The tragedy that is Kashmir is portrayed beautifully in this novel. Early in the novel, a Jewish Alsatian-born American former-Ambassador to India is murdered by his chauffeur, who goes by the name Shalimar. The murder leaves the ambassador's daughter India to reconstruct the reason for his death and to figure out how to cope with his loss and the complexities of her own history. We are transported back in time to the start of the Ambassador's career when he was an economics student and a fighter in the French Resistance. We learn of his marriage to a British resistance hero and his eventual fateful assignment to the post in Delhi. Similarly, we are given a window into the quiet days spent by Shalimar learning to walk a tightrope as part of his Muslim father's acrobatic troupe and watch his village embrace his marriage to his childhood love, a dancing beauty from a Hindu family in the same village. Then we watch in horror as their personal lives unravel while at the same time the battle between Pakistan and India for Kashmir changes the village from a place of beauty, culture, and mutual respect to a place of devastation, intolerance, and hatred.
This novel made me grieve for a place that no longer survives, except perhaps in the memories of a few who survived the physical and cultural ravages of a region, while at the same time keeping me completely engaged in the personal tragedies of people for whom the political context provides a backdrop, but not a complete explanation, for the decimation of personal relationships and individual lives. This is not a happy novel, but it is a beautiful one, and I am very glad to have read it. The magical realism for which Rushdie is known is present in this novel, as in his others, but it is present in manageable doses which enhance rather than obscure the narrative. Likewise, the movements backward and forward in time fuel curiosity and interest in the tale, rather than creating confusion. Unlike my recent experience of reading The Satanic Verses, during which I was frustrated and confused by the plethora of characters, the leaps in time and into and out of dreams and movie plots, and the extensive use of the magical at the expense of the realistic, my experience in reading this book was one of interest, emotional connection, appreciation of Rushdie's craft, and deep satisfaction at my decision to reengage with the work of an author who remains one of my favorites. Repeated attempts to get into and through Satanic Verses kept me stalled in Rushdie's oeuvre for too long. Now I am eager to read his other books that are waiting for me on my shelves.