The book starts with India and her father, the American ambassador Maximilian Ophuls, meeting up at her L.A. apartment. Going out to eat for her birthday, Max shows up at her residence with a new driver named Shalimar. After a small scene where India senses weird vibes from him in an elevator, she spends the last two days with her father, before Shalimar takes a knife and slices Max’s throat so deep that the head barely hangs on. The novel then journeys back years and time zones to showcase how and why this happened.
Describing the character India’s view towards L.A., Rushdie pens: “In such a city there could be no grey areas, or so it seemed. Things were what they were and nothing else, unambiguous, lacking the subtleties of drizzle, shade and chill. Under the scrutiny of such a sun there was no place to hide. People were everywhere on display, their bodies shining in the sunlight, scantily clothed, reminding her of advertisements. No mysteries here or depths; only surfaces and revelations. Yet to learn the city was to discover that this banal clarity was illusion.” (pg. 5)
This touches one of the main themes of the novel, which is two spiritual forces, the Hindi mystical dragons Rahu and Ketu pushing and pulling the characters and places between them. It’s consequently also about how these characters strive to transcend their black-and-white predicament, and get destroyed in the process. The design almost seems circular in nature, as the story goes back and forth, into the pasts of the main characters Max Ophuls, India Ophuls, Boonyi Noman and Noman Sher Noman (Shalimar The Clown) and into their futures, and showing them entering and struggling to break through Rahu and Ketu over and over again. They break through, but the price of freedom rears it’s ugly head.
The two sided themes include:
India (the country) and Pakistan
Boonyi and Shalimar
Hindu and Muslim
Pachigam and Shirmal (fictional villages of India)
Lust and love
Tradition and Individuality
Tradition and Modernization
France (Ardienne, Lorraine, Strasbourg) and Germany
Past and Future
Surface appearance and Reality
Living and Dead
The Indian Army and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front
The other theme could be stated either as existing without existing, or transcendence, or shadowing, or echoes. As one of “Shalimar The Clown”’s genres is Magic Realism, a lot of subtle supernatural things occur in the story, and they connect the characters with one another through time and space. Some characters are one with it, some characters are puzzled by it, and some characters don’t question it at all.
- Shalimar, when he was a small boy, used to be kissed lovingly by his father, Abdullah Noman and hear “birdsong” whenever he was, just as India did when her father Max Ophuls was affectionate with her in the same exact way.
- Yuvraj and India sit near the Muskadoon (a lake that ran by the village of Pachigam) yards away from each other but feeling each other’s kisses and touches on their bodies, echoing the same connection that Boonyi and Shalimar have when they are children (sitting by the same lake).
- Firdaus Noman marries a man whose name, Mr. Butt or Bhat, no one can remember the precise pronounciation of, but is accepted into the community of Pachigam by way of the money he easily tosses to everyone. In the beginning, India (the character) is proposed to by a rich underwear model whose name changes constantly, even in his own memory (Joe Blow?, Jock Block?, Rick Flick?, Judd Flood?, Jay Flay? etc.)
This is quite the complex and in-depth book. Reading it sometimes made me wonder how Rushdie expected people to stay interested enough to finish. He has great writing skill and an extremely extensive vocabulary, but the story strays so far from its beginning that occasionally lost me and I had to put the book down and pick it up later. I am, however, glad I finished it, and after my brain is fully rested, I’ll pick up another of Rushdie’s works. Probably “The Satanic Versus”.