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Rushdie’s “Shame” – More Than Fiction

Author: Cristina Vanoaga Pop, student, “1 Decembrie 1918” University Alba Iulia
Co-ordinator: Asist. Univ. Drd. Emilia Ivancu

“Shame” written by Salman Rushdie is more than a fictional story. It combines the elements
of a magical realism with those of a post – colonial writing. The title of the book is a strong
Pakistan symbol – sharam, translated and magnified to the power of a non- – western and shocking
way of living. Shame becomes the symbol of an entire society.

“Shame”was published by Salman Rushdie in 1983 and it forecasts the so controversial

“The Satanic Verses”. The book is a tribute to the natal world of the author. The action of the book
develops in Peccavistan, an imaginary and in the same time a non-imaginary country. The reader
may easily recognise the Pakistan land under the imaginary name and especially due to the
geographical description.
Some critics consider that “Shame” is a piece of magic realism. This literary movement has
its origin back in the 60’s and appeared first in the Latin – American literature, having main
exponents as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Miguel Angel Asturias. The
characteristic of this kind of prose is a specific combination between ordinary realistic events and
characters with fantastic elements and even pathological behaviours. Salman Rushdie mingles
realistic Indo – Arabian society and conceptions with unpredictable characters. Other critics
consider that “Shame” is a post – colonial writing with specific characteristics, mainly due to the
combination between documentary fragments and allegorical tale. This kind of writing is specific to
the writers from colonies after gaining independence.
The entire work is anyway a combination between up and down, reality and imaginary, good
and bad, usual and unusual. Without thinking to write in a certain manner, the author chooses to
give life to one of his literary experiments that obsessed him a while – the possibility of using
dichotomy as style. He confesses in an interview: “ I was very interested in what you describe as
fast transitions inside a sentence. Initially I’d been interested in fast transitions of mood: that a
paragraph can begin as tragedy and end as farce, or the other way around. I’d tried often – Shame
does it a lot – tried to make a book in which, so to speak, the clouds are moving very fast across the
sun: you have light, dark, light, dark. That should be able to happen in a page, in a sentence.”1
The book is telling the story of two families used as a pretext to historical and ethnological
overview of an oriental and often considered a secret world. There are some characters that lead us
thinking to real persons. Iskander Harapa and Raza Hyder have prototypes in the political life of
Pakistan. The main character Omar Khayyam Shakil is named after a well – known poet2. The
author is masking the origin of these characters in the book, writing about fiction and reality:
“Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy – tale, so that’s all right; nobody
need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic actions need be taken either.”3
Also taken from the Oriental way of thinking is the concept that gives the title of the book.
Its origin is the term of sharam that has not an exact correspondent in English but may be
approximately translated with shame. The author gives an explanation to sharam, in order to offer

Weich, Dave, Salman Rushdie, Out and About, www.powells.com/authors/rushdie.html.
Omar Khayyam, Persian, poet, mathematician and astronomer, 11th Century.
Rushdie, Salman, Shame, New York, Picador USA, 1983, p. 68.
to the reader a clear image about all the nuances of this word: “embarrassment, discomfiture,
decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world”.1
The concept of sharam is in a close connection with the concept of izzat. Izzat is the family
honour and often is based on the obedience of women, which have the passive role to endure the
sharam. In order to explain sharam and izzat, the author narrates a story taken from a real incident:
“Not so long ago, in the East End of London, a Pakistani father murdered his only child, a
daughter, because by making love to a white boy she had brought such dishonour upon her family
that only her blood could wash away the stain.”2
“Shame” is an entire universe built on these two concepts, mainly through two of its
characters: Omar Khayyam and Sufiya Zinobia. Omar Khayyam is the personification of shameless,
while Sufiya Zinobia may be considered the shame itself. Eventually they meet and marry, living in
a strange union functioning on a doctor – patient relationship, not on the principle of opposite
attraction as one may think.
Omar Khayyam has strange origins, a trinity of mothers. The three sisters Chunni, Munnee
and Bunny raised the child like just one single mother, isolated on their so – called ship. Nobody
ever knew which was the real mother because they were so attached to each other, feeling and
living like an entity that all of them presented the symptoms of expecting a baby. There were
discussions related to the trinity of mothers as an ironic contradiction to the Holly Trinity. Perhaps
the author never thought to such deep similarities and just considered three a number that is
considered magic and often appearing in fairy – tales. After all, “Shame” is a realistic fairy – tale.
At a certain age, Omar Khayyam chooses to escape the isolation of his childhood to find an outer
and often spied world, different of everything he ever knew.
His mothers advise him when living their fortress to go to school for the first time not to
fight with anyone. The moment Khayyam will be angry on someone’s saying will mean his first
moment of shame. All this advice and particular method to grow up a child transform Omar
Khayyam in what is called a shameless person. Not just the advice, but his entire previous life
represents an upside – down world. The ordinary world with its principles is just the contrary of
Omar Khayyam’s principles. This character sees the world in reverse angle from the time he was
born. The outer world represents to him an extension of the fortress. He is convinced that Heaven is
under the surface of the world and all the earthquakes are angels moving. The surface of the world
and all its events are Hell. Between is the house of his mothers, the so – called ship, like some kind
of purgatory.
Omar Khayyam’s social behaviour is unusual and often grotesque but is just a follow – up of
shameless attitude. On the other hand, he’s a man and izzat and sharam are usually applied to
women. Men may behave abusive but they have the active social role. The two world’s ambiguity
leads this character to an unusual career, too. He becomes a hypnotist. His activity as a doctor is just
another shame – shameless struggle. He manages to bring to a surface the most hidden wishes of his
patients and make these people fulfil them. But Omar Khayyam’s greatest struggle is not with other
people’s demons but with his own ones. He begins to give signs of shame and all his way in life is a
symbolic way to return to his ancestral origins. These origins are shameless only for the members of
the family and on the surface. The ship is bearing the signs of shame: a child with an English father,
a crazy and grotesque grandfather and almost crazy trinity of mothers oscillating between lascivious
sexuality and sexual purity. The return to ancestral origins transform Omar Khayyam into a main
character, a central one, leaving behind his career as a secondary character behind a lot of other
characters with episodic central role.
The other character in the relation shame – shameless is Sufiya Zinobia, which like Omar
Khayyam is a personification of a concept since her birth. We may consider Sufiya the Shame itself.
Her parents expected a boy as a first-born. Her father was angry and her mother embarrassed when
Rushdie, Salman, Shame, New York, Picador USA, 1983, p. 33.
Ibidem, p.117.
seeing a girl. Their emotions transmitted to the little girl. The first time when Sufiya blushes as a
sign of shame is the time of her birth. Sufiya’s life is from now on the life of a castrated boy. This
character is in a continuos pathological state. The girl suffers an acute fever that damages her brain
and transforms her intellect in a forever child.
Sufiya’s shame has a close boundary with sexuality. Her father’s exclaims on the moment of birth:
“Genitalia! Can! Be! Obscured!”1 These exclamations are the start of a consciousness implying the
unwanted status of being a woman in the Pakistani society. The anger of being just a woman
without the power of fight back is fed in time by other events like the wedding of Sufiya’s sister
with a grotesque man. Her sister has neither the power nor the possibility to refuse marriage.
Another example of social behaviour strangely modified by the concept of shame is given by the
narrator – the story of a Pakistani girl attacked by a gang of white boys. She doesn’t go to the police
to report the incident because of her shame. She transforms her fury and her shame into pride
because she doesn’t expose herself to lack of sharam.
A lot of this kind of incidents seen or heard by Sufiya are giving her an inner rage against
the pre – established relation man – woman in Pakistani society. Sufiya is a suggested possibility
that women leave their usual passive role for an active one. A beast is born inside the girl. He is fed
by every – day events and most of the time raises his head when sexuality is involved. The beast
produces crises and insane behaviour that bring Sufiya in Omar Khayyam’s attention. He observes
the monster inside his future wife and has the feeling of founding something similar to his origin,
the feeling of born from Hell. Khayyam recognises a similarity with his job and true calling as
hypnotist reading Sufiya’s eyes. He sees looking into her eyes: “the golden eyes of the most
powerful mesmerist on earth.”2
Sufiya has no clear concept of sexuality until the meeting with Khayyam. Sufiya’s mother
explains her allegorically before marriage the essence of the physical relationship between man and
woman. But the explanation is not enough for a damaged mind and gives birth to an unreal way of
perceiving sexuality. She was told that she’s an ocean and man will drown into this ocean for
pleasure. That’s the reason why, Sufiya will relate her sexual desire, even if fearing it, as a strict
representation of her mother’s words: “There is an ocean. She feels its tide. And, somewhere in its
depths, a Beast, stirring.”3 It is the monster of shame that forbids her to act like a normal woman,
making her afraid of sexuality although she has sexual needs. Sufiya is capable of defending her
representation of pure shame even using crime. Omar Khayyam sees and feels the dilemma inside
his wife and treats her like a patient. He has now a purpose in transforming his wife into a woman
closer to his principle of living life shameless after the advice given by Shakil sisters.
In the end Sufiya follows her husband into ether, in a strange husband – wife sexual union.
She manages to free her inner monster and separate shame of sexuality. Instead a usual end,
Rushdie respects the magic realism, offering freedom to its characters, but not an ordinary one. The
escape from shame is only apparent. Death offers freedom from society but shame may follow
Omar and Sufiya in another dimension.
Salman Rushdie has the talent to reveal an unknown world for a western or European reader,
never neglecting his art as a writer. The reader is tempted to read the book at once, without
interruptions, willing find out the final act. This is not just a consequence of discovering a taboo
world but although a consequence of a great narration art of the author. The book was awarded in
France as “the best foreign book” and was nominee in America for “The Bookers Award”.
Shame and its allegorical representation teach us that even underestimated people may rise
and hit sometime in order to protect themselves. The way Omar Khayyam finds his way to a more
human behaviour and perception of the world and Sufiya’s capacity to overcome her condition as

Ibidem, p. 88.
Ibidem, p.250.
Ibidem, p.227.
incapable woman are remarkable. Malcolm Bradbury wrote in a critical review of this book that
Salman Rushdie demonstrates us that a lot of fantasy is needed in order to describe an every – day
history, the history we are making. Understanding this kind of history, maybe we will be able to
save it. I think that Salman Rushdie offers us not only a piece of history, but also a way of saving it.

Monahan, Kerrin Ross, Shame, www.writebetweenthelines.com.
Rushdie, Salman, Shame, New York, Picador USA, 1983.
Rushdie, Salman, Ruşinea, traducere şi note de Cornelia Bucur, postfaţă de Sabina Drăgoi, s.l,
Editura Polirom, 2001.
Sharpe, Jenny, Reimagining Sharam in Salman Rushdie’s Shame,
Weich, Dave, Salman Rushdie, Out and About, www.powells.com/authors/rushdie.html.