Wednesday 13 May 2015

Book Review: Shame, by Salman Rushdie

Book Review – Shame, by Salman Rushdie

When a writer of Mr. Rushdie’s calibre takes on the task of chronicling the momentous events and lives of the people involved in, the drama that played out in Pakistan in the seventies and eighties, I think, as a reader, one should be prepared for extreme idiosyncrasy.

Shame doesn’t disappoint.

The story begins as a fairy-tale of sorts, a tale of three witches, of the child they birth and raise in distant, border-city Quetta, named Omar Khayyam Shakil. In a classic Rushdie move, it then becomes apparent that he’s not the main character at all. That said, in being completely without Shame, he’s definitely a part of the title.

The story takes us next to Delhi, where Bilquis, the future wife of General Raza Hyder, future President of Pakistan, is fleeing a communal riot in the heart of Delhi, and how she takes refuge in the Red Fort and meets her husband there, the man who cried too easily, who would emigrate to Karachi with her.

And finally we are told of Omar’s new friend, Iskander Harappa, a wealthy landlord from Sind, reprobate, debauched and everything else, who marries Raza Hyder’s sister.

This is where the story (for these two are the real main characters, and while Omar Khayyam is licensed, by Word of Author, to have no shame, it’s the democrat and dictator who seem to live their lives without it) begins to delve into the intrigues and events of the life and times of the fictional Zia Ul-Haq (Raza Hyder) and Zulfikar Bhutto (Iskandar Harappa). A story involving adultery, madness, murder, disappointments, hope – and everything in-between, including author-monologues. The relationship between these two giants of Pakistani politics is explored, satirised, fictionalised until it becomes difficult for a reader to understand which is which.

There’s a stirring account of Harappa’s rise to power, of the atrocities committed by Raza Hyder in Quetta, of the mistakes they both make, of the futility of their pride, their relation with their daughters – and some of the writing will hold it’s own as long as the written word exists. Here we have Rani Harappa telling the tale of her husband’s life to her daughter through embroidered shawls, the Witches of Quetta telling of the life of their second son Babur to their first-born, the author himself writing about the suffering of women due to their unfortunate positions as the custodians of Shame for their families.

It is as the custodian of Shame that the character of Sufiya Zenobia is introduced to us, the elder daughter of Raza Hyder and Bilquis, a child in a woman’s body. She is the most literal exposition of Shame, a crushing internalisation of the emotion followed by outbreak of violence. It’s through her, more than the others, that Mr. Rushdie presents a mirror to the events of the times, of the shamelessness of the politicians reflecting in the steady deterioration of Sufiya’s mental health.

The characters play out their lives to the inevitable conclusion. This is after all, a highly fictionalised account, and if Raza Hyder comes across as benign compared to Zia, if Iskandar seems like a caricature, then that is the freedom of the fable. Mr. Rushdie brings about a conclusion to the novel that isn’t happy, but is no less dramatic than the actual mid-air death of General Zia Ul-Haq in 1988 (the book was published five years earlier). A climax that comes about in the same house where it began, under the baleful glare of the Three Witches.

In conclusion, this is a work of brilliance, and Shame should stand up in Mr. Rushdie’s oeuvre with the best of his work. The language is fairly simple, especially compared to the maddening Midnight’s Children, and the length makes it an easy half-day read.

Strongly recommended.

Monday 4 May 2015

Winning - A Corporate Story


In many ways, Sankalp Sodey was a winner. As a child, he had often won at the games he and his society friends played, such as hide-and-seek and catch-and-cook. In school, he had won a prize for dancing – he had been part of a group dance that had been very well-received, a sort of tamasha-meets-lavani-meets hip-hop. Later, in college, he would go on to win the day-boys’ carom championship, and a computer science quiz open to those who had not actually studied computers.

This is why he was very upset when he did not get recognised by his organisation, the world-famous-in-India DCTMR Bank, during their Annual Process Excellence Awards. It was true he couldn’t honestly say he had done anything particularly excellent during the year, unless a remarkable consistency in arriving at office forty-five minutes after the official time of 9 AM counted, but neither had some of those who HAD won. That Asrani fellow had done little more than make colourful excel sheets, and Adeline D’Sa had done even less, mainly concentrating on looking very pretty and talking in a husky voice with customers. And while Sankalp had, just two days ago quoted erroneous profit figures in the daily dashboard, and before that, used cumulative figures where he was to use monthlies, he was sure he was not the only one who did that sort of thing.

It was the high-tea following the awards function when he thought of taking it up with his immediate superior, the calculating machine-in-human-form known as Girishankar Sisodia, but Giri was deep in conversation with Shalaka Ghatak, the head of the NRI division in DCTMR Bank, over sandwiches and Marie biscuits. Moreover, Giri had been rather mean to him about the profit figures thing, and had not yet approved his late arrivals. No, it was best to leave Sisodia alone, thought Sankalp.

Then he noticed Girishankar’s boss, (his own super-boss) the dangerous, brilliant and possibly insane Ardeshir Behram Cowasjee, who was balancing his elegant six-foot frame against a wooden partition while chatting with three different youngsters who sat in Sankalp’s workspace at the Airoli office. In his right hand, as always, was his long umbrella, an ancient instrument without which he was never seen, and the long fingers of his left hand seemed to point at the speakers from which light elevator music played.

Incensed at the familiarity affected by the troika, who were not even anywhere in Ardeshir sir’s reporting structure, Sankalp advanced towards them with malicious intent writ large in his face. Seeing him approach, the girls squealed and fled, leaving in their wake only the faint smell of roast turkey sandwiches.

“Hullo, Ardy – esh – eer,” stammered Sankalp, suddenly realising he was entirely unsure how much familiarity that lofty personage tolerated.

The taller man’s eyes narrowed. For a moment Sankalp felt like he once had when, returning home late from a night of carousing with his friends at Geethanjali Bar, he had entered the unlighted lane that housed his parental home, and found himself staring into the bright yellow eyes of Drummond, the massive and dreaded grey cat that belonged to his neighbour. In the pitch darkness of night, Drummond had looked rather like a ghost, with his grey fur bristling and eyes like slits looking at him from the height of the palisade wall. His heart had sunk then, and it sunk now. The breezy confidence with which he had hailed the man was gone, and he began to recall the stories he had heard of the man’s famed temper.

“Who are you?” asked the scion of the Zorastrian religion at last.

“S…s….s,” he gibbered.

“Washroom’s over there,” the lanky Ardeshir suggested gently, pointing due north.

“Sankalp sir, from your team sir,” he finally blurted out.

“Oh yes, you’re one of Sussodeo’s chaps aren’t you?” a hand shot out in welcome. “Call me Ardy. Glad to see you, Sankalp sir.”

Sankalp shook the proffered hand with a smile. He was winning again. It was a soft sort of hand, clearly of someone who had never done any menial labour. He was strangely reluctant to let it go.

“Well it’s like this Mister Cowasjee – I mean Mister Ardy sir, I am glad to be here and invited and all, but I really think it’s unfair sir, that I – I mean, we – have not won anything Mister Ardy. I would like to have won something, you see, Sir Ardy Sir. I mean, so many people have won, Mister Ardowasjee, and they didn’t give a prize to me, not this year and not last year and not the year before that and this is how they insult the man of the soil sir, the local boys sir, I’m saying they only put us down, sir and…”

His confidence had been rising with every word, until, with a crook of his wrist, the be-knighted Ardy extricated his hand from Sankalp’s grip and looked down the Pythagorean hypotenuse formed by the ten-inch difference in their heights and the foot-and-a-half that separated them from each other. Sankalp’s words froze on his lips.

“So you’re saying you want an award, to go up there and bask in applause for having accomplished something while a part of my team when you’ve actually done nothing all these years but lounge around and hit on unsuspecting girls?”

“That’s right, sir,” nodded Sankalp, though he wasn’t feeling quite so confident now. “You see, I’ve worked very hard sir and very sincerely sir, and I know Sir Ardius that sometimes Giri has shouted at me but he’s a jealous sort and doesn’t like that I’m so popular with the women sir. I’ve worked here a long time, you know and I think I should get some kind of recognition for…”
For a moment, Sankalp got to see the face of a man who was no longer a Senior Manager in DCTMR Bank’s finance and controls department, but of one whose ancestors had fought against the might of Greece, of Rome and other barbaric hordes in centuries gone by. He could almost feel himself standing at the other end of a sword rather than an Umbrella and smell the dust, sweat and smoke of a battlefield.

“Hold your tongue, Hold your tongue. (Ardy said),
Man of Mumbai, Man of Dombivali, my minion,
I see in your eyes the same stench of mediocrity that would take the life out of me,
A day may come when I conform to the standards of DCTMR Bank,
When I forsake my personal commitment to excellence,
And break all bonds of honour,
But it is not this day.
An hour of vanity and lies and shameless favouritism,
When the edifice of integrity I have built comes crashing down,
When I sully the honour of fourteen generations of Cowasjees,
But it is not this day!
This day I fight,
By all that I hold dear on this good Earth,”

He leaned in close to Sankalp’s ear. He smelled of what the shorter man suspected was a girl’s perfume (he was right; it was Chanel #5), and whispered:

“I bid you begone, Sankalp Sodey.”

For reference, Ardy’s speech is paraphrased from Aragorn’s famous speech at the Black Gates of Mordor in the final hour of The Return of the King.

Reproduced below:

Hold your ground! Hold your ground!
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends
and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,
but it is not this day!
This day we fight!!
By all that you hold dear on this good Earth,
I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!