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In Greek and Roman times, poets and storytellers were not societal drop-outs, but advisers to heads of state. Nowadays practitioners of the literary arts are lucky if they get a totemic appearance at the Presidential Inauguration.
    That is, except for Salman Rushdie. Thanks in part to the fatwa placed upon him by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the Booker Prize-winning author from Bombay has been an enduring symbol of freedom. Reporters call him for comments on world events. Bono brings him on stage for standing ovations. PEN/America has elected him their president. Oh, and he writes books, too.
    For those who have missed the past decade of Rushdie's novels, Shalimar the Clown, his latest epic, is a good reason to start again. Like many of his books, it bridges East and West, beginning in Los Angeles with the assassination of a former U.S. Ambassador to India. The novel then cycles backward, telling the life story of his killer, a Kashmiri Muslim who goes by the name Shalimar the Clown.
    Although there are some obvious zeitgeisty hooks here, the novel is more than a fable about the radicalization of one young Muslim. Drawing on Hindu and Muslim theologies, it spins a sensual love story about two teenagers from the tiny country of Kashmir, and the butterfly effect felt around the world when their union is broken up. Speaking by phone from London, Rushdie talked about the way love both makes and breaks our world. — John Freeman


Not to reveal any plot twists, but would it be fair to call this the mother of all cuckoldry stories?
Yes, I think that's fair. Because indeed there are terrible consequences to the breakdown between Shalimar and (his wife) Boonyi. And in a way, the breakdown of the love story is a metaphor for the dissolution of the harmonious old Kashmir. Various betrayals have taken place in Kashmir on a macrocosmic level. I also think that Kashmir is a microcosm for what's happening everywhere else in the world today with regards to growing extremism.

It sounds a shame, because Kashmir sounds so beautiful and earthy, almost edenic. Early on Boonyi and Shalimar drift off to the woods to consummate their love and Boonyi wears something around her neck. What is it?
It's a heated pot — it's like a small earthenware pot carried around your neck, and in it you keep hot coals. And it keeps you warm. It does obviously leave a slight burn mark on their stomach over the years, so I've been told.

Early press has billed this as a novel about extremism. Do you find that reductive?
I rather regret that kind of simplification, yes. I mean, there is the title character who does become a man of violence, but what I thought I was writing about when I started was the importance of various kind of loving relationships, and the way in which, when those relationships are strong, differences can be bridged; and when they break down, the consequences can be large.

This is just one of numerous sex scenes in the book. In fact, for a book that's purportedly about Islamic extremism, this is a very sensual novel, filled with laughter and flatulence and lots of food.
I think the novel as a form is at its best when it combines many different kinds of voice. So in the midst of high tragedy you can also have someone ripping buffalo farts — it doesn't diminish the tragedy. I always like to have books in which tragedy and comedy and vulgarity mix together.

As someone who has had a very personal relationship to extremism, was it hard to muster empathy for a character like Shalimar? Did you ever step back and think, "How can I possibly care for this guy? He's a monster."
When I am not writing a book, when it's just me sitting around, that is how I would think. But when you are in the act of writing the book — you are not in the book, but inside your characters. Asking questions: how can I create a certain atmosphere? How can I render this scene? That kind of question — it occurs the second you stop.

I understand you're in London now. I was there after the second (failed) bombing. The atmosphere felt like New York three weeks after 9/11. Is that still the case?
It is, though I wasn't in New York on September 11th. I actually got stranded in Houston, Texas — I had given a reading on September 10th and I was supposed to be heading for Minneapolis. I didn't get back to New York for a few days. But it's very strange here now, yes. I'm very concerned. If there was a third attack, the backlash could be absolutely horrendous. Already there is some anecdotal evidence that crimes against Muslims have increased exponentially.

Blair seems quite eager to kick certain clerics who "preach hate" out of the country. It seems like it would help if something happened from within the Muslim community, though.
I agree, I think it's important that there should be a response from within — in the mosques. And there is some evidence that will happen. But taking off my liberal hat for a second, one of the things England has made a mistake of was letting in all these extreme radical groups over the years. The theory being that it meant London wouldn't get attacked. People like me have been saying for twenty years that this will backfire. And now it seems like the government has taken the same opinion.

Masks and disguises are put on and tossed aside throughout the book. It seems like in relationships, that ability to change is good, but it doesn't always work that way here does it?
Yes, well, it is a novel about metamorphosis. And if you notice, people in the book are always unhappy with their names. They have to find new names or nicknames, everyone wants to make up a name — with the exception of my former ambassador Max, who is perfectly happy with his name, even if it is the same name as a German film director.

The book begins in Los Angeles, then proceeds to Kashmir and India and stays there for quite a while. That's something of a surprise. Is this the great rural Rushdie novel?
Most of my life I've written of cities, but I always felt I wanted to pull off a book that is set mostly in the countryside, which is where most of India lives. I wanted to successfully write about the moral codes. And the way in which people make choices and judgments that are spontaneous and not simplistic, the way they change.

One of my favorite scenes is when the village chef turns his pots and pans into armor and confronts the so-called "iron imam" who is bullying people into worship. And on the way back to his kitchen suddenly one of the local widows suddenly begins to flirt with him.
[laughs] He reveals himself in a way in that moment. It's ridiculous to show up and resist by clowning. In a way, that is a very courageous act — to be willing to make yourself ridiculous.  

To buy Shalimar the Clown, click here.

John Freeman is a writer in New York. His essays and reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post Book World.

©2005 John Freeman and

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