Kashmir, Paradise lost

Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown" is a furious tale about a lost paradise. In this interview with Lewis Gropp, Salman Rushdie talks about how the Indian army and militant jihadists destroyed Kashmir's traditional culture of tolerance

By Lewis Gropp

Salman Rushdie was an author of the highest acclaim long before the "Satanic Verses". His "Midnight's Children" had gained him not only the Booker Prize, Britain's and the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary award, but also the Booker of Bookers, i.e. the prize for the best Booker winner in 25 years. Then Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa and Rushdie had to go underground, "losing the equivalent of one novel", as he says, due to all the effort of the many years in hiding. Annoyed at being simply "the guy with the fatwa" in the public mind, Rushdie has fiercely tried to regain his name as one of the leading contemporary novelists, producing four major novels, a volume of essays, and a wealth of articles for various international newspapers and magazines. "Writers block? Never heard of it," he says.

"Shalimar the Clown" is set in Kashmir, Los Angeles, London, and Strasbourg, with Alsace being portrayed as a kind of "sister region" of Kashmir, torn back and forth by the military power of two warring nations. It is the story of Boonyi, a Hindu girl, and Noman – or Shalimar – a Muslim boy, their inter-religious marriage and the downfall of their love, initiated by the disturbing power of desire and hurt pride. The book starts out as a story about the peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, then turns into a tale of violence and destruction. Rushdie says he is appalled by the widespread ignorance concerning the "tragedy of Kashmir", hoping, with his book, to be able to draw attention to this troubled and war-torn region.


"Shalimar the Clown" is set for the most part in Kashmir, and you did a lot of research for this book and on Kashmir in particular. Now, while it has been possible for you to go back and visit India on many occasions, you were not able to return to Kashmir…

Salman Rushdie: You mean visiting al-Qaida training camps? (laughs) No, I didn't do that. But I know a lot of people who have specialised in that subject over the years and who have been in that very strange borderline area, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between Indian Kashmir and Pakistani Kashmir, so I had lots of people to give me guidance, information and tell me where to go to find yet more information. Yet the physical landscape of the place I know very well. I've been to Kashmir a lot in my life, on the Indian and on the Pakistani side.

Like many Muslim families, my family was divided. One part of the family went to Pakistan, another part stayed in India. So like many Muslim families we were cut down in the middle. But that meant that during my childhood and as an adult I often visited Pakistan, because I had family all over the place. So I do know it. What I needed to do was to find out the things I didn't know, because I had not been in the terrorist training camps, although I know where they are on the map. And I know that they do exist, which the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence] tends to deny.

I know who funds them and I know what groups are there. One of the major problems now in Kashmir on the Pakistani side is that many of the people in these camps are not Kashmiris. Some of them are Afghans, some of them are Arabs, some of them are Chechens, and it makes the problem much worse because these are people only committed to the jihad, they're not committed to the subject of Kashmir at all! I just thought that when I'm going to take on that subject, general knowledge will not do. I have to get as much knowledge as I can get and then allow imagination to take over. So I would strongly suggest not to read the book purely as journalism. But in general, in the spirit I would say it is a truthful portrait of what's going on there.

The passages in which you describe the violence in Kashmir are among the most vivid and powerful in the book, and there seems to be a strong sense of anger underneath the surface of the narration.

Rushdie: Yes! And the violence really is documentary, many of the cases referred to in the book about attacks on this village and that village and what happened there, etc. concerning attacks by both the Indian army and from jihadists. It is an attempt to say this really happened. The particular attack on the fictional village of Pachigam [Boonyi's and Shalimar's village], that, obviously, is dramatized and fictionalised. But many such things really have happened. The phrase of "crackdown" that the Indian army uses really is a euphemism of mass destruction. And rape. And brutalisation. That happens all the time. It's still happening now.

And so, yes, I am angry about it! The decision to treat all Kashmiris as if they're potential terrorists is what has unleashed this, the kind of "holocaust" against the Kashmiri people. And we know ourselves, from most recent events in Europe, how important it is to resists treating all Muslims as if they're terrorists, but the Indian army has taken the decision to do the opposite of that, to actually decide that everybody is a potential combatant to treat them in that way. And the level of brutality is quite spectacular. And, frankly, without that the jihadists would have had very little response from the Kashmiri people who were not really traditionally interested in radical Islam. So now they're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and that's the tragedy of the place.

In "Shalimar the Clown" you came up with the character of "The Iron Mullah"…

Rushdie: Yes, I'm very fond of it. He is the only directly allegorical character in the book. And really what I was trying to do was say exactly that the attraction of the jihad in Kashmir arose out of the activities of the Indian army. One of the most obvious facts about Kashmir is the gigantic amount of military equipment that's there everywhere: tanks, trucks, howitzers, bazookas, huge arms depots, endless arms convoys which go up these little mountain roads for six hours at a time from one end of the convoy to the other – and God help you if you're stuck behind it (laughs), because there's no way to pass it.

And a lot of the equipment, when it screws up, is thrown away, and there are all these dumps, and just the idea that all of the scrap metal coming to life and becoming the enemy of the tanks is a straight-forward allegory to say that one thing rises out of another. In this novel, which I think is not really allegorical, the Iron Mullah is an allegorical figure, and then I just started liking him, enjoying his horribleness. The two horrible people there in the Kashmir story are the Indian army general and the Iron Mullah, who are really two opposite sides of the same coin.

Shalimar later becoomes a terrorist, although one of the unusual kind, because he acts on personal motives, not on ideology. Could you nevertheless also have conceived the book with a Muslim female main character and a Hindu male main character?

Rushdie: When I first thought of the characters, I hadn't really fully understood that they would be of different religious persuasions, that came later in the development of the idea, but it wasn't really important to me which way around. What was important to me was that they were able to cross that religious line which is still in India today relatively unusual for there to be marriages across the Hindu-Muslim line. There are some, and they tend to be in the upper echelons of society, economically, but it's still very unusual. In terms of writing a story, the unusual is always more interesting than the usual, and the point I was trying to emphasize is that I wasn't trying to portray some ideal of Kashmir that's not realistic, because when they [Boonyi and Shalimar] fall in love, they don't think it's going to be alright, they think that they are in very serious trouble. For the village to take the decision to support them is unusual, and in nine times out of ten it would not have happened. I

n one of your articles you wrote about the relationship of liberty and pornography…

Rushdie: What I was saying was that in cultures where the sexes are artificially prevented from being together, people resort to pornography – it's a direct result. So what I was saying is that the use of pornography is an effect, not a cause. So if you're going to look at the cause, you have to look at the deformations of ordinary relations between boys and girls. So I wasn't supporting or not supporting pornography, I was so annoyed about the way it was reported in the media. I'm not that interested in pornography.

We'll be able to settle this question with this interview once and for all then…

Rushdie: All right, thank you. Put it straight! You were going to say, however…

Sexuality in "Shalimar the Clown" is really one of the disturbing powers that eventually leads to the downfall of the three, maybe even of all four of the main characters…

Rushdie: It is true. One of the things I found doing in this book, and I'm not sure why, and you have to tell me, really, is that loving relationships that do seem to endure are between parents and children, and that those bonds seem to strengthen. In the case of India [Boonyi's daughter], for instance, Max [India's father] is rather an absentee father, but later in his life, they become very, very close. And Shalimar's relationship with his own father is one of enormous intimacy and love, and there are a lot of "trans-generational" love stories, if you like, in this book, which are very strong, and which do endure, and the thing that happens between boys and girls and men and women seems to be more problematic.

Interview conducted by Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2022

This interview was first published on Qantara.de in October 2009.