Shame by Salman Rushdie [A Review]

Shame was the first novel Salman Rushdie wrote following his brilliantly received Midnight’s Children. Short, fast-paced and powerful, Shame is a novel of a great writer in his prime, flexing the magic-realism, post-colonial, musculature he is known for.

Cover image of Shame by Salman Rushdie

Omar Khayyam Shakil was born in the frontier town of Q to three mothers. His ancestors had been the wealthiest family in the town and, in recent generations, kept a somewhat aloof separatism from both the local and British colonist populations. Omar’s grandfather, however, squandered the family fortune and by the time of his death, there was no income to be had. The huge mansion was inherited by his three daughters, Omar’s three mothers, who had lived their entire lives within it, denied both a chance to leave and any education.

With their sudden freedom from their father, the three sisters decide to hold an unprecedented party, inviting the elite of both the indigenous and British. The British seem to have a good time but the locals are scandalised by the party. Their scorn confirmed when it is discovered that one of the sisters is pregnant. The sisters respond by locking themselves within their mansion and having a dumbwaiter constructed externally. The dumbwaiter will serve as their only means of communication with the outside world as well as a way to supply themselves with food and necessities in exchange for some of the priceless possessions and artifacts their mansion is overflowing with.

Which sister was pregnant and by whom? No one could say. All three sisters shared the symptoms of pregnancy, the bellies of all three grew, when the day came all three shared the pains of labour and no one could say which had given birth behind closed doors and, after the birth, all three nursed the baby boy they named after the famous poet.

Omar had a most unusual childhood. Unable to leave the mansion, he had no friends and no teachers. All he had was the huge mansion to explore, some of which had not been ventured into in so long the dust was inches thick. When he grew out of this, he immersed himself in the many books around the mansion, exercising his intelligence and giving himself a better education than his mothers ever had. Indulged and spoiled the boy grows fat – an attribute he will never lose. As he nears his twelfth birthday, Omar has had enough of this life and demands of his mothers to be let out of the house and to know who his father is.

After a consultation, his mothers meet him halfway. He will begin to be let out, via the dumbwaiter, to attend school. His mothers fear, however, that, given the family history and his size, their precious son will be an easy target for bullies. Their one command, therefore, is that he will not succumb to whatever the outside world throws at him, that he will not feel shame. Their intention may have been to protect their son, to teach him to rise above, but its effect was something else.

Sharam, that’s the word. For which this paltry ‘shame’ is a wholly inadequate translation. Three letters, shin rè mim; plus zabar accents indicating the short vowel sounds. A short word, but one containing encyclopaedias of nuance. It is not only shame that his mothers forbade Omar Khayyam to feel, but also embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world, and other dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts. No matter how determinedly one flees a country, one is obliged to take along some hand luggage; and can it be doubted that Omar Khayyam (to concentrate on him), having been barred from feeling shame (vb. int.: sharmàna) at an early age, continued to be affected by that remarkable ban throughout his later years, yes, long after his escape from his mothers’ zone of influence?

Reader: it cannot.

What’s the opposite of shame? What’s left when sharam is subtracted? That’s obvious: shamelessness.

As a teenager, Omar is the town’s peeping tom. As an adult he has a very high reputation as a doctor and a very low one as a human being. A hedonist, Omar is a drinker, a gambler, a drug user, a frequenter of strip clubs and brothels. He possesses no more restraint on his thoughts than he does on his behaviour and the speaks freely of whatever comes to his mind.

Though the narrator of Shame tells us that Omar is the story’s protagonist and hero, and he dominates the early parts of the novel, most of this story is in fact about two other men.

Raza Hyder was a Captain in the Indian Army under the British. It was in the lead up to Partition that he met his future wife, Bilquis, who, with other Delhi Muslims, was sheltering in the Red Fort for their own protection. After the creation of Pakistan, Raza takes Bilquis to Karachi where his family home is. Soon he is off to fight in the first war between India and Pakistan and returns home a Major and a hero. Though initially welcomed into the family, the death of her first child and her difficulty in conceiving a second, creates tensions within the house and soon Bilquis is demanding to leave.

Meanwhile Rana, a cousin of Raza, marries a man named Iskander Harappa, whose best friend happens to be Omar Khayyam Shakil. Despite now being a married man, Isky continues living his partying bachelor lifestyle of drinking, gambling and visiting brothels with Omar. It is a lifestyle he has no intention of giving up, a fact he makes brutally clear to his new wife. With their different, but both difficult, troubles, the wives Rana and Bilquis become friends and confidants.

Their husbands have no reason to hate each other or even to be greatly involved with each other. However, Iskander, like Omar, is very capable of causing offence and army man Raza only too quick to take it and turn it into a cause to defend his honour with violence. The worst is avoided but the schism between Raza and Iskander endures. As the two men climb in their careers they are drawn into politics with an explosive collision course seemingly inevitable and with the shameless Omar, in the wings, still with a role to play.

Shame is the fourth Salman Rushdie novel I have read. Always when I read him, he makes me feel a little intellectually insecure. His novels are so dense with in-jokes, little satires, turns of phrase. They are, on one hand, one of the joys of his novels. On the other hand, I worry somewhat that much of it is over my head or goes past me without me even noticing them. It feels like you are watching an episode of The Simpsons where you are only getting one quarter of the jokes (only last week I realised that the Dr Zaius song from the A Fish Called Selma episode, which first aired in 1996, is a parody of an actual song! – Rock Me Amadeus by Falco). His frequent use of profound metaphor and simile makes a mockery of a reader/reviewer like me trying to take notes while reading. At times does his sophistication risk sounding pretentious? Perhaps. But I still enjoy this aspect. His writing is exceptionally clever, witty and, occasionally, laugh-out-loud funny.

The style of this novel, and of Rushdie in general, is distinctive and unmistakeable as well. Shame uses a first-person narrator – a narrator who is unnamed, seems to know the characters personally, yet is only a witness and has no role in the story. The style of the narrator’s storytelling is very casual and conversational; he often gives to waffling. It feels very oral, with long meandering sentences, like you are listening to a long tale told by a fireside or after a few drinks at the end of a night. The narrator frequently skips ahead, giving you snippets of what is to come, sometimes rebuking himself for getting ahead of himself, before pulling back. It can make the narrative feel loose, unstructured; making the reader feel frustrated, discomforted, even anxious. You have to have faith and trust your storyteller. But it can also feel beguiling; the minor spoilers of what is to follow create intrigue and tempt you to return and reread later.

I am quite fond of the multi-generational family saga – not exactly a rare genre in literature – and just last year I read Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time and it became one of my favourite novels. But here, Rushdie has told such a story in a novel of less than 300 pages! He has taken a big story and – despite the sense that he is sometimes waffling and meandering – told it quickly without sparing detail. It makes the telling of the story very impactful. A couple of scenes in particular told the reader a great deal in a short time, advanced the story considerably, showed great imagination and were powerfully delivered.  

Shame also occupies an interesting position in Rushdie’s bibliography. Published in 1983, it is his third novel overall and his first since his Booker of Bookers, Midnight’s Children – one of my favourite novels. He followed up Shame with his most infamous novel, The Satanic Verses, the only one of his novels that I did not enjoy, though perhaps I did not understand it well enough. So, following Midnight’s Children’s win, Shame, The Satanic Verses and his next novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, were all shortlisted for the Booker. Rushdie made the longlist twice more after that before breaking into the shortlist one more time in 2019. It could be argued that Shame was written near the peak of his career.

Shame, unsurprisingly is a key theme of the novel. I have only mentioned it in relation to Omar but it is infused throughout the novel. In Omar’s case, shame is mostly a personal matter of how his character responds to it, or rather does not. Other characters also experience the effect of shame in personal terms, such as when an insult ignites their pride or when challenges must be faced or deflected. But shame also manifests in the novel in cultural and religious terms such as the shame a family feels has been brought on them by disobedient children, the shame women are made to feel for their attractiveness. It also exists at the national level, as the shame a country feels when it has lost a war. One feels that Rushdie’s message is that the emotion of shame inspires and perpetuates violence.

Is Shame about Pakistan? If it is about Pakistan, does Iskander Harappa represent Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s 9th Prime Minister? Does Raza Hyder represent General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s 6th President? The narrator demurs on this and other points placing the story in the real world, at times denying, at others conceding. At one point, Iskander and Raza are compared, imperfectly, to Danton and Robespierre, from a play by Büchner. Is the suggestion that Iskander and Raza are also imperfect analogues of other historical persons?

The narrator also digresses to share thoughts on Pakistan and on appropriating the stories of others. Pakistan of this era does offer plenty of potential for the novelist brave enough to tackle it, something Shame shares with another novel I have read – Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Maybe my friend should be telling this story, or another one, his own; but he doesn’t write poetry any more. So here I am instead, inventing what never happened to me, and you will note that my hero has already been ankle-hung, and that his name is the name of a famous poet; but no quatrains ever issued or will issue from his pen.

Outsider! Trespasser! You have no right to this subject!

I know: nobody ever arrested me. Nor are they ever likely to.

Poacher! Pirate! We reject your authority. We know you, with your foreign language wrapped around you like a flag: speaking about us in your forked tongue, what can you tell but lies?

I reply with more questions: is history to be considered the property of the participants solely? In what courts are such claims staked, what boundary commissions map out the territories? Can only the dead speak?

[…]

The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centring to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan.

Though not as famous or infamous as his other works, Shame is a novel by one of the world’s great modern novelists in his prime, a writer who has earned his place as one of the greats of the post-colonial literary era. The style of this novel suits its subject matter – elusive but unmistakable, paradoxical but reconcilable, provocative but mischievous.

3 comments

  1. Nice review. On the question of whether “Shame” is about Pakistan or not, I think the consensus is that it obviously is. Isky is supposed to be Zulfikar Bhutto. Raza Hyder is General Zia. Arjumand Harrapa is Benazir. Rushdie (or his narrator) was just being coy and trying to assume plausible deniability in stating that the story is of a country like Pakistan but not Pakistan.

    Liked by 1 person

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