Sie sind auf Seite 1von 8

1

Omar Khayyam: Socio-cultural, Historical, and Medical Perspectives

Rushdie’s text exists within a vortex of referential layers. Intertextuality is an integral part of his
fiction. A variety of generic modes, with their points of origins both Asian and Euro-American,
interpenetrate and transform one another, so that hybridization is extrapolated right into to the very heart of
the formal register of his work. To name a few of these, Gothic horror, revenge tragedy, oral narratives, and
science fiction are easily identifiable in Shame, intermixing to transmute one another, until interpretation is
forced to recognize the intricacy of the particular context where these tropes materialize. In Rushdie’s
narrative logic, parentage becomes the literalized site of cultural transference. It is also the locus of claims of
history on one. What should be noted, however, is that these transferences are not linear, but a two-way
process in Rushdie, as the progeny procreates the parents as much as the parents procreate the progeny,
literalizing Rushdie’s point about how any “newness” can possibly enter by the past flowing into the present
(Teverson 57). This complex interplay is further clouded by the constant possibility of illegitimacy, and
indeed, the novel is cluttered by such illegitimate offspring, driving us towards Rushdie’s implication that
intergenerational transference of culture is always already mediated by the constant possibility of
illegitimacy; in other words, there can be no “pure” culture as such, as any culture is by default hybridized in
the very process of its renewal. The process of creating a “Land of the Pure,” therefore, initiates the dual pull
of desire and denial, as will be elucidated later.
Like Rushdie, his meanings exist “at an angle to reality”, and often, in their profusion, produce
beguiling multiplicities of deliberately and carefully crafted connections. Following up from where
Midnight’s Children had left off, we characteristically enter the narrative heralded by techniques of “oral
narrative” (Midnight's Children and Shame 7), myths, gossips, rumours, and skepticisms: this time delving
into Pakistani politics instead of Indian, giving the text a claustrophobic, cagey structure in order to highlight
the former’s censoring authoritarian state-policy contrasted with the latter’s “teeming” diversity. Particularly
relevant in the context of Shame is how hardly ever a sentence is written that is not ironical, double-edged,
or complicating, until storytelling itself becomes a practiced exercise in constantly making insidious links
and suggestions. These narrative links resonate with neurological pathways: “the labyrinths of . . .
unconscious self [,] the hidden path that links sharam to violence” (Rushdie 139. All subsequent numbers
within brackets denote the page numbers from this cited edition of Shame). The intrusive narrator keeps
providing hints, connections, helping the reader navigate the story’s typological, ethical and political grids.
However, the story equally demands an alert reader to analytically catenate and grapple with the complex
narrative clues. When talking about the “dizzy, peripheral, inverted, infatuated, insomniac, stargazing, fat”
“hero” (25) of such a novel, we deal with a “legitimized voyeur” (49) who is “a minor character, yet also,
paradoxically, central, especially at the crisis” (49) by virtue of being a doctor, described succinctly as “an
outsider admitted to our most intimate moments” (49). “Watcher from the wings of his own life” (35), Omar
Khayyam Shakil becomes the peripheral and liminal hero, occupying an “in-between space” and blurring the
distinction between the centre and the periphery.
Omar Khayyam should be interpreted vis-à-vis the cluster of interpenetrating discursive strands of
the national identity, immigration, history, modernity, fable, fairytale, etc., literalized in the Rushdiesque
fashion until they become fantastically manifested. In his lecture ‘Midnight's Children and Shame,’ Rushdie
stresses the importance of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the leitmotif, which “orchestrate what is otherwise a
huge mass of material, which doesn’t always have rational connections, but . . . can provide other networks
of connections and so provide a shape” (3). The crumbling multitude inside the infinite mansion Nishapur
becomes such a leitmotif of sorts in Shame.
2

To begin at the beginning, we must start from the three Shakil sisters, who, in order to hide their
shame of pregnancy from a debauched soiree, close themselves in the rambling infinitude of the mansion
which they name “Nishapur,” and teach their son the lesson in shamelessness. Almost the entire episode is
replete with intertextuality. The three sisters — Chunnee, Munnee, and Bunnee — in their “obscene
intimacy,” can be suggestive of the three witches in Macbeth, the three Fates in Greek or Roman mythology,
the three nations — India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — in the Asian peninsula, or, blasphemously, a
subversion of the Holy Trinity. Huddled together in the imaginary border-town of Q., which might stand for
Quetta in Pakistan, the surreal intimacy of their lives structures the entire narrative. Their existence not just
lies near the national-border, but introduces various other psychological and moral borders, socially and
culturally policed and upheld, between binaries of shame/shamelessness, man/woman, insider/outsider,
sleep/waking, mind/body, volition/coercion, colonized/colonizer, beauty/beast, sanity/madness, life/ death,
heaven/hell and so on. Rushdie is interested in locating the fissures in all such psychological and political
borders.
Having lived under the yoke of propriety and age-old tradition while their father old Mr. Shakil was
alive, they rebel after his death, indulging in hedonistic excesses, looking back on which, they later
nostalgically recount their adventurous bout. They scorned the indigenous elite, and instead sent out
invitations to the “imperialists” of the Angrez cantonment, to the “dancing sahibs” (15-16). It is rumoured
— with the air of certainty and veracity that Rusdhie attaches to these unofficial sources of information —
that one of them got pregnant by a foreigner in that night-long party. The same shadow of British presence
that hovers above Saleem (Leewen 426), therefore, pertains to Omar too. Mountains of uneaten food
accumulated after the wasteful event, which was fed to dogs by the snobbish sisters. This motive of the
uneaten food is to return later on in another wedding party gone-wrong in the novel, in the marriage of
Naveed with Talvar. It is after this scandalous pregnancy that they choose to lock themselves in, but “such
was the hauteur of their arrangements that their withdrawal seemed like an act not of contrition but of pride”
(18). A clue to the real reason behind their shutting themselves off has been suggested by paralleling their
act with Bilquis’s, towards the end. As women who had “gone far enough already” to cease to believe in
frontiers and whatever-might-lie-beyond, they were “barricading” themselves “against the outside world in
the hope that it might go away” (272). Experiencing the nauseous feelings of shame and guilt after Farah’s
pregnancy, Omar perfectly understands what the sisters were trying to avoid.
Omar grows up in this state of incarceration in the rumbling mansion, without ever finding out the
identity of his actual parents: by grotesquely faking pregnancy and all its accompanying symptoms, his
“three mothers” had preserved the honour of the actual transgressor among them, becoming a triune in their
solidarity of shamelessness. Thus, “he becomes the personification of a man without history, without
attachment to a known past” (Leewen 431). His mothers defy social norms by refusing to whisper the name
of God in Omar’s ears, shaving his head, or circumcising him, thus seceding, him from tradition. His
severance from tradition is accentuated as one “essential part of his education has been overlooked” (81), he
has been forbidden by his mothers to feel shame. Complicating things, the three sisters’ presence gradually
assumes more menacing aspects towards the tale’s end. It becomes apparent that they are unable to forget
the death of Babar Shakil, and indeed, shames Omar for marrying the daughter of the man who murdered his
brother. Thus, lessons in shame and shamelessness operate hand-in-hand, and together, they give birth to
violence. The sisters turn into agents of revenge as well as a mysterious kind of justice, when they slay the
dictator Raza Hyder in the deadly set of eighteen-inch stiletto blades (installed by Yakoob Mistri in the
Dumb-Waiter, as a tool of self-defense), before vanishing without leaving behind a trace like fantastical
beings. They too, assume the identity of “avenging angels, vampires, or werewolves” (197) tropes, that
Rushdie abundantly employs elsewhere in the tale. The very possibility of the existence of such beings,
Rushdie argues, would render the rules by which live lose their rigidity.
3

Without a known mother of father, his birth becomes a “miracle,” echoing the “miracle” by which
women in Bariamma’s matriarchy become pregnant, or the “wrong miracle” Sufiya Zinobia, who should
have been a boy, her model sister Naveed Hyder, over whose birth hangs the “takallouf” (164) of not
mentioning his true probable biological father, Sindbad Mengal, or Naveed’s babies, increasing in arithmetic
progression. Traumatic birth of the individual is inextricably linked to the traumatic birth of the nation in
Shame, and mostly, these are miracles gone wrong: a birth by secession pertains the horrors of partition
which have been metaphorically condensed by Rushdie within familial sagas of revenge: squabbles between
brothers Hafeezullah and Rumi Shakil haunting Omar and Babar (277-78), vitriolic outpours of Duniyazad
Begum and Bilquis, power struggle between Isky and Raza, etc. Revenge and confused parentage are
motives from the Hafeezuallh-Rumi episode that get rejuvenated in the newer constellations.
The very creation of Pakistan, for Rushdie, is an effort at denying history -- a conscious construction
of a Land of the Pure by denying the centuries of Indian history underlying Pakistani land mass -- and as
such, is a product of imagining. It has been described as a miracle gone wrong; owing to the extent of
repression and denial that its creation pertained, it was "insufficiently imagined." Later on, it will be
elaborated in detail, how the faculty of imagination in the tale assumes the potential to wreak extraordinary
havoc at a monstrous scale. Hybridity in the upbringing of the Shakil sisters is marked by the presence of
Parsee wet nurses, Christian ayahs, and iron Muslim morality, giving rise to ambivalences in their
subsequent self-confinement : it is a weird mimicry of shutting out history, society, and cultural norms, and
yet, imagining a coherent culture for its own, much like Pakistan. It is the same paradox that haunts Omar,
right from his name Omar Khayyam, whose fame, we are told, grew after being spuriously translated into
English by Edward Fitzgerald: epitomizing Rushdie's notion that something can be gained from translation
as well, if something is lost. Rushdie's identification with him for being "borne across" (literal meaning of
translation) stretch to other areas, too, that shall be examined later.
Born on the deathbed of old Mr. Shakil, Omar inherits the mysterious familial curse that afflicts the
entire house. His willed insomnia, vertigo and an acute sense of isolation, all coexist and lead to his further
secession from history, his "floating upwards," his decision to flee from Nishapur, etc. Nightmares of living
on the edge of the world and falling off, or confronting the terrifying image of the “gaping void” signify the
double trauma of living in the border town and growing up in a confined space. It is no wonder that the
resulting insomniac shall find the urge to leave behind the source of his nightmares behind, but inevitably
fail to do so, because these borders are not local, but ubiquitous in their nature. The "second Omar in a
second Nishapur" (30) grew up trapped inside the "reclusive mansion," a "sweltering, entropical zone in
which, despite all the rotting-down of the past, nothing new seemed to capable of growth" (30). These
details, when read vis-à-vis the creation of Pakistan, resonate to relate the two in a heterotopic relation:
Nishapur presciently mirrors the emergence of the postcolonial nation state while upsetting it from within.
The "thing-infested jungle that was 'Nishapur', his walled-in wild place, his mother-country" (31),
where Omar grows up to become an "ethical zombie," marks and anticipates the paradoxes of borders and
partitions through fantastical exaggerations, that presage the introduction of other such proliferating
confined spaces: the empty cage of Rodrigues, Bariamma's matriarchal house in Karachi with its repressive
sexual codes that paradoxically give rise to orgies, Sufia's attic from which she will finally break her way
out, Bagheeragali rest house with a telephone (where Iskander is initially kept by Raza), solitary
confinement cell of Isky that will fail to keep him from soliloquising inside Raza's head, Bilquis's obsession
with locking doors because of the Loo, and so on. Hybridity is the suppressed reality for creating any "pure"
identity.
Omar’s learning in Nishapur is one episode that gives us a glimpse into what Rushdie tried to
achieve himself at the textual level. The books that he finds in old Mr. Shakil’s study had originally
belonged to one Colonel Arthur Greenfield. By studying these, he becomes an expert polyglot, learning
4

“classical Arabic and Persian; and also Latin, French and German” (33), the very languages an Orientalist
scholar belonging to a humanist tradition would know. His reading curriculum curiously follows the texts
that Rushdie drew from while working on his form: “[Illuminated] manuscripts of the poetry of Ghalib;
volumes of letters written by Mughal emperors to their sons; the Burton translation of the Alf laylah wa
laylah, and the Travels of Ibn Battuta, and the Qissa or tales of the legendary adventurer Hatim Tai.” These
texts can offer a key in locating a few of the sources from which much of Rushdie’s imagincative landscape
derives. In agreement with the Orientalist charm of this space, homosexual bonding among the three male
servants of the three sisters finds a safe haven in Nishapur too.
However, apart from acquiring his academic acumen, he feels tortured in Nishapur, as he is “made
wild by the ancestor-heavy, phantom oppressions of these far recesses of the run-down building”, and finally
destroys much of the decaying valuables with broomstick and hatchet : “‘Take that’, he screeched amid the
corpses of his useless, massacred history, ‘Take that, old stuff !’— and then burst… into illogical tears”
(32). These “old stuff” denote to a large extent what Graham Huggan calls “exaggerated hawking of
Orientalist wares by a narcissistic narrator” (qtd. in Teverson 47), and funnily, Rushdie actually incorporates
this “hawking” into this novel, where the Shakil sisters literally subsists on pawning these objects to Chalak
Sahib. Through this “cultivated exhibitionism” (Teverson 47), Rushdie succeeds in subtly critiquing the
tendency from within, insinuating that those who fall into the trap of getting enamoured with Nishapur’s
exotic appeal, literally “buy” such hackneyed tropes, much like Chalak Sahib.
These confined spaces are identical not just in their permeability and porosity, but also in assuming a
torturous ordeal for the suffering inmates. Indeed, links are drawn between Omar Khayyam’s view of the
upside down inverted mountains from Nishapur while he was born, and the poet’s (the narrator’s friend)
torture by hanging him upside-down in the torture chamber (28).
Having laid out the dualities triggered by contrary pulls of history, a few of the details in the story
can now perhaps be put into perspective. Omar's mindless vandalism in Nishapur, the all-consuming fire at
the Empire Talkies that would leave Bilquis naked, stripped of ancestral history and her eyebrows, which
shall trigger a series of reactions from her later on, his brother Babar Shakil's burning of Omar's medals
(129) -- the relics of his illustrious brother's genius, under whose shadow Babar's life was getting stymied --
Captain Ijazz's bonfire at Mohenjo (189) burning the choicest furniture and costliest works of art with Rani's
guidance, Raza's burning of Sufiya's bloodied burqa (220), etc., all fall into a pattern of denying history's
undeniable weight. Such bonfires, in which men burn what oppresses them about past (189), also recalls the
deeply problematic aspect of the independence movement, when Gandhi's Swadeshi project involved a
nation-wide practice of burning foreign goods, giving rise to much chaos, confusion, and hooliganism. The
Anglophilia and moral transgression of the Shakil sisters make them much hated figures at Q., and this
hatred overflows towards the end, when, after finding the doors of Nishapur finally open, the mob rushes in
and mindlessly indulges in violent destruction of the property, later musing: “did we really do that? But we
are ordinary people . . .” (284-85). Link it up with communal violence, school-bus torching and other
irrationality triggered by violence.
Despite such drastic efforts to counteract its forces, the past refuses to flow into the present, and
Omar' corpulence, can be read as a bodily manifestation of history's unrelenting claim on him. His monetary
assistance to his mothers put an end to Chalak Sahib, the pawnbroker’s unscrupulous exploitation by
siphoning off Shakil wealth, thereby saving “their past from ending up on the shelves of Chalaak Sahib”
(278). The “hot wind” from the past just refuses to stop interfering, as do all the victims of violent deaths,
from Iskander to Sindbad Mengal to Babar Shakil. Omar’s cultural hybridity too, subject him to forces of
history’s claim on his psyche. His name’s Persian origin, the historical Omar Khayyam’s fame via orientalist
rehashing, and his mothers’ contradictory feelings of love and hatred for tradition, are some of the forces
5

that refuse continue influencing him, though never a line of rubaiyat came from his pen. What came,
however, are two illegitimate children (one untraceable) from two Persians: Farah and Shahbanou.
Poetry serves multiple purposes for Rushdie in the novel, and is treated with substantial dose of irony
and satire. Poetry is ironically called source of wisdom: “which is why this book is littered with them; there
was my friend who hung upside-down and had poetry shaken out of him, and Babar Shakil, who wanted to
be a poet, and I suppose Omar Khayyam who was named for one but never was” (158). The Great Living
Poet who says that the “classic fable Beauty and Beast is simply the story of an arranged marriage” (158),
also ironically traces the fable’s moral message of a happily-ever-after-ending to an Eastern origin. He
accuses the “whatif nonsense” (159) of the narrator of Western influence. This radical transformation of the
fable’s source of origin, and transformation through the tale itself, locates the permeation of patriarchal
discourses in both Western and Eastern “wisdoms,” raising the possibility of the Beast lurking in the Beauty.
This subversion pervades all the affairs and love-relationships in the novel, opening up the possibility for a
feminist rewriting of fairy-tales, a project that has much currency in contemporary feminist discourse. The
Beast has many faces, as Rushdie frequently reminds us. The fable therefore can be seen as a lens to look at
the entire novel in order to trace how Rushdie radically subverts it.
Farah Zoroaster, the foul-mouthed daughter of the customs officer of Q., becomes the object of
Omar's "telescopic" voyeurism, and his first infatuation. Interestingly, when the historical Omar Khayyam
used the telescopic vision to observe astronomical details, the fictional Omar uses it spy on Farah from his
hidden vantage point. Farah's narcissism introduces the extremely important motive of fragmented mirrors
that will be instrumental throughout the text in drawing constant parallels and contrasts, in devious ways,
among all the characters, as they continue to haunt and partially mirror one another. Also, they mirror
fragments signify Rushdie’s poetics of fragmentariness which surfaces directly in his statement
acknowledging that he too has known Pakistan in slices. Farah's swearing and narcissism situates her at odds
with the pervasive shame culture. However, for Omar, Farah's shamelessness perfectly falls in line with his
own. His declarations of love to her and her subsequent rejection bring us to another pivotal motive in the
tale: hypnosis.
But before taking up the importance of hypnosis, it is important to understand what is meant by
calling the art Omar's true legacy. The old Mr. Shakil, in whose library Omar hones his scholastic acumen
and emerges as the self-taught genius, had few books that were truly his own; and among these were, books
on hypnosis. The heterogeneity of the field of this "arcane science" (Rushdie 34) is underlined in the
diversity of the books: "Sanskrit mantras, compendiums of the lore of the Persian Magi, a leathern copy of
the Kalevala of the Finns, an account of the hypno-exorcism of Father Gassner of Kolsters and a study of the
'animal magnetism' theory of Franz Mesmer himself" (Rushdie 33-34). Omar's hypnosis can be paralleled
with Saleem Sinai's magical clairvoyance, both of which empower them to assume and encompass the entire
narrative consciousness, although less intrusively in the former's case. Things come to a pass when the
permeability of all borders (metaphysical or physical) in the text, is manifested at the literal level in the
episode when Farah invites Omar out to her father's customs outpost near the border. All that embody the
national boundary are bollards erected at hundred-feet-intervals. Mirror fragments are stuck on these
bollards by Farah in her self-adoration: a fascinating statement which marks the rebellious strand in her
character, the will to transgress, and even, transmute the border. Although a sufficient dose of caricaturing
marks the portrayal of Farah’s father, the customs officer who finally goes mad, Farah’s portrayal is a bit
more nuanced. Marginal members from tribal or Parsee community are dealt by Rushdie in patches with
irony and condescension (ship-fucking of Babar and other members of tribal guerilla, for example), but
Farah’s portrayal also marks a unique form of resistance spelt out in her “private smiles” (55) while looking
at herself in mirrors. Belittling social humiliation, “she regretted nothing” (55).
6

While Omar is near the border with Farah, a dark cloud descends ominously, and Omar faints. In
Rushdie's scheme of things, psychological concerns almost always find their manifestations in direct
physical correspondences. Omar's vertigo, in this light, can find resonance in Rushdie's "floating upwards,"
or this fainting feat, can be read as an utter collapse of the mental processes triggered by an overwhelming
excess of portentous significations. Omar, we may recall, is an extremely well-read person, and his fainting
feat near the border cannot be dissociated from an overpowering sense of recognition of the violence, in the
past, in the present, as well as in the future, that is inevitable in erecting and maintaining any border.
Typifying the tradition of magic realism, Rushdie enacts a “remythification of the present . . . the present is
re-enchanted and invaded by its mythical past . . . [Any] vision of the present in forced to include these
irrationalities of the past” (Leewen 425). The weight of such excessive overdeterminacy —lurking under
certain trenchant present moments — gets articulated by Rushdie’s devise of “fainting.” Omar’s fainting
finds echoes in Sufiya’s fainting after waking up in her scene of carnage with two-hundred and eighteen
butchered turkeys all around her (139). Violence can be unleashed by something as trivial as noisy birds, or
something as farcical as partition. By making facile statements about the putative lack of psychological
depth in Omar, critics like Ahmad hardly do any justice to the complexity behind the smokescreen of his
peripheral position. Omar is definitely capable of reaching an emotional understanding of the mindless
violence caused by his wife, and much else.
Associated with hypnosis and later on going on to become an immunologist of international renown,
it should be mentioned here how Omar straddles the so-called esoteric appeal of the East and the scientific
precision of the West. The disjunction between the East and the West has been collapsed in tracing direct
resonance between the two: the practice of hypnosis as a scientific pursuit developed and was fostered
strictly in the West, but still, the Western women are allured by it for its Eastern mystery. It is by hypnosis
that Omar has sexual intercourse with Farah (arguably leading to her pregnancy and "shame"), and it is the
same hypnosis that makes him indispensable to the pre-conversion Iskander, seducing "white" European
girls for him with his “unspoken promises of the East” (128). Again it is hypnosis that he performs on Sufiya
Zinobia to "cure" her of her violent murderous frenzy. It can be argued that Omar's hypnosis partially
mirrors Talvar Ulhaq's clairvoyance, which serves the diabolic intelligence section of Isky's government's
oppressive regime. Talvar and Omar are further paralleled in the interrogation section.
From sexual coercion to medical cure, the ethically questionable aspect of hypnosis is conveniently
averted by Omar as he muses: "You cannot make them do anything they do not want to do." This stratagem
goads him on to take unscrupulous sexual advantage of women, becoming a shameless debauch, developing
a partnership in devilry with Iskander. This also leads him on to deduce that Sufiya’s transformation into the
white panther too, must have been a willed one.

Proclaiming himself to be a "man of science," Omar's life is nonetheless imbued with supernatural
and pseudo-scientific elements. This can be read as a statement to underline the fact that modern science
itself has its roots in its religious and mystical strands. Even though hypnosis has been used for ages in
psychotherapy and other purposes, it is still considered rather occultist. Even his field of specialization,
immunology, has strands of irrational enigmas attached to it, in the sense that what element will trigger
which immune action in whom, is not always predictable, and auto-immune systems themselves can turn
against the host, potentially turning into fatal cases. Having presented a paper on the psychosomatic aspect
of the immune system in the metropolitan city, his renown gets further cemented by his case study of Sufiya
Hyder, tying the doctor-patient forever in the history of medical science (142) more enduringly than as a
married couple.
Sufiya's blushing, we are told, is a "psychosomatic event," finding correspondence with Omar's field
of quasi-medical interest. The turkey-killing-frenzy which leads to their becoming bound in the "doctor-
7

patient" relationship, the "love story," was triggered, it should be remembered, by a casual comment by
Omar in the party, hinting at Raza's illicit love for Pinkie. Manifestation of any violence in the tale is always
rooted in some past dialectic of shame and shamelessness, in some shameful deed carried out shamelessly.
So the "slow burning" of Sufiya (shame made flesh, shame incarnate, etc.) by incandescent blushing, the
thermostatic imbalance of her body, should be read analogously to other burnings of the past discussed
earlier.
Blushing itself, for Sufiya, becomes a coping mechanism, a psychosomatic defence that shall
ultimately bring about her metamorphosis into the "human guillotine." The monster, it would appear, has
been triggered by immune system of an individual who has accidentally acquired the propensity of catching
the disease of felt and unfelt shame of others' shameful acts.
The question of ethical propriety, the essential asset for survival in a society with repressive sexual
codes, is upheld by the immune action of blushing, metaphorically called shame. Without it, one becomes an
ethical zombie like Omar, and with too much of it, one curiously becomes a monster. Monstrosity, then, in
this case, emanates more from an excess of propriety than a lack of it. By transforming into a predatory
animal, Sufiya imagines herself into a violent being immune to shame and shamelessness alike. A section of
feminist critics have asserted that Rushdie upholds the age-old patriarchal convention of working in dualities
-- the pure woman and the monstrous woman -- in Sufiya's character. But Rushdie's intention is to merely
create an antidote to dictatorial shamelessness, where violence is more of an immune-triggered survival
instinct, literalized and medicalized seamlessly.
The brain fever: The strategic motive of this disease links Omar, Raza, and Bilquis (husband, father
and mother respectively) to Sufiya. There are speculative suggestions that the three sisters planned suffering
for them, turning Nishapur into a literal torture chamber where Raza, Bilquis and Omar suffer almost to
death (Bilquis dies), lying unattended with high fever that Omar diagnoses as malaria. Omar's delirious
visions in this state give a panoramic and prophetic insight into many aspects, including the future. The
lingering suspicion that Shakil sisters deliberately served poisoned cakes to trigger the fever, emboldens the
suspicion that the other brain fever too, that of Sufiya's (which turns her into a half-wit), was induced by
Bilquis too.
Beginning from such a register of medical premise, the novel can be read as a variety of science-
fiction, a genre that Rushdie was immersed in at one point (Teverson 111-12). He used as a “springboard for
the exploration of philosophical and social concepts” (Teverson 111) instead of an end in itself. From such a
perpective, it is not too difficult to see why Omar, an expert immunologist, should be the only one to
diagnose Sufiya’s metamorphosis and violence properly, and reach an imaginative sympathy with her;
accepting her as the wife she is, despite himself (see page 254-55, detailed quote). In his refusal to minister
a poison to Sufiya, and in his ritualistic enactment of eating pine-kernels like Sufiya used to, there is
preparedness for, and almost courting of the kind of violent murder that he somewhere feels the corrupt
humanity, himself including, deserves. Father and husband, Raza and Omar, chewing pine kernels while
sitting in the attic where they used to chain up Sufiya in a drug induced slumber, and ruminating the revenge
that she shall take on them, embody guilt: the former for fathering (indeed, the Dictator fathers the
retributive violence) her, and the latter, for cheating on her with Shahbanou. Violence consummates the
marriage of shame and shamelessness.
Interestingly, the narrator also accuses him of baser motives, such as social climbing and sexual
infatuation, for his interest in Sufiya. However, a genuine feeling of love and imaginative sympathy is not
denied to him either. Much like the Beast of the fairytale, he undergoes a transformation, but in this
postmodern subversion of the fairy-tale trope, a happy ending is resisted and “[Ambiguous] as
such a finale may seem, it is a clear allusion to the oppressive predictability of
the fairytale happy ending of “Beauty and the Beast”” (Deszcz 39). It all blows up in the reader’s face with
8

an all-consuming explosion, as the tale trails off into a gaping lack of closure, while the cycle of violence
continues.

References

Deszcz, Justyna. “Salman Rushdie's Attempt at a Feminist Fairytale Reconfiguration in


Shame.” Folklore, vol. 115, no. 1, 2004, pp. 27–44. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30035141.

Leewen, Richard van. The Thousand and One Nights and Twentieth-century Fiction. Brill Sense and
Hotei Publishing, 2018.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame. Vintage, 1995.

— ‘Midnight's Children and Shame,’ Kunapipi, 7(1), 1985. Available at:


http://ro.uow.edu.au/kunapipi/vol7/iss1/3.

Teverson, Andrew. Salman Rushdie. Manchester University Press, 2007.