Early in Salman Rushdie’s new novel, a former US ambassador to India called Max Ophuls appears on a television talk show in Los Angeles. Ophuls, “a man of movie-star good looks,” grew up in “a family of highly cultured Askenazi Jews” in Strasbourg. Unlike his namesake, the director of such films as Lola Montès and Caught, Rushdie’s character fought in the anti-Nazi Resistance, making his daring escape from Strasbourg in a Bugatti plane. In London, he was privy to Charles de Gaulle’s anxieties about American influence in the postwar world. A “philosopher prince,” Ophuls also helped draw up the Bretton Woods Agreement, and headed the American counterterrorism effort during the CIA’s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
His TV host, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jay Leno, is more interested in Ophuls’s “fabled gifts as a raconteur,” his “anecdotal genius,” once revealed at Marlon Brando’s house, where Ophuls disclosed Orson Welles’s eating habits, described what Luis Buñuel did to the Christmas tree at Charlie Chaplin’s house, and also revealed the “improbable liaison between Warren Beatty and Susan Sontag.”
However, much to the dismay of the talk show host, Ophuls launches into a “political diatribe” on Kashmir, the Muslim-dominated Himalayan valley where an anti-India insurgency, backed by Pakistan, has claimed more than 80,000 lives in the last decade and a half. In June 1999, Rushdie described in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times how the “paradise” of Kashmir “has been partitioned, impoverished, and made violent. Murder and terrorism now stalk the valleys and mountains of a land once so famous for its peacefulness.” Ophuls describes the situation in Kashmir in similar terms.
“It is paradise itself that is falling,” he says; “heaven on earth is being transformed into a living hell.” He speaks about the “assassins of Islam”; the “rapes of young girls, the fathers set alight, burning like beacons prophesying doom.” This is all too much for his host, who, worried about losing his audience to his “tall bony gap-toothed rival” in New York, cuts Ophuls’s interview short.
Thus Rushdie introduces the complex subject of Kashmir, which he suspects, rightly, few people in the West know or care much about. Soon after the interview, Ophuls is beheaded by a Kashmiri Muslim acrobat called Shalimar, and Rushdie moves the action from Los Angeles to Kashmir. In a long flashback, he describes a fictional village called Pachigam, where Hindus, Muslims, and even a family of dancing Jews lived in perfect amity through much of the twentieth century, absorbed with hosting multi-course banquets and folk theater. In Rushdie’s idyllic setting of meadows and mountain streams, two children called Boonyi and Shalimar—one Hindu, another Muslim—grow up to be lovers and, eventually, husband and wife. But neither the impetuous Boonyi nor the hot-tempered Shalimar is fated to know happiness.
A powerful demon enters their serenely virtuous and multicultural world. This is Max Ophuls, recently appointed US ambassador to India …