Shalimar the Clown: A Novel by Salman Rushdie
Shalimar the Clown is a masterpiece from a writer that I personally hold as one of our greatest writers. As in Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children or Haroun and the Sea of Stories, he brings together the fiercest passions of the heart and the gravest conflicts of history into an astonishingly powerful, breathtaking story.
Max Ophuls’ memorable life ends violently in Los Angeles in 1993 when he is murdered by his Muslim driver Noman Sher Noman, also known as Shalimar the Clown. At first the crime seems to be politically motivated – Ophuls was previously ambassador to India, and later US counterterrorism chief – but it is much more.
Ophuls is an ambivalent figure — half giant and architect of the modern world (next to being a Resistance hero and best-selling author, brilliant economist and clandestine US intelligence official), half a mean and miserable and narcissist egomaniac. Such it is as Ambassador to India that the seeds of his doom are planted, thanks to another of his self pictures – irresistible lover. Visiting the Kashmiri village of Pachigam, Ophuls lures an impossibly beautiful dancer, the ambitious (and willing) Boonyi Kaul, away from her husband, and installs her as his mistress in Delhi. But their affair cannot be kept secret, and the Boonyi is returned home, disgraced, bereaved of her just born child by Ophul’s revengeful wife, on top of being drug addicted and obese as consequence of the machinations of Ophul’s factotum. It seems that all she has waiting for her is the inevitable revenge of her husband: Noman Sher Noman, Shalimar the Clown.
But the main story is only part of the story. In the intricate patterns of this novel’s magic carpet everything is connected, and everyone is a part of everyone else. Shalimar the Clown is a true work of the era of globalization, intricately mingling lives and countries, and finding unexpected and sometimes tragic connections between the seemingly disparate. The violent fate of Kashmir recalls Strasbourg’s experience in World War II; Resistance heroism against the Nazis counterpoints Al-Qaeda’s terror in Pakistan, North Africa and the Philippines. 1960s Pachigam is not so far from post-war London, or the Hollywood-driven present-day Los Angeles where Max’s daughter by Boonyi, India Ophuls, beautiful, strong-willed, modern, waits, as vengeance plays itself out.
The protagonist’s love binds together the Hindu dancer Boonyi Kaul and her childhood sweetheart, Shalimar the clown, son of a Muslim family. Their passion becomes a marriage solemnized by both Hindu and Muslim rites, but as Boonyi seduces the American ambassador, Shalimar turns into a terrorist. The depiction of this transformation is an even more impressive an achievement of the book, when one considers that Rushdie has spent years under police protection, hunted by zealots, going through sufferings that have been poured into the novel in ways which ring hideously true. Bit by bit, Shalimar becomes a figure of supernatural menace.
A ravishing love story, intensely political and historically informed, Shalimar the Clown is also profoundly translating history into the human, an involving story of people’s lives, desires and crises portraying fanatical mullahs as fully as documentary filmmakers, rural headmen as completely as British spies; he describes villages that compete to make the most splendid feasts, the mentality behind martial law, and the celebrity of Los Angeles policemen, all with the same sweeping brilliance. All those details are woven a magical tale under two revolving planets that steer a world where the dead speak and the future can be foreseen.
Shalimar the Clown is steeped in both the Hindu epic Ramayana and the great European novelists, melding the storytelling traditions of east and west into a magnificentl blend – and serves, itself, as a corrective to the destructive clashes of values it scorchingly depicts. It is enthralling, comic and deep. Shalimar the Clown is also a powerful parable about the willing and unwilling subversion of multiculturalism. And for those readers who even in this post-September-eleventh era continue to cling to American narcissism, the parable grows more urgently pointed: Ophuls and Boonyi conceive the above mentioned daughter, who is taken away at birth and in due time becomes a beautiful, troubled, privileged ignoramus in Los Angeles. About Shalimar the clown, her mother’s husband, she doesn’t have a clue. It is not her fault. Is it our fault of those who never pay much attention to the rest of the world? But one day, without any warning, two planes smashed into the Twin Towers, and now (wake up and run!) Shalimar the clown has arrived in Los Angeles.