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Salman Rushdie’s Shame and his “I” in the Pakistani Novel: Deconstructing Authorial Intimacy

Pre-Analysis Notes: On “Shame” and Rushdie’s novel

Shame can reincarnate into violence, as Salman Rushdie’s novel suggests as a theme. From shame and the sense of inner freedom in human being oppressed, from being shamed and being punished by the family for committing shameful acts, and for being killed in the name of burying shame and upholding family honor and hence legitimizing, albeit religiously, calling it ‘honor killing’, from these come a self reborn with only one purpose of existence: to revenge.

That is what Sufiya Zinobia was about as a major character, whose soul thrust and trajectoried across time and space, from East London of present-day to fifteenth-century town of “Q” in what was elusively Pakistan, and came back as a retard, only to do one thing: kill. To become a beast that would terrorize a nation. The poetry of Omar Khayyam or even the psychiatry of Omar Khayyam Shakil, could not cure the illness plaguing Sufiya Zinobia (read: a pure soul who knows god yet a xenophobic (fear of the Other), a Danton and Robespierre matrix of personality contradiction meant to seek justice through terror, or a reign of terror in the little town of Q), and in the end, the lover and the one longing for love are both destroyed and blown into nothingness.

Such is a metaphysical reading of Rushdie’s story of shame. of which if one is to further read it heteroglosically, one may conclude this theme: religious oppression leading to revolutions and violence and revenge, in any repressive state is not only possible but inevitable. Onwards to the march of the embodiment of rage as a consequence of shame.

The Butterfly Effect of shame is similar to the Malay concept of “amuk”, I should propose, in which bottled up anger can lead to the person going on a rampage killing people.

This passage below perhaps exemplifies Salman Rushdie’s skillfulness in using the complex metaphor of deconstructing character and concept in his historical-fictionalized-subtextual account of the socio-political ideology of Pakistan, set in the town of “Q” perhaps during the time of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (‘Iskandar Harappa’) and Zia ul-Haq (‘Raza Hyder’).

“They were his last words. ‘We asked for these arrangements.’ Muni Shakil said as the three sisters each placed a hand upon one of the levers, ‘thinking self-defense is no offense. But also, you must agree, revenge is sweet.’ The image of Sinbad Mengal flashed into Raza’a mind as the three sisters pulled down the lever, acting in perfect unison so that it was impossible to say who pulled first or hardest, and the ancient spring-releases of Yakoob Balloch worked like a treat, the secret panels sprang back and the eighteen-inch stiletto blades of death drove into Raza’s body, cutting him to pieces, their reddened point emerging, among other places, through his eyeballs, adam’s apple, navel, groin, and mouth. His tongue, severed cleanly by a laterally spearing knife, fell out of his lap. He made strange clicking noise: froze. ” (pg. 300)

Grotesque it may read, ala’ Stephen King’s many novels or the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s treatment of his characters especially in The Hateful Eight, I read the passage as a metaphor of how Salman Rushdie deconstructs and destroys ideology, In my close reading of his four of his fiction work thus far, namely Midnight’s Children, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and The Satanic Verses, and this one, Shame, I discerned that way Rushdie rips apart ideas, such as degenerative Islam of the Medieval One Thousand and One Nights fundamentalist right to the core of it and kills it with such violence as metaphored in the above passage. The author overkills people and concepts that are not to his liking. He guillotines them to pieces.

Shame, set in “fifteenth-century Pakistan” is a prelude to The Satanic Verses in which his deconstructing of power and ideology continues to a more elaborate extent, this time at the time of the “Age of Ignorance” or “Jahilliyah” of the Arabs at the time of the emergence of Muhammad and institutionalized Islam.

On Rushdie’s “I”

The ending of the novel Shame, written in the literary genre of ‘magical realism’ with a historical theme underlying, exemplifies Salman Rushdie’s style of shifting pronoun or authorial point of view (POV), employed perhaps to give the story a feel of the style Omar Khayyam used in the epic poem:

“And then the explosion comes, a shock-wave that demolishes the house, and after it, the fireball of her burning, rolling outwards to the horizon like the sea, and last of all the cloud, which rises and spreads and hangs over the nothingness of the scene, until I can no longer see what is no longer there; the silent cloud in the shape of the giant, grey and headless man, a figure of dreams, a phantom with one arm lifted in the gesture of farewell.”

Reading deeper into this scene, I’d say it concluded the story at a metaphysical level, of the union between science and superstition, of the healer and the one in need of healing, of the lover and his (albeit estranged) beloved, of the literate and the illiterate, of man and the beast, all these framed within the idea of the revenge of one who was shamed.

Rushdie needed to include the authorial “I” in the passage, to bring the reader to be the witness of the process of his storytelling and how, as an unreliable narrator who at times needed the assurance of the attention of his readers throughout, this craft can be used to tell the story both at the prose as well at the philosophical levels. Rushdie used this strategy of “stepping out of role” and address the audience/reader what was happening and why such and such a scene needed to be written. I am reminded by the Hindu epic of Mahabharata, in which the blind poet Vyasa as chief author of the text and the creator-narrator of the story of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, with the help of his scribe the minor god, elephant-headed (metaphor of memory) Ganesh, would tell the readers what the Kshatriya Arjuna was doing when the story progressed, especially to the scene of the hero’s conversation with Lord Krishna.

Rushdie may have internalized the style of writing of Mahabharata.

The idea that a narrator comes in and out of the story, like a cameo appearance in a movie, like a voice shifting occasionally, like prose that focuses on both the process and product of writing, and essentially the idea of a “bricolage” of prose production and the author allowing the reader to access his or her mind whilst the storytelling is going on — these are interesting authorial craft that perhaps is as old as the one used in the time of the Greek tragedies moving into Shakespearean times. Salman Rushdie employed this strategy (of shifting POV) and his intention is worth studying.

What impact does the act of shifting points of view, changing the narrator’s voice has on the process of reading? A distraction? An intermission with a sense of urgency and necessity? Or more complex than these, a way by which the author is eluding from the responsibility of making his fictional voice of telling the truth through fiction be shifted in part to the readers as well, as the latter gets immersed himself/herself into the thickness of the plot?

The “I”: Distraction? Or Dialogical device?

At the end of my reading of Shame, I asked whether Rushdie’s shifting point of view slows down the reading or enhances reader engagement. This is a question not only of authorial craft or poetic license but, for lack of a better label, a postmodern way of story-telling in which the reader is not left alone to guess what the story is about without the help of the author intervening in the middle of the story or stepping in or even stepping out of his/her role.

I am reminded by my reading of what the renowned Indonesian poet and playwright Willybrodous Surendro Rendra (WS Rendra) did when he stages his drama wherein the actors would bring in the audience (usually the village folks watching the traditional art form of storytelling) to be part of the play. Ingenious, I think, and more than this, participatory.

The novel Shame has numerous instances wherein Salman Rushdie uses the “I” point of view to engage the reader. But what ought to be the explanation for such a style? Here are examples of how the “I” (bold, mine) is used in the novel:

“… the three sisters, I should state without further delay, bore the family name Shakil, and were universally known (in descending order of age) as Chunni, Munnee, and Bunny. (pg. 3)

‘Little bat,” his three mothers called hum tolerantly when they learned of his nocturnal flittings through the inexhaustible chambers of their home, a dark grey chadar flapping around his shoulders, providing protection against the cold of the winter nights; but as to whether he grew up into the caped crusader or cloaked bloodsucker, into Batman or Dracula, I leave it to the reader to decide. “(pg. 15)

“And she burned, she fried, in that very room of her husband’s birth and his grandfather’s death. Beside that bed of snakes and Paradise … a plague on this disobedient Time! I command this death scene back into the wings at once: shazam!” (pg. 16)

“Hell above, Paradise below; I have lingered on this account of Omar Khayyam’s original, unstable wilderness to underline the propositions that grew up between twin eternities, whose conventional order was, in his experience, precisely inverted; that such headstandings have effects harder to measure than earth-quakes, for what inventor has presented a seismograph of the soul?; and that, for Omar Khayyam uncircumcised, unwhispered to, unshaven, their presence heightened his feelings of being a person apart.” (pg. 17)

“This is a novel about Sufiya Zinobia, elder daughter of General Raza Hyder and his wife Balquis, about what happened between her father and Chairman Iskander Harappa, formerly Prime Minister, now defunct … Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Sufiya Zinobia is about this novel.” (pg. 55)

“I am wondering about how best to describe Balquis. As a young woman who was unclothed by change, but who wrapped herself in certainties, or as a girl who became queen, … But I find that I must, after all, return to my starting point because to me she is, and will always be the Bilquis who was afraid of the wind.” (pgs. 64-65)

“If this were a realistic novel about Pakistan, I would not be writing about Bilquis and the wind; I would be writing about my younger sister. Who is twenty-two, and studying engineering in Karachi, who can’t sit on her hair anymore, and who (unlike me) is a Pakistani citizen. … I think what I am confessing is that, however I choose to write about over there. I am forced to reflect that world in fragments of broken mirrors, the way Farah Zoroaster saw her face at the bollarded frontier. I must reconcile myself of the inevitability of the missing bits. “(pgs. 65-66)

“God damn him! I’m stuck with him, and with his poxy love.

Very well; let’s go on. I’ve lost another seven years of my story while the headache banged and thumped. Seven years and now there are marriages to attend. How time flies!

I dislike arranged marriages. There are some mistakes for which one should not be able to blame one’s poor parents.” (pg. 150)

And then the explosion comes, a shock-wave that demolishes the house, and after it, the fireball of her burning, rolling outwards to the horizon like the sea, and last of all the cloud, which rises and spreads and hangs over the nothingness of the scene, until I can no longer see what is no longer there; the silent cloud in the shape of the giant, grey and headless man, a figure of dreams, a phantom with one arm lifted in the gesture of farewell. (pg. 305)

The “I” breaks the monotony of the prose as Rushdie is fond of using long sentences (at times 3 pages long,) and uses divergent passages to further explain the character and the historical context of places and events as the story unfolds, often-times through the paragraph-styling used, or perhaps pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his memorable novel such as One Hundred Years of Solitude. Rushdie even used this strategy to explain the idea of “terror” and its centrality during the French Revolution, when he wrote about Danton and Robespierre and the same personality embodying shame, anger, and terror as seen from the eyes of the French people. (pgs. 254-256). Elsewhere, he shifted the voice to “I” when he was writing about the plight of the migrant, through his characters:

“I, too, know something of this immigrant business. I am an emigrant from one country (India) and a newcomer in two (England where I live, and Pakistan to which my family moved against my will. And I have a theory that the resentments we ‘mohajirs’ engender have something to do with our conquest of the force of gravity. We have performed the act of which all men anciently dream, the thing for which they envy the birds; that is to say, we have flown.” (pg. 84)

Shame is a complex story requiring the author the explain more than the prose provided, I hypothesized. The author wanted the reader to fully comprehend the historical context of the theme, plot, and setting and to appreciate his use of allusions to the modern history of Pakistan during the time of the tension between Zia ul Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as well as of fifteenth-century Persia (the height of Islamic civilization) during the time of the poet Omar Khayyam. Rushdie used the point of view to make critical commentaries of the historical events he fictionalized. The character of Omar Khayyam Shakil, a Pakistani, for example, is created as a bastardization of the glorious poet of Persia and this act of creating such an irony in the individual was effectively communicated to the reader, through first-person narrative. In a passage in which the character spoke to a girl he was in love with, Rushdie crafted this transformation:

‘The sight of you through my beloved telescope,’ Omar Khayyam Shakil told Farah Zoroaster the day he declared his love. ‘gave me the strength to break my mother’s power. … ‘Voyeur,” she replied, ‘I shit on your words. Your balls dropped too soon and you got the hots, no more to it than that. Don’t load your family problems on me.’ She was two years his senior, but Omar Khayyam was nevertheless forced to concede that his darling had a dirty mouth … As well as the name of the great poet, the child has been given his mother’s family name.’ (pg. 23)

Such is an example of how Rushdie used the create a character based on a historical figure and next to demean him, using the “I” to also narrate the acts of his creation.


Rushdie’s use of “I” to shift the point of view, at the elementary level, could be read as an authorial style of an unreliable narrator. I do believe too in a higher reading: it is a complex strategy to keep the reader not only engaged in the story by being an active participant at times whose opinion is sought on what to do next with this or that character, especially of Omar Khayyam Shakil and Sufiya Zenobia, but as an imitation of the act of ancient storytelling itself inspired by the poets Vyasa (author of The Mahabharata) and Omar Khayyam, the poet of The Rubaiyat and One Thousand and One Nights. In these two ancient texts, the reader is engaged.

The craft of shifting point-of-view, using the highly personalized pronoun, though seemingly intrusive and distracting as if laboring on trying to explain the storyline un-necessarily, is useful as a style or craft for writers to bring the readers much closer to their story and more intimate with the author. I end this brief essay with Rushdie’s confession of a place he “made-up” (“world-building” if you may) and his rationale for using the “I”:

“The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space. My story, my fictional country exists, like myself, as a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan.” (pg. 22)

It is within this consideration of the style of authorship that Salman Rushdie, in his next novel The Satanic Verses, sharpened and expanded his craft and later was accused by Islamic fundamentalist-critics of hiding behind his fiction in his attempt to demonize Muhammad the prophet of Islam into the character “Mahound” and to bastardize the story of the revelation of the Quran, earning, the author the infamous “Death fatwa” from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Rushdie, Salman (2008). Shame. New York: Random House Trade Paperback Edition.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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