I’m not sure how I’m even going to begin this review. “Shame” is such an expansive novel, and it’s just packed with myths, history and such vibrant characters that I don’t think I’ll be able to do it justice in a single review.
And it’s probably already clear that I absolutely love it. Love it so much that the word probably deserves to be in caps. LOVE. There.For me this book breathes. I’m sure that as I flipped the pages, the book pulsed in my hands. It has life. It’s so… rich. I love novels like that. Novels that become an entity, that fully submerge you in their world. It depends on the reader, too, I guess. And I, I was fully prepared to go where Rushdie led me.
This novel is about Omar Khayyam Shakil, who is born to three sisters. No one is ever certain exactly which of the three sisters is his real mother. But apparently it doesn’t matter in the novel. So it didn’t matter to me. The point is not who the mother is. The point is that they all raised him, and they are all his mothers. And they all grow up in a decaying mansion which is situated on the edges of the town, just as they are situated at the edges of society. And they are all without shame. The three sisters scorn the emotion of shame, and they raise their son to possess a similar disregard for the emotion. They raise him to be shameless.
But Omar, as Rushdie repeatedly keeps telling us, is a peripheral hero. For much of the story, he sits on the sidelines, while we are privy to the lives of:
The Harrapas. Iskander and Rani Harrapa. Iskander, in his youth, is a philandering, playboy with nothing much to his credit except his good looks. Sadly, he doesn’t give up his philandering once he gets married, but he does after his entrance into politics.
The Hyders. Raza Hyder and his ambitious wife, Bilquis. At first, Raza is only a lowly Captain but soon climbs ranks to General, shaping one of the most brutal and strict regimes of Pakistan’s history. Rushdie based this character on the real-life Zia Ul-Haz (whose regime is similarly autocratic). Raza and Bilquis have two daughters” Sufiya “Shame” Zinobia and Naveed “Good News” Hyder. Sufiya, from the moment of birth, disappointing both parents by being a girl instead of a boy, brings shame to the family.
It is Sufiya who is the most interesting character of all in the whole novel. Subject to the feelings of disappointment and anger that are foisted on her by her parents, Sufiya begins strangely to absorb the feelings of shame that constantly surround her. Her parent’s shame at failing to produce a first-born son, her mother’s shame at her father’s obvious attraction to another woman, the shame her ayah (nanny) is made to feel at the hands of her sister, Naveed. So the girl absorbs all this shame, and constantly blushes. She blushes for the world. She blushes for all those who do not blush for themselves. All this absorbing can only lead to something catastrophic.
There’s a lot happening in this novel: love, hate, revenge, shame, death, politics. It’s not a light novel – it’s dark and weighty, but there are enough moments of humor weaved into it to compensate for the darkness and weight.
I’m sure you don’t want to sit here and listen to me gush about the novel, so: Read It. It’s definitely an experience and you will be richer for it – especially if you read some contextual sources, but even the book on its own is a satisfying read.