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Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown
|by Devasree Chakravarti|
A Triology of Innocence, Betrayal and New Beginning
Postmodernism is a concept that can be referred to as the direct outcome of this modern Postcolonial world, a world that has been witness to mass migration, cross-cultural encounter and the amalgamation of various cultures, into a hybrid multicultural society. This has resulted as Rushdie says in The Moor’s Last Sigh, “That most profound of our needs, to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of the boundaries of the self.” (Rushdie, 2006:433)
This postcolonial, postmodern world is one where myriad worlds and experiences flow, seeping into each other as there are no boundaries or barriers anymore. Today the world is a globalised world where borders have ceased to exist. All concepts of conventionality and rules are broken, and new ones created to give expression to this new phenomenon of rule breaking and free world. Art and literature of this modern world also reflects this trend as is evident in the fiction of Salman Rushdie.
Salman Rushdie is an eminent postmodernist. A pioneer in the field of Indian English Diasporic Literature, Rushdie’s fiction accurately portrays the complex and confusing postcolonial, postmodern world. All his novels represent his interpretation of history and the world, and their influence on life and society.
A postmodern novelist that he is, Rushdie reflects the rebellion from conventionality. Like most postmodern writers his fiction too has a touch of unreality and vastness that is needed to project contemporary reality, a reality devoid of borders.
In his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown (Rushdie, 2005), he voices this concept of a borderless world and its implications:
Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete. This unsettled people. There were collisions and explosions. The world was no longer calm. (37)
So even the idyllic setting of a small remote village of Kashmir is not immune to this effect of different worlds colliding, exploding and unsettling its social and cultural fabric, its identity as well as the identity of its people.
The novel is an ode to the simple, idyllic life of the valley, the land of Rushdie’s roots, a land of eternal beauty and charm, that, “… as lost…like paradise, …Kashmir, in a time before memory.” (4) Portrayed as the ideal world with its unique way of life, its ‘Kashmiriyat’, where differences and divisions were non-existent; a world untouched by hatred and communalism.
Peace, love and brotherhood characterize the Kashmiri way of life. It is a life and world of innocence that is betrayed by its own people, and slowly walks down the path to destruction as embodied in the life of Shalimar, the protagonist and his village, Pachigam. Not only Shalimar, but also the other main characters of the novel are highly symbolical, for Rushdie believes that history and the individual, “… interpenetrate and that is how the writer needs to examine them, the one in the context of the other.” (Rushdie, 1984:57)
Pachigam, a small village in Kashmir situated in the serene surroundings besides the river Muskadoon, is a quiet, peaceful village. Happy and contended, the people in the village live their lives in blissful oblivion only to wakeup to the harsh realities of life when insurgency first reared its ugly head in the valley in the form of Kabalis from Pakistan. The seed of distrust and hatred sown by the fundamentalists and extremists, the by-products of a savage and cruel dissection of the nation, gradually take enormous forms and engulfs the whole valley in its fire. Partition of the nation did not only carve out two nations out of one but it also created a sharp division between two communities. Geographical as well as psychological partition took place, the echo of which still reverberates in the minds and hearts of two nations, two communities and people.
Through the novel, Rushdie expresses “…sadness for the ideal that has been lost in Kashmir and in so many parts of the Muslim world, the ideal of tolerance and secular pluralism.” (Cowley, 2005:27) The drastic transition fro innocence to betrayal has been represented by the author through the character of Shalimar, the clown. Son of the village headman, Shalimar is a sweet innocent boy, “clown prince of the performing troupe.” (50); a young boy madly in love with Pandit Kaul’s daughter, Bhoomi or Boonyi as she prefers to be called.
Shalimar and Boonyi’s love blooms in the beautiful and pristine environs of the Kashmir valley hidden from the eyes of their elders. When people find out, they uphold the values of ‘Kahmiriyat’ and bless the young couple. But Boonyi is far from happy. Claustrophobia grips her, and she realizes rather too late that she wants to escape. “She knew then that she would do anything to get out of Pachigam…” (114) The free unbridled spirit inherited from her mother coupled with her youthfulness ill-marks the love story of Shalimar and Boonyi, giving it a tragic turn.
Increasing influence of alien presence on the Kashmiri landscape slowly starts corroding and degrading the values of the valley, the ‘Kashmiriyat’. This influence can be seen in the radical preaching’s of Bulbul Fakh, the ‘iron mullah’; and in the arrival of Maximilian Ophuls on the scene, the representative American presence in the valley. And thus unfolds the tragic events of the tale.
… the story of Max and Boonyi’s doomed relationship [which] can be read as a study in human vanity, selfishness and aggressive mutual need, but also as a parable of the carelessness of American intervention on the subcontinent. Beware the return of the repressed, he [Rushdie] seems to be saying, in often unexpected and violent forms. (Cowley, 2005:27)
Mesmerized by Boonyi’s beauty, Max arranges for Boonyi and her friends to give a dance performance in Delhi. The performance is only a pretext for Ophuls to get close to Boonyi. Boonyi had been waiting for this opportunity only. Her father used to say, “The dance of the shadow planets is the dance of the struggle within us, the inner struggle of moral and social choice.” (48) And Boonyi chooses to transgress the moral and social code, opting to go, “… in search of a future and though she had thought of it as an opening it had been a closing,” (367).
Boonyi enters into a relationship with Max in the hope of a better life. As for her heart, she feels that she was, “… tearing it out and breaking it into little bits and throwing it away …” (194). Though she thought that by her action she had gained release from the village existence that she so detested, yet the stirrings of her heart never let her escape the Kashmir embedded in her very being, her soul. She could not tear out memories of her valley, and her husband who still loved her. As is customary with such superficial relationships the attraction started waning. Boonyi became increasingly alienated and depressed in her “liberated captivity” (201), finding solace in drugs and food.
Her desire to excel herself was but a fantasy lived in the shadow of the glamour and glitter of elite society, which was bound to shatter hopelessly one day. Boonyi was but a simple, naive village girl with big dreams in her eyes that were terribly misdirected. The path she chose for herself, sooner or later had to lead only to one destination, and that was imminent disaster for its traveler. Like Ila of The Shadow Lines, a novel by Amitav Ghosh, Boonyi, “… desires freedom from a middle class [rustic] orthodoxy, but she discovers that the free world she had tried to build for herself was not free from the squalor of betrayal.”(James: 155) Boonyi’s disastrous flirtation with desire led to an avalanche of catastrophe not only in her life but also in the lives of the people related to her. She loses her identity and tumbles down the path of complete psychotic degeneration, waiting alone in the wilderness for death to truly free her.
Freedom was what Boonyi desired, “But free isn’t free of charge.” (253). The freedom that she chooses for herself is ‘false freedom’, an illusion, a bait to tempt her to sin, which she, “… like Eve, is easily tempted and eagerly accepts the Ambassador’s offer of a change …” (Mathur, 2007:92) In the character of Boonyi we find the eagerness for liberation, lured by which she symbolizing Kashmir, loses herself courting ruination as a result.
The innocence of life in the valley gradually transgresses the boundaries of that innocence and simplicity in the name of false hopes and dreams, and is ultimately betrayed in the process. Betrayal leads to a loss, a loss of identity and hopes, leading to a metamorphosis of life and characters. “Self-creation in times of conflict, one of Rushdie’s themes …” (Roth, 2005:19) is represented through all the main characters who undergo and grow as per the changes in circumstances. No doubt, “Metamorphosis was the secret heart of life.” (56), but the metamorphosis that occurs in the novel almost but extinguishes the very life, giving place to death instead.
Shalimar, Boonyi’s husband represents this metamorphosis from innocence to betrayal in his transformation from an innocent village boy, an artist into a hardcore killing machine.
He was as dynamically physical a comedian as ever, but there was a new ferocity in him that could easily frighten people instead of making them laugh. (231)
Leaving his life and family, Shalimar joins the extremists pretending to believe in their cause, but all the while preparing himself for the ultimate aim of his life, to kill Maximilian Ophuls. Listening to the Iron Mullah, he realizes that:
By crossing the mountains they had passed through a curtain and stood now on the threshold of the world of truth, which was invisible to most men. (266)
The ‘curtain’ is an important symbol that hides as well as separates. A similar curtain or ‘membrane’ is the dividing factor present in Rushdie’s other novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, through which Ormus crosses over to emerge into an alien land and culture. A symbol often used as a metaphor for ‘Trans-culturalism’, it is a boundary that separates two worlds or cultures; and here the curtain separates the innocent, beautiful, multicultural and hybrid world of old Kashmir from the violent, betrayed and divided world of the new terror stricken Kashmir. It divides the actual truth from the illusion of misguided ideology.
By crossing over to the other side, Shalimar takes his first step to avenge the betrayal of his wife. A true performer that he is, Shalimar very easily manages to assure his comrades of his affiliation to their ideology.
Shalimar the clown rose to his feet and tore off his garments. “Take me!” he cried. “Truth, I am ready for you!” He was a trained performer, a leading actor in the leading bhand pather troupe in the valley, and so of course he could make his gestures more convincing, (267-8)
Mindanao, a Filipino Muslim in the group however, sees through Shalimar’s pretence when he says, “I see through you like window. You are not man of God.” (269)
The fight for a religious cause just provides a platform for Shalimar to cross over to the other side, to reach his target in America and eliminate him. Like the crusades that were undertaken in by-gone times, the recent fight is also for power and possession. The author here tries to unearth the hypocrisy of war and bloodshed behind every fight, because violence begets violence. Life can be shaped out of love not violence, irrespective of any kind of faith or religious beliefs.
Here Rushdie is again reinstating the bare truth of modern life wherein, it is the furies that are ruling men and life everywhere, and so he expresses, “An age of fury was dawning and only the enraged could shape it.”(272) Today every nook and corner of the world is under the grip of the furies. Reasons may differ, but the reactions are always one of rage and disaster, be it in Kashmir or in New York, for now, “Everyone’s story was a part of everyone else’s.” (269)
So the story that began in a small remote village of Kashmir progresses to cross half the globe to reach to its climax in America. The American presence is the catalyst that escalates this dance of the furies across the globe. Max represents this presence for he is not only a goodwill Ambassador but also has a secret identity as well, of being involved in the exchange of weapons between America and extremist groups.
Shalimar is the resultant fury in this case. The degeneration of Boonyi from her pinnacle of beauty to a psychotic figure in the woods does not evoke any sympathy or cool down the embers of rage in Shalimar’s heart. Knowledge of the Ambassador’s secret dealings and his views on Kashmir fuels his rage further and gives new life to his ambition. After killing Boonyi ruthlessly in cold blood, he becomes free to pursue his final target.
The journey from innocence to betrayal reaches its final stages through the pathway of complete destruction. Pachigam ceases to exist. Charged with harboring extremists, the village bears the full brunt of the atrocities of the armed forces. Everyone is killed, people and life is totally obliterated from the place where love had once bloomed and blossomed. “The village of Pachigam still existed on maps of Kashmir, but that day it ceased to exist anywhere else, except in memory.” (309)
The furies thus, find a new home in the action of the armed forces meant for protection of people. Rushdie here indicates the pathetic situation of the people of Kashmir who have to bear the atrocities of both the terrorists as well as the forces. Life for them has left no option open for them to live in freedom and without fear:
… undone by the twin forces of nationalism and religious fundamentalism. As usual in Rushdie’s novels, these forces are not the enemies of enlightenment as much as they are the enemies of freedom, and that means they are the enemies of the natural. (Roth, 2005:19)
It is not only fundamentalism or extremism, which proves to be detrimental for life and country; nationalism can also endanger life and freedom when taken in the stringent sense concerning itself only with selfish aim of possession and power. Bound in these twin chains, an individual lose all, identity, liberty and life. The fury unleashed by their combined powers creates only havoc and destruction wherever they exist. And these furies find another abode in the heart of India or Kashmira.
Shalimar after finally reaching America moves closer to his target by getting employed as Ophuls’s driver. The knife in his hand that had long been thirsty for revenge ultimately finds its target when Shalimar kills Maximilian Ophuls at the doorstep of his daughter.
India is also Kashmira, the daughter of Boonyi and Max. Her existence gives a new twist to the revenge tale of Shalimar, for her presence makes his revenge incomplete, for early in the story Shalimar had vowed that if Boonyi ever betrayed him, he would not only kill her and her lover but also the child if any from the relationship.
The death of her father leaves India shocked and furious:
Blood called out for blood and she wanted the ancient Furies to descend shrieking from the sky and give her father’s unquiet spirit peace. (331)
Like her mother who left home and family for the sake of a false and borrowed identity, India leaves for Kashmir in quest of her true identity. She returns not as India but as Kashmira:
Kashmir lingered in her, however, and his arrest in America, his disappearance beneath the alien cadences of American speech, created turbulence in her that she did not at first identify as culture shock. She no longer saw this as an American story. It was a Kashmiri story. It was hers. (372)
To avenge the death of her mother and father, Kashmira targets Shalimar not with arrows or knives but with her letters that were her “arrows of hate” (374). She slowly kills Shalimar’s ego, which is the real cause of her parents’ death. Yet his hurt ego fails to find satisfaction in their death because his efforts to obliterate their presence are negated by Kashmira, a living reminder of both Boonyi and Max.
Hatred can never extinguish the Life Force. It lives on in the hearts of people, like it does in Kashmira. Kashmira embodies the emergence of a new beginning from the chaos and turmoil of betrayal to the arrival of a bright new dawn, full of hope and regeneration. Her presence is an indication by the author that Kashmir will not be lost; it will emerge from the darkness into the light of true freedom and hope for all its people, a new life.
Kashmira symbolizes this new beginning in her realization and acceptance of her true identity, in her love for Yuvraj, and ultimately in her emerging victorious by executing the hatred and violence of Shalimar. She was no longer a prisoner of fury when she lets her arrow find its mark. “She was not fire but ice.”(382) She had already killed Shalimar with the glimpse of truth, and the one she kills with her arrow at the end of the novel is but a shadow of that man.
“… grappling imaginatively with the shock of 9/11 and the wars that have followed.” (Cowley, 2005:17), Rushdie has portrayed the recent tragic history of Kashmir with poignancy and sensitivity in the novel. In the story of his characters is intertwined the story of Kashmir, its life and culture, and the degeneration of this Paradise into Hell. Making the ‘personal bleed into the political’, Rushdie has once again voiced his concern for the modern world at large and Kashmir in particular, lamenting the loss of love, innocence and brotherhood. In fact the novel:
Shalimar looks to several beginnings: reflecting on what has been lost in Kashmir; it also looks forward to a time when the words Muslim and Hindu will once more be merely “descriptions” rather than “divisions.” (Cowley, 2005:27)
The novel is not only an odyssey from innocence to betrayal but also an affirmation and belief on the resilience and strength of the human spirit, a belief in the future. Truly a trilogy of innocence, betrayal and new beginning, Shalimar the Clown is a story portraying the life cycle of death in life and life in death, a perpetual cycle of birth, destruction and regeneration.
It represents a new life, a new beginning with the dissolution of all divisions and segments. Now, “There was no India. There was only Kashmira, and Shalimar the clown.” (398) The multicultural, hybrid world is welcomed on the horizon, that has no place for any kind of divisions or borders. All divisions dissolve and disintegrate paving the way for the reign of Humanism, for the victory of the essential Life Force present in all of us.
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