Shame-ful Premises: The Explosion of Purity in Rushdie's Shame

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

Salman Rushdie's Shame greatly emphasizes spaces and places, and offers for our investigation as assortment of stagnant premises and false premise shifts. Undergirding all these different treatments of premises lies, yet again, a struggle between starting fresh and the persistence of history. In Shame, we see again that every wiping clean always leaves behind streaks of history. Premises always return. Omar Khayyam's boyhood home provides the most obvious example of this phenomenon. His three mothers sealed the house shut after Omar's conception, and for the first twelve years of his life, he never passed outside the walls. So in these crucial early years, Omar lives in "a sweltering, entropical zone in which, despite all the rotting-down of the past, nothing new seemed capable of growth, and from which it became Omar Khayyam's most cherished youthful ambition quickly to escape" (25). The castle, then, serves as an anti-premise, a place which stifles change, a place which falls apart instead of building forward. But even after leaving, and despite how deeply felt his premoses never to return, Omar no doubt continues to bear traces of theis anti-premise. Or, as Rushdie's narrator puts it, "No matter how determinedly one flees a country, one is obliged to take along some hand-luggage" (35). Of course, Rushdie tends to favor rhetorical fireworks over subtlety, so Omar's burden of home turns far more dramatic than the hand-luggage imagery would suggest. Indeed, Omar does in fact return from the periphery to his home at the end of the novel. By doing so, he unintentionally delivers to his mothers their greatest enemy, and in that moment fulfills their vision of his duty to them as well. So we see yet another demonstration of how anti-premises return and haunt instead of launching and inventing.

The saga of Iskander Harappa suggests the return of anti-premises as well. Harappa's electoral campaign promises "A NEW MAN FOR A NEW CENTURY" (193), and his transformation from leisurely playboy to promising politician early in the novel does offer a certain resonance for "new man." Furthermore, Harappa truly believes that he is "making this countryŠwith strength as well as caring" (200). However, the country does not need making, it needs re-making. It is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled, but rather one already thick with people, history, and culture. What Pakistan needs, then -- and really, what it has -- is a re-newed man rather than a new man, and a re-newed country, not a newly created one. The century turns, but history re-turns. And it returns with a vengeance: Harappa is deposed in an undemocratic, underhanded manner similar to that by which he originally gained power. His desire to wipe away all opposition -- to wipe clean the political slate -- ends up causing his downfall. Purity, we see once again, remains an impossible ideal.

It seems strange, then, that Rushdie posits Sufiya Zinobia as a pure being. He admits as much, explaining about her retardation that "I did it to her, I think, to make her pure. Couldn't think of another way of creating purity in what is supposed to be the Land of the PureŠand idiots are, by definition, innocent" (129). Certainly, Rushdie's professed inability to conjure up purity in any other way speaks volumes about the persistence and contaminations of history. But more importantly, we cannot take Rushdie at his word, and so we find that the whole statement turns out to be a blatant lie. By the end of the novel, Sufiya Zinobia is anything but pure-- she has become a beast who rapes children and pops off their heads. Despite her family's efforts to keep her safe, her husband's efforts to keep her pure, and even despite Rushdie's supposed efforts to keep her innocent, Sufiya Zinobia ends her life (and the novel) with the quite literal explosion of her self. And with her, the last hope of postcolonial purity.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV