SALMAN RUSHDIE'S THIRD NOVEL, Shame, which will turn 30 next year, may have an unenviable legacy. Squeezed between its author’s two most famous books — and two of the most famous books of the 1980s — Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses — it is seldom given its due in discussions of the author’s body of work, nor does it find much space in his recently published memoir, Joseph Anton. Yet, even with the recent ‘boom’ in Pakistan’s literature, it remains the most ambitious English-language novel about that country, yet to be surpassed in scope, inventiveness, and humor.
It also remains banned in Pakistan.
So, first, a word about my own copy of the novel: it’s a 1984 Picador edition, with the Urdu word for shame, ‘sharam’, written as if by hand with Typex in Arabic script above the English title. I say ‘my’ copy, but it in fact belonged to my father, who bought it in the 1980s at a secondhand bookstore in Islamabad. What’s peculiar about this is that General Zia-ul-Haq’s military government had banned Shame in Pakistan, a decision that attracted more attention to the book than the dictatorship intended, and induced several Western capitals to ship copies to Islamabad through the diplomatic bag for their envoys to read. Once done, these people would sell their copies to one of the many used bookstores in the capital.
There was another book in those years that also made the rounds through these same cramped passageways: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s If I am Assassinated, which the ex-prime minister wrote from his cell after Zia’s coup. When Zia closed down the printing press that was to print the book, stapled photocopied manuscripts found their way to secondhand bookstores, through which they would circulate widely, even years after Bhutto was hanged, in 1979.
It is amusing to consider these two books, hooked to the same life support, moving clandestinely in the political capital together, under Zia’s nose. Shame, after all, is in part a fictionalized account of the Bhutto-Zia relationship. The story of this particular copy is also apt not only because censorship and suppression are such vital themes in Shame, but because an equally important element is the stuff that evades or finds a way around censorship, the thing that won’t go away — including the words of a dead prime minister.
In the simplest terms, the novel is about the transformation of a country’s identity, the rise and fall of two men, the civilian leader Iskander Harrapa and the dictator-to-be Raza Hyder, fictional parallels respectively of Bhutto and Zia, who try to control the process, and the tragic outcomes of their missions. Its raw material is the history of Pakistan. At first glance, the book’s oft-quoted description of Pakistan as “a failure of the dreaming mind” seems mischievous and intended to provoke. But the failed dream here is an oppressive one: it is the dream of Urdu-speaking migrants who, after Partition in 1947, had to govern an essentially foreign nation, feeling compelled to impose a neat formula — the founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s ‘one nation, one culture, one language’ — onto a diverse, unwieldy polity. The dream disappoints because the country is too multi-ethnic and multi-lingua...read more