Thursday, April 9, 2015

Salman Rushdie's SHAME

The phrase "an impertinence to praise" was invented for a book like this. 

About thirty years ago, Salman Rushdie published Shame. It was preceded by Midnight's Children which seemed to address India's Independence and its aftermath and labored under its self-imposed "blockbuster" status. It was followed by The Satanic Verses which bore the tortured burden of explaining Islam to English readers, perhaps to the author himself.

Shame declares itself to be about a country like Pakistan, but not quite Pakistan. But it
is indubitably Pakistan, from Peccavistan to the country that was born of not one, but two, partitions. The first left it "like two wings without a body, joined by nothing but God"; the second produced "the sound of one wing flapping."

It is possible to go further and read the novel as the duel between Bhutto, the charismatic bon vivant, and Zia ul-Haq, the army man beset in this story by a disgraced (he is caught in a necklace of shoes intended by some deliquents for for the main character), demented Maulana. One reviewer has even identified the character Arjuna "Virgin Ironpants" Harappa as Benazir Bhutto.

But to read this book as a political novel takes it neither here nor there. This is the fable of a man named Omar Khayyam Shakil who was conceived by one of three sisters though all three claimed motherhood. The sisters had been brought up by their father, a widower, "with the help of Parsee wet-nurses, Christian ayahs, and an iron morality that was mostly Muslim," foretelling the cosmopolitan and complex nature of the tale. All three sisters "longed for children with the abstract passion of their virginity." They all lived unhappily in a fortress-building called Nishapur, the city of the poet's birth and death. (The image below of his Mausoleum there in Iran is to be credited to "Khayam" by مختاری from fa. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - File:Khayam.jpg). Our hero, though he is hardly this in the story, demands for his twelfth birthday two things, to be allowed out of Nishapur and to know who was his father. In the pandemonium that ensued, one of the sisters/mothers declared that one at least of his demands should be granted. "Whichwhichwhich?" asked Omar, his curiosity and impatience adroitly captured.

He is allowed out to attend school, eventually leaving Nishapur for good and going on to medical school. When he was first allowed out of the fortress, he was told, "Come home without hitting anyone or we will know that they have lowered your pride and made you feel the forbidden emotion of shame." This is the clue to this wonderful, puzzling book. The tapestry is filled with the intrigues and daring-dos of the Razas (4) and Harappas (4), not to mention the seven Shakils, Rodriguez, Hashmat Bibi, Pinkie Aurangzeb, Shahbanou, and almost countless others. They serve as detail on an artfully woven rug. The author's main burden, however, is the 'problem of shame,' the word itself a "wholly inadequate translation" of the Urdu sharam.

A reader could easily be dazzled by the many ways of a man with a woman that Rushdie conjures in this fabulous book. The adolescent Omar Khayyam pursues "with waddling and heated resolution" a girl only two years older but already possessed of a "body with the physical wisdom of a woman." Their schoolteacher urges her to befriend him, you smart ones should stick together; she woodenly complies, while Omar's trigger response was "Ek dum. Fut-a-fut. At once or even sooner." He confesses to having spied on her through a telescope and declares his love. She cuts him off a little higher than his knees: "Voyeur ... I shit on your words. Your balls dropped too soon and you got the hots, no more to it than that."

Or the convulsing, complex socio-political prelude to the marriage of Good News Hyder and Naveed Talvar (more names) after which she "felt like a vegetable patch whose fertile soil had been worn out by an over-zealous gardener," the gardener's clairvoyant mating decisions having begotten an arithmetical progression of litters.

No. It is in the murky connection between Omar Khayyam and Sufiya Zinobia that the truth and consequences of shame unfolds. Much of it is a dark allegory of idiocy, violence, of bestial strength and revenge. It may be explained by the author's breach of the "fourth wall," in his story about a Pakistani honor killing in East London, to assert that fatherhood had shown him "how colossal a force would be required to make a man turn a knife-blade against his own flesh" but that "we who have grown up on a diet of honor and shame can still grasp ... that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altar of their pride."

Sufiya Zinobia flees from her marital bed, she becomes a creature of the shadows and of legends. She embodies those women who, bullied and violated, retaliate with demonic and fearsome gore and violence against those who trespassed against them in the name of honor and pride. She is the awesome, barely comprehensible, apotheosis of shame, the kind that combusts like a raging fever but leaves one shivering.

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