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.