Nearly two years have gone by since I last immersed myself into the magical and sometimes crazy world of Salman Rushdie. The Indian born writer is among the most imaginative authors out there and his novels have brought him not only world-wide fame but also a death sentence (because of the strikingly controversial The Satanic Verses). Pushing his imagination to the limit and employing the whole variety of the English language, Rushdie creates a magical world filled surreal people and places. These magical events usually follow closely a certain historical period and while in Midnight’s Children Rushdie focused on the destiny of his home state of India, in Shame he describes the partition of Pakistan and the subsequent years of turbulence and violence in the newly formed state.
In a typical Salman Rushdie fashion, Shame shocks from the mere start. Omar Khayyam Shakil has been born and raised in the fictional town of Q. (actually Quetta, Pakistan) by his three mothers – sisters who shared the symptoms of pregnancy as well as the birth itself, making it impossible to determine which one gave birth to him exactly. Confined in his home for more than 20 years, Omar develops into a strange and introvert fat boy, filled with hatred towards his mothers. Upon his escape he is blessed (or cursed) by them to never experience shame – because of how he looks or because of who he is.
On the opposite of the shame-shamelessness specter is Sufiya Zinobia, the daughter of General Raza Hyder (based on real-life General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq). Disappointment to her parents from the moment of her birth (in a typical Muslim tradition they wanted a boy) she grows into a mentally disabled woman with the brain of a 10-year-old. Unlike Omar, Sufiya has been raised with shame – ignored and despised by both of her parents, the girl lives in her dreamy world of imagination until a vicious force overwhelms her. For in Rushdie’s novel both shame and shamelessness ultimately lead to violent brutality.
Through the lenses of magical realism Rushdie also explores the real-life decades long conflict between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq (respectively Iskander Harappa and General Raza Hyder in the novel). The struggle between these two men over dominance in Pakistan spreads out to their families, wifes, children and relatives and submerges everything into blood and death. Because the only way to destroy a dictator is obviously to substitute it with another one.
Salman Rushdie loves a multitude of characters and in Shame there are so many of them entangled into complicated relationships that I lost track more often than not who was whom. The bottom line, though, was clear. I often wonder which is the human trait responsible for the majority of the suffering we impose on ourselves and on other people. Is it greed, or pride, or lust, or jealousy? Are the ten deathly sins causing all of our troubles? Or probably something else, specific for each individual?. For Rushdie shame is the root of all evil – for every insult, failure, disappointment, revenge, pain or death ultimately lead to feeling shame. And feeling shame is so painful and unbearable that people succumb to drastic measures to suppress it and fight it. Violence in its most vicious form stems from this inherent shame, to which none of them (or us really) is immune.
In Shame the narrator is not a distant observer – he is entangled in the novel. He judges, condemns and criticizes. He is both repelled and proud of his own creations. Salman Rushdie eliminates the boundary between reader and author and invites us to be his accomplices in creating and destroying the lives of his shameful and shameless characters.
More from Salman Rushdie:
More from (about) India:
Realism can break a writer’s heart
…every story one chooses to tell is a kind of censorship, it prevents the telling of other tales.
Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence
All stories are haunted by the ghosts of the stories they might have been
If a great man touches you, you age too quickly, you live too much and are used up.