Hobbes in the Himalayas

The situation in horrible, magical modern Kashmir—where East battles East in a war that fuses the psychopathic and the apocalyptic—defies political analysis. But Salman Rushdie's new novel captures it as nothing else can

Take the room-temperature op-ed article that you have read lately, or may be reading now, or will scan in the future. Cast your eye down as far as the sentence that tells you there will be no terminus to Muslim discontent until there has been a solution to the problem of Palestine. Take any writing implement that comes to hand, strike out the word "Palestine," and insert "Kashmir." Then spend as much time as you can afford in elucidating the subject. And then … I was about to say "read this novel," but realized that I should instead recommend it as a means of motivating yourself to embark on the elucidation in the first place.

This may seem a banal and literal way in which to introduce a complex and intriguing work of fiction, but I make no excuse for it. Like Palestine, Kashmir used to be a part of the British Empire (and it is the setting for many of the better-wrought scenes in Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet). Like Palestine, it was subject to simultaneous independence and partition in the course of a British scuttle in 1947—1948. It is the only Muslim-majority state in India, and it has long been claimed by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Several "conventional" wars have been fought over it, and "unconventional" guerrilla and counterguerrilla warfare has been in progress for decades, and it has more than once been the occasion for a short-fuse nuclear confrontation. If anything calamitous in the thermonuclear line does occur in the next few years, it is most probable that Kashmir will be the trigger. Moreover, it was the lakes and valleys and mountains of Kashmir that made the crucible in which the Pakistan—Taliban—al-Qaeda "faith-based" alliance was originally formed. The bitterest and longest battle between Islamic jihad and its foes is a struggle not between jihad and the West, or jihad and the Jews, but between jihad and Hindu/secular India. It is a matter not of East versus West but of East versus East.

I know this from a little study and also from a visit to the Pakistani-held side of Kashmir, where I was reminded that although human beings will always fight over even the most arid and desolate prizes, there are some places so humblingly beautiful that it is possible to imagine dying for them oneself. Salman Rushdie knows it in his core: he is Kashmiri by family, Muslim by birth, Indian by partition, and now (shall we say perforce?) something of a Western cosmopolitan. After various grueling excursions he here wheels back to the sacred and profane territory that made him celebrated before he became notorious: the still contested territory of Midnight's Children and Shame.

He would object to the simplicity of my paragraphs above, preferring to state that the Kashmiri identity is in itself polymorphous and polycentric, and deserving of rescue from both its clumsy and patronizing big brothers. Indeed, this is why he opens the story in Los Angeles, where the landscape and the ecology also shift from neighborhood to neighborhood, and where all forms and aspects of "diversity" receive their chance, and where one of the first people we meet—the brawny lady "super" of an apartment building—is matter-of-factly described as "the last surviving descendant of the legendary potato witches of Astrakhan." (That this mighty maternal figure speaks a Yiddish patois is an unlooked-for bonus.) Her task is to comfort the lovely India, a heavenly girl who resents her given name and secretly practices the martial arts of self-defense.

Next onto the stage is Max Ophuls, India's father and an American diplomat of surpassing polish and dash. He, too, like his directorial namesake, originates from contested and burned-over territory—on the Alsatian frontier between France and Germany. He has the seismic instincts of the imperiled Jew, and a way with women that is principally his own way. The story opens with his murder in California at the hands of a manservant named Shalimar, and the novel is the back-story that eventuates in this crime. Only then do we move to Kashmir, setting of Shalimar itself—Shalimar being the ancient name for "the great Mughal garden … descending in verdant liquid terraces to a shining lake."

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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