Salman Rushdie: Paradise postponed

Rushdie's new novel is set in the beautiful but ravaged Kashmir, once home to his peace-loving grandfather. He tells Boyd Tonkin how few parts of the world are immune to violent extremism

So, if anyone does, Rushdie has the right to deliver a few choice words on the British policy of sheltering the champions of jihadi militancy. Today - in a book-lined room at the top of his agent's office in a Georgian square - he is not mincing them. To allow the entrenchment of "Londonistan" as a "safe haven" for death-worshipping extremists was "a historical mistake". He recalls: "In the days when I had to be quite involved in campaigning against the fatwa, I would hear this all over Europe. Why do the British tolerate these people hanging out in England when clearly they are the worst people in the world? They took the decision for the absurd reason that they thought it would defend England against attacks... That just went out of the window, didn't it? It was always a dumb idea."

High-spirited if a little tired (after a late night celebrating the birthday of his actress wife, Padma), Rushdie tempers his forthrightness - and a few rapier thrusts of scorn - with plenty of geniality. "Mellow" will never be quite the right word for him (why should it be?), but he's now adept at turning the prickly heat that surrounds him into literary light. Once the single most divisive name in global culture, lately he's been bringing people together rather than pushing them apart. This spring, as president of American PEN, he helped to mastermind the first "World Voices" festival run by the writers' organisation in New York, where he lives. Thanks to his support, it gave a high-profile Manhattan platform to writers from 45 countries (many from Arabic and Muslim backgrounds), who shared the limelight he inevitably attracts.

And he's relaxed enough to return malice with mischief. When he flays the canting mediocrity of self-appointed British Muslim spokesmen, he notes: "If somebody just gets himself a letterhead and says he's a leader, it doesn't make him a leader until you knight him." Touché. Now, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, famously thought death "a bit too easy" a punishment for the impious author at the height of the furore over The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie refines his barb: "Personally, I don't particularly like Sacranie, but that's not it. I could quite happily swallow my dislike of Sacranie if he seemed to be genuinely representative." He is convinced that, among British Muslims, "there is this huge silent majority who do not feel represented, either by the current batch of so-called leaders or by the radicals. Yet nobody seems - yet - willing to create representative organs".

Rushdie now feels "nostalgic for the days of the Seventies and Eighties, when the way in which minority groups organised themselves in this country was along secular lines", and notes: "It's been a bit hijacked in the last decade and a half by religious politics. I just think that it's important to get back to the other stuff. But while we're talking to the wrong people, it's difficult to see how we're going to solve any problems."

As for the foreign preachers of holy murder who now, at last, face expulsion, to report that Rushdie sounds relaxed about their loss would be putting it too blandly. "I have to tell you - I don't give a damn. They're awful people." But, given the recklessness with civil liberties he deplores in New Labour, he concedes: "The issue of the baby and the bath water does arise. I do think that the Government has strong authoritarian tendencies, and I do worry that, now that it feels justified in slinging people out, it'll start slinging out anyone whose face it doesn't like."

Rushdie has worked with British PEN against the draft bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. Before the London bombings, he went to see the Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart, along with Rowan Atkinson. "I remember saying to her, 'Look, if you're talking about inciting hatred, are you going to send people to listen to the sermons in the mosques? Are you going to go in there and haul people out of the pulpits?' And she looked embarrassed." Now, of course, the Government hints that it might do just that. "It's the opposite of what they were saying before 7 July," snorts Rushdie. "Again, a piece of Blairite opportunism: 'Let's reverse the meaning of this legislation'."

The crimes of the jihadis and the follies of the politicians ought not to hijack this interview. Terrorism (by groups or by states) not only wrecks bodies and lives. It invades the body politic, bloodily thrusting itself to the forefront of every act and thought, reducing many subjects into one. It makes monomaniacs of us all. In many ways, Rushdie's new novel, Shalimar the Clown (Jonathan Cape, £17.99), enacts exactly this dismaying process.

The book shows, through a quartet of tragically entangled lives, the descent into cyclical slaughter and repression of the once-idyllic valley of Kashmir. That "tasty green sweetmeat caught in a giant's teeth" has been torn for two decades between Islamist atrocities and Indian army reprisals. And the book depicts the globalisation of this conflict, in a rage-filled "time of demons" when family rows spill out over the oceans and "everywhere was a mirror of everywhere else".

As for the people of Kashmir, says Rushdie, their attitude towards the headscarved jihadi thugs and uniformed military thugs remains the same: "Would you both please fuck off. That has been, quite consistently, the position of ordinary people in Kashmir for the past 60 years. And that's the only option nobody considers."

He visited the region's peaks and lakes often in his youth, and last went back in 1987, when the travelling players he filmed with a Channel 4 documentary crew would put on a public face of support for the Indian armed forces. But "turn the camera off, and they'd tell all kinds of horror stories". The actors lingered in his memory, and "in the end I found away to tell a story about them".

In the pacific past, the meadows and slopes of Kashmir "did feel like paradise, at least to the rest India - if only because it had snow. It was the first time in my life I ever saw snow. It's what happens in Kashmir: people from the rest of India arrive, and there's this mucky snow at the airport. They get excited and pick it up as if it's this magic substance". Crucially, Shalimar the Clown depicts the valley in happier times, not as a trouble-free bed of roses but a place where open-hearted Muslim and open-hearted Hindu could live with and even enjoy their differences, with their separate identities as "descriptions not divisions".

Rushdie uses Kashmir's fall from grace into grief as a microcosm of a period in which "an age of fury was dawning and only the enraged could shape it". Fury, remember, was the title and the theme of the novel that Rushdie published in August 2001. Many critics sneered that poor old Salman had gone way over the top in his febrile imagination of a culture of wrath and grievance, bubbling up to a fatal boiling point. Come the second Tuesday of the following month, we heard very little more of that mockery.

In Shalimar the Clown, the thrill of sacred violence hijacks the mind of a heartbroken youth, as the gentle tightrope-walker from a village of actors simplifies himself (thanks to a training camp funded by the revered but offstage "Sheikh Usama") into a robotic machine of retribution. A story of love slides into a story of death as Shalimar grows as inhuman as the metallic "iron mullah" - half militant, half myth - who inspires him. "I had to make a version of how someone might go down that road - intellectually, morally, emotionally - that feels as if it might be true," says Rushdie.

Moving swiftly between a beautifully evoked Kashmir and Los Angeles, London and Delhi, and with an excursion into wartime France, Shalimar the Clown dramatises the fusion of personal calamity and - legitimate - political complaint into a volatile, and deadly, mixture of motives. Yet Shalimar the killer's creator stresses that "I don't think that the capacity for violence is general. I don't think we all have it. It needs very special triggers to release it in certain people" - as with the lovelorn performer, whose dancer wife Boonyi forsakes him for the West in the roguish but sinister form of the Franco-American diplomatic fixer, Max Ophuls.

Remarkably, for a writer so often admired (or dismissed) for his grand intellectual reach, Rushdie is happy to gossip about his characters as if about his friends. Many critics assume that he fashions his creations as symbols or ciphers who stand for the high historical tides that sweep through his books. Yes, he does point out that the new novel's overriding sense of "worlds in collision" has become "more and more my subject"; the planetary clash of "two alternative realities competing for the same time and space". But it's an endearing surprise to hear him chat about his tightly knit protagonists - Shalimar, Boonyi, Max and their Californian daughter, India - as autonomous beings who try to shape their tales. Max, Resistance hero turned counterterrorism chief, insisted to the author that "his entire story had to be told"; Boonyi, who becomes his stranded concubine, "annoyed" her maker because "having taken the leap, she then wasted it"; while he felt "enormously relieved" to "discover" that India would enjoy a consoling love affair in the pitch-black final act.

This sense of fictional figures dictating terms hints that Shalimar the Clown is also a book about freedom of will and choice; and how much of that gift we can claim in an age when overwhelming public deeds decree that our characters are no longer our destinies. "I've been thinking about that really a lot for several years now," says Rushdie. "If planes fly into tall buildings and several thousand people die, it doesn't matter if they were good or bad people. If a suicide bomb goes off on a train, it doesn't matter how those people conducted their lives."

Of course, historical events have always made, or broken, individuals, and Rushdie knows that "the question of how much our lives and natures can be externally determined has always been a subject for fiction. Are we the masters or the victims of our times? But it seems to have an extra edge right now". With the slow-drip persecution of the fatwa, he felt that edge earlier, and sharper, than most.

Although Rushdie does not consider himself "part of the Muslim community", Shalimar the Clown pays a warmly eloquent tribute to the tolerant, eclectic Islam of Kashmir, the land and the faith of his grandparents. They came from that now poisoned Eden of snow-shrouded summits and flower-filled orchards, where veil-free Muslims worshipped saints (a virtual "polytheism" that shocked incoming jihadis) and Hindu Brahmins eagerly scoffed meat ("and lots of it"). As a child in Bombay, Rushdie adored his Kashmiri grandfather, who was "a devout Muslim. He had performed the Haj to Mecca. He said his prayers five times a day every day of his life. I was very close to him and he was for me a kind of model of tolerance and open-mindedness and civil discourse" - even to such a wrangling, irreverent kid. "My relationship to him was one in which everything was up for discussion, from the existence of God downwards. And that Muslim culture, of which he was a product and a very fine example, is the Muslim culture I grew up in."

Rushdie frets that this peaceable, charitable "Sufistic" Islam, once so normal and mainstream, may go extinct under the onslaught of the iron mullahs from Kashmir to Keighley. As Islamist extremism grabs the blameless ancestral creed of his family. "The great weakness is the reluctance of all those people who dislike it to act on their dislike. I may be the wrong person to bang on about this, because of their views of me. But if people do not stand up and object to what is being done in their name, then Islam will simply become this thing. It will become this monstrous manifestation by default, because there will be nobody to say that it isn't."

Shalimar the Clown closes with that "monstrous manifestation" still in the driving seat, as India confronts Shalimar, now a sort of vengeance-robot. A savage round of conflict finishes, without much catharsis. "I think it's dishonest to create a happy ending where none exists in the world," says Rushdie, rather bleakly. Yet he believes that "one of the constant things about the world is that it does change. No doubt this is not for ever, this cycle" - of ideologically driven terror followed by counterterror - "that we're living through at the moment. But I don't think that you can create a little bit of optimistic uplift when you don't feel that in the world".

Yet his own future progress looks rich in "optimistic uplift". Far from bleakly, he reveals that "my eight-year-old son [Milan] has told me that my next book has to be for children" - a follow-up fable to the much-loved Haroun and the Sea of Stories. That yarn will divert him while he puts in the enjoyable research for his next major work: a richly promising idea, now "in a state of germination", for a novel set in a distant period about... No, why spoil the suspense or (worse) hand a lead to copycat hacks?

Suffice to say that the reluctant servant of widescreen historical forces, who would love to be able to compose the "Jane Austen novel" about a small band of characters in charge of their fates, thinks that he may have hit upon a way to do it. "And maybe - who knows? - maybe by going back 400 years, I can write a psychological novel."

RUSHDIE: THE REQUIRED READING

Midnight's Children (1981)
After the failure of his first novel Grimus, Rushdie's comic epic about children born at the stroke of Indian independence gave him worldwide fame. It won him the Booker prize and, in 1993, the "Booker of Bookers".

Shame, 1983
Rushdie moved his setting from India to Pakistan to explore the troubled history of a divided family as a paradigm of a conflict that bedevilled the entire country.

The Satanic Verses, 1988
Rushdie's fourth novel had won the Whitbread Award before it became the subject of a fatwa from the Iranian leadership. The international crisis this provoked meant that few readers ever got to grips with the book's comic and grotesque explorations of Islamic folklore and modern mythology.

The Moor's Last Sigh, 1995
Rushdie returns to India, mixing satire and history in a digressive epic that celebrates the pluralism of the Bombay culture in which he was raised.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999
For the first time, Rushdie paints on a truly global canvas as he sends his pair of Indian rock stars into the extravagant pop culture of modern America.

Fury, 2001
Set in New York, this boiling cauldron of a novel presents a culture marred by rage, dogmatism and egotism. It appeared prophetically in late August 2001.

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