Salman Rushdie Book Reading “Shalimar the Clown”
The line weaved around the entire block of the First Unitarian Church. It was nice to know that there was still interest in another book by Salman Rushdie. Fortunately, it was not too much. It was still possible to get a seat in the packed auditorium. Compared to many such events there was no fanfare. Laila Lalami, author of the book “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” introduced him, and there he was alive and in the flesh. With graying hair and a British accent (with just a trace of Desi), he could have been any good old Bombay boy. This didn’t feel like a formal book reading, but more like a chat in somebody’s living room.
Rushdie’s new book is “Shalimar the Clown” which explores religious fundamentalism, a subject with which he is all too familiar. In a peaceful village in Kashmir where the people accept the marriage of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, fanaticism slowly rises, epitomized by an “iron mullah”, literally made of metal, who creeps into the village. As he admitted in his talk, the impact of his forced underground exile still works its way into his books.
As he began the reading, he gave the plot away, explaining that it was in the beginning of the book anyway and wouldn’t ruin it for a reader. The story begins with the seemingly inexplicable murder of Max Ophuls, an ex-ambassador to India in LA by his own driver. The murder of a Jewish US intelligence official by a Muslim appears to be a politically motivated act. But this is a story of love. Love and betrayal, and how the combination can spark fanaticism. The murderer is the husband of a woman who had an affair with the ambassador in India. He is Shalimar the Clown, a former tightrope walker in a village circus. His wife’s infidelity has turned him into a religious zealot. He is a terrorist of the worst kind, one with a mission of personal vengeance. The rest of the book traces the history that leads to that point, with LA and India serving as some of the background.
Rushdie’s first excerpt was Max’s visit to his daughter in her apartment in LA on her birthday just before the murder. This is a funny piece, describing the Russian immigrant seniors who live in the neighborhood. His daughter (the product of his unfortunate liaison) is named India. She dislikes her name, however, and all it connotes. His description of her feelings about her heritage could almost be the discontent of many an Indian American kid.
The scene was then shifted to a hamlet in Kashmir, Pachigam where a young Shalimar is wooing Boonyi, the woman who would eventually betray him. He has been given surprisingly Zen-like advice by his father to become one with the rope and the air to master his skill. Shalimar and Boonyi are teenagers who are madly in love, and Rushdie describes their dalliance with poetic detail. It quickly lapses though into the ribald style that he often resorts to in his writing, and which sometimes seems a little gratuitous.
Apparently the theme of the book was inspired by Rushdie’s visit to India in the eighties when he met a circus troupe in Kashmir. Here Rushdie’s political beliefs could be considered controversial. He compared (albeit jokingly) the Kashmiri sentiment about the Indian army to the current Iraqi feelings about the US army. When he was out there filming for a documentary, he claims that the Kashmiris disliked the presence of the Indian army, but on camera they would not disclose that. If there is slight bias in Rushdie’s views, it is probably understandable. The book after all goes back to his roots and is dedicated to his Kashmiri grandparents. One unpleasant character in this novel is Colonel Kachhwaha, an abusive, pathetic, pompous man who is a caricature of an Indian army officer. Rushdie doesn’t quite seem to identify with Hindu India, yet his novels draw freely from Hindu culture and mythology. As he mentioned in his evening talk in “Midnight’s Children” a novel based in Bombay, the main character represented Ganesh, “The God of Bombay.” Political views aside, as it is in many of his books, humor is the redeeming feature of this novel. In fact his imitation of an old Russian immigrant woman in LA while reading revealed that he is quite an actor too. It also betrayed his Indian roots. It could have easily been a Parsi lady from Bombay
Unlike many other celebrity authors, Salman Rushdie was very generous with questions from the audience. Perhaps the fatwa has made him humble and grateful to be living a normal life. He kept fielding questions, and stopped only when people actually started to leave. When a questioner asked about how the fatwa had changed him he replied that one outcome of the fatwa was his detailed knowledge of security. “If you ever need a security guard, call me,” he joked. “I know everything you can possibly know about the subject.” In a matter of fact way he also mentioned that it had brought him into contact with many world leaders and important people that he might not otherwise have met. It was obvious that the ordeal he went through has given him a more centered perspective of life. He is also an activist for writers’ rights, and is active in PEN, an organization dedicated to defending free expression. Apparently they were able to block a move by the US government to curb the rights of writers from the “Axis of Evil” nations.
Salman Rushdie has been the butt of so many jokes, with so many unsavory stories written about him, (including the one about getting plastic surgery for his droopy eyelids when he married the glamorous model Padma Lakshmi, a woman much younger than him). During the reading he made several references t to his wife whose apartment in LA inspired it as a setting for the novel. According to one story he threatened a reporter who wrote disparaging remarks about his wife who is known for her revealing outfits and flamboyant lifestyle. Ironic for someone who was himself attacked for his writing. Still, if there are other sides to Salman Rushdie they were not evident that evening. It was quite a surprise to see instead a very down-to-earth person, happy to be interacting freely with people interested in his writing.