Barbarism in Cultured Soil: Rushdie’s Great Pakistani Novel

By Shehryar FazliNovember 23, 2012

Barbarism in Cultured Soil: Rushdie’s Great Pakistani Novel

Shame by Salman Rushdie


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-lingual, too multidimensional for the imposition.

Shame’s narrator argues, “It is possible to see the subsequent history of Pakistan as a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world forcing its way back through what-had-been-imposed.” This duel forms the novel’s locus. Throughout, the censored and stifled rise to the surface, whether in the real-life secession of East Pakistan and insurgency in Balochistan against a brutal state, or in the gruesomely murderous acts of Sufiya Zinobia, General Hyder’s underdeveloped and repressed daughter. And then there is the deposed Iskander Harrapa, refusing to be quiet even after his execution: “O unceasing monologue of a hanged man!” Hyder wails as he starts hearing the dead prime minister, head still in the noose, taunting his executioner, “Never fear, old boy, it’s pretty difficult to get rid of me. I can be an obstinate bastard when I choose.” That voice goes on harassing Hyder “from the day of Iskander’s death to the morning of his own, that voice, sardonic lilting dry […] words dripping on his ear-drum like Chinese tortures, even in his sleep.”

There are other duels, too: between civilians and generals; between private passions and public customs; between the imagination and censorship; and, of course, between honor and shame. There is also a duel between fact and fiction. Ostensibly, Shame is a fantasy, the country in it “not-quite Pakistan,” everything not-quite real. Mixed into the fantasy, however, are passages of memoir, essay, and commentary on the actual Pakistan. Describing his intentions, the author says, “I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking, my last words on the East from which, many years ago, I began to come loose […] It is part of the world to which, whether I like it or not, I am still joined, if only by elastic bands.”

These intrusions, where the narrator (Rushdie or not-quite Rushdie, it’s difficult to tell) speaks and explains himself, are integral to the structure. He says that with his intermittent visits to his family in Pakistan, he “learned Pakistan in slices” — and that’s how he gives us the story. Instead of the perforated sheet of Midnight’s Children, we have “fragments of broken mirrors,” which the author holds up and in which the world of Shame is reflected to us. Throughout, we see him adjusting the angles to refract a little more or a little less. The difficulty in discriminating how much is real and how much is fantasy and manipulation is part of the novel’s tension.


It is difficult to resist the temptation to compare Shame to the now thrice-Booker-winning Midnight’s Children. In a 1995 piece declaring Saul Bellow’s 1953 Adventures of Augie March the Great American Novel, Martin Amis wrote: “Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago.” Similarly, if there is such a search for the Great Indian Novel, the trail went cold after the publication of Midnight’s Children in 1981. And it would indeed seem implausible that a novel about Pakistan would reach the same peaks as this earlier masterpiece.

At the risk of fidgeting with already tenuous definitions, it does seem that some countries have earned the Great Novel and some haven’t. The deserving nation at minimum evokes a sense of vastness, idealism and possibility, even if the promise is ultimately disappointed. This befits America and India, as it did Britain and Russia once upon a time. Meanwhile the shrunken land of Pakistan seems to have a more modest mandate, the intimate novel with small cast, of which there has been an excellent supply since at least the Lahore-based novelist Bapsi Sidhwa’s work in the late 1970s. In this century, Pakistani writers have taken a piece of their country’s territory and extracted all that they can from it, often brilliantly: Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke (Lahore), Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (rural Punjab), Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (the tribal borderlands), Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (life in the military). Shame, however, goes for broke; it wants the whole nation.

The first few chapters alone go through a rich inventory of the idiosyncratically Pakistani: the three rebellious, irreverent matriarchs in Quetta; a brandy den in the same city; the cantonment school; the corrupt customs officer and post-office man; the eccentric maulana who rides around town on a scooter “donated by the Angrez sahibs, threatening the citizens with damnation”; tribal borderlands; rural Sindh (with a seamless description of its large, almost-desert landholdings: “In these parts, horizons serve as boundary fences.”); and a humorous exposition of the layers of secret deals behind Karachi’s Defense Housing Authority, a result of which “nobody ever questioned how it came about that the city’s most highly desirable development zone had been allotted to the defense services.”

There is great comedy — the corrupt customs officer, for example, throws his daughter out of the house when he “suddenly found that his empty customs house was too full to accommodate a daughter whose belly revealed adherence to other, unacceptable customs”; and pithy, pitch perfect meditations on the condition of Pakistan’s elite that recall Rushdie’s earlier career as an adman: “Little (except freedom) was denied him”; “You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail.”

Rushdie is also a master of South Asian accents and verbal mannerisms: when, for example, a character asks, “For what you begums want this lock-shock now?” Or when another speaks of “eighteen-inch stiletto blades, sharp sharp,” and another berates, “God knows what you’ll change with all this shifting shifting.” “Dontyouthinkso” becomes one word to reflect its common quirky South Asian usage. As such instances become more frequent — “biskuts” instead of biscuits, “filmi types,” a character describing a crude child as “the junglee boy”— one can share Rushdie’s delight in retooling our vocabulary.

Translations from Urdu are chosen both for comedy and insight: there is the restive Needle Valley, after Balochistan’s Sui district (the word ‘sui’ meaning needle); and a newspaper named War, a translation of jang, which is the name of one of the country’s top media groups and their main daily newspaper, its name such a part of everyday discussion that we sometimes forget its literal meaning. The Urdu term for the man-to-man hug of greeting, galai se milna, sounds charmingly absurd when translated into “allowing their necks to meet.”

He gave us this mix in Midnight’s Children, too, but there’s something else in the tone here that distinguishes the two novels. Returning to Bellow for a moment, the great American writer supposedly found his voice when, seeing water gushing from a fire hydrant, he decided to adopt a literary style that reflected a comparable surge of elements, employing it for the first time in Augie March. The writing in Midnight’s Children could be described in the same way. Throughout, there is a sense of one story or character or place leaking all over the next. In his recently published memoir, Rushdie described it this way: “India was not cool. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he [Rushdie] would try to find that language.”

Shame, meanwhile, is a much smaller, tighter work, in part a reflection of its author’s idea of Pakistan: not hot, not loud, but closed, censored, its possibilities more restricted. Instead of Saleem’s invocation to himself on the first page, “Oh, spell it out, spell it out,” Shame’s narrator prefers leaving “many questions in a state of unanswered ambiguity.” Yet, concealed underneath is nevertheless the same messiness and energy that we find in the earlier novel; the water is still in the hydrant but the internal pressure always high, causing bursts now and again. This gives the sentences a fresh, tantalizing volatility.

Some of the book’s best moments are indeed when Rushdie condenses his material. Harappa’s period in power, for example, which a reader familiar with Bhutto’s rule in the 1970s may expect to be covered in several long chapters, is instead captured in a single paragraph that runs for four pages. It is depicted through 18 embroidered shawls, classified by theme. For example, a slapping shawl:

Iskander a thousand times over raising his hand, lifting it against ministers, ambassadors, argumentative holy men, mill-owners, servants, friends, it seemed as if every slap he ever delivered was here, and how many times he did it [] see upon the cheeks of his contemporaries the indelible blushes engendered by his palm.

On the next page, elections shawls:

[O]ne for the day of suffrage that began his reign, one for the day that led to his downfall, shawls swarming with figures, each one a breathtakingly lifelike portrait of a member of the Front, figures breaking seals, stuffing ballot-boxes, smashing heads, figures swaggering into polling booths to watch peasants vote, stick-waving rifle-toting figures, fire-raisers, mobs, and on the shawl of the second election there were three times as many figures as the on the first […] and of course he’d had won anyway, daughter, no question, a respectable victory, but he wanted more, only annihilation was good enough for his opponents, he wanted them squashed like cockroaches under his boot, yes, obliteration, and in the end it came to him instead, don’t think he wasn’t surprised, he had forgotten he was only a man.

Seven years of revolutionary, autocratic government compressed into four intense pages.

Like Bhutto, Harrapa is deposed in a coup by his until-then sycophantic army chief Hyder; elections are postponed; and Hyder, with his ally the motor-scooter maulana whispering in one ear and the ghost of the hanged ex-prime minister taunting him in the other, and facing women-led insurrection on the streets, becomes an Islamizing dictator.

The novel’s penultimate chapter is titled, “Stability,” the word here of course offered not to suggest genuine peace and harmony, but as the main imperative of dictatorship, a response to the “danger of permitting the imagination too free a rein.” It in fact leaves out five crucial words, revealed later to complete General Hyder’s motto: “Stability, in the name of God.” The chapter begins with a synopsis of a play about the French Revolution featuring Georges Danton who, after playing a lead role in overthrowing the monarchy, is guillotined during Robespierre’s Terror because, in this version, “he is too fond of pleasure.” His indulgences are subversive, whereas the demands of the French public at the time are for order: “The people are like Robespierre. They distrust fun.” And hence the play’s lesson is that the duel between the epicure and the puritan forms “the true dialectic of history. Forget left-right, capitalism-socialism, black-white. Virtue versus vice, ascetic versus bawd, God against the Devil: that’s the game.”

It’s also a blood sport — and Shame is by far Rushdie’s most violent novel, climaxing in this blood-spattered chapter. As the dictatorship seeks “stability, in the name of God,” it has to oppress the public while appearing to be fulfilling the public’s needs. But all stability of this kind, even if it’s in the name of God, proves fragile. General Hyder, proving himself alas to be “only a man,” is overthrown by a terrorizing mob that may or may not be inspired by his repressed daughter, Sufiya. The final section is appropriately titled “Judgment Day.”


The heroes of Rushdie’s novels are tragic because they believe or dream themselves to be larger than they are. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem envisions himself as the embodiment of the Indian nation, and the one causing historical events. Gibreel in The Satanic Verses dreams himself into the archangel. But these are, of course, fantasies, exposed by the end. India, for example, carries on with or without Saleem.

Shame’s declared ‘hero’, Omar Khayyam, never entertains such delusions: he accepts a peripheral role in history, watching “from the wings, not knowing how to act.” But the danger is that people who do influence the times, the Hyders and Harrapas, are just as average. Unlike Saleem and Gibreel, when they enlarge their roles, the consequences are severe.

History was old and rusted, it was a machine nobody had plugged in for thousands of years, and here all of a sudden it was being asked for maximum output. Nobody was surprised that there were accidents.

Those accidents leave long-term traumas, both external — separatism, secession, executions — and internal, as symbolized by the innocent Sufiya’s transformation into a murdering Beast that prowls the very “heart of the respectable world.” While iron rule may produce the trappings of stability and civility on the surface, it fails ultimately to conceal the novel’s innermost secret: “the impossible verity that barbarism [can] grow in cultured soil.” This revelation exposes and undoes the history-workers.

Towards the end of the book, when Raza Hyder has fallen, his wife Bilquis posits: “Once titans walked the earth.” And she reats, “Yes, titans absolutely, it’s a fact.”

“Now the pygmies have taken over, however,” she confided. “Tiny personages. Ants. Once he was a giant,” she jerked a thumb in the direction of her somnolent husband, “you would not believe to look, but he was. Streets where he walked shook with fear and respect, even here, in this very town. But, you see, even a giant can be pygmified, and he has shrunk now, he is smaller than a bug. Pygmies pygmies everywhere, also insects and ants — shame on giants, isn’t it? Shame on them for shrinking. That’s my opinion.”

The ideas in the two passages quoted here crest in a later novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, to produce one of the finest passages in Rushdie’s work:

A tragedy was taking place all right, a national tragedy on a grand scale, but those of us who played our parts were — let me put it bluntly — clowns. Clowns! Burlesque buffoons, drafted into history’s theatre on account of the lack of greater men. Once, indeed, there were giants on our stage; but at the fag end of an age, Madam History must do with what she can get.

Although the country in this case is India, this treatise could just as easily summarize the tragedy in Shame.


More than for any other writer of his time, duels from Rushdie’s fiction find their way into real life. Shame is no exception. It is indeed eerie to read the author/narrator musing on the value of the Danton play in the “age of Khomeini,” when, at the end of that decade, Rushdie himself became arguably the most emblematic victim of that Age. At an earlier point, the author says that if he were writing a realistic book about Pakistan, that book “would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing!” Fortunately, he contends, “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 action need be taken, either. What a relief!”

Well, not quite. Realism showed through the fairy-tale, the military did get upset, and the book was banned. But if the narrator here underestimated Zia’s discriminating ear, he also overestimated the state’s ability to fully ban a book. Copies found their way around the regime. And almost 30 years later, the duel continues. Despite significant progress, free expression still contends against state censorship, winning a round here, losing one there. Recently, in the aftermath of an anti-Islam film trailer that provoked riots across the Muslim world, the government in Islamabad blocked Youtube, which remains inaccessible as of the writing of this essay. Meanwhile, insurgency and brutal military suppression continue in Balochistan, the army continues to interfere in politics, and Zia’s Islamization has proven very tough to reverse. If Shame’s political substance makes it relevant reading today, its language, inventiveness, and storytelling force will ensure its importance as a literary work even if — fingers crossed — those issues stop being current.

Despite coming under 300 pages, Shame is a big novel that goes for big ideas, about the individual and power, about state force and its limitations, about the imagination under authoritarian rule. It’s also a kaleidoscope, the broadest and liveliest yet, of this country’s complicated personality, full of pettiness and corruption and tragedy, but also rebellion and defiance and wit.

Given the great energy in Pakistani writing today, it would be hasty to say that the trail for the Great Pakistani Novel has gone cold. The 21st-century books mentioned earlier explore such diverse themes as immigration, conspiracy, bureaucracy, class divide, gender roles, army rule, tribal code, city life, proving how rich the material is. It’s possible that another big book that tries to encompass all of it is already in the works, and this possibility, this feeling that the Pakistani novel is still on the rise, is what makes this period in the nation’s literature so exciting.

But in the meanwhile, if searching for such a book, search no further than Shame.


[*] An earlier version of this essay appeared on

LARB Contributor

Shehryar Fazli is an author, political analyst, and essayist who divides his time between Pakistan and Canada. He is the author of the novel Invitation (2011), which was the runner-up for the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival’s first book award. He can be reached via email at [email protected].


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