The Grotesque and Post-Colonialism in Shame

Josh Newell '91 (English 34,1991)

Consider this description in Salman Rushdie's Shame for a moment:

Raza Hyder awoke to catastrophe from a dream in which he saw himself standing on the parade-ground of his failure before a phalanx of recruits all of whom were exact replicas of himself, except that they were incompetent, they could not march in step or dress to the left or polish their belt buckles properly. He had been screaming his despair at these shades of his own ineptitude, and the rage of the dream infected his waking mood. His first reaction to the news which Bilquis forced past lips that did not want to let it through was that he had no option but to kill girl. "Such shame," he said, "such havoc wrought to the plans of parents." He decided to shoot her in the head in front of his family members. Bilquis clung to his thighs, slipped down as he began to move, and was dragged from the bedroom, her nails digging into his ankles. The cold sweat of her fear made her pencilled eyebrows run down her face. The ghost of sinbad Mengal was not mentioned, but o, he was there all right. Army pistol in hand, Raza Hyder entered Good News's room; the screams of women greeted him as he came (Shame, p. 181).

What is our response to Rushdie's passage? Chances are the reader's reaction will be divided or, at least, confused. While we may regard Raza's desire to shoot his daughter with a degree of horror, the comic aspect of Rushdie's description of the scene also makes us respond with some amusement or relish. We, as readers, are left in a state of tension not knowing quite how to resolve the tragicomic conflict, as neither the comic nor the horrifying can negate the other. In a search for words to define this clash we might well come up with the word "grotesque." Notice, also, how Rushdie leads us into the shocking scene almost completely unprepared for what is about to take place; we are given Raza, usually a very controlled individual, and his absurd dream. Lulled into this state, the suddenness of Raza's reaction helps shock and horrify the reader jolting us out of our accustomed ways of perceiving the world. Along with the shocking manner by which it is introduced, another hallmark of the grotesque, particularly in Rushdie's case, is the blending of fantasy and reality, the confusion of the real and the unreal. Raza's emotional outburst stems, in part, from the transmittance of fantasy to reality, "the rage of the dream infected his world", which serves to exaggerate and distort his response.

Roughly defined, then, grotesque set pieces and stories conjure up an irreconcilable tragic-comic response in the reader, a response instigated not only by the actual description of the scene but also by the shocking, sudden manner with which it is done. Moreover, the author blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy to help create an exaggerated and unnatural response by the character which, in turn, serves to disrupt the reader's own sense of harmony and order.

Rushdie has a mastery of the grotesque. Sufiya Zinobia, a fantastic version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, works as a metaphorical image for Pakistan. She is the "beast inside the beauty. Opposing element of a fairy-tale combined in a single character" (Shame, p. 151). A distorted creation of her dreaming Muslim mother, Bilquis, and her father, Raza, Sufiya symbolizes the wrong miracle that is modern Pakistan. Rushdie describes Pakistan as " a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world forcing its way back through what-hadbeen imposed. Pakistan, the peeling, fragmenting palimpsest, increasingly at war with itself; may be described as a failure of the dreaming mind. Perhaps the place was just insufficiently imagined, a picture full of irreconcilable elements, midriffbarring immigrant saris versus demure, indigenous Sindhi shalwarjurtas, Urdu versus Punjabi, now versus then: a miracle that went wrong" (Shame, p. 92). Like Sufiya, whose battles against herself increase as the book progresses, Pakistan has"a past that refuses to be suppressed, that is daily doing battle with the present" (Shame, p. 92).

Sufiya's explosions represent the manifestations of her inner confusion, shame, and turmoil. "There are other things that don't seem to be from anywhere. They come most often during the sleepless nights, shapes that make her feel like crying, or places with people hanging upside-down from the roof. She tosses in her bed, and pouring out from inside the fearsome alien shapes... There is an ocean. She feels its tide. And somewhere in its depth a beast stirring" (Shame, p. 231). Her explosions are grotesque, largely unexplained and unresolved. After Rushdie's grotesque description of her demonic decapitation of twohundred and eighteen turkeys, Rushdie notes that "she had discovered in the labyrinths of her unconscious self the hidden path that links sharam to violence; and that, awakening, she was as surprised as anyone by the force of what had been unleashed" (Shame, p. 150).

Like Sufiya, Pakistan threatens to explode at any moment. Rushdie's imaginary Pakistan is a rising tide of disaffection that at some sudden and unexpected moment will break out in rage, power will change hands, and a tempering of the irreconcilable differences will be temporarily achieved. However, as with the grotesque, the unresolved nature of the conflict remains. The horrifying element of rebellion is that it occurs in the respectable world, people feel its presence, yet will not take responsibility for its existence. Rushdie's Sufiya symbolizes these elements of society. "A beast is born, a "wrong miracle," within the citadel of propriety and decorum. This was the danger of Sufiya Zinobia: that she came to pass, not in any wilderness of basilisks and fiends, but in the heart of the civilized world. And as a result that world made a huge effort of the will to ignore the reality of her, to avoid bringing matters to the point at which she, disorder's avatar, would have to be dealt with, expelledbecause her expulsion laid bare what-must-on-no-account-be-known, namely the impossible verity that barbarism could grow in cultured soil, that savagery could lie beneath decency's well pressed shirt" (Shame, p. 219).

Rushdie utilizes what we may term the "fantastic" grotesque. His powerful images border on the macabre; he relies largely upon frightful monsters to express an emotionally charged demonic world. Other writers utilize the grotesque in more subtle yet not necessarily less effective ways. Often coined the "satiric" grotesque, these writers reach the grotesque by way of satiric, caricatural, and cynical distortions. Unlike pure satire, however, which aims to separate laughter and anger in our reaction to a scene and unlike caricature, which distorts to produce a ridiculous or amusing reaction, the grotesque aims to produce a confusing tragicomic reaction to one particular scene. Using images of the grotesque, Anita Desai, like Rushdie, expresses the contradictory elements of Postcolonial society. Although her grotesque set pieces and stories do not possess the ornate descriptive quality of Rushdie's images of the fantastic, they still possess their own haunting quality. Unlike Rushdie's images which almost always invokes the fantastic, Desai's often uses images of the "satiric' grotesque as well to create disharmony and tension in the reader.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV Desai OV

Last Modified: 18 March, 2002