A Portrait of Pakistan

Over the years, Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie has established a name for himself, as one of the most distinguished storytellers of our time. While his venture into literature was received with a lukewarm reception, his second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), catapulted him to universal recognition. The book won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 and was even adjudged as the best of all the Booker winners on two occasions. From that point on, there was no stopping Rushdie from consolidating his hold as a contemporary literary titan. With five Booker Prize nominations, he was the second most nominated writer, with a single nomination separating him from fellow heralded writers Margaret Atwood and Iris Murdoch. In 2007, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services in literature. There are no reading lists that do not include any of his works. Indeed, Rushdie has accomplished what many up-and-coming writers can only dream of.

Rushdie’s body of work converges different elements of surrealism, fantasy, and historical contexts. Most of his works were also set in the Indian subcontinent. His third novel, Shame (1983), was no different. Set in the fictitious border town of Q, Shame commenced with three sisters, Chhunni, Munnee, and Bunny. Born in an affluent family. Akin to a curse, they were locked up in their father’s opulent mansion. It was only through their father’s death that they can taste freedom, and along with it, their father’s wealth. Following the patriarch’s passing, the triumvirate hosted a shindig that left one of them pregnant. While the pregnancy came as a pleasant surprise, it was not at all unplanned. For years in their captivity, the sisters have yearned to raise a baby on their own, even if it was borne out of illegitimacy.

Into this strange world, Omar Khayyám Shakil was born. Carrying the name of a famed Persian polymath, historian, philosopher, and poet, Omar Khayyám was raised by a strange unit of three mothers. The biological mother’s identity was withheld from Omar and was never revealed over the course of the story. Omar Khayyám also never got to learn the identity of his father. It was in the fortress of the Shakil mansion that Omar Khayyám and his three doting mothers lived in the purdah. It was also in the confines of the mansion that Omar was homeschooled. He devoured every book he encountered, whether it’s about literature, arts, or the sciences. He also managed to master several languages and turn himself into a pseudo-scholar. However, with each passing year, a desire started to grow within him. His curiosity about the world beyond the mansion made him long for that world. He also realized that being locked up in the Shakil fortress will be detrimental to his development.

“Unashamed, accustomed to solitude, he began to enjoy his near-invisibility. From his position at the edge of the school around him, he took vicarious pleasure in the activities of those around him, silently celebrating the rise or fall of this or that playground emperor, or the examination failures of particularly unappetizing class-fellows: the delights of the spectator.”

~ Salman Rushdie, Shame

Omar Khayyám raised his concerns to his mothers who were shocked by his desire to go out. His mothers finally relented, and as a birthday gift, allowed him to leave the safety of the compound to pursue his personal endeavors. He attended school and pursued a degree in medicine, eventually becoming an immunologist. It was when he moved to Karachi that his life started to unravel further. There, he met and befriended Iskander Harappa, fondly referred to as Isky, a playboy millionaire married to Rani Humayun. Their fated encounter led both of them down a life of gluttony, self-indulgence, and sinfulness. Shamelessly they committed shenanigans of epic proportions. As the story moved forward, a third primary character started to figure in the friendship of Omar Khayyám and Iskander: Raza Hyder, Iskander’s friend. Raza Hyder was a military man who rose to the ranks, from a lowly captain to a full-pledged General.

As the title has suggested, the nucleus of the novel is shame and shamelessness. The novel explored several of its forms and manifestations. Omar Khayyám’s life beyond the mansion, for instance, was one that was filled with shame. It was inculcated into his mind that he ought to never feel shame and it manifested in his actions, further solidified by his friendship with Harappa. Harappa’s life was also one of shame. The embodiment of shame, however, was Sufiya Zinobia Hyder, the eldest of General Hyder’s two daughters. Her birth was unwelcome as it broke a family tradition of male progeny; her older brother was strangled by the umbilical cord while he was still in the womb. A brain fever she had as a child earned her a clinical label of being mentally challenged. She was the odd one out, an anomaly that a family wants to be kept as a secret. All the while, Sufiya was absorbing all of this negativity which started to manifest in other forms. Slowly, she was metamorphizing into what her family feared her to be, a beast. To help put a leash on her uncontrollable daughter, General Hyder listed the help of Omar Khayyám. However, fate had other plans.

While the relationship between Omar Khayyám and Sufiya Zinobia started to blossom, the narrative started to diverge. A new storyline emerged which brought historical events to the fore. Following the celebration of his 40th birthday, Iskander founded the Popular Front. He was installed as the Prime Minister of the nation. His brand of leadership, however, showed characteristics of dictatorship. He did everything to control the actions of everyone who were serving under him, from diplomats to ambassadors to attaches. He assigned Raza to be his commander-in-chief, ahead of more senior military officials. This was a calculated move on Harappa’s part; he believed that Raza’s non-political demeanor will not make him interfere in his friend’s political designs and grand ambitions. As history would have it, Harappa’s calculations proved to be wrong.

At home, Raza was at his tipping point. The symbolical father of shame, he was tired of fostering “shame” in his home. He was also slowly getting tired of his friend’s antics and the dictatorial manner he was handling the nation’s political affairs. Harappa’s obnoxious attitude started creeping into his nerves; he was no longer able to tolerate the shamelessness that surrounds him, especially the diatribes that were directed to him. In a stroke of retaliation, Raza masterminded a coup that overthrew Harappa. Harappa suffered further humiliation after he was arrested on the charges of murdering his brother’s son. The former Prime Minister was incarcerated and was tortured for two years before a conviction by the Supreme Court ended in his execution by hanging.

“We know the force of gravity, but not its origins; and to explain why we become attached to our birthplaces we pretend that we are trees and speak of roots. Look under your feet. You will not find gnarled growths sprouting through the soles. Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in our places.”

~ Salman Rushdie, Shame

As Rushdie has demonstrated in his works, history is a vast landscape that provides all forms of inspiration to writers. In Shame, he fused history with his signature satirical storytelling. Rushdie’s third novel captured the political climate of contemporary Pakistan, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, through the tenuous relationship between two of its high-profile political figures. Iskander Harappa was the literary representation of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s fourth president and the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, the novel’s Popular Front). On the other hand, General Hyder Raza was the portrayal of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. He served as Pakistan’s sixth president following the unseating of Bhutto. Other popular figures in Pakistani politics and history were also prominently incorporated in the story. Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto took the form of Arjumand Harappa, an aspiring politician who, without a shame, idolized her father.

In the story of Harappa and Raza’s friendship, the manifold manifestations of shame and shamelessness were further demonstrated. The readers see personal shame, the fear of shame, seeing shame from within, identifying shame, among others. Indignity abounded and was present from the onset. While shame was a seminal theme, the novel also explored other seminal subjects. The novel subtly captured some of the concerns that former colonies had to grapple with. One such concern can be seen in the partition story of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Pakistan and Bangladesh used to be part of India until both states declared independence. It was a palpable move to separate the predominantly Islamic nations from the birthplace of Hindu. The hastiness of such moves, at times, can prove disastrous. Rather than liberty, political and economic instability ensues.

History was an element that loomed large in the narrative. Apart from the tug-of-war between Harappa and Raza, the readers were regaled with the details of the Baluchistan conflict, the landlords/warlords, and the One-Unit policy. These are historical events that helped shape modern Pakistan. The lush, albeit tumultuous, tapestry of the novel was enriched by tinges of cultural elements. The characters were mostly bound by tradition, in particular, those stemming from the patriarchal structure prevalent in most Asian societies. This can be gleaned from the weight placed on having a male as a firstborn, which figured extensively on Sufiya’s destiny. An antithesis to the Razas was the Harappas who considered the possibility of having a daughter as an heir apparent. Following her father’s death, Benazir Bhutto would walk the same political path and eventually forge a name for herself as a prevalent Pakistani political figure.

Omar Khayyam, Iskander, and Reza loomed above the narrative. Several secondary characters find themselves in the story. Some were inconsequential, some were even caricatures. With the satirical nature of the narrative, it was expected. Satire was a prevalent theme and the author occasionally renders his voice in the narrative. The story of the trio was related by an omniscient voice who casually related their story but ingeniously remained invested in their story. The story did take time to develop but the narrative style was also Rushdie’s brilliant stroke. The lack of literary allowed the narrator to jump through the sequences of the story. He casually dropped hints to future events while still managing to surprise the readers.

“History is natural selection. Mutant versions of the past struggle for dominance; new species of fact arise,and old, saurian truths go to the wall, blindfolded and smoking last cigarettes. Only the mutations of the strong survive. The weak, the anonymous, the defeated leave few marks: field-patterns, axe-heads, folk-tales, broken pitchers, burial mounds, the fading memory of their youthful beauty. History loves only those who dominate her: it is a relationship of mutual enslavement.”

~ Salman Rushdie, Shame

Shame was sandwiched between two of Rushdie’s most renowned works: his highly-acclaimed Midnight’s Children and his highly controversial The Satanic Verses. Fears of being overshadowed by its predecessor proved unfounded as Shame managed to stand its own ground. It managed to distinguish itself from Midnight’s Children and from the rest of Rushdie’s corpus. Shame was critically praised and earned Rushdie his second Booker Prize nomination. It was also the winner of the Best Foreign Book Prize in the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.  

Rushdie did a great job of personifying shame and capturing the chaos that ensued. However, something surfaces, an observed element that characterizes most of Rushdie’s work. Rushdie possesses an uncanny ability to portray bleak subjects; his narrative thrives in the intersection of history and tumult. It is a rarity for him to provide clear and viable solutions to the subjects and concerns that he has underlined in his stories. While this does not invalidate the story, its absence nevertheless weighs down on the story.

While not without blunders, the publication of Rushdie’s third major literary work cemented his status as a rising literary star. Shame explored the various manifestations of shame – shame from within, fear of shame, identifying shame in others, personal same, living in shame, among others. The seven deadly sins came to life through Rushdie’s imaginative storytelling. Coming to the fore is the contemporary history of Pakistan. Several elements that were seminal in shaping the young nation, from dictators to warlords to betrayals, were vividly captured in the novel. In true Rushdie fashion, he derived an immersive story from the pages of contemporary Pakistani history. History, after all, was his playground.

“Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.”

~ Salman Rushdie, Shame


Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

By now, it can be established that I am a fan of Salman Rushdie’s prose. Starting with The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie transported me to worlds I would have never thought I would find myself in. Midnight’s Children remains one of my all-time favorite reads. The thing is, I never know what to expect when I start reading his works. Yes, are historical and political overtones but I am never sure how to find my footing. Shame is a good case of this. It was an unusual title and I barely had any iota on what the book was about when I started reading it. In one of Rushdie’s earlier works, I didn’t expect that Rushdie would provide me an account of Pakistan’s contemporary history. My understanding of the nation’s modern history is sketchy; I even managed to deduce who Arjumand Harappa was modeled after. Nevertheless, I am so immersed in the story that I researched more about Pakistan’s history. Shame is your signature Rushdie novel that incorporates both magical and historical elements. It is something that he executes with elan. While I don’t always love his every work, Shame is certainly one of the more memorable ones.

Book Specs

Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 1984
Number of Pages: 286
Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism


The novel that set the stage for his modern classic, The Satanic VersesShame is Salman Rushdie’s phantasmagoric epic of an unnamed country that is “not quite Pakistan.” In this dazzling tale of an ongoing duel between the families of two men–one a celebrated wager of war, the other a debauched lover of pleasure–Rushdie brilliantly portrays a world caught between honor and humiliation – “shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.” Shame is an astonishing story that grows more timely by the day. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

To know more about Salman Rushdie, click here.