Interviews September 2005

The Limits of Tolerance

Salman Rushdie talks about his new novel, Shalimar the Clown, the Islamic moral universe, and the crushing of Kashmir
book cover

Shalimar the Clown
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Salman Rushdie
Random House
398 pages

Salman Rushdie's new novel begins with the slaying in broad daylight of a man standing on his daughter's doorstep in Los Angeles. The victim is Ambassador Maximilian Ophuls, who shaped history as a forger of documents for people fleeing the Nazis, as an influential ambassador to India, and as the U.S.'s first counterterrorism chief. The murderer is Ophul's driver and valet, Noman Sher Noman, known as "Shalimar the clown," who grew up as a tightrope walker in a tiny town in Kashmir, part of a troupe of traveling players. What at first looks like a political assassination turns out to be a crime with the most personal of motives—decades before, Shalimar's wife, Boonyi, left him for the ambassador. This betrayal has a corrosive effect, changing Shalimar from a gentle, happy young man into someone who lives only to wreak violent revenge. "I am killing because it is what I have become," he tells Boonyi. "I have become death."

Shalimar's slide into violence mirrors that of his country. Shalimar and Boonyi—he's Muslim and she's Hindu—are born into a land famous for its beauty, peacefulness, and religious tolerance. At one point the narrator comments, "To be a Kashmiri, to have received so incomparable a divine gift, was to value what was shared far more highly than what divided." But in the wake of Partition, as India and Pakistan fight over control of Kashmir, the country's harmony is inexorably destroyed. While the Indians perpetrate an ever-more-brutal campaign of rape and ethnic cleansing on Kashmiri Muslims, Islamic jihadists pour into Kashmir from Pakistan and Afghanistan, making the battle there part of the larger campaign to radicalize Islam. As Shalimar bides his time, he trains at terrorist camps with the jihadists, crossing paths with operatives from al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, and other radical groups. In the process Rushdie gives the reader a chilling glimpse inside the cauldron of Islamic radicalism—how it rises, spreads, and destroys.

It goes almost without saying that Rushdie is preoccupied with the topic. Though he is no longer in hiding, the fatwa issued against him after he wrote The Satanic Verses has not been withdrawn. Rushdie has turned his prodigious energies to fighting Islamic radicalism in all its forms, whether through his fiction, his essays, or his role as president of American PEN, where he uses his power to advocate for writers' free expression. Recently, in the wake of the London bombings, he renewed his call for an Islamic Reformation, writing in an August 11 Times of London op-ed,

What is needed is a move beyond tradition—nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadi ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows of the closed communities to let in much-needed fresh air.

It's a reformation, Rushdie seems to be saying, that is needed just as much in the once-peaceful valleys of Kashmir as it is in the grimy suburbs of London.

We spoke on August 8.

Katie Bacon

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie (Photo credit at all
times to Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
This photo can only be used in the
promotion of the book
Shalimar the Clown.)   

I know that Kashmir has always been a part of your life. Two of your grandparents were from Kashmir, and you used to travel there in the summer. Why did you decide to take on the subject now?

It's not even a question of taking on the subject, it's a question of it taking you on, if you know what I mean. I had been chewing over how to do it for a very long time—it's a place that I've always loved, and I wanted to write about what happened to a place that I loved. I had actually been in Kashmir in the late eighties, and had met people like some of the villagers in the book. I had gone into a village of traveling players and had gotten to know the people there. I'd never written about it, but they stayed in my head. And I guess it took me this long to find the story. That happens, with me, anyway. It's often the case that material sits in my head for a very long time before I find out what to do with it. I first discovered the so-called incident of the Satanic Verses when I was studying history at university in about 1967 or 1968, and the book didn't get written until twenty years later. So I'm quite familiar with having things just bubbling away, which sometimes turn into something and often don't.

I've read that you began writing Shalimar in 1999, and then stopped to turn to writing Fury. How did the book germinate during that time? How had it—and you—changed when you returned to writing it?

I think, realistically, the reason I hadn't been able to write it before I wrote Fury is that I hadn't understood it properly. Partly in response to what was happening in the world, and partly just as a result of having let it brew for a little bit, when I came back to it I was much clearer that it needed to be a much larger-scale book than I'd originally conceived it as. I needed to flesh out the back story.

When you say back story do you mean getting into the history of Kashmir and the roots of Muslim fundamentalism?

Yes, all of that. I think anybody who's been at all engaged with Kashmir knows that it's been essentially trampled over twice from opposite directions. First, the Indian army behaved shockingly there, and still does. That alienated a lot of people. Then the arrival of Islamic fundamentalism, sponsored by Pakistan, destroyed their lives in a quite different way. Kashmiris have always been a very, just to use a simple word, liberal people. For instance, there's no tradition in Kashmir of women being obliged to wear veils, or of being withdrawn from the workplace or anything like that. And then the fundamentalists arrive and start threatening to do terrible things to the village if the women don't start behaving themselves. Now, sadly, if you go to Kashmir, you do see women under that kind of pressure. Even the kind of Islam that the jihadis brought into Kashmir is quite alien to Kashmiri Islam, which is much more mystical and Sufi-oriented. What happened is that a tolerant, civilized, peaceful, private kind of religious observance was attacked by an intolerant, dictatorial, tyrannical, fascist kind of religion So it's a country that got screwed twice, and I guess I just decided that I was going to take a deep breath and write about it as fully as I could.

I feel like most Westerners don't really have a clear sense of what's going on in Kashmir. Was part of the purpose of the book to teach people about that?

I hope that it will inform people. But I don't think novels are there to teach people. I think for me it was just a way of working out material that I've been engaged with for a long time. In the end, essentially, it's a story about four people, and I think as a novel that's what it has to be. It has to be about its characters. You know, the themes are the themes, but for me, the way in which the book came alive was through my understanding of what the needs of the characters were. The book was very much led by that. It was Max who insisted, in a way, on having his whole story told, and not just the end of his story. And the character of Boonyi intruded into the book in a huge way. In my first conception of the book, I had never really thought she was going to be such a big character. And then at some point I realized that she was the character who linked all the other ones together. Her decision to go with Max is really the engine that drives the whole story. Everything that happens in the book happens because of that moment of decision. And her character really just emerged and blossomed in the writing of it. I think of it as a story of betrayed love, and I think of it as that more profoundly than any of the other stuff.

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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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