I’m back from my travels and the book-reading spate has been resumed. That is not to say that I didn’t read a lot on my month-long vacation, but a lot of the books were eminently forgettable. After all, one cannot always find diamonds in the rough at book stalls by the canals of Amsterdam and in the flea markets of Berlin. But there were some that stood out and Shalimar by Salman Rushdie is definitely one of them, a book I was unaware that the master had written. Rushdie is at his best when writing about Kashmir, his ancestral land and for good reason. Few places in the world are coveted by three powers, all nuclear. Once upon a time, it was five, but those days are past.
Shalimar the Clown assassinates former U.S. ambassador to India, Maximilian Ophuls, as the urbane ex-ambassador visits his daughter. The ambassador was a man of varied carnal needs and when posted to the subcontinent, indulged them vastly, but especially with a Kashmiri dancer, who bore him a girl. The scandal was career-breaking and the girl was snatched from the real mother and brought up by the ambassador’s embittered wife, who saw it as her duty to save the kid from a life of penury and bring her up as her own. The cuckolded husband of the Kashmiri dancer had no choice but to channel his hate into that insidious bosom-clasper: right-wing militia ideology. And not just any right-wing group, but the mother of them all, the Islamic militants of Central Asia.
Shalimar undergoes training in the various camps of the East and West and travels far to learn how to kill the American Ambassador, a prize greatly valued by the militants for its propagandistic implications. In the guise of militancy, Shalimar masks his personal vendetta against the charming diplomat and tracks his spoor to Los Angeles. Various other plot arcs transpire and the daughter is made aware of her true birth origins and the land she came from, ultimately recognizing her father, who is coming halfway around the world to avenge his humiliation and extirpate all evidence of cuckoldry.
Rushdie tackles all manner of issues in this book. Loneliness, greed, lust, war, geopolitics, religion and the Holocaust are all stirred into these pages to form a potent mix. In his inimitable style, the main characters hurtle through life, thinking and reasoning in fits and starts. Despite this, the transitions in the characters are not jerky, but fluid and believable, as befitting a tale told by a great storyteller. A definite must-read.