Edgy, Brilliant, and Complex: Salman Rushdie’s Shame Injects a Fairytale Into Politics

Can you live somewhere without knowing its name? Can you breathe its polity and travel its landscape only relying on letters? Can you grow up in a sealed fortress, watching snow capped mountains and discovering new rooms every night? Can you accept a narrative of a woman so ashamed that it stunts her mental growth until she becomes a monster, ripping apart men and turkeys? It all sounds gibberish until you allow Salman Rushdie’s Shame to consume you. Just like the crippling embarrassment that consumes the life of every tragic character in the novel, Rushdie swallows the reader into an abyss of words, history, allusions, illusions and magic. Open your mind, and Rushdie’s genius will engulf you exactly how Harry fell into the Pensieve and experienced memories that didn’t belong to him.

Shame is about many things that constitute life. Families. Marriages. Children. Affairs. Religion. Politics. Dictators. Governments. Rebellions. Scandals. It is about interconnected families against the backdrop of an unnamed, phantasmagoric country and the upheavals in its polity. The book’s family tree will immediately remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. In fact, Rushdie and Marquez share substantial similarities in writing style and elaborate imagination. The worlds they create are brimming with strangeness. Even the tiniest thing is ornate. Whether it is the bitter almonds in Love in the Time of Cholera or the elevator in Shame built to transport goods and commit murder, nothing is ordinary. Yet, all of it is true.

Shame is tough to summarise, but for protocol’s sake, it must be done. Who started Shame? Omar Khayyam Shakil. His matrilineal lineage is questionable. He was born to three mothers, who replicated a pregnancy. Apart from Rushdie, no one knows who among the three Shakil sisters was Omar’s mother. After spending his childhood in a suffocating fortress designed to prohibit human interaction, Omar leaves his home at 12. Eventually, he becomes a debauch but famed doctor before marrying a ridiculously young patient called Sufiya Zinobia.

Sufiya is a symbol of purity and the axis on which shame and shamelessness revolve. Born to a mother who craved a son, she embodied the book’s central philosophy: Shame begets Violence and Violence begets Shame. Suffering from stunted mental growth, Sufiya grows up unloved and prone to constant blushing on account of internalising her family’s dishonour. Her parents are General Raza Hyder and Bilquis Hyder. Raza is a politician par excellence, masking his shrewd barbarism under the well-pressed suits. The second bloc in Shame is General Raza’s political opponent, Iskander Harappa. Once known for his indulgent personality and many affairs, he marries the simple Rani Harappa whose quiet tolerance of her husband’s ways finds expression in the delicate shawls she embroiders. His daughter is Arjumand. Known as Virgin Ironpants for her attempts to suppress her sexuality and reject potential suitors, she is Iskander’s secret weapon. A political mastermind, Arjumand stands by her father throughout his career and even after his execution. Many more characters are crucial. They come and go as per the story’s requirements. 

Shame reads like a secret. It is whispered so often that everyone has a vague idea of what it is hinting at but cannot be brash and say it aloud. A significant portion of Shame’s geographical and psychological landscape may go unnamed, but it has been broadly agreed that Shame is Pakistan’s story. As a writer, the Indian Independence, Partition and Pakistan are very close to Rushdie. Whether he is exploring them full throttle like in Midnights Children or incorporating the zeitgeist of the time in The Ground Beneath her Feet, the two nations’ political health always had a bearing on his characters. With Shame, he delves into the political class of Pakistan and gives us a fairytale.

Scholars (and readers who are tempted to explore the history of Pakistan even at a tertiary level after reading Shame) have found the following, significant allusions:

  • The unnamed city of Q – Quetta
  • Raza Hyder – General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq
  • Iskandar Harappa – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
  • Arjumand Harappa – Benazir Bhutto

Shame is so layered that you will find hundreds of papers and dissertations, so many different themes explored in the novel; such as nationalism, violence, religion, marriage, motherhood, magical realism, political identity, post-colonialist writing and modernism. Which one will I address? The question puts me in a pickle.

Salman Rushdie’s vision for Shame is far ahead of his times. The observations he made in 1983 through dark humour and fictional situations hold their ground in 2021. For example, Maulana Dawood’s character. He is a fanatic and General Raza’s advisor. His influence steadily draws Raza towards establishing a theocracy. The narrative about faith being rammed into politics and those poisonous politics being forced down people’s throats will resonate today. Shame even answers why the rhetoric of faith is such a fit in governance. It’s because faith as a language is too complicated to oppose. It comes with respect. So much of it that it hushes everybody.

Shame does a great job of reminding us that no matter how much despotism is shrouded with sweet words and mysticism, the masses will rise. In the end, General Raza, his wife and Omar flee the city and take shelter in Omar’s childhood home. The intimidating fortress, a symbol of tyranny, is where they are brutally murdered. Ultimately, commoners storm the house. What can be more symbolic than that?

One of the most poignant and famous lines in Shame is, Beauty and the Beast is simply the tale of arranged marriage. This sentence alone captures the sadness that permeates every marriage in the book, making the reader acutely aware of the feminist discourse underlying the outwardly masculine narrative of men fighting it for power, women, and legitimacy. On the surface, it is all about men. Hyder, Harappa, Omar, Maulana, Babar and Talvar Ulhaq claw and scratch to climb society’s ladders. By the time it ends, the women stand out.

Shame is often overshadowed by the sparkle of The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. However, it must not be missed. Even if one doesn’t enjoy political critique, it can be appreciated as a fairytale about warring families. The book does have drawbacks. For example, those who are not aware of Pakistan’s history may initially miss some of its flavours. It is quite detailed, so you forget portions of initial happenings when the author revisits in the middle of the book. Some amount of going back and forth and googling may be essential.

Shame, just like the emotion itself, is warped and multifaceted. It is about disgrace and as well as its antithesis: shamelessness. Together, they form the basis of violence. As Rushdie says, “Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.”

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