Salman Rushdie and Kashmiri Pandits

Salman Rushdie and Kashmiri Pandits

A comprehensive review of Rushdie’s latest novel:

Shalimar the Clown

By Prof. G.L. Jalali

*(The author is Executive Editor of Koshur Gazzette. He has also authored "Jihad in Kashmir")

GL JalaliSalman Rushdie, India’s most controversial novelist, has eight novels to his credit. Shalimar The Clown is his latest contribution. He has dedicated the novel to his grand parents, Dr. Abdullah alias Babjan and Amir Unnissa Butt alias Ammaji who, as per the novelist, hailed from Kashmir. Literary critics have hailed the novel as “manifestly mature work: the writing is more disciplined than in the earlier novels, well-paced and focused, with fewer Rushdiean loose ends” (Shashi Tharoor in the Hindu, October 9, 2005). To comprehend Rushdie’s works one must have a wide range of knowledge, for his approach to the storyline is always holistic. His imagination runs wildjust like an unbridled horse let loose in the midst of a deep, dense forest - extremely rich in flora and fauna. While going through Rushdie’s novel the reader has to keep pace with the fleeting images of the “past and present events” which are portrayed so nicely with suitable words couched in non-conventional style. Shalimar The Clown  has set a new pattern, hit a novel theme and established once again Rushdie’s credentials as world’s leading novelist.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

‘The publication of Salman Rushdie’s ninth novel offers an occasion to celebrate the aston­ishing new voice he has brought into the world of English language fiction, a voice whose lan­guage and concerns have stretched the boundaries of the possible in English literature. Shalimar The Clown adds the murderous incertitudes of the world of 9/11 to his repertoire; it is topical and typical, a novel derived from today’s headlines and yesterday’s hopes” (Shashi Tharoor).

The main characters of the novel are Maximilian Ophuls, Boonyi Koul, Shalimar the Clown, Pandit Pyarelal Koul, Pt. Gopi Nath Razdan, Pamposh Koul, Abdullah Noman, Firdous Noman, Kashmira, Gagroo brothers, Maulana Bulbul Fakh, Anees Noman, Nazribaddoor and Edgarwood. Maxophuls is the former American ambassador to India. He was involved in counter insurgency operations, The novel begins with the assassination of the former ambassador in Los Angels. His throat is slit by an unknown assassin. His dead body is lying at the door step of the apartment building owned by his illegitimate daughter, India who is also called Kashmira by her Kashmiri-born Pandit mother Boonyi Koul. The killer of the American Jew is none other than his own chauffeur called Shalimar the Clown. So the novel has a “bloody beginning”. The story of the novel mainly pivots round Max, Boonyi Koul and Shalimar the Clown. It is the story of “deep love gone finally wrong, destroyed by a shallow affair”. Says a critic, “It is an epic narrative that moves from California to France, England and above all, Kashmir. At its heart (it) is the tale of that earthy paradise of peach orchards, and honey bees, of mountains and lakes, of green-eyed women and murderous men...” Salman Rushdie’s “majestic narrative captures the heart of the reader. The romance is unfolded against the backdrop of “Partition, increasing Hindu-Muslim tension, the infiltration of Islamist Jehadis into Kashmir Valley.” It is a novel that depicts historical events in right perspective. Since the outbreak of insurgency in J&K state, numerous novels, describing the ongoing turmoil in the state, have come to the market-place. But Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown crowns the list. The novel unfolds the emotions of the main characters in relation to changing political events. Boonyi Koul becomes a sacrificial goat in this blood-curdling tragic opera. Shalimar the Clown is, as such, a “novel of mourning, nor least for the loss of Kashmiriat which Rushdie so lovingly evokes in his portrait of idyllic village life where Hindus and Muslims laughed together, performing folk-dance plays about tolerant Kashmiri kings and cooking, “Ban­quet of sixty - courses maximum.” The locale of the story is Pachigam, which is situated on the river Muskadum. It is a typical Kashmiri village which commands “superb landscape beauty.” The village abounds in cherry, apple and apricot trees with vast expanse of lush green paddy fields around it. In this village two families - one, a Hindu named Pyarelal Koul, and the other, Abdullah Noman - occupied a prominent place. “Pachigam was a blessed village, and its two great families had inherited much of the natural bounty of region. Pandit Pyarelal had the appleorchard and Abdullah Noman had the peach trees. Abdullah had the honeybees and the mountain ponies and the Pandit owned the saffron field as well as large flocks of sheep and goats.” (Page 48). The village was known for “bands” (Clowns). Perhaps Salman Rushdie refers to village Vathor (in Badgam district) which is known all over India for “Bhanda-Pather” (indigenous Kashmiri dance). Pandit Pyarelal Koul, a native of Pachigam, is a widower whose wife, Pamposh Koul, died soon after giving birth to a baby girl named Boonyi Koul. “He and Boonyi lived at the end of Pachigam in the village’s second-best dwelling, a wooden house like all the other houses but with two floors instead of one ....” (page 46). Boonyi was his only child who had attractive physical features. Abdullah Noman, a fast friend of Pandit Pyarelal Koul, is the head of the village Panchayat. The Pandit is an expert cook, for “Pachigam is a village of gastronomes.” He is an “expert-dance master”. Boonyi is the apple of her father’s eye. “The Pandit had tried to be both father and mother to her all life. Inspite of his unworldly nature, he treated her as an inestimable treasure, as the pearl of great price his beloved wife had left behind for him as a going - away present...” (page 51). As she advanced in age, Pandit Payarelal Koul” taught her to sing, read and write.” Boonyi, like any pampered child, grew under the care of her dotting father, Pandit Pyarelal Koul.

Salman Rushdie portrays the character of Pandit Pyarelal Koul’s deceased wife and Boonyi’s mother Pamposh Koul in a very derogatory manner and presents her as intensively sexual. Mark these lines: “ln the matter of lovemaking Kashmiri women had never been shrinking violets, but what Pamposh confided to Firdous (Shalimar the Clown’s mother) made her ears burn. The Sarpanch’s wife understood that what is hidden away inside her friend was a personality so intensely sexual that it was a wonder the Pandit was still able to get up out of bed and walk around. Pamposh’s passion for the wilder reaches of sexual behaviour introduced Firdous to a number of new concepts that simultaneously horrified and aroused her, although she feared that if she attempted to introduce them into her bedroom. Abdullah, for whom sex was a simple relief of physical urges and not be unduly prolonged, would throw her out into the street like a common whore” (page 51). Salman Rushdie is apparently not conversant with Kashmiri Pandit ethos where sex is not a “bazaar commodity”. To treat Pamposh Koul, the wife of Pandit Pyarelal Koul, as a live “sex-Bomb’ is highly disparaging and violative of socio-cultural norms. The character of Pamposh Kaul is just novelist’s figment of crazy imagination.

Boonyi Koul becomes the leading dancer in the dancing troupe, comprising Shalimar the Clown, Himal, Gonvati, Habib Joo, Anees Noman etc. She fell in love with the son of the Muslim Bhand, known as Shalimar the Clown. Boonyi would often slip out of her house and “make way up the wooded hillside to Khelmarg, where by moonlight she practised archery, spearing arrows into innocent tress”. She was, to quote Rushdie, a shadow, in search of a shadow. She would find the shadow she was looking for. In fact she was after shadow of Shalimar the Cown. Her love for Shalimar the Clown was a juvenile passion of a fourteen years old village girl. Rushdie has depicted it in the most erotic manner “He looked into Boonyi’s eyes and saw the telltale dreaminess there, warning him that she had smoked “CHARAS” to give her the courage to be “DE FLOWERED”. In the subtly suggestive movements of her lips, too he could discern the cryptic seductiveness of her condition.,..Boonyi pulled her PHERAN and shirt off over her head and stood before him naked....” (page 60) Shalimar the Clown was not the only personwho was over head and ears in love with Pandit Pyarelal Koul’s daughter Boonyi, the Bhand-dancer; Colonel Hammirdev - Suryans Kachhawha of the local Indian army  unit  de­ployed in the district “had his eye on her (Boonyi) for some time. Thirty-three years old army officer, also known as Hammer Kachhwah, was prepared to pay any price for Boonyi’s love. He was a man of deep feeling, a man who appreciated beauty and gentleness who loved beauty and who, accordingly felt great love for beautiful Kashmir.” Rushdie’s describes Colonel’s first en­counter with intense emotional touch:” Thus he saw Boonyi. It felt like the meeting of Radha and Krishen except that he was riding in a jeep and he was not blue skinned and not feel godlike and she barely recognised her existence. She was with her girl friends, Himal, Gonawati and Zoon just like Radha with the milky Gopis....” Her comparison to Radha in the company of Krishna is metaphorically odd and inappropriate. The novelist presents Boonyi Koul as a beautiful, live human sex-bomb which spills disaster not for her own self, but also for her cuckold husband Shalimar the Clown, and also for her future lover Max Ophuls. Boonyi had no soft comer for Colonel Kachhawa. Says the novelist: “Boonyi disliked him on sight and before he had opened his bony face she told him: You must be looking for someone somewhere else. There is nothing for you. “But of course there was.” (Page 102).


Boonyi and Shalimar the Clown were “married according to Hindu and Muslim rites.” Pandit Pyarelal” agreed to resume his teaching duties, to shoulder the dual burdens of education and gastronomy as long as his strength lasted and preparations for the nuptials of Boonyi and Shalimar the Clown began,” (Page 112). From this day onwards Boonyi Koul was known as Boonyi Koul Noman, the daughter-in-law of Abdullah Noman and Firdous Noman. The union of two families, Pandit and Muslim through matrimonial relations is unnatural.

This has never happened in the history of Kashmiri Pandits - a daughter of cultured edu­cated Kashmiri Pandit villager marrying an illiterate Muslim boy who knows nothing beyond “Bhand Pather.” Is the girl converted after marriage? It is a must after marriage of the girl. Salman Rushdie is silent on this subject. Such a re-union is the figment of novelist’s crazy imagination. It is misrepresentation of Kashmiriat to which Rushdie refers so often in the novel. Referring to the mutual cultural interaction, Rushdie remarks: ‘The Pandits of Kashmir, unlike Brahmins anywhere else in India, happily ate meat. Kashmiri Muslims, perhaps envying the Pandits their choice of gods, blurred their faith’s dustier monotheism by worshipping at the shrines of valley’s local saints and pirs. To be a Kashmiri, to have received so incomparable a divine gift, was to value what was shared for more highly than what divided” (page 83). Pachigam, the village where Boonyi and Shalimar the Clown were born, was a flag-post of the Kashmiriat. “Abdullah (father of Shalimar the Clown) then mentioned Kashmiriat, Kashmiriness, the belief that at heart of Kashmiri cul­ture there was common bond that transcended all other villages. Most ‘Bhand’ villages were Muslims, but Pachigam was a mixture...” (page 110). One fine morning the Bhands of Pachigam received an invitation to stage Bhand Pather in Srinagar’s Mughal garden in honour of the visiting American ambassador Max Ophuls. The Bhands of Pachigam felt themselves honoured at the invitation from the state government. The American ambassador “was a scholarly gentleman and evidently took strong interest in all aspects of Kashmiri culture”. “Ambassador’s personal aide, Mr Edgar Wood, had specially asked for an evening of festivities during which the Banquet of sixty courses maximum would be eaten, a Santoor player from Srinagar would play traditional Kashmiri music, leading local authors would recite passages from the mystical poetry of Lal Ded...” (page 132). In the Bhand-Pather Boonyi played the role of Anarkali.

Her very dance and demeanour bewitched the heart of the young sexy American ambassador. “When Boonyi met Maximilian Ophul’s eyes for the first time he was applauding widely and looking piercingly at her while she took her bow, as if he wanted to see right into her soul. At that moment she knew she had found what she had been waiting for. I swore I would grab my chance when it showed up, she told herself, and here it is, staring me in the face and hanging its hands together like a fool” (page 133).

The die was cast; the villain entrapped and bewitched the young Kashmiri Pandit girl who was already married to a Muslim Bhand actor of Pachigam. Max Ophul’s early career was shrouded in mystery. He was a French Jew who, like the other members of the Jewish community, had suffered immensely at the hands of Nazis. He had seen many ups and downs in his chequered career.

He was notorious for his promiscuous relations with women. Boonyi’s appearanceBook Cover showed Max in true colours. The womanizer in him took front seat. “Then Boonyi Koul Noman came out to dance and Max realised that his Indian destiny would have little to do with politics, diplomacy or arms sales, and everything to do with the far more ancient imperatives of desire.” She was carried to Delhi, where the poor, innocent Pandit girl became the object to satisfy the lust of sexhungry American ambassador.

She was provided with all the amenities of luxurious life. The Pachigam girl turned into a Panchewing whore. “In short she could not get her cuckolded husband out of her mind, and because it was impossible to talk to her American lover about anything important. She spoke heatedly of “Kashmir.” Instead whenever she said “Kashmir” she secretly meant her husband, and this ruse allowed her to declare her love for the man she had betrayed to the man with whom she had committed the act of treason” (page 197) Salman Rashdie has been very unfair to Boonyi, the innocent Pandit girl. It is unthinkable to think that a Pandit lady can jilt her husband as Boonyi did to satisfy her carnal desires. The novelist has failed to understand the ethos of the Pandit community. There is too much distortion in depicting the character of the debased Pandit whore. ‘The excess of Delhi deranged her.

She became addicted to chewing tobacco. She consumed drugs. She took to gluttony ...Yes, she was a whore she admitted to herself with a twist of the heart...” (Page 202) Boonyi became pregnant and carried Max’s girl-baby in her womb. “She had grown so obese that the pregnancy had been invisible, it lay hidden somewhere inside her fat, and it was too late to think about an abortion, she was too far advanced and risks were too great” (page 204). Max’s scandal with Boonyi became a hot subject of public debate and street gossip. The American ambassador was recalled in utter disgrace. A Kashmiri girl was ruined and destroyed by a powerful American. That was the general impression in New Delhi. Peggy Ophuls, the legal wife of Max, prevailed upon Boonyi to give her newborn child named India so that Boonyi would escape the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate child. She assured the Pachigam girl that she would take every care of the baby and carry her to America.

Boonyi was flown to Elasticnagar where from she was taken to Pachigam in a vehicle.

As they reached Pachigam it began to snow. She was dropped a few miles away from Pachigam.

Poor Boonyi, the whore daughter of Pandit Pyarelal Koul, died in a snow blizzard that lashed Pachigam and its surrounding areas.

Thus ended the story of Boonyi. Rushdie has wonderfully depicted her emotions “at the last stage of her life”.

“She saw them all through snowstorm, circling her like cows, keeping their distance.

She called out, but nobody called back, One by one they approached her Himal, Gonwati and Shivshanker Sharga, Big Man Misri, Habib Joo - and one by one they receded....” (page 221) Boonyi fell flat on the snowy ground like a “Booni” (Chinar tree) majestic in appearance with a sad tale of love and infidelity written on every withered leaf of the majestic Boonyi (chinar tree).

“When her father came hopping awkwardly through the snow she felt sure that the spell would break. But he stopped six feet away and wept, the tears freezing on her cheeks. She was his only child. He had loved her more than his own life until she died.

If he did not speak now her dead gaze would curse him”. A rejected child can place the evil eye upon the parent who spurns her, even after death” (page : 222). The story of her Pachigam husband, Shalimar the clown, starts where the story of his wife Boonyi ends He joins the rank of militants and vows to kill the former American ambassador Max Ophuls. He succeeds in killing him as far as in Los Angles.... he goes to Afghanistan for arms training. He becomes the member of Lashkere- Pakistan (LeP).

The infidelity of his wife, Boonyi, is a personal tragedy for Bhand-actor, Shalimar the Clown. He takes revenge in a volatile political background which is marked by the Jihadi terrorism and Muslim insurgency. Shashi Tharoor writes in the Hindu dated October 9, 05 “As always with Rushdie, the personal is entwined with the political, the tangled love affairs of the protagonist unfolds against a backdrop of Partition, increasing Hindu Muslim tension, the infiltration of Islamist Jihadists into the Kashmir valley and brutal repression and the destruction of the peaceful, syncretic Kashmir from which Rushdie derives his own heritage.” Shalimar the Clown may be termed as a historical novel in which the author refers to important historical events ranging from the Tribal Invasion of Kashmir (Kabalee Hamla, 1947) to the ongoing Jehadi terrorism that has been raging in Kashmir valley since 1989. He also delves deep into the medieval history, describing the golden period of Kashmir’s (only) secular king Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin and the atrocities perpetrated on peace loving Kashmiri Pandits by world’s most fanatic Muslim ruler, SikanderButshikan.

On page 85 of the novel the Booker award winner novelist alludes to the “looting, burning and killing of Kashmiris by the Kabalis in 1947. He also refers to Indo-Pak war in 1965 and hijacking of plane from Srinagar to Lahore airport by Hashim Qureshi. He alludes to the founder of JKLF, Maqbool Bhatt and Indo-Pak War (1971). But the novelist’s main focus is on the ongoing Muslim insurgency in J&K state. The main ideologue of the ongoing Muslim fundamentalism as depicted in the 400-page novel Shalman the Clown is Maulana Bulbul Fakh.

Says the novelist, “The iron Mullah Maulana Bulbul Fakh was their appointed superior. His breath was still the sulphurous dragon-breath that had earned him his striky name Fakh and still spoke in the old harsh way... He carried a lump of rock salt at all times: This is Pakistani salt,” he told the liberation front commander and his men.

‘This we will bring to Kashmir when we set it free. He wrapped the salt in a green handkerchief and put it away in a bag.” The green is for our religion which makes all things possible,” he said (page 264). The iron Mullah was the guide for militants. He would brainwash the new recruits. The novelist gives a peep into the daily routine of militants who would offer prayers five times a day.

According to Bulbul Fakh, “the true warrior was not primarily motivated by worldly desires, but he believed it to be true.

Economics was not primary, ideology was primary” (page 265). He represented the essence of Jihadi fundamentalism: “It was a part of his gift to the revolution, a part of God’s work.” The Iron Mullah, Bulbul Fakh, was responsible for the suicide attacks on army camps including Border Security Force Camp at Bandipore, Army Corps. HQ, at Badami Bagh, Civil Lines, Srinagar. He was the embodiment of the hatred for Kashmiri Pandits. At his bidding Shalimar Noman’s dreaded terrorist brother Anees Noman killed the Pandit inhabitant of Shrimal village, Man Misri in cold blood. Man Misri’s widow zoon committed suicide. The village of Pachigam, known for song and dance all over the valley, was razed to ground. Its inhabitants were mostly killed by the Gagroo brothers. Salman Rushdie gives a pen picture of the widespread devastation caused by militancy in the valley.

The destruction of Pachigam and Shrimal stands for the destruction the Kashmiriat which forms the integral part of Kashmiri culture and ethos. How pathetic the life of Kashmiris proved! Old people had nostalgic memories of past - the past that was a glorious period in their placid lives. They were given to day dreaming. Rushdie describes the bruised psyche of Pandit Pyarelal Koul as under.

“He closed his eyes and pictured his Kashmir. He confused up its crystal lakes, Shishnag, Wular, Nagin, Dal, its trees, the walnut, the popular, the Chinar, the apple, the peach; its mighty peaks, Nanga Parbat, Harmukh. He saw the beauty of the golden children, the beauty of the green-eyed women, the beauty to blue eyed men. He stood atop Mount Shankaracharya and spoke aloud the famous old verse concerning the earthy paradise; it is this, it is this....” (Page 305) The prophecy of Nazribaddoor came true with Kashmir becoming a hell. The novelist portrays the grim picture of the valley, which was once called the “Earthy Paradise.” Now, death has overtaken it under its paw.

“Every one carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home” (page 305). The novel, Shalimar the Clown, is a dirge in prose lamenting the death of Kashmiriat which Rushdie so beautifully and lovingly evokes in the depiction of the idyllic rural life where Hindus (Pandits) and Muslims laughed, danced and loved together.

While evaluating Salman Rushdie’s novel Shailmar the Clown, the reader cannot ignore the description of the miserable plight of 3.5 lakh Pandit refugees by the novelist. He has graphically described these details from page 294 to 297.

Kashmiri Pandits were pushed out of valley by gun-toting militants with an idea to change the demographic character of the valley and turn the whole of Kashmir into an Islamic state with Nizam-i-Mustafa (Shariat laws) in force. Hundreds of Pandits were brutally killed by the Mujahideens.

Salman Rushdie has no inhibition to draw the pen picture of the atrocities committed on the minuscule Kashmiri Pandit community.

“In the time of Sikandar Butshikan Muslim attacks on Kashmiri Hindus were described as the falling of locust swarms upon the helpless paddy crop. I am afraid that what is beginning now will make Sikander’s time look peaceful by comparison.” (page 294) Referring to the role of Jamat-e-Islami, the main sponsor of terrorism, Rushdie has to say: The radical cadres of Jamat-e-lslami party had new words for Pandits: “Mukbir, Kafir” meaning spy, infidel. “So we are slandered as fifth columnists now, “Pyarelal mourned, “That means the assault cannot be far away.” Rushdie refers to the vandalising of temples and torching of Pandit houses in 1986 carnage in Anantnag district of the valley. A few days later in Anantnag district there began a week long orgy of unprovoked violence against Pandit residential and commercial property, temples and the physical persons of Pandit families. Most of them fled. The exodus of the Pandits of Kashmir had begun (page 295). The novelist does not fail to refer to Sangrampora, Wandhama and Nadimargcarnages in which hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs were brutally shot dead. He also describes how pathetically Pandit Tikka Lal Taploo was shot dead by militants in his residential locality. Salman Rushdie says,” Three hundred and fifty thousand Pandits, almost the entire Pandit population of Kashmir fled from their own homes and headed south to the refugee camps where they would not, like bitter fallen apple, like the unloved, undead dead they had become. In the so-called Bangladeshi Markets in Iqbal Park - Hazuri Bagh area of Srinagar the things looted from temples and homes were being sold.” (Page 296) Describing the horrible conditions prevailing in Kashmiri Pandit refugee camps, Salman Rushdie remarks pathetically: The camps at Purkhoo, Muthi, Mishriwalla, Nagrota were built on the banks and beds of nullahas, dry seasonal waterways and when the water came the camps were flooded why was that. The ministers of the government made speeches about ethnic cleansing but the civil servants wrote one after another memos saying that the Pandits were simply internal migrants whose displacement had been self-imposed, why was that...” (page 296) Kashmiri Pandit refugees, says the novelist, are left “to rot in their slum camps”, dying so miserably in the very dream of returning to their flowery valley.

To sum up, Salman Rushdie’s Path-breaking novel Shailmar the Clown is a Kashmir-centric novel in terms of character, locale and situation. It is a song in tears; it is the story of man-made tragedy told in a simple language and couched in out of the mill” style, it is a saga of the sufferings heaped upon 3.5 lakh Kashmiri Pandits who have become refugees in their own land. Infact Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Shalimar the Clown is excellent as well superb literary work in the post 9/11 period. Details in the novel are gripping and sustain reader’s interest all along. Of course, the novelist is not realist in portraying Boonyi Koul’s character. On the whole, the novel is a literary gift to readers keen to know the ground situation in Kashmir. It deserves another Booker for Rushdie.

*(The author is Executive Editor, Koshur Gazzette, a weekly published from New Delhi. He has also authored Jehad in Kashmir).

Powered by Company Name Company Name