By Salman RushdieRandom House
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."