Saturday, June 06, 2009

A book about 'Sharam'

The controversy surrounding the reign and relationship of late Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Commander-In-Chief at the time, Zia-Ul Haq has captured the imagination of the world for a long long time. I had heard vague stories about this conflict as a boy but had never really understood what had ensued before and after the successful coup that Zia undertook, overthrowing Bhutto and becoming the President of Pakistan himself. This was one of the primary points of attraction that led me to read Salman Rushdie’s book, aptly titled, ‘Shame’.

Released in 1983, ‘Shame’ revolves around the lives of similar characters with very identical stories with a good amount of ‘RR’ – Rusdhie Realism – thrown in. The book opens with the life of Omar Khayyam, a boy borne to three sisters who live in a fortress like mansion in Nishapur (interestingly the same place the actual poet Umar Khayyam was born) somewhere on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The sisters have locked themselves away from the world and use a contraption known as ‘The Dumb Waiter’ to correspond with the planet outside for their daily needs – rice, vegetables et al. Growing up in a sequestered wall-fort like this one, Omar is fed with the strong sense of void and a bizarre sense of issues (including vertigo and lack of self confidence) by the 3 sisters – Chunni, Munni and Bunny – out of which no one knows who the real mother is. Despite the boundaries that confine this Mowgli of a fellow, he continues feeding himself all the literature, arts and science he can find in books lying around the dusty closets. He masters several languages and becomes a self-taught scholar but he knows, he just knows, that he will become an anthill if he continues to stay with his mothers. With great effort he finally retaliates and tells them he needs to get out, much to their shock and surprise.

"Horrified maternal gasps. Six hands fly to three heads and take up hear-no-see-no-speak-no-evil positions."

They reluctantly let him go out and attend school from where he moves on to pursue medicine and becomes an immunologist. It is when he reaches Karachi, that he befriends the playboy millionaire Iskander Harappa (Isky – Bhutto) who is married to Rani Humayun. Also in this mix is General ‘Old Razor Guts’ – Raja Hyder (Zia) is an army hero who is married to Bilquis Kemal. After a shocking stillbirth (where the baby is strangulated by the umbilical cord), Bilquis bears two daughters – Sufia Zinobia Hyder (also called ‘Shame’) and Naveed Hyder (also called ‘Good News’)

The theme of shame continues as Sufia suffers a brain fever as a child and is clinically labeled as mentally challenged. She, as it turns out, thus becomes the receiving pot of all the shamefulness and shamelessness that the family has to offer, absorbing all of it within her until that sleeping subconscious of Sufia becomes an uncontrollable beast that rips off heads of turkeys and attacks Naveed’s groom on her wedding day. To keep a check on her behavior, Raza takes Omar’s help who ends up falling in love with this woman with a child’s brain.

Elsewhere, an awakening is taking place. On his 40th birthday Isky decides to put past him the flamboyancy of his money throwing years and follows his call for the nation. He forms the ‘Popular Front’ (as in PPP) and is idolized by his daughter Arjumound Harappa (also called ‘Virgin Ironpants’ given her obstinate will to reject men forever).

The story then follows a similar pattern based on actual events. Isky becomes the Prime Minister of the nation and does everything possible to ensure that the diplomats, the ambassadors, the other attaches are kept under his strong thumb. An approach some see as being down right dictatorial. It is in such headiness that Isky promotes Raza as the CIC despite the fact that Raza has several seniors above him. Given Raza’s non-political demeanor, Isky’s calculation is that he will have nothing to worry about. And this is where, as we have seen, Isky goes horribly wrong. Plagued with the fathering of ‘Shame’ in his own house, Raza starts getting annoyed at the way Isky goes about handling the system. Isky’s rude obnoxious attitude and a mouth that can spew out several foul creatures at once soon starts getting on Raza’s army honed nerves. It is then, that he decides to impose Martial Law in the country by leading a coup against Isky. Isky is arrested on the charges of murdering his brother’s son (Little Mir) and is thrown into the most hideous prison cells in the world and tortured in ways unimaginable. After 2 years of this, Isky is sentenced to death by hanging although as it turns out, Rani Humayun and Arjumound do not see rope marks on his neck when they examine the body. It is revealed that one of the army generals had shot Isky in the heart thanks to Isky’s belligerent and never-say-die mind-set. A move that then heralds the beginning of a Pakistan that is headed by the base mantra of faith as Sufia prepares to finally be taken over by the Beast completely.

‘Shame’ documents a lot of facts with Rushdie’s usual tonic of magic realism. Everything from Sufia’s drastic transformation from being the blushing child-in-a-woman to the ghastly beast with yellow fire in the eyes is portrayed with chilling descriptions. At one point I actually thought of Sufia herself as being a representation of the country. Born normal – attacked by an infliction – left with an adult body but an immature brain – now looked at with suspicion and fear. A beast within a child’s soul. It was in this metaphorical tribute that I found ‘Shame’ most successful at.

What this also did, for my own sake of historical know-how, is forced me to read up whatever there is to know about the Bhutt0-Zia reign. It was interesting to see the palpating synergy Bhutto had in his speeches (videos on YouTube) and the calm composed almost regressive approach that Zia shows in footage. I sometimes found myself wondering, what indeed would have happened had Bhutto not promoted Zia up the order? Would Pakistan become a very different country from what it is now? Or was Bhutto’s approach to things so predictably askew that his downfall was only a matter of time to which Zia became a reason? I guess we will never know.

‘Shame’ is a must read for those who want to know about that critical phase which proved to be the maker/breaker of the country’s future.


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