrated from a different viewpoint and different time. The first segment, “India,” is a hazy glimpse into the life of India Ophuls, the daughter of Max Ophuls, the fictional former American ambassador to India.

“Shalimar” opens with India’s birthday lunch with her father, which shows their somewhat strained but loving relationship. Brief but substantial hints indicate that India was conceived in the eponymous nation by Max and a Kashmiri lover during his appointment.

Rushdie develops the storyline of the “India” segment in a few short pages before he introduces the main event that shapes the rest of the novel. At the conclusion of the first segment, Max is brutally murdered at the steps of India’s apartment building. Just as soon as it is revealed that the murderer is Max’s Kashmiri chauffeur, the enigmatic title character, the narrative dives into a distant past inexorably linked to the present.

The second segment, entitled “Boonyi,” details the budding romance between Noman Sher Noman, also known as Shalimar, and Boonyi Kaur, his future wife and India’s future mother. Rushdie’s lush descriptions of the fertile valleys and formidable mountains of Kashmir lure the reader into the gorgeous terrain and the jovial lifestyle of the villagers of Pachigam before the various occupations of the contested land and religious polarity became law.

Though the reader does not yet know that Boonyi is India’s mother, the strained way that Shalimar looks at India when they meet in the first section, as well as a particularly ominous threat (“I’ll kill you and if you have any children by another man I’ll kill the children also.”) in the second seal their fates and leave readers feeling that they know the beginning and end of the story but not the middle.

Max was born in France and fought the Germans as a member of the French Resistance in World War II. It is clear from the beginning that the exotic, erotic, folkloric world of Kashmir will spell disaster. It is his abuse of power 24 years earlier that leaves him lying in a bloody heap on the stairs of India’s apartment building.

Max’s relationship with Boonyi is a non-too-subtle allegory of the clash between Eastern and Western values, and although he is clearly a foil to Shalimar, he emerges as a tragic hero. We hate him for his selfish womanizing, but admire him for being “the Resistance hero, the philosopher prince, the billionaire power-broker, the maker of the world!”

The novel powerfully integrates life and history, rendering the ways in which people react to times of crisis, sometimes fighting to preserve a way of life and other times shrinking into cowardice.

Though much of “Shalimar the Clown” is enhanced by details of Kashmiri history, the fourth section, also entitled “Shalimar the Clown,” is burdened by the superfluous particulars of Shalimar’s 15-year foray into the world of Islamic fundamentalism, forcibly drawing our attention away from the novel’s main plotline.

It is in this section, however, that the crucial evolution of Shalimar from a childish clown to a ruthless killer occurs, costing him his humanity and our sympathy.

It is the parallels between modern life and Hindu mythology that most enrich “Shalimar the Clown.” The world that these characters live in, though littered with mythical snakes, prophetesses, and omens that can only be seen by those blessed or cursed with the gift of clairvoyance, is as real to us as can be. We can only stand to learn from these characters in trying to establish our own identities and relationships in the face of history.

­—Crimson staff writer Jessica A. Berger can be reached at jaberger@fas.harvard.edu.