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 Though he is no longer in hiding, the fatwa issued against him after he wrote The Satanic Verses has not been withdrawn.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.

In reading Fury I noticed a quote at the beginning where a character explains Othello's killing of Desdemona by saying, "He's not a creature of the Christian world of sin and redemption but rather of the Islamic moral universe, whose polarities are honor and shame." How much were you keeping these polarities in mind when writing Shalimar the Clown?

I wrote a novel called Shame once, which was exactly about that. It is really one of the great differences in the way in which people think in the West and the East. I think it's very difficult for people living in the West to understand the workings of an honor culture. And yet to understand a place like Kashmir, you really have to get into that. You have to understand that mindset, otherwise you can't work out why people are behaving the way they are. For me, writing about that part of the world, it's always been a thing to grapple with.

I had a little bit of a hard time with Shalimar when he was going back to kill Boonyi. I thought, God, why doesn't he just...

Why doesn't he talk to her?

Yes, why doesn't he talk to her? It sounds silly, but why can't he realize that maybe they could just work it out? But obviously Boonyi understood why this couldn't happen and by the end of the novel I did, too.

It's a terrible thing to kill the person you love. And to be driven to kill that person by the way in which you define the world and yourself. And not to have a way out. To be bound by your honor or your sense of it, anyway. To commit a horrendous act, which in the end murders something in yourself as well.

As a reader you can't—or so I hope—make easy decisions about Shalimar. He is very doubled in many ways, and there are moments when you feel on his side, almost. Certainly at the beginning of the novel he's a happy man. He has most of what he wants at a very young age. Then, both because of Boonyi's choices and because of what's happening in his country, his life is deformed in various ways, and he becomes a creature of that deformation. I don't know about you, but I think even towards the end of the book, when he's in jail at San Quentin and the jailbreak takes place, we're kind of rooting for him. Then the moment he has escaped he immediately returns to being a frightening figure. But at that moment of the jailbreak, I wanted him to escape. And not only because if he didn't escape I wouldn't have an ending for my book.

For me, because of the foreshadowing of what he was going to do when he escaped, I thought, Oh, no...

Well, all right, but the point I'm making is that I think he is a character whom you can't just put in a pigeonhole which says "horrible person." I think I wanted that to be the case because, after all, if one wrote a novel about a terrorist and all one had to say about him was that he was a horrible person, then that would not bring you any news, so to speak. It wouldn't be particularly interesting to read. But to create a human being who, through various things which are both external and internal, turns into a terrorist—I just thought that would be more interesting to do. Obviously not everybody who is betrayed by their wife and lives in a difficult political time takes up the cause of terrorism. So there's something in him anyway, which is foreshadowed at the moment they first make love when they're very young, and he says, "If you ever leave me, I'll kill everybody in sight." That's just a way of suggesting that there is that seed in him, which then gets watered by what happens.

All four of the main characters are complicated—they aren't totally likeable, and they do terrible things to one another.

Yeah, people make bad moral choices. Max is a philanderer and so on, and I just thought, People are like this, aren't they? I didn't want straightforward good people and bad people. I wanted realistic people who had all the qualities that we all unfortunately have.

It's interesting the way Max kind of skips through history. He was a hero of the Resistance, the writer of the Bretton Woods Accords, the sailor kissing his sweetheart in that famous picture celebrating World War II's end, the U.S's first counterterrorism chief. What were you trying to signify with this aspect of his character?

He does have that Zelig-like ability to crop up everywhere. But the main thing is I wanted him to be somebody of consequence in the world, so that when he falls it's a big fall. I think in many ways he was the most difficult character to construct, because when you have somebody who lives so much in the known historical world, it's difficult to flesh them out as a real person and not just have them become a list of things they did. So understanding Max and working out what kind of person he was was probably the most difficult for me.

And I think in a way, because what's hardest is also the biggest achievement, his character feels most satisfying to me. Until I went back and told the story of his early life, he hadn't fully come to life for me. It was at a point in the book when I was able to write about his younger time in Strasbourg and being in the Resistance that I began to understand the kind of person he was. That's one of the reasons why I wrote that section and why it remains in the book; it was the bit that really brought him to life. Once you get to know him there you can follow him through his rather colorful life.

Certain motifs that tie people together show up throughout the book. Both Boonyi and India are archers. Max and Shalimar are both described as tightrope walkers. Both Shalimar's father and India's make the same little bird noises to entertain their children. And there are many other connections sprinkled throughout the book. I was wondering if you saw these motifs as a treasure hunt of sorts for readers, but also what their deeper purpose was.

That's a nice way of putting it—pleasant things to stumble on the way that Easter eggs can be. But also I think the use of leitmotif is one of the ways in which you can tie together a narrative that is otherwise quite separated. It lets you hear echoes in one part of the story from another, and it provides shape and form if you do it right. Also, of course, the fact that India becomes good at archery without knowing that her mother was good at it is a way of making her her mother's child. The fact that both the murderer and the murdered man, or both Shalimar's father and Max, have this gift of making bird noises—it's kind of ironic that Shalimar killed somebody who is in some ways like his father, another large patriarchal figure. It's just a way of underlining those echoes, I guess.

I read your book of essays Step Across This Line, and in the essay "Influence" you talk about the "cultural cross-pollination without which literature becomes parochial and marginal"—how writers' voices and themes from one culture may echo in another. For various books you've taken inspiration from Suetonius, Ovid and others. What cross-pollination helped form Shalimar?

One of the things I said in that essay, and I think it's what I feel, is that as you get on in life you stop thinking so much about source material and influences. That's not to say they stop being there, but you stop paying so much attention to them. When I was writing Satanic Verses, I thought quite a lot about Bulgakov's novel Master and Margarita, which has some similarities. But by this time I was just writing the book. I wasn't thinking so much about places that it came from.

So if there are influences in it, I think they're submerged. It might be easier for you to see them than for me. Because they weren't conscious.

I've read that the writer Angela Carter once told you, "It was really important to restore [the] narrative engine to literature." I was wondering if you could talk about the importance of plot to you and your novels. Certainly in your novels, the reader is really drawn along—one wants to turn the pages and find out what's happened. What tends to come first for you? Is it the structure of the story or the characters?

Actually, the thing about Angela—it wasn't so much that Angela told me that as that it was a thing that we both strongly felt. I think that it was something we really had in common. It's very important to me to tell an interesting story. The thing I most fear about writing is that I might bore people.

You don't do that.

Well, I hope not. Sometimes people have accused me of over-plotting. But if there's a fault, I'd sooner be guilty of that than under-plotting. Before I can start a book, I do have to have a pretty clear idea of the storyline, but what then happens to me—and it always happens—is that when the characters really come alive they change the storyline, and the book I finish is never the book that I start. So in this book, the characters really did completely change my original conception of the book. They enormously enlarged it because of their needs.

In this book particularly, I just trusted the characters. It got to the point where, even when I would stop work one day and not be quite clear exactly how to solve a particular problem that I'd come up against, I began to have faith that if I woke up the next day and just listened to the characters, they would tell me what to do. And they almost always did. There are some novels—Midnight's Children, for example, which is locked into paralleling the history of a character with the history of a country—in which the form is imposed by the idea, and the characters have to exist inside an arc of history that already exists. But in this book, the characters had much more freedom. And for me, that was one of the most enjoyable things about it.

In his review of Shalimar the Clown in this month's Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens sees in the character of Shalimar, trained to kill in the jihadist camps of the Muslim world, "the fusion of the psychopathic with the apocalyptic—surely the essence of 'terror' in our time." The book does impart a real sense of dread, and I think part of the reason is that you peel off the lid on the jihadists and give us a clear look at the hatred and violence that's spilling out into the rest of the world. To what extent is this book meant to serve as a warning—not just of what has happened in Kashmir, but of what fundamentalism can do to the rest of the world?

I don't know about a warning. Again, I resist didactic language, because I think if you want to send a message, use Western Union. But just like anyone else, I am someone who has been very exercised by this big subject of our time, and I thought, Well, here's a story which not only quite naturally allows me to go into the subject of terrorism, but in a way, in order to make sense of the story I have to go into that. And so I was led into it by the needs of the book. But certainly, in the act of writing it, I found out an enormous amount about what goes on. And I hope people will feel it to be informative and useful. But I think we're all scared enough already, you know what I mean? I don't think we need to read a novel to tell us how frightening the world is.

One more thing about Hitchens—I noticed that you dedicated your book of essays to him. Why did you choose to do that?

Well, just because he'd been an ally in a time of trouble. Step Across This Line is the book in which I put together more than I've put together anywhere else the material on the battle against the Khomeini fatwa, and Christopher was a great ally in that fight, as one can see that he would be because of his own concerns. But also—well, I just wanted to recognize his friendship in a time of need. In fact, I've always remembered that when I finally was able to get my meeting with Clinton, it was Christopher's house that I left to go to the White House. And he and others had been very important in helping to bring that meeting about. So it was just a recognition of all that.

He's taken a very well-publicized journey rightward since September 11, away from Clinton. Could you talk about where you've traveled ideologically?

Well, not there exactly. I think Christopher doesn't do things by halves; he does them two-hundred percent or not at all. I don't think my politics have gone there, but I do think that there was—how shall I put this—that there was a mistake made by a lot of liberal opponents to the Bush administration, which was to undervalue the Saddam Hussein problem in order to disagree with what the United States was doing. My view was then, and still is, that if the left is not about deposing tyrants, then what is it about? With Iraq, I've not been able to find it in my heart to feel that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a bad thing. It seems to be a good thing which was done in an absolutely execrable way. I'm not in favor of unilateralist policies; I think consensus could have been built. I thought it was stupid not to wait until the weapons inspectors had finished their work. I thought it was dumb to base the invasion on a palpable lie about the existence of weapons that didn't exist. I had many differences with the straightforward hawkish position. But I thought it was fine to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I just thought it could have been much better done. And had it been more slowly and more sensibly done, we might be in less of a mess than we are now.

In an essay that you published in The New York Times soon after September 11 you wrote, "The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern." Are you starting to see this reformation at all?

I see the desire for it. I think if you look at the Muslim communities in the West, as a whole they are very secularized, cosmopolitan, worldly, modern people, who see these jihadists as being very alien from them. So certainly in the Muslim diaspora, there's a large majority which in a way is already reformed.

But this clearly needs to happen in an institutional way. You need leaders of communities and governments and educational systems to shift in this direction. That hasn't happened. And to be truthful I don't see much sign of it happening anytime soon. But the desire for it is there amongst many Muslims on the ground.

In an article earlier this year in National Journal, Jonathan Rauch argued that, in hindsight, it's clear that the fatwa issued against you "represented the emergence of Islamist totalitarianism—not a religion but a political movement, demanding absolutist rule under Islamic law—as a global insurrection using terrorism as its instrument." Do you agree with his argument? Did you see it this way at the time of the fatwa?

I think it's right to say that it was the moment at which people in the West first became aware of the phenomenon of radical Islam in a very direct way. It obviously wasn't the beginning of it. It was just the first time it burst into Western headlines. It's strange now to see how many articles of this sort are being written. At the time that it happened, people were very reluctant to see it as indicative of a larger problem. People tended to say it was a very particular problem. And even though I was at some pains to point out at the time that there were many other writers and intellectuals being attacked in very similar ways, that wasn't really a subject anybody wanted to discuss. Of course, there were a number of people who wanted to say it was all my fault anyway. So now, in the years since 9/11—and even more after the London attacks—it is kind of strange to see people beginning to write articles which essentially say, "Oh, we get it now." And I think, Well, that's sixteen years later, but better late than never.

You've written extensively in the last several years about the tug of war between liberty and security—how necessary it is for us to identify what we value and to maintain those values in the face of terrorism. In the wake of the London bombings, would you mind returning to this subject? Which side is winning the tug of war?

First of all, one has to give enormous credit to the British security forces. I think they have done the most sensational job—with the exception of one Brazilian, whose family will probably feel differently. But the fact that they have captured these people so swiftly, and alive, is a most remarkable breakthrough in the fight against terror, because now we have a chance of finding something out. I know from my own fairly extensive experience with the British Special Branch how incredibly good at their job they are. So I'm not surprised at their success, but it is certainly a very, very impressive piece of policework.

I think that, in the case of England, Blair is not a libertarian. Blair is by nature an authoritarian, and I think we have to watch him like a hawk. On the other hand, I've been arguing for a decade and more that the British level of tolerance of intolerant groups in England has meant that England has become the safe haven for every Islamic radical group in the world. And it doesn't seem to me to be anti-libertarian to say that that's a very dangerous thing to happen in a society. What is the limit of tolerance? Would you allow someone to stand in a general election whose platform was that he would abolish democracy? That's how the Nazis came to power. Hitler won the election and abolished elections. That's what almost happened in Algeria—it's what the FIS in Algeria was committed to do if it had been elected. That's what Khomeini did.

So I think there is a limiting point on tolerance. You can't tolerate those people who seek to destroy the society that's doing the tolerating. And I think England has been grotesquely tolerant of incredibly unpleasant people for a very, very long time. I guess that's changing now, but it's a shame that people had to die for the British government to realize that if you allow this thing to breed in your midst, at some point it's going to explode.