Sunday, March 2, 2008

Rushdie as Novelist

Is Salman Rushdie spent as a novelist? There is speculation about it, but on reading “Shalimar, the Clown”, I strongly feel he’s not. Not yet at least. The creator of “Midnight’s Children” can still deliver.

His earlier novel, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” disappointed me. But this time I loved the prose, voice, theme and even the drama of the novel. I enjoyed every bit of Shalimar.

The novel is full of interesting characters based in different junctions of history, politics and places across the glove. You can love them, hate them, and even have mixed feelings about them, but what ultimately emerges in the narrative is a chronicle of our times.

Terrorism is the theme of the novel, but it has that Rushdiesque property to it. The storyline is simplistic: Noman, a simple, happy-go-lucky Kashmiri youth converts to a terrorist to take revenge against Max Ophuls, the American Ambassador, who seduced his ravishingly beautiful dancer-wife Boonyi while visiting Kashmir, and even fathered a daughter by her named Kasmira. To fulfill his mission, he traverses across many countries and terrorist outfits to reach Max. He kills Max while serving as his driver, and then goes on to kill his wife, by then a wretched woman dumped by Max. At the end, two characters remain: Norman and Kashmira. Rushdie builds up a great drama about them in the last chapter.

But this is the surface of the story. At its core there is a different and poignant sub-text. As you go through the novel, you feel it in the gut that a state sinks and gets ravaged by both terrorists and the Indian army without any check whatsoever, secularism gives way to fundamentalism, riots lead to mass exodus, and hapless people writhe under new waves of assault, brutality and dehumanization, and are stripped of innate human values culture and heritage along the way. What prevails is politics, the ugly politics – both Indian and international variety.

Expectedly, Rushdie writes scathingly, without fear, against the state, system and the powers-that-be. Sometimes, it reads like a non-fiction. But it is great fiction in conception and treatment. Shalimar, the Clown is easily his best novel after Midnight’s Children.

I’ve not read such a good novel in a long time.

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