Pillbox

One man's quest for peace in Kashmir

Title: Rushdie answers questions about his controversial publications
Subtitle: One man's quest for peace in Kashmir

Either artistic bravery or demented masochism drives a man to write his own death warrant. For Salman Rushdie, whose The Satanic Verses incited the then-leader of Iran to send out a fatwa calling for his assassination, one can safely describe his motivation as the former: It is an unparalleled courage spearheaded by a noble love of his homeland.

Rushdie, a native of Bombay, India, has continued a writing career even after the fateful fatwa incident of the early ?90s. On Wednesday, he spoke at the Byham Theater on his newest novel, Shalimar the Clown, and in this promotion brushed the issue most dear to him ? Kashmir, the desecrated region of dispute between India and Pakistan.

Rushdie?s latest book concerns revenge and a tangled web of love. The novel opens with the performer Shalimar?s murder of the American ambassador to India for seducing his wife, Boonyi. Flashing back to Shalimar?s childhood, the story then begins an exposition on the childhood sweethearts who became Hindu dancers in a traveling troupe. It tells of the troupe?s performance before the unscrupulous ambassador and how he abducted Boonyi to America. Shalimar?s ex-wife falls into bad habits and becomes what Rushdie calls a ?bloated? version of her former self.

Rushdie peppered his readings with comedic asides and more light-heartedness than the novel?s plot would seem to allow. ?I don?t like books that preach,? he said. One part of the novel concerning the military incursion into Kashmir has a Catch-22-style section discussing the humorous logic of military men. ?I lean toward comedy,? he said, ?but serious things must be looked at.... Sometimes issues are so bright that it?s hard to look at them, like the sun.?

The issue that pervades Shalimar the Clown is Kashmir, which Rushdie describes as ?the heart? of his work ? a Garden of Eden ? but not without its snakes. His personal ties with the area gave his talk weight and pathos, and the comedy slowly ebbed as the subject of Kashmir came to the fore.

The theme that fills Shalimar and connects it with Kashmir concerns repentance and forgiveness. Rushdie explained: ?I have found that there is no causal relation between the two parts of this theme.... Those who repent are often not forgiven, and those who are forgiven often do not repent. It is a double paradox.? The ambassador in Shalimar, for instance, commits acts of defiled morals and receives sanction and exoneration from blame even without penitence. Boonyi, however, repents with all of her soul for her betrayal of Shalimar. In a very moving scene read by Rushdie, Boonyi returns to her home and castrates herself, a ruined woman, before her village and family ? but does not receive forgiveness. Rushdie drew the poignant parallel from this tragedy to Kashmir?s irreparable state.

Rushdie concluded his speech with the most dramatic of all the evening?s excerpts. He read to his audience one of the tragic passages in the novel ? a description of the military ?crackdown? on Boonyi?s hometown. In a masterful reading that could only have its provenance in experience, Rushdie elicited the heart-breaking tale of a fallen paradise with no chance for rebirth. He told the listeners that tears came often as he wrote such passages, and their sorrow can only be matched by the skill with which Rushdie penned and orated them.

In a question-and-answer session, Rushdie explained that he believes there is some hope for peace in Kashmir. The destruction of Rushdie?s beloved valley, represented in the novel by the annihilation of the beautiful relationship between Shalimar and Boonyi, was total and catastrophic, but he sees the situation improving. He called its former state ?valuable and rare,? and said the need to write about its downfall was extraordinarily personal after it was torn apart by terrorists and the Indian military. Although Shalimar the Clown tells of an absolute tragedy, Rushdie finds hope even in the darkness of war.

Matthew McKee
Junior Staffwriter