Shalimar the Clown
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by Salman Rushdie
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.