Book Review: Shalimar the Clown

[Disclaimer: There could be some spoilers, though I have tried to avoid them as far as possible. But then Salman Rushdie novel is not just about the story, it is also (and sometimes more) about how it is told. So it cannot really be spoilt.]

This is the Second novel by Salman Rushdie that I have read. (The first one was Midnight’s Children.) Some comparison with Midnight’s Children, is therefore inevitable though perhaps unfair.

Overall I liked the novel. It has most of the typical Salman Rushdie ingredients like complex characters, folk-tale like narrative style, mild supernatural elements (or what is known as magical realism), interesting nicknames of people (Iron Mullah, Shalimar the Clown, Baby Che etc) and of course interesting and unique way of storytelling. The main plot is rather simple but then Rushdie’s real power lies in the subplots, style, structure, and ability to give reader “the floating sensation” as he swims in his ocean poetic prose. Apart from these regular USPs there were other thins which I liked in this novel.

The Goods

The first one is Kashmir. Across the India (and outside), there exists this legend about Kashmir, about its scenic beauty, beauty of its people and how it is the Paradise on earth and all. Rushdie has only added to that legend with this novel. Most of the novel unfolds in Kashmir and Rushdie manages to mesmerize the reader by its beauty, even though he does not see it with his eyes (villege of Pachigam and Shirmal, river Muskadoon, Saffron fields, and of course the Shalimar Garden). Even though you might never have set foot in Kashmir but after this novel you feel familiar with Kashmir, its culture, its cuisine (the Banquet of the Thirty-Six Courses Minimum).

Then there is a love-story, which goes horribly wrong and you feel some sense of pain for the lovers in the story, especially for Boonyi. The price she pays for her mistake (though she knowingly makes that choice) still feels disproportionate. It is a in one way a tragic love story and there are times when it makes you sad. The pain and grief of the (some) characters does
reach the reader.

Then all this unfolds in the back-drop of militancy in Kashmir. Rushdie has captured the emotive issues like Infiltration by Pakistani trained terrorist, indigenous people dreaming and fighting for Aazadi, excesses done by Indian army ostensibly to maintain peace, flight of Kashmiri Pandits and the treatment given to them in relief camps in Delhi and a normal Kashmiri caught in the middle of all this madness just brilliantly. He is at his best when he uses sarcasm when he deals which these subjects. At another level it feels like a tragedy of Kashmir itself.

The Bads

However there were thing which did not work for me. Here are few.

Whenever action took place outside Kashmir, I would somehow lose interest. The character of ambassador Max failed to look convincing to me though a good part of the book is devoured to his character. Also though I have some background on WW2 and holocaust, and sufferings of Jews etc, i could not feet heartache when he loses everything in his teen age. I feel that Rushdie wanted to make Max’s character larger than life in some sense but didn’t quite manage to do that. Another irritant was that there are too many characters that we come across in Max’s story which leave hardly any impact on you and only help in lengthening the book and making you skip the pages on Max’s chapter (which is exactly what I did).

Similarly the character of India (Max’s daughter) fails to gain any sympathy when she is introduced to us. It is only when we meet her again as Kashmira that I could relate to her. But I must admit that when she is reintroduced as Kashmira, you do feel strong emotional bond with her and you start looking at her with completely new perspective. You start feeling protective of her.

But the main problem with the novel is that the main plot is not only simple but it is predictable (or maybe I am too smart). The non linear story telling does not help making it less predictable (in fact it helps the other way). This major flaw robs the reader from getting those upside-down emotional twists that are so effective in Midnight’s Children. There you would never know what turn Saleem’s (the main protagonist) life is going
to take and novel is quite open ended. Here the novel takes predictable twists and turns. Also when you are dealing with a murder, in 1st few pages
of the book, you (as a reader) know that by the time you reach last 10 % of the pages the things are going to get converged and the identity and motive of the murderer is going to be unveiled. This is the standard problem with mystery/crime novels. This is where the author is really tested. Though the identity and motive was not meant to be secret here anyway (since this is not a crime novel), but still I felt this could have been done better.
The convergence was not very dramatic or surprising. This was in stark contrast with Midnight’s Children, where I did not know how it was going to end till I read last sentence (literally!).

The verdict

Overall it was a good interesting and satisfying read (better than most of the worn out so called thrillers). Those who have likening towards Rushdie’s style will like it. But if you haven’t tried his works before, I would recommend first read Midnight’s Children.

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