Does Rushdie Matter?
Celebrity is the enemy of the artist.
Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By RANDY BOYAGODA
As the location to unfold this pretense, however, Kashmir does not work so well. Rushdie, better than most, knows how deep blood and faith run in India and Pakistan, and he knows that Kashmir has been a perennial stage for conflict since the maharajah of its predominantly Muslim population chose to join India over Pakistan in the 1947 partition. Indeed, one of the novel's most evocative lines speaks to this very issue, wonderfully describing Kashmir as "perched thousands of feet up in the mountains like a tasty green sweetmeat caught in a giant's teeth." But Rushdie diminishes Kashmir's congenital difficulties, and the blood and faith that color them, by opting for repeated images of merrymaking, feasts, acrobatics, and plays performed by Hindus and Muslims for each other. Things get knotted up when the son of the local Muslim sarpanch, Shalimar, and the daughter of the local Hindu pandit, Boonyi, go star-crossed and decide to marry. Rather than generate communal tensions, however, their nuptials represent the summa of harmonious unity in the village, which its inhabitants uphold until assorted snakes enter the Kashmiri garden.
Rushdie has long had a penchant for creating allegories between individuals and larger, bruiting forces. In this regard, Shalimar abounds to the point of incoherence. The novel strains to establish the valley's fall from paradise as due to the collective actions of cross-border militias, the Indian army, Pakistani intelligence operatives, a mullah literally made of iron, and a womanizing American ambassador. These dark powers collectively wreak their religious, political, and military havoc on an otherwise paradisiacal valley through their private involvements with Pachigam's main actors, whose latent desires for fame, power, and vengeance are stirred up and turned destructive, on themselves and each other.
In folding this action, Rushdie variously invokes Romeo and Juliet, Genesis, and the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana, with expected postmodern renovations. He also sets up post-partition Kashmir as a screen onto which he projects a series of 21st-century shorts--about Islamic fundamentalism, liberationist movements, terrorism, wars on terrorism, civil wars, border wars, guerrilla wars, and unsightly American empire-building. He also throws in an extended sidecar story about World War II-era Franco-German espionage. Rushdie aficionados usually go mad for this hyperactive splicing, but they will be profoundly disappointed by the present effort, primarily because the ideas that purport to hold everything in whirring orbit are so lazy and weak.
As an example, one of the novel's main axes runs between World War II Strasbourg and post-partition Kashmir. It is traversed by Max Ophuls, whose heroics as a spy for the French Resistance make him a diplomatic titan, "one of the architects of the postwar world," and then, after further geopolitical gyrations, Washington's man in India and the self-appointed, would-be solver of the Kashmir problem. This convoluted itinerary leads Max to a personal revelation halfway through the novel, when he's in Kashmir and thinking of Strasbourg. This would seem to affirm Shalimar's overarching premise: "He had come a long way but perhaps not so very far. Could any places be more different, he asked himself; could any two places have been more the same?"
Later on the same page, when Rushdie actually nears an authentic idea, the result is less trite but still unsatisfying. Max starts to reflect about his attempt, as a Westerner, to understand "the shape of the conflict in Kashmir. . . . Did the mind discover likeness in the unlike in order to clarify the world, or to obscure the impossibility of such clarification?" The ponderous prose notwithstanding, this question offers a welcome critique of the novel's homogenizing cosmopolitanism, and its drunken-octopus design. More significantly, it opens onto a wider issue, addressing the difficulties of symmetry and asymmetry that come up when we try to comprehend those distant, long-running problems whose convulsions can affect us with unprecedented immediacy.
But how does Rushdie respond, this novelist with an encyclopedic grasp of First and Third World experiences and traditions whose prior achievements guarantee him a large, educated, and international audience? He ducks. "He didn't know the answer. But it was one hell of a question."