Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly publication about things I’ve read

Floating upwards from history: Salman Rushdie, Shame (1983)

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I’ve already written in Talk about books about three of Salman Rushdie’s novels, Midnight’s Children (1981), The Satanic Verses (1988) and Fury (2001), and it’s my plan to fill in the gaps between these by writing individual posts about The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), The Ground beneath Her Feet (1999) and today’s subject, Shame (1983). Shame comes between Rushdie’s most impressive novel and the other one for which he’s best known. When I first read it in the mid 1980s my expectations were high, and I can’t say they were entirely fulfilled. Recent rereadings haven’t quite persuaded me that it’s more successful as a novel than I had thought at first, but they have helped me to to see that it’s a more ambitious work than I had taken it to be.

It’s a novel that mixes fact and fiction in an unusual way. It’s set in a country that’s a fictionalized version of Pakistan. This country has cities named Karachi and Rawalpindi, but not Quetta (the fictional version of which is named Q); and none of the characters refers to the newly-built capital (which is said to resemble a collection of unwanted airport terminal buildings) by any name of its own, though it is located not far from the aforementioned Rawalpindi. The neighbouring country to the north-west is named simply “A”, and its capital is Cabul. The puzzling thing is that this fictional representation seems to be of a country that is itself already partly fictional.

Pakistan (the real one) is described as a palimpsest placed over the map of India, as it existed before partition and independence, partly obscuring what was there aleady but without erasing it. The country has a made-up name, which doesn’t even include everyone:

(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!) (p. 87)

Pakistan, before the breakaway of Bangladesh, is brilliantly described as:

… that country divided into two Wings a thousand miles apart, that fantastic bird of a place, two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God … (p. 178; first ellipsis added, second original)

That “joined by nothing but God” applies to the country as a whole, not just to the strained relationship between the wings. According to this, Pakistan is not united by a common language, ethnic background, sense of community or similar bonds. The country is held together, to the extent that it is at all, only by religion, and many of the citizens most committed to that unifying principle are those who have just recently moved there. That, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. The authorial/narrative voice asks:

What is the best thing about migrant peoples and seceded nations? I think it is their hopefulness. Look at the eyes of such folk in old photographs. Hope blazes undimmed through the fading sepia tints. And what’s the worst thing? It is the emptiness of one’s luggage. I’m speaking of invisible suitcases, not the physical, perhaps cardboard, variety containing a few meaning-drained mementoes: we have come unstuck from more than land. We have floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time. (p. 87)

The story of the novel concerns the rivalry and struggle for power between two “duellists” (Part II), Iskander Harappa and Raza Hyder. Hyder is an army man, eventually a General, who has moved to Pakistan from India on partition for partly religious reasons, and is therefore considered a mohajir. Harappa, a wealthy and patrician landowner, was already well established there when Pakistan came into existence around him.

As a young man, Harappa was hedonistic, irresponsible, arguably debauched. When he is about to turn 40, though, hearing that his cousin — the same one for whose murder he would much later be sentenced to death — is “about to be elevated to high office” (p. 123), he breaks up permanently with his mistress, repudiates his Falstaff figure and commits himself irrevocably to taking a serious interest in politics and government. His liking for extremely foul language doesn’t change, though.

His rival, Raza Hyder, is a sentimental tough guy, given to crying but also careful to project a masculine and strong image. There is a mark on his forehead that proclaims his habit of regular prayer. Both men are willing to resort to brutality to put down dissent and rebellion. Early on Hyder is sent to Q to deal with raids and attacks by tribal bandits on gas fields that had been discovered in the mountains of that district. He insists on taking “draconian punitive measures” (p. 101) over the objections of the State Chief Minister, who is himself involved in smuggling.

On Hyder’s return to Karachi, the official story is that banditry is under control, official corruption has been banished and separatism defeated, but Iskander Harappa tells his confidant, Omar Khayyam Shakil (the Falstaff figure mentioned above, and about whom I’ll have more to say shortly) that “everybody knows those tribals are running wild out there because Hyder kept hanging innocent people by the balls” (p. 119).

Harappa leads a successful political movement, the Popular Front which makes steady progress till it has a majority, following the departure of Bangladesh, in what used to be the West Wing. Harappa introduces policies which he describes as “Islamic socialism”, improves relations with China, and gives a succession of US ambassadors a hard time. In time, though, his popularity declines and eventually Raza Hyder leads an army coup and imposes martial law. Initially, with Harappa under house arrest, Hyder expects to be able to reach an accommodation. But Isky, deprived of his habitual Havana cigars, has taken to chewing paan and spitting the juice everywhere. He is anyway highly irascible, and has a toothache, so their meeting does not go at all at Hyder had foreseen. The upshot is that Harappa finds himself detained and later charged with murder, while Hyder finds it expedient to assume the role of President, something he had sworn not to do.

Isky is ultimately convicted and sentenced to hang, and his appeal is narrowly rejected, 4 to 3. Nearly everybody, including his lawyers and one of the judges, thinks it inevitable that the sentence will be commuted, but his temper again gets the better of him. When an emissary, Colonel Shuja, comes to take his full confession in return for clemency, Isky insults him so obscenely that the Colonel shoots him dead almost as a reflex action. Of course, with the prisoner dead the authorities have no longer any choice but to go ahead with the hanging. His wife, Rani, is able to tell by the absence of bruising on his neck that he was already a corpse when officially executed. The hangman disappeared without trace. (The reader is told that this is equally true of the real-life hangman who carried out the execution of former president Bhutto.)

It’s obvious from the outlines of their story that the two duellists are fictionalized versions of former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Zia ul-Haq, his replacement. Harappa’s daughter, Arjumand Harappa, nicknamed “the Virgin Ironpants”, similarly corresponds to Benazir Bhutto, who will — years after the events recounted in the novel — lead the country after the death of General Zia. The curious thing, though, is that the author/narrator draws attention to distance between his fictional characters and their real-life counterparts by referring in the novel to the actual, historical Bhutto and Zia (as in the joke on page 112 and the reference to Bhutto’s execution on page 27).

As I already noted, the narrator asks what it does to a people to have seceded from a country which itself came into existence through secession. Analogously, we might ask what is the effect of portraying in fiction a country that is already partly fictional? After several rereadings of Shame, I’ve come to the view that it has a distancing, emotionally anaesthetizing, effect. It has often seemed to me that the great achievement of Midnight’s Children is that it manages to express a sense of furious outrage at the condition of India, while nevertheless maintaining extraordinary control over a huge, complex story. In Shame, the outrage has been replaced by a sense of weary resignation. Instead of “how can you tolerate such a farrago of missed opportunities, cynical timeserving and unrealized potential?”, we now have “well, what do you expect, if the people persistently choose, or fail to eject, leaders like these?”

The reader, in short, is less viscerally engaged with the unfolding catastrophe than in the earlier novel. This sense of distance is reinforced by the insistence on the part of the authorial voice that, notwithstanding appearances, the duelling political leaders are not the protagonists of his story. The novel is “about” (p. 50), Sufiya Zinobia Shakil, née Hyder, the elder daughter of Raza Hyder. Sufiya Zinobia has an intellectual or learning disability as a result of which she never develops beyond the “mental age” of a nine-year-old. The authorial voice attempts to explain:

I did it to her, I think, to make her pure. Couldn’t think of another way of creating purity in what is supposed to be the Land of the Pure … and idiots are, by definition, innocent. Too romantic a use to make of a mental disability? Perhaps, but it’s too late for such doubts. (p. 120)

From birth, Sufiya Zinobia is given to blushing, and we learn that she is sensitive to, and in a sense absorbs or takes on, the unacknowledged emotions of those around her. Since the predominant emotion that ought to be felt by her family and their associates, but is rejected or ignored by them, is shame, that’s what she ends up absorbing a lot of. She blushes accordingly, sometimes to the extent of becoming a fire hazard.

In time, the shame absorbed by Sufiya Zinobia manifests itself in grotesque acts of violent destruction which she carries out while remaining innocent. Exhibiting great strength, she kills her victims — mainly animals but including 4 young men — by tearing their heads off and drawing their inner organs out through their necks.

Before this happens, Sufiya Zinobia marries Omar Khayyam Shakil (Iskandar Harappa’s former, and eventually rejected, companion in hedonistic debauchery), who is described as the novel’s “peripheral protagonist” and “sidelined” hero. Shakil is a doctor in a hospital where he treats Sufiya Zinobia and falls in love with her. He has been a supplier of drugs and, most significantly, a rapist who relied on hypnosis to overcome his victims. In common with many people, Shakil never discovers who is father is. Much less commonly, he doesn’t know who his mother is either, though the number of candidates is narrowed to three (who are sisters).

When, towards the end of the novel, Sufiya Zinobia is approaching the capital, slaughtering as she goes, her husband helps her father, the President, General Raza Hyder, to escape. Shakil takes his father-in-law to Q, to hide out in Shakil’s mothers’ home, which has long been shut off from the world. The mothers kill Hyder, as revenge for the death of their own younger son, Babar.

The novel was published in 1983. In reality, General Zia continued as President of Pakistan until 1988, when he was killed in a plane crash. So, when I first read the book he was still in office. The final chapter has a nightmarish, fantastical quality. It still strikes me as an anticlimax. Indeed, I’m puzzled as to what the function of the novel’s peripheral protagonist, its sidelined antihero, performs. When he first emerged from the isolated house in Q, his mothers forbade him to feel shame, but that hardly distinguishes him in this company.

Rereading the novel this time, it struck me that it’s at its most stimulating and lively (and convincing) when the authorial or narrative voice addresses the reader directly on the subject of events that actually happened, and in particular about the “honour” killing of the young woman he calls Anahita Muhammad (pp. 115–7). Maybe, in trying to combine fact and fiction in the same work, he tipped the balance a little too far towards the fictional. Or maybe reason for my dissatisfaction with the novel is something quite different. I’m really not sure. I suppose I’ll just have to read it again.

In about two months’s time, I’ll write about The Moor’s Last Sigh and then, after a similar interval, about The Ground beneath Her Feet (unless I decide to tackle Shalimar the Clown first). But there’ll be plenty of other stuff in the meantime. In two weeks’ time, after a gap of almost 2 years, I’ll be returning to Scott Turow.

Edition: Picador paperback, 1984; ellipses added, except for one original.