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Shalimar, George and Sherlock Holmes

Nilanjana S Roy | August 19, 2005

If the purpose of a longlist is to entice lapsed bibliophiles back into the reading habit, this year's Man Booker judges have done their job.

The 17 books on the list range from a sea adventure set in the 19th century to Siberia in 1919 to a day in the life of contemporary London to the private lives of clones.

Over the next few weeks, this column will take a closer look at some of the books on the list and the subjects they explore, from Irish soldiers in the Great War to Ukrainians in England, from cloning to psychics, from 1930s Malaysia to an actor's village in Kashmir.

To start on an unabashedly parochial note, two books are of special interest to readers in India: Rushdie's Shalimar The Clown and Julian Barnes' Arthur And George.

Shalimar The Clown is a 'loose large baggy monster,' but to expect Rushdie to write anything less than an ambitious book is foolish. It's not an easy novel to read, but it is deeply rewarding; he goes at his complex subject in breakneck style and his writing is powered by force, scholarship and a relentless, rising tide of rage.

In Rushdie's worldview, Yugoslavia, Kashmir, World War Two and contemporary America are as deeply yoked together as families, or pairs of lovers.

You cannot hope to examine Kashmir without understanding how California works; you cannot live in California and be ignorant of the Kashmirs of this world any more.

Shalimar is an actor, a clown, a tightrope walker, from a small Kashmiri village of bhands; his talent for killing is as innate to him as his talent for climbing trees, and the twisting politics of the region will allow him to discover the first.

Initiated into murder as the 'iron mullahs', the hollow men formed from the detritus left behind by a corroding and increasingly invasive Indian Army begin to close their grip on Kashmir, Shalimar will see his marriage and his village destroyed.

The man whom he kills in revenge for having seduced and then discarded his wife, the dancer Boonyi, is an actor of another kind: Max Ophuls, who has played parts ranging from threatened Jew in Nazi Germany to Resistance hero to expert forger.

As the American ambassador, Max has helped light the fuses of the violence that spills out over every place like Kashmir. Rushdie's rage over the rising tide of intolerant Islam, so far from what he sees as the religion's real roots, and his anger at the troops, from the Indian Army to foreign mercenaries, who have raped Kashmir sometimes threatens to overwhelm him.

But Shalimar The Clown packs quite a punch; all of us who recognised the true history of India in Rushdie's Midnight's Children will have our perceptions of the dividing lines between East and West challenged by this novel.

Julian Barnes' Arthur And George has a much smaller compass, but it tells a story that had been unjustly forgotten.

George Edalji was the son of a Parsi vicar and an Englishwoman. Born and brought up in England in the 1900s, George became a solicitor in Birmingham; in 1903, he was accused of maiming horses after a rash of cattle, sheep and horse mutilations broke out in Staffordshire.

There was a considerable element of racism in the case: the police and the public assumed George had carried out 'animal sacrifices' for the sake of his religion, despite the fact that he was Christian.

He was imprisoned for three years; in 1906, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took up the case after examining the evidence and concluding that Edalji was innocent. Sherlock Holmes' creator got his client off on the basis of forensic evidence, but he always felt Edalji had been victimised unfairly on account of his mixed race.

In Barnes' delicate narrative, he contrasts the upbringing of the two men, the advantages of one and the struggles of the other, building up a picture of British life at the turn of the century, with its prejudices and its unspoken assumption of certain truths.

One of the questions Barnes asks is why it's been so easy for us to forget the Edalji case even as he explores the history of racism through the trials of George Edulji.

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