Shame and Victmization in Rushdie and Mo

Noah M. Landow

Both Shame and Sour Sweet have an enormous number of victims and a small number of masters. Many individuals are victims of circumstance, government, and other groups of people. The Chens, for instance, are victims of the secret Triad societies and British culture in general. Harappa and Hyder are masters insomuch as they control the destiny of Peccavistan by governing it, and yet are also totally controlled, to the point of death, by the whims of the people, their own supporters, and the supernatural.

All characters in Mo and Rushdie are victims of their environment. Omar Khayyam Shakil is the victim of his mothers and his home town, his childhood environments. Hyder and Harappa are victims of politics and passion. The Chens are victims of the Hung family and their own neighbors. Mrs. Law, a friend of the Chen's, is a widow, and thus a victim of her husband's death. Mahmoud Bilquis, the father of Bilquis Hyder, was killed when a bomb was detonated in his movie theater while showing two movies aimed at opposite religious sects. The victimization of characters in Sour Sweet and Shame involves the concept of shame, the third and the most significant theme. Rushdie makes clear in his novel that there is a difference between the concept he calls shame and what we think of as shame. By shame, he means the word sharam. This word, in his native Urdu, possesses an enormous number of connotations. It means not only our concept of shame, but also that of "embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world, and other dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts" (p. 35). In the culture about which Rushdie writes, sharam plays a leading role. As Rushdie explained in a New York Times Book Review interview with Michael T. Kaufman: "There are two axes----honor and shame, which is the conventional axis, the one along which the culture moves, and the other axis of shame and shamelessness, which deals with morality and the lack of morality. 'Shame' is at the hub of both axes" (quoted in Contemporary Authors (Detroit: Gale Research, 1984), p. 413).

Shame is a theme central to both Sour Sweet and, of course, Shame. In the works of both Mo and Rushdie, the characters are motivated greatly by shame. For example, in Shame, Sufiya Zinobia's entire life centers on shame. She is often referred to as a sponge that absorbs all the unfelt shame in the world, and her blushes are a symptom of her feeling others' shame. In Sour Sweet, disrespectful or nontraditional acts by her family and acquaintances often shame Lily Moon, or Mrs. Chen. Her beliefs and opinions are strongly influenced by her notion of what is proper, and "what is proper" is merely what is not shameful.

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