I’ve been working through numerous ‘should-have-read-earlier’-titles lately, and Salman Rushdie‘s books always loom large as objects of fascination. After four attempts to read his The Enchantress of Florence (twice on the page, twice stuck in the ears narrated by Firdous Bamji whose recordings can make me choose a book more readily than the author!), I gave up and moved on (still feeling guilty) to Shalimar.
In spite of its hefty 400+ pages (or 18+ hours as lullingly read by Aasif Mandvi), Shalimar‘s story is relatively simple (spoiler alert!): boy and girl fall in love and marry, girl leaves boy for a powerful white man, girl bears lover’s daughter, boy vows he’ll kill the adulterers and any offspring, boy more or less succeeds.
Straightforward as it may seem, this is Rushdie, after all, and he needs to embellish his narratives with literary flourishes and historical displays. The boy – known as Shalimar the Clown for his acrobatic prowess – and the girl – Boonyi Kaul – enter the world on the same day with all sorts of baggage, least of all being the children of Muslim and Hindu families, who in spite of an intimate shared history, will be victimized by massacres all too prevalent in the volatile region of Kashmir.
The American ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, for whom Boonyi freely chooses to destroy her family, turns out to be a French Jew who lost his disbelieving parents to the Holocaust, but gained an unparalleled reputation as a Resistance hero (not to mention quite the spy-bedding legend). Meanwhile, revenge-filled Shalimar outgrows Kashmir, becomes an international resistance fighter-of-sorts himself, although his dangerous exploits earn him the additional moniker of terrorist.
The abandoned hapa daughter – who detests her name “India” – pays the price for her birthmother’s betrayal. Boonyi must relinquish the infant to the beleaguered Mrs. Max, who is determined to leave the exotic country (now that her husband is being shamefully ejected) with a little brown baby in her arms. As payment for her newborn, Boonyi is returned to her village where she realizes too late, she was truly free, so unlike the gilded cage into which she willingly trapped herself. India is carelessly brought up by her father’s wife in a posh London neighborhood, not even knowing she has a father until years later. Poor little rich girl is so tediously self-absorbed, she quickly sinks into caricature.
This fall, Rushdie debuts his long-awaited memoir, Joseph Anton (an alias he used which pays homage to two of his favorite writers, Conrad and Chekhov), in which he details almost a decade of life underground following the infamous 1989 fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. I bring this up here because I wonder if Shalimar, in part, was a ‘practice’ text for the true story Rushdie was not yet ready to write: the threatening religious conflicts, the safe house Ophuls tries to create, India’s later search for safety, all could have been taken – even indirectly – from Rushdie’s own experiences of trying to stay alive. Perhaps the surreal nature of what he endured ended up intertwined with the (too-many) unconvincing machinations in Shalimar. For now, since truth is often stranger than fiction, we’ll just have to wait and see how the real story fares …