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."

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.

In a series of reports from Kashmir in The New York Review of Books in 2000, the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra came to the arresting conclusion that it was now impossible to know, or to discover, what was really happening there. If, say, a village was burned out, the number of possible competing perpetrators, and the number of "false-flag" tactics employed by them, made a mockery out of any analysis. Rushdie captures this Hobbesian nightmare very well, by means of a reverie of General Kachhwaha.

Already the army had made contact with renegade militants around the country and when extrajudicial activity was required these renegades could be used to kill other militants. After the executions the renegade militants would be given the use of uniforms and would bring the corpses to this or that house belonging to this or that individual and place the corpses in the same location with guns in their hands. The renegades would then depart and be relieved of their uniforms while the armed forces attacked the house, blew it to bits and murdered the dead militants all over again for public consumption.

Through this tournament of shadows the figure of Shalimar/Noman moves inexorably, kept alive by his unslakable thirst for private revenge on the American Jew who so deftly seduced his beautiful wife. From the frozen mountains of the north he beams a telepathic message to Los Angeles: "Everything I do prepares me for you and for him. Every blow I strike, strikes you or him. The people leading us up here are fighting for God or for Pakistan but I am killing because it is what I have become. I have become death."

That last line is easily recognizable from another Indian epic, the Bhagavad Gita—"I am become death: the shatterer of worlds." These, as I recall, were the very words mouthed by Robert Oppenheimer as he saw the flash and felt the fire at Alamogordo.

This fusion of the psychopathic with the apocalyptic—surely the essence of "terror" in our time—is transferred to America by another "factive" passage, this one interleaving Noman's presence in Los Angeles with the riots of 1992 and with the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center, in 1993. Anonymous though he may prefer to be, Noman actually fits rather well into the crazed world of L.A. celebrity defendants, special wings for same in the L.A. county jail, and special attorneys for same in the L.A. courts. He also mingles fairly effortlessly with the city's proliferating gang-and-maximum-security scene. One of his targets, meanwhile (I seek to give away as little as possible), has become an adept in the parallel world of private security—the latter being an area of expertise in which Mr. Rushdie requires no lessons from anyone.

This is a highly serious novel, on an extremely serious subject, by a deeply serious man. It is not necessary to assimilate all the details of the conflict in Kashmir in order to read it. Nor is it necessary to favor one or another solution, though we get a hint from the epigraph page—Mercutio's "plague on both their houses," from Romeo and Juliet—of Rushdie's opinion of Indian and Pakistani policy. Rather than seek for anything as trite as a "message," I should guess that Rushdie is telling us, No more Macondos. No more Shangri-las, if it comes to that. Gone is the time when anywhere was exotic or magical or mythical, or even remote. Shalimar's clown mask has been dropped, and his acrobatics have become a form of escape artistry by which he transports himself into "our" world. As he himself says in closing his ominous message of Himalayan telepathy, "I'll be there soon enough."