In his novel, Shame, Salman Rushdie tells the story of three families living in a fictitious and magical world Rushdie creates to symbolize modern-day Pakistan, a nation founded to be a religious state, its government and its policies shaped by the teachings of Islam. This essay will focus on the first chapter of Rushdie’s iconic novel in an effort to understand how Rushdie uses symbolism, metaphor, and analogy to create an imaginary realm that explores the real problems that exist in the actual one.
Rushdie’s narrative and its central focus on the concept of shame suggests that presumptions to create an ideal world on earth by denying and punishing inevitable human failures only leads to greater transgressions and worse harms.
Rushdie opens his novel as though he were beginning to tell a child a fairy story. He writes, “In the remote border town of Q·there once lived three lovely and loving sisters” (Chapter 1). This opening lulls readers into a false sense of security through the familiar refrains of childhood.
However, Rushdie appears to have far more in mind than simply invoking this opening for the aesthetic pleasure and the nostalgic comfort it provides. At its heart, this opening is meant to signal to readers that everything that follows is, indeed, a fairy tale. It is a fiction, a lie.
In fact, Rushdie drops his bombshell quite quickly in the first chapter. Despite its tranquil and beautiful opening line, the reader soon learns that despicable acts are taking place in the land of Q when the three Shakil sisters are introduced.
Like fairy tale princesses held captive by some gruesome ogre, the Shakil sisters have been kept imprisoned for nearly two decades by their father, who is on his deathbed as the novel opens and who uses his dying breath to curse both himself and his daughters. There is something quite unsettling in this revelation, especially as it occurs so early in the novel, when the principal characters are still being introduced. On one level, certainly, the plotline of the abused females held prisoner by some more powerful male tyrant continues the fairytale ambiance, suggesting that what will follow may be the standard damsel-in-distress story. However, this is not a book for children, and its initial presentation in fairytale form makes it seem very out of place in the genre of the adult novel.
Nevertheless, some critics celebrate Rushdie’s translation of the fairytale form into the literary fiction genre. Deszcz, for example, argues that Rushdie makes frequent use of the fairytale form because he
evidently cherishes the genre not just as a literary category, but as a form that has its own life·.Various aspects of Rushdie’s complicated position within the widely accepted framework of the fairytale may serve as revelatory thematisations of his artistic and political stance. (28)
Ultimately, Deszcz celebrates Rushdie’s appropriation of the form as a sort of feminist manifesto, a reimagining of the damsel-in-distress narrative that restores to women their power and autonomy. She cites as particularly strong evidence the sisters’ choice to bear and raise their child as a collective unit, never revealing the identity of the birth mother or the father. That they live and thrive in isolation after the death of their father, bear a son, and raise him to be a brilliant and accomplished man without the aid or intervention of anyone else signifies for Deszcz a feminist motive underlying Rushdie’s novel.
While Deszcz is correct in underscore the “revelatory” and the “political” nature of Rushdie’s fairytales, however, her reading is entirely too optimistic because it underestimates the nationalist concerns that lie at the heart of the novel. Though set in a fictitious land, the parallels to modern-day Pakistan are unmistakable, and this realization affects how the novel as a whole should be interpreted or understood. In his analysis of Shame, Radavi?i?t? argues that what Rushdie creates in his novel is not so much a fairytale as a simulacrum, a sign signifying something else. This something else, as will be shown, is Pakistan as an emblem of the atrocities that can occur when nations and even groups presume to build themselves around a moral ideal with such fervor that they transgress upon and even deprive citizens of their human rights including the right to be human, with all the flaws, sins, and shortcomings that humanity entails.
A simulacrum is, basically, a sign that has no authentic existence in and of itself. This perfectly fits the world of Q that Rushdie has created, as is evident in Chapter One and the childhood of the Omar Khayyam, the son of the three Shakil sisters. Omar is raised without religion and without any connection to the outside world. He is never allowed to leave his home and he suffers frequently from vertigo, the sense that his world s upside down. In this way, the Shakil household might be seen as a sort of reverse image of the outside world, a backward reflection of what is occurring in Q. Thus, the anti-religious Shakil household is the inverse image of the theocracy of Q/Pakistan.
Despite the sisters’ attempts to insulate their home and Omar’s childhood from outside influences, however, Omar’s bouts with vertigo reflect the omnipresence of that outside world. It both orients and disorients Omar. He comes to know himself and his positioning in the world only in relation to that external realm from which his mothers would shield him.
Ben-Yishal argues that Shame must not be neatly classified as a simple allegory, in which the fictional setting is meant to represent, without complication or alteration, Pakistan. Instead, he argues, that the relationship between Pakistan and the world of the novel is meant to “foreground the centrality of the question of representation to the novel, in all its levels of form and meaning” (196). This is important because at the core of the novel is the effort to understand how nations and peoples represent themselves and what effects such representations have on the individuals who must live by and among such narratives.
Despite efforts to shield Omar, the theocratic narratives of the world outside his home seep in, making him feel as though he is living in a world turned upside down because the national discourse holds that a home such as his is opposite that of the nation and what the nation requires and expects of its citizens. In his analysis of Shame as a critique of nationalistic discourse, Hussein argues that nationalist narratives should be understood “as rhetoric, as a form of persuasion and a discourse of opposition” (2). Such contradictions are at the core of the novel and symbolized powerfully in Omar’s vertigo, his upside down sense of the world. If nationalist language can be both persuasive and oppositional, then the worlds such language creates can also be simultaneously “right side up” and “up side down.”
This leads to the theme of shame that figures so heavily in the novel. To be certain, the characters that populate Rushdie’s text often (though not always, of course) have good intentions. The society they build and the homes they make for themselves are often based on the best and highest of intentions. A nation or a home constructed from a shared faith, whether in a particular god, religion, or set of ideals, is always a laudable endeavor. It is when that endeavor becomes tyrannical, however, that the dream becomes a nightmare, the ideal morphs into a weapon.
This is the origin of shame in Rushdie’s novel. The characters live and act according to sets of principles and values they purport to hold dear, but these become so magnified in the hearts and minds of the characters that they leave no room for the human element. Dayal argues that Shame is far more than a political novel. Instead, Dayal asserts that Shame traces the development of the psyche, of a psychological interiority that is shaped by the narratives surrounding the individual.
Sufiya Zenobia is the tragic and terrifying symbol of this process. She becomes the receptacle for the secret shame of her people. She absorbs all the guilt that accompany deeds and acts the culture deems impermissible. In the process, she becomes monstrous, an instrument of rage and remorselessness. She balloons to overwhelming proportions and she kills without discrimination or mercy.
Rushdie has long been an opponent of the infusion of religion into statecraft in general and of the theocracy of Pakistan in particular. The shame that infiltrates and corrupts Sufiya Zenobia derives from the wholesale lack of safer outlets or channels in Q. The imposition of virtue as a political policy has become tyrannical in Q. Humanity with all of its shortcomings and transgressions will not be denied, however, and if denied expression one place, it will find means somewhere else. In this case, in the deadly and ultimately dying body of Sufiya Zenobia.
If Sufiya Zenobia is to be seen as the physical embodiment of shame in Rushdie’s novel, the Rani’s eighteen marvelous shawls should be viewed as their material equivalent. Through them, Rani chronicles the atrocities committed by powerful military and political leaders in the ostensibly virtuous land of Peccavistan, the nation in which Q is located. This includes the atrocities committed by her own late husband, the tyrannical Iskander. These are the deeds that time forgets and history denies, were there not a witness present to record them.
The story of Rani’s shawls echoes the story of Arachne in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Like Rani, Arachne is a master weaver. Her talent rivals that of the gods. More significant for the purposes of this essay, however, is the fact that both Arachne and Rani possess an almost preternatural knowledge of the events of the world, as well as the courage to represent that truth faithfully. Like Rani, Arachne uses her wool to weave the stories of the gods’ misdeeds and transgressions and in so doing, she incurs their wrath. She is cursed, and told she cannot “count on a happier future” as she is condemned to weave for all eternity in the form of a spider (Ovid 216). Like Arachne, Rani, too, is punished by spending the rest of her life in exile.
That this power of testimony should fall upon the women is significant. Traditionally, it is women who are forced to carry the mantle of virtue, whether for the family or the society. It is also they upon whom the punishments for transgression fall particularly hard. That these three women would use both their bodies and their craft to reflect the hypocrisies and shame of those in power, particularly of men, speaks to the simultaneous power and vulnerability of the women. Once again we find here an echo of the upside-down world of Omar, in which a thing is both itself and its opposite: specifically, narrative as an instrument to oppress and as an instrument to empower.
Salman Rushdie’s novel, Shame, is a powerful indictment of nations and peoples who would impose a tyrannical form of morality on its people. Rushdie uses the fictitious, fairytale-like world of Peccavistan to symbolize, albeit in altered and abstract form, the modern-day theocracy of Pakistan. His invocation of the fairytale genre in the opening scenes of the book suggest the novel’s meditative focus on the power of language both to create and to deconstruct worlds and the psyches of those who inhabit them. In Shame, Rushdie suggests that human nature can be neither denied nor controlled and to attempt to do so only leads to catastrophe. Shame and guilt will find their expression somewhere, and when they do, they will wreak havoc everywhere.