Salman Rushdie's Shame -- Leading Questions

Members of English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Spring 1997

"No matter how determinedly one flees a country, one is obliged to take along some hand-luggage; and can it be doubted that Omar Khayyam (to concentrate on him), having been barred from feeling shame (vb int.: sharmana) at an early age, continued to be affected by that remarkable ban throughout his later years, yes, long after his escape from his mothers' zone of influence?

Reader: it cannot.

What's the opposite of shame? What's left when sharam is subtracted? That's obvious: shamelessness." (35)

1. How does Rushdie assert his role as narrator in this passage, and other similar dialogues with the reader, throughout the text? What implicit or explicit techniques does Rushdie employ by answering for the so-called Reader? Finally, how does it feel as a reader to have your participation and thoughts assumed--reassuring, frustrating, humorous? [Kate Cook]

2. What kind of authorial credibility is Rushdie establishing in his placement of the Shakil homestead, "which faced inwards to a well-like and lightless compound yard" (Shame, 4), in between the old town and the Cantt (Cantonment) district? And what does the dumb-bell shape connote? [Erica Dillon]

3. "Time cannot be as easily homogenized as milk, and in those parts, until quite recently, the thirteen-hundreds were still in full swing" (6). If time cannot be simply homogenized, and anachronisms like fairy tales may still exist even in the modern day in the judgment of the narrator, what would this passage suggest about the idea of the circularity of history? Or does it suggest another view entirely of how history could be interpereted? [Jeremy Finer]

4. "Takallouf is a member of the opaque, world-wide sect of concepts which refuse to travel across linguistic frontiers: it refers to a form of tongue-tying formality, a social restraint so extreme as to make it impossible for the victim to express what he or she really means, a species of compulsory irony which insists, for the sake of good form, on being taken literally" (111). How does shame become a product of takallouf? How does this law illustrate the role of honor versus shame in Pakistani society? [Laura Gelfman]

5. Born in a death bed, Omar Khayyam "grew up between twin eternities, whose conventional order was, in his experience, precisely inverted..." (17). Rushdie's Shame is filled with contrasts -- from the necklace made of smelly shoes to that made of flowers, from the budding sexuality of Omar's three mothers to their later celibacy, from images of fire/burning to those of ice... What, if anything, do these contrasts signify? [Phoebe Koch]

6. Rushdie writes on p. 125 "All stories are haunted by the ghosts of the stories that they might have been." Can this be related to some of the other texts that we have read. Take, for example, Tom Crick. How would he relate to this statement? [Neel Parekh]

7. Shame's structure is carefully constructed. It seems that every character forms part of an allegory and has his or her own foil. The interactions amongst them get tricky: Omar/Sufiya, Omar/Babar, Iskander/Raza, Bilquis/Rani, Arjumand Harappa/Naveed Hyder....can you think of more? [Elissa Popoff]

8. Occasionally a person who seems to be Rushdie himself appears in the text, providing outside or apparently accurate autobiographical information or his so-called postcolonial bona fides. Why? Rushdie's narrator tells us, for example, "If this were a realistic novel about Pakistan, I would not be writing about Bilquis and the wind; I would be talking about my youngest sister..." (page 70, chapter 4 "Behind the Screen"), or on page 277: "May I interpose a few words here on the subject of the Islamic revival? It won't take long;" or the beginning part of Chapter 12 (approximately pages 265-267) And there are other places where this phenomenon occurs. [Elissa Popoff]

On page 218, chapter 10, "The Woman in the Veil," Rushdie writes, "I am no less disappointed in my hero than I was." Is Omar Khayyam Shakil a hero or an anti-hero? Is Shame, like Thackeray's Vanity Fair a book without a hero? What about Rushdie's frequent disparagements of Omar? [Elissa Popoff]

9. Ironic, fantastic things often occur in Shame creating a tone and mood reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut or Hispanic magic realism. What is and is not believable? Is the book believable, or even intended to be? Is the narrator credible? Which characters are credible, both as characters and as sources of information? What is the truth, and who determines and controls it, if control is possible at all? [Elissa Popoff]

9. "Life is long." Discuss. [Elissa Popoff]

10. Shame is set in the fifteenth century -- according to the Muslim calendar. What effect does the iteration and reiteration of this time have on the novel? How does time and history function in Shame? [Elissa Popoff]

11. "On my way back to the story, I pass Omar Khayyam Shakil, my sidelined hero,who is waiting patiently for me to get to the point at which his future bride, poor Sufiya Zinobia, can enter the narrative, head first down the birth canal. He won't have to wait long; she's almost on her way" (73). Discuss the function of birth imagery in Salman Rushdie's Shame. Compare the birth of Omar with the birth of his future wife, Sufiya. How is pregnancy depicted in this novel? [Barnali Tahbildar].

12. Rushdie's use of extensive foreshadowing is similar to that of Swift. Does this device add understanding of the goings on of Q. and Rushdie's narrative by hinting to the reader that they should anticipate certain explanations or does it simply hold the reader's attention better than the conventional storytelling style? [Uzoma Ukomadu]

13. Is Rushdie's use of phrases like Angrez sahib comparable to the use of untranslated pidgin English by Saro-Wiwa [for a second example] and Achebe? How does this affect the reading of the text? Does this add dimensionality to the reading as it did, for example, in Anthills ? Does this necessarily diammetrically contrast with Emecheta's liberal use of explanation of non-western elements in the text? [Uzoma Ukomadu]

14. Before the main text even begins, Shame provides a genealogy. What do the position and very existence of the genealogy say about the way in which Rushdie deploys family and history? And, more basically, why a genealogy? [Sage Wilson]

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Last Modified: 18 March, 2002