Monday, 6 March 2006

Review: Shame, Salman Rushdie (1983)

‘Nishapur’ is the name of the house where Omar Khayyam Shakil is born and grows up exclusively to the age of 12 in. It is a sprawling ancestral home with hundreds of rooms, many unused for a long time. His mothers, the three sisters, have locked themselves away in there forever and at the age of 12 he wants out. This novel recounts the fortunes of three families in a fairy-tale country called Pakistan. It is not a heart-warming book, but one filled with recriminations and blood and despair. It is also a satire on political life in a fairy-tale country called Pakistan, the coups and thuggery, the senseless violence of the mob and the fearful middle classes.

The child Omar Khayyam Shakil is a victim of his surroundings, a refugee in a palatial internment camp, a ghost of a personage not yet dead. That will come later. The book’s title — Shame — conveys the outlaw-like nature of the entire situation. These sisters — Chhunni, Munnee and Bunny — have created a world that should not exist, and their collective son is made an outlaw at birth.

Through an old telescope, from the upper-storey windows of the house, the child Omar Khayyam surveyed the emptiness of the landscape around Q., which convinced him that he must be near the very Rim of Things, and that beyond the Impossible Mountains on the horizon must lie the great nothing into which, in his nightmares, he had begun to tumble with monotonous regularity. The most alarming aspect of these dreams was the sleep-sense that his plunges into the void were somehow appropriate, that he deserved no better … he awoke amidst mosquito-netting, sweating freely and even shrieking at the realization that his dreams were informing him of his worthlessness. He did not relish the news.

The sisters have banned shame in ‘Nishapur’, nevertheless he wants to leave it. In book 3 the scene shifts to the story of Bilquìs Kemal and the bomb that drove her into the arms of her husband at the time of partition.

  ‘What things won’t you do there, Raz!’ she cried. ‘What greatness, no? What fame!’ Raza’s ears went red under the eyes (hot with amusement) of his companions in the bumping, rackety Dakota; but he looked pleased all the same. And Bilquìs’s prophecy came true, after all. She, whose life had blown up, emptying her of history and leaving in its place only that dark dream of majesty, the illusion so powerful that it demanded to enter the sphere of what-was-real — she, rootless Bilquìs, who now longed for stability, for no-more-explosions, had discerned in Raza a boulder-like quality on which she would build her life. He was a man rooted solidly in an indeflectible sense of himself, and that made him seem invincible, ‘A giant absolutely,’ she flattered him, whispering in his ear so as not to set off the giggles of the other officers in the cabin, ‘shining, like the actors on the screen.’

Although Rushdie says that this book is a fairy-tale, he spends much time and effort describing the migrant experience in Pakistan. As if shame were a concomitant of immigration. The conflation is not totally unexpected: already Bilquìs has been banished for the shame of not conceiving, linked to her newbie status in the house of her husband’s family.

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan’, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis, A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Baluchistan. (No mention of the East Wing, you notice: Bangladesh never got its name in the title, and so, eventually, it took the hint and seceded from the secessionists. Imagine what such a double secession does to people!) — So it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne-across or trans-lated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time. The past was rewritten; there was nothing else to be done.

Elsewhere, Rani Harappa is waiting for her husband, Iskandar:

Later, she sits in shalwar and kurta of Italian crëpe-de-chine on the coolest porch, embroidering a shawl, watching a little dust cloud on the horizon. No, how can it be Isky, he is in town with his bosom pal Shakil; I knew trouble, knew it the moment I saw him, the fat pigmeat tub. Probably just one of those little whirlwinds that skip across the scrub.

Sufiya Zinobia, the daughter of Raza Hyder and Bilquìs Hyder, contracts brain fever at 2 years of age and is cured by a potent potion that has the side-effect of slowing down the ageing process. Ten years pass. Raza Hyder returns to Karachi from Q. Shame is yet to strike again. We have not heard about Omar Khayyam Shakil for a while.

Sufiya Zinobia’s blushes burn and scald. Why does she blush so much?

To speak plainly: Sufiya Zinobia Hyder blushed uncontrollably whenever her presence in the world was noticed by others. But she also, I believe, blushed for the world.
  Let me voice my suspicion: the brain fever that made Sufiya Zinobia preternaturally receptive to all sorts of things that float around in the ether enabled her to absorb, like a sponge, a host of unfelt feelings.

After Omar’s brother Babar is killed as a separatist, Omar tries to contact Iskander, who brushes him off. Omar is made physically ill by this snub (a new-age Falstaff) but proceeds to fall in love with Sufiya Zinobia Hyder.

The elemental gusto with which Rushdie goes about constructing his great plots of human happiness and distress are fuelled by comradeship — by the desire to communicate at all costs the bizarre and frankly unbelievable stories that rise up in the frontier state of Pakistan: the country of immigrants.

I have one last, and most damning, accusation. Men who deny their pasts become incapable of thinking them real. Absorbed into the great whore-city, having left the frontier universe of Q. far behind him once again, Omar Khayyam Shakil’s home-town now seems to him like a sort of bad dream, a fantasy, a ghost. The city and the frontier are incompatible worlds; choosing Karachi, Shakil rejects the other.

Every character provides Rushdie with an opportunity to communicate furiously. Iskander Harappa’s daughter is an unwilling virgin, spurning all comers, but the more she tries to douse her budding charms the more desirable she becomes.

By the age of sixteen she had been obliged to become expert in the arts of self-defence. Iskander Harappa had never tried to keep her away from men. She accompanied him on his diplomatic rounds, and at many embassy receptions elderly ambassadors were found clutching their groins and throwing up in the toilet after their groping hands had been answered by a well-aimed knee.

Behind the plots of love, madness, betrayal, shame and happiness there rumbles the immense engine of a whole culture, a gasping, ectoplasmic machine with fifty million eyes and ten billion desires.

It occurs to me that the women knew precisely what they were up to — that their stories explain, and even subsume, the men’s. Repression is a seamless garment; a society which is authoritarian in its social and sexual codes, which crushes its women beneath the intolerable burdens of honour and propriety, breeds repressions of other kinds as well. Contrariwise: dictators are always — or at least in public, on other people’s behalf — puritanical. So it turns out that my ‘male’ and ‘female’ plots are the same story, after all.
  I hope that it goes without saying that not all women are crushed by any system, no matter how oppressive. It is commonly and, I believe, accurately said of Pakistan that her women are much more impressive than her men … their chains, nevertheless, are no fictions. They exist. And they are getting heavier.

When Sufiya Zinobia is finally possessed, Shakil and Hyder take to carrying her up to the attic at night — to protect the 27 children of the dead Good News. Rushdie uses an appealing trick to make us think the narrator is not omniscient:

There was an attic room. (It was a house designed by Angrez architects.) At night, when the servants were asleep, Raza Hyder and Omar Khayyam carried the drugged form of Sufiya Zinobia up attic stairs. It is even possible (difficult to see in the dark) that they wrapped her in a carpet.

That “difficult to see in the dark” is precious, a point of humour in the blackening weave of the narrative. It presupposes a narrator who cannot see everything, because of course Rushdie uses a first-person narrator in this novel to tell the story. He is some sort of middle-class person, a native of Pakistan who lives in the U.K. Is it Rushdie himself? No doubt. But he’s not going to spoil the suspense by telling us.

This excellent novel is full of charm, full of stories about people who take on definite characteristics as the narrative progresses. We are impressed especially by Rushdie’s need to communicate these things. To make us understand what it is like living in a civilised country like Pakistan where there remain elemental forces of evil as well as a plethora of lived life that pushes through the boundaries to make it’s way into the future. The future looms large, and the past is never absent. How people overcome their pasts without accumulating too much shame seems to be the major theme of this novel. Because shame is claustrophobic, but it is also necessary to prevent people from committing acts that might be labelled base.

Rushdie is a great communicator, like Marquez, a man of his times who has so much material to present to his readers that it’s difficult to keep the narrative on one track. He’s forever breaking off to resume another strand, because there are so many stories. I can’t wait to read his next novel, Shalimar the Clown.

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