STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The writer Salman Rushdie is living more openly these days. It's been years since Rushdie was in hiding, facing an Iranian death threat for his book, "The Satanic Verses." But if Rushdie's life is a little easier, life in his family's ancestral home is not. His latest book tells the story of that place. The book is called "Shalimar the Clown." The place is Kashmir, the mountainous province that's disputed between Pakistan and India. After decades of war and division, that same province recently suffered an earthquake that killed thousands. None of that nightmarish news erased Rushdie's love for Kashmir.
Mr. SALMAN RUSHDIE (Author): The first thing that comes to my mind is paradise. I suppose we all have a need of paradise or the idea of paradise in our lives, and those of us who don't expect to find it after death need to find it in this life, and Kashmir has been the closest I've ever found. And indeed, not only I, because many other people have thought the same way. In fact, when James Hilton wrote his book "Lost Horizon," the idea of Shangri-La was based on Kashmir.
INSKEEP: This is quite remarkable. Everyone, or many people anyway, seem to think that the place that they're from is special or the best place on Earth, but I can't think of many places where the people from there actually think they come from paradise.
Mr. RUSHDIE: I know. It's an unusual thing to believe. It is simply a very strange combination or unique combination of intense physical beauty with a culture that grew up there of enormous tolerance and harmony. The physical beauty, of course, is still there--the gigantic Himalayas, the lushness of the valley, the lakes, the streams, the saffron meadows, the honeybees--that's all still there. The human beauty of Kashmir which was derived from this culture of tolerance that grew up between the various communities, Hindu and Muslim and Sikh, that, of course, has been colossally damaged by the history of the last half century as India and Pakistan have trampled over it.
INSKEEP: You wrote a few years ago about India and Pakistan's rivalry over who controls Kashmir, and you quoted Shakespeare, "A plague on both their houses."
Mr. RUSHDIE: Yes, which I've used again as the epigraph to this novel because I do think the sad thing that happened in Kashmir was that nobody paid any attention to what the Kashmiri people themselves have rather consistently said they wanted, which is for both sides to back off. Instead there have been three wars fought over Kashmir. There's now a terrible combination of rampant Indian militarism and the Indian army is behaving very badly in Kashmir, and on the other side Pakistani-sponsored jihadist groups coming across the border terrorizing Kashmiri Muslims with a much more radical form of Islam which never had any kind of roots in the valley before.
INSKEEP: Does paradise not exist anymore?
Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, only physically, unfortunately. This isn't so much a story of paradise lost as of paradise smashed up.
INSKEEP: And I suppose it was while thinking about this troubled place that you began this writing what is essentially a story of a failed love between a Hindu and a Muslim in Kashmir.
Mr. RUSHDIE: In a way it's "Romeo and Juliet" in reverse, because in "Romeo and Juliet" the two families, which in this case would be a Hindu family and a Muslim family, oppose the marriage. In my story they rather tolerantly support the love of the young couple, and what happens instead is that the young girl, Boonyi the dancing girl who falls in love with the title character, Shalimar the Clown, in the village of traveling players where they both live, she becomes enormously claustrophobic as a result of this marriage and begins to look for ways to escape, and that becomes the engine that drives the plot when she betrays him by running off with the American ambassador.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about the face of Islamic terrorism as it's presented in this book, and I hope I'm not giving away too much here. You describe where one of the characters is committing an assassination...
Mr. RUSHDIE: Yes.
INSKEEP: ...and what it says is, `The man he was going to kill was a godless man, a writer against God who spoke French and had sold his soul to the West.'
Mr. RUSHDIE: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, I do speak French, but it's not me, if that's what you mean. I was thinking actually about actual writers who were killed in--and that actual incident happens in North Africa in--almost certainly in Algeria, and I was thinking about the writer Tahar Djaout, who was a great Algerian writer who was killed by Islamists in that country in a way not dissimilar to what's described in the novel.
INSKEEP: Was it hard for you as a writer to get into the mind at book length of a person who would want to kill someone like you?
Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, it was part of the challenge of the book, and I mean although it may seem false to say this, I wasn't really thinking about myself. I was thinking about trying to understand how a human being can change from being a gentle young man to a ruthless grownup murderer.
INSKEEP: The title character, Shalimar the Clown, this Muslim man, who's in this failed marriage, is the same man who becomes a terrorist.
Mr. RUSHDIE: Yes, he is. He becomes a violent man and a professional killer. He does it not just because his heart is broken by the betrayal of his wife, although that is part--one of the triggers; also because in a curious way both his personal tragedy and the tragedy of Kashmir attacks him in what one might call his honor or his manhood, and it's as if what he's trying to do is to reconstruct his sense of his manhood, his masculinity, and that in the end is what leads him to pick up the weapon, not just Islamic doctrine, if you like.
INSKEEP: What's the implication of that for those of us trying to understand terrorist movements around the world?
Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, I think just that one has to look at this as a human issue, not just as an ideological one, and to see that people are getting involved in these terrible events for often very trivial reasons, and the art of the novel has always been to get inside character, to get inside the reasons why people make the choices that they do. And at the moment I think we see a lot of explosions and terrible things on the news, but very little of the kind of heart information that would allow us to really understand what's happening, and maybe this is a function literature can perform.
INSKEEP: Did you say hard information or heart information?
Mr. RUSHDIE: Heart. Information of the heart. I think the stuff that allows you to get inside the feeling and the skin of a place. It's one of the miracles of literature, that it can take you into realities which may be very remote from your own, but it can make those realities your own.
INSKEEP: Salman Rushdie is the author of Shalimar the Clown.
Thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. RUSHDIE: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: By the way, during our interview Salman Rushdie remembered his Kashmiri grandmother, and he described her as, `An enormously ferocious woman who scared the pants off all of us.' To find out why she was so scary, you can listen at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.