Displacement in Shame and Meatless Days<

Alaka Holla, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

Migration, the act of moving from one place to another, instigates displacement, for it involves more than just the abandonment of physical land. A migrant must relinquish his past and dismantle his notion of history in order to face what he encounters in the present, namely the "brocades of continuity and the eyebrows of belonging." (Shame 60) This, however, proves to be rather difficult, for how can anyone simply forget history and disregard memory? How can anyone ignore the pain that ensues after his roots have been severed, roots that had once firmly wedded him to familiar ground? Furthermore, how does it feel to be rootless?

Displacement, unfortunately, rarely has a definitive terminus, for it seems to perpetuate itself. The displaced often suffer from an almost-pathological wanderlust. Successive migrations prevent the formation of tenacious roots and disregard the laws of gravity. Continually roaming and shifting, migrants simply float, incapable of being attached to something so palpable as land. This freedom, however, becomes a burden, almost like Kundera's "unbearable lightness of being." The displaced yearn for placement, a self-defeating cause, which now "strain[s] and heave[s] against [their] now obsolete need for steady location." (Meatless Days 79)

Rushdie himself is a migrant. Although he was born in Mumbai, he benefited from a Western education in Great Britain, which alone could have kindled a sense of displacement. To make matters worse, his family moved across the border to Pakistan, a highly volatile nation suffering from its own self-imposed ostracism. He, however, cannot find "placement" in India, Pakistan, or Great Britain. The seemingly fated place of all postcolonial writers, America, serves as his present home. His subsequent frustration and preoccupation with the vagaries of nationhood manifest themselves in his writing. Rushdie sets Shame in an imaginary land which he comically names Peccavistan (after Napier's pun, Peccavi, "I have Sind"), although he makes it quite clear that he is describing Pakistan. His self-conscious narrator (whom I have heard people call a surrogate Rushdie) readily admits, "I, too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist. I, too, face the problem of history: what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change." (Shame 86) He attributes his inspiration for the novel to a murder that took place in London. A Pakistani father had murdered his daughter after discovering her potentially sexual relationship with a white boy. This sacrificed daughter, this corpse representing the clash of cultures, this poor, displaced girl, disturbed Rushdie. Although influenced by Western standards and ideals to a great extent, he found himself understanding the killer. Unable to break away from the East completely, Rushdie, an inhabitant of the West, describes Pakistan as "a part of the world to which, whether I like it or not, I am still joined, if only by elastic bands" (22) Beautifully melding fantasy and reality, he imposes his own shifting nature on his grotesque, yet pitiful characters.

Omar Khayyam Shakil, "a person apart, . . .a creature of the edge: a peripheral man," (Shame 17) exemplifies the notion of displacement. He was "afflicted , from his earliest days, by a sense of inversion, of a world-turned upside-down." (14) Throughout this (anti)hero's story, which, Rushdie claims, is "marinated in bile," (35) history takes on the role of an avenger. Having been reared in a house with very little contact with the outside world, Omar eventually flees this oppressive anti-reality despite his plaguing, psychosomatic vertigo. Refusing to return home, he denies his past and soon becomes incapable of thinking of it as real. Omar's hometown loses its significance, transforming into a "feathery insubstantial thing, a discarded skin. . . .He is homeless." (150) Escape, however, is not so simple. A flight from roots will have its consequences. "His willed severance from his past mingles with the chosen insomnia of his nights." (131) He mutates into an obese, voyeuristic, drunken, shameless man, repulsive to all. Even his home, the once suffocating shelter existing apart from reality, ultimately fails to serve as a refuge from his spinning, out-of -control world. He dies as he was born -- displaced.

Bilquis, one of Rushdie's crazed female characters, hears the following words from Bariamma, her husband's grandmother, who castigates her unmercifully for her barrenness:" See what you're doing to your husband's people, how you repay the ones who took you in when you came penniless and a fugitive from that godless country over there. . . .Come on, mohajir! Immigrant! Pack up double quick and be off to what gutter you choose." ( 83-4) The godless country that Bariamma alludes to is India. During the days before official partition, the Muslims in Delhi were rounded up and locked in the Red Fort. "Penniless and a fugitive," Bilquis emerged on the other side, in what eventually became Pakistan, thus escaping the past and abandoning her history. Her need for "placement" produces a hysterical effect whenever the Loo (a wind) blows. By closing all windows and strapping down the furniture, Bilquis attempts to circumvent her own feelings of displacement by enforcing permanence and stability on her physical environment. Her anxiety, however, never finds relief. Displaced, she dies in flight, "in the obscenity of her shit," and, of all places, in Omar Khayyam Shakil's reality-obscuring house.

Common to both Rushdie and Suleri is Pakistan, perhaps the saddest, bloodiest migration of all -- the displacement of a nation. Migration requires one to relinquish the past in order to survive in the present. But how can anyone simply forget history? Perhaps this is what Pakistan attempted to do, and perhaps this is why things went wrong. Freshly partitioned and eager to rid itself of Indian domination, Pakistan wanted to erase centuries of history and forget its Indian heritage. What Pakistan failed to realize, however, was that it had been India just moments ago, and only now had the freedom of giving itself a new name. Stumbling, searching, shifting -- Pakistan took on the unfathomable task of rewriting history.

"Dealing with a past that refuses to be suppressed, that is daily doing battle with the present," (Shame 87) Rushdie realizes the obscuring nature of Pakistan's fragile history: "Pakistan, the peeling fragmenting palimpsest, increasingly at war with itself, maybe described as a failure of the dreaming mind." (86) By definition, a palimpsest erases what lies underneath; it covers up what came before, ready to be written on again and again. Pakistan, the palimpsest-country, was inscribed with an impermanent past and a variable present, "as though history, like a pestilence, forbid any definition outside relations to its fevered sleep." (Meatless Days 8) Alluding to the constant presence of change (erasing, rewriting, erasing again), Suleri claims "the country [had] grown absentminded, and patches of amnesia hung over the hollows of the land like a fog." (18)

The contrasts that compose Pakistan did not alleviate the pain that the identity-seeking nation wrought upon itself. Partition involved mass migrations of people leaving their homes, their seats of culture, for new land apportioned for the sake of that divisive thing called religion. That is, there were instances of Muslims from all over India migrating across different states, virtually across different worlds, to Pakistan, their promised homeland, united by Islam alone. In light of the county's internal differences, Rushdie muses, "[P]erhaps the place was just insufficiently imagined, a picture full of irreconcilable elements, midriffbaring immigrant saris versus demure, indigenous Sindhi shalwar-kurtas, Urdu versus Punjabi, now versus then: a miracle that went wrong." (Shame 86)

In Shame and Meatless Days both Rushdie and Suleri succeed in intertwining national and personal histories through the themes of migration and displacement. Each novelist uses Pakistan and its inherent capriciousness to comment on the disconcerted, dislocated natures of their characters.

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