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

Rushdie does not by any means neglect what is magical and mythical about Kashmir, or the effect that it produces on visitors and interlopers. The Indian army's Colonel Hammirdev Suryavans Kachhwaha, a Rajput martinet posted to keep the ungrateful locals in line, finds himself subject to a version in reverse of what happens to the people of Márquez's Macondo: not an attack of insomnia that results in amnesia but an over-access of mnemonic that results in insomnia. And he, with his craving for the order and respect that never come to him, is cousin to the hapless, trapped colonels and majors in Joseph Heller and Paul Scott. The young acrobat and clown Shalimar is born as Noman Sher Noman, and this nominal echo of Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus is underlined by an allusion to the old Indian epic Ram Leela, in which "Sita the pure was kidnapped and Ram fought a war to bring her back." When Noman swears a fierce oath to his first love, vowing to kill her and all her children if she ever leaves him, we know we are in the presence of a great hubris.

The solemnity of this is not unrelieved by Rushdie's characteristic humor. (I never understand why his reputation is so grave when he can be, and is, so consistently funny.) Here is the wazwaan, the far-famed "Banquet of the Thirty-Six Courses Minimum," surpassed only by the rarely attempted "Banquet of the Sixty Courses Maximum." Village leaders vie with one another in the matter of cuisine and cooking pots and in the related matter of pre- and post-prandial (not to speak of mid-prandial) dramatic entertainments. Indian interpreters do their stuff in faultless Anglo-Indian or Indo-Anglian ("Actually her given name is Bhoomi, the earth, but her friends are calling her by this Boonyi cognomen which, sir, is the beloved tree of Kashmir").

But tragedy, both in the Attic sense of the fatal flaw and in the Hegelian sense of a conflict of rights, is to be the master theme. At one point Rushdie gives what is in effect a short modern history of the Kashmiri conflict. He does so by telling the story "straight," as it were, but interleaving Max Ophuls, as the American ambassador to New Delhi, into the factual record. It is breathtakingly well done, like a pentimento beneath the figures of John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and it helps to illustrate the degeneration of Kashmiri life and Kashmiri ethics. Generally pacific and staunchly nonsectarian for many generations, the Kashmiris found themselves under assault by a divide-and-rule policy that made the most of confessional differences. The Pakistanis stressed Islam for obvious reasons, while the Indian authorities sometimes exploited Muslim strains in order to isolate the secular nationalists. We see this cynicism through the increasingly bleary eye of the newly promoted General Kachhwaha, whose mandate expands to fit the nickname of his "base" at "Elasticnagar," and who becomes less and less choosy about his methods. And we feel it through the lives of the villagers, who find poisonous distrust and sectarianism undoing the friendships of generations. Soon enough the mirthless robots of al-Qaeda are at work, symbolized by a mullah made out of scrap iron. (Ophuls's Jewish parents in Strasbourg have already died in the vain belief that their ancestral library will "outlast whatever iron men come clanking across our lives.")

Who suffers most when the forces of holiness and certainty decide to create a burned-over district? The ancient and modern answer is that women suffer most. Rushdie understands this intimately.

Firdaus Noman shook her head. "How can a woman's face be the enemy of Islam?" she asked angrily. Anees took her hands in his. "For these idiots it's all about sex, maej, excuse me. They think it is a scientific fact that a woman's hair emits rays that arouse men to deeds of sexual depravity. They think that if a woman's bare legs rub together, even under a floor-length robe, the friction of her thighs will generate sexual heat which will be transmitted through her eyes into the eyes of men and will inflame them in an unholy way." Firdaus spread her hands in a gesture of resignation. "So, because men are animals, according to them, women must pay. This is an old story. Tell me something else."

But the "old story" is the grand narrative after all. Every woman in the novel is made miserable, or fat, or afraid, or afraid for her children, or afraid of her children, by her husband or her lover or some gangster. In the voices and faces of the Gegroo brothers, and of the Karim brothers, one can feel the moment when vicious testosterone and plebeian resentment combine, and when the tendrils of fascism and sadism are both uncoiled and conjoined.

In Kashmir the traditional exorcism of such demons took place by way of the playactor's art. But this catharsis is ruthlessly denied the victims of modernity. The village troupe may hope to produce a performance in honor of the good old king Zain-ul-abidin, who tried to synthesize all the discrepant and multifarious faiths of the country, but the streets outside the theater are soon filled with a yelling crowd and then with the sounds of tanks and gunfire. In these latitudes it may take a village to nurture the feelings of kinship and solidarity that transcend tribal or religious allegiances, but it takes only a few fanatics to destroy in a short while the comity that took generations to evolve. This awful lesson is not for Kashmir alone.

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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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