Creation of Pakistan and Omar Khayyam: Intertextuality and Cultural Contradictions in Shame
Rushdie’s text immures the reader in its vortex of referential layers. Like him, his meanings exist “at an angle to reality”, and often, in their profusion, produce beguiling multiplicities of deliberately and carefully crafted connections. Following up from where Midnight’s Children had left off, we characteristically enter the narrative heralded by techniques of “oral narrative” (Midnight’s Children and Shame 7), myths, gossips, rumours, and skepticisms: this time delving into Pakistani politics instead of Indian, giving the text a claustrophobic, cagey structure in order to highlight the former’s censoring authoritarian state-policy contrasted with the latter’s “teeming” diversity. Particularly relevant in the context of Shame is how hardly ever a sentence is written that is not ironical, double-edged, or complicating, until storytelling itself becomes a practiced process in constantly making insidious links and suggestions. These narrative links resonate with neurological pathways: “the labyrinths of . . . unconscious self [,] the hidden path that links sharam to violence” (139). The intrusive narrator keeps providing hints, connections, helping the reader interpret the story’s typological, ethical and political grids. However, the story equally demands an alert reader to analytically catenate and grapple with the complex narrative clues.
When talking about the “dizzy, peripheral, inverted, infatuated, insomniac, stargazing, fat” “hero” (Rushdie 25) of such a novel, we deal with a “legitimized voyeur” (Rushdie 49) who is “a minor character, yet also, paradoxically, central, especially at the crisis” (49) by virtue of being a doctor, described succinctly as “an outsider admitted to our most intimate moments.” In Rushdie’s pervasive schematics of foregrounding the permeability of all borders, Omar Khayyam Shakil becomes the peripheral hero, blurring the distinction between the centre and margin. To begin at the beginning, we must start from the three Shakil sisters, who, in order to hide their shame of pregnancy from a debauched soiree, close themselves in the rambling infinitude of the mansion which they name “Nishapur,” and teach their son the lesson in shamelessness. Almost the entire episode is replete with intertextuality. The three sisters — Chunnee, Munnee, and Bunnee — in their “obscene intimacy,” can be suggestive of the three witches in Macbeth, or the three nations — India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — in the Asian peninsula. Huddled together in the imaginary border-town of Q., the unique trajectory of their lives loops around the entire narrative. Their existence not just lies near the national-border, but introduces various other psychological and moral borders, socially and culturally policed and upheld, between binaries of shame/shamelessness, man/woman, insider/outsider, sleep/waking, mind/body, volition/coercion, colonized/colonizer, beauty/beast, sanity/madness, and so on.
Having lived under the yoke of propriety and age-old tradition while their father old Mr. Shakil was alive, they rebel after his death, indulging in hedonistic excesses, looking back on which, they later nostalgically recount their adventurous bout. They scorned the indigenous elite, and instead sent out invitations to the “imperialists” of the Angrez cantonment, to the “dancing sahibs” (Rushdie 15-16). It is rumoured — with the air of certainty and veracity that Rusdhie attaches to these unofficial sources of information — that one of them got pregnant by a foreigner in that night-long party. The same shadow of British presence that hovers above Saleem (Leewen 426), therefore, pertains to Omar too. Mountains of uneaten food accumulated after the wasteful event, which was fed to dogs by the snobbish sisters. This motive of the uneaten food is to return later on in another wedding party gone-wrong in the novel, in the marriage of Naveed with Talvar. It is after this scandalous pregnancy that they choose to lock themselves in, but “such was the hauteur of their arrangements that their withdrawal seemed like an act not of contrition but of pride” (Rushdie 18). Here again, Rushdie’s efforts to problematize psychological borders are apparent. Omar Khayyam should be interpreted vis-à-vis the cluster of interactive discursive strands of the national identity, partition trauma, history, modernity, fable, fairytale, etc., literalized in the Rushdiesque fashion until they become fantastically manifested. The crumbling multitude of the infinite mansion Nishapur becomes a leitmotif of sorts in Shame, one, which, in Rushdie’s own words from his lecture ‘Midnight’s Children and Shame,’ “orchestrate what is otherwise a huge mass of material, which doesn’t always have rational connections, but the leitmotif can provide this other network of connections and so provide a shape” (Midnight’s Children and Shame 3-4). Omar grows up in this state of incarceration in the rumbling mansion, without ever finding out his the identity of his actual parents: by grotesquely faking pregnancy and all its accompanying symptoms, his “three mothers” had preserved the honour of the actual transgressor among them, becoming a triune in their solidarity of shamelessness. Thus, “he becomes the personification of a man without history, without attachment to a known past” (Leewen 431). His mothers defy social norms by refusing to whisper the name of God in Omar’s ears, shaving his head, or circumcising him. The very creation of Pakistan, for Rushdie, is an effort at cessation from history — a conscious construction of a Land of the Pure by denying the centuries of Indian history underlying Pakistani land mass — and as such, is a product of imagining. It has been described as a miracle gone wrong; owing to the extent of repression and denial that its creation pertained, it was “insufficiently imagined.” Hybridity in the upbringing of the Shakil sisters is marked by the presence of Parsee wet nurses, Christian ayahs, and iron Muslim morality, giving rise to ambivalences in their subsequent self-confinement : it is a weird mimicry of cessation from history, from society, and cultural norms, and yet, trying to retain a coherent culture of its own, much like Pakistan. It is the same paradox that haunts Omar, right from his name Omar Khayyam, whose fame, we are told, grew after being spuriously translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald : epitomizing Rushdie’s notion that something can be gained from translation as well, if something is lost. Rushdie’s identification with him for being “borne across” (literal meaning of translation) stretch to other areas, too, that shall be examined later. Born on the deathbed of old Mr. Shakil, Omar inherits the mysterious familial curse that afflicts the entire house. His nightmare of living in the edge and falling off, willed insomnia, vertigo and an acute sense of isolation, all coexist as direct fallout of his cessation from history, his “floating upwards,” his decision to flee from Nishapur, etc. The “second Omar in a second” (30) grew up trapped inside the “reclusive mansion,” a “sweltering, entropical zone in which, despite all the rotting-down of the past, nothing new seemed to capable of growth” (30). These details, when read vis-à-vis the creation of Pakistan, resonate to relate the two in a heterotopic connection. The “thing-infested jungle that was ‘Nishapur’, his walled-in wild place, his mother-country” (31), where Omar grows up to become an “ethical zombie,” mark the paradoxes of borders and partitions through fantastical exaggerations, that presage the proliferating introduction of other such ambivalent confined spaces: the empty cage of Rodrigues, Bariamma’s matriarchal house in Karachi with its repressive sexual codes that paradoxically give rise to orgies, Sufia’s attic from which she will finally break her way out, Iskander’s solitary confinement that will fail to keep him from soliloquising inside Raza’s head, Bilquis’s obsession with locking doors because of the Loo, and so on. These confined spaces are identical in their permeability. Hybridity is the suppressed reality for creating any “pure” identity, which, sooner or later, makes the subject break free. Farah Zoroaster, the foul-mouthed daughter of the customs officer of Q., becomes the object of Omar’s “telescopic” voyeurism, and his first infatuation. Interestingly, when the historical Omar Khayyam used the telescopic vision to observe astronomical details, the fictional Omar uses it spy on Farah from his hidden vantage point. Farah’s narcissism introduces the extremely important motive of fragmented mirrors that will be instrumental throughout the text in drawing constant parallels and contrasts, in devious ways, among all the characters, as they continue to haunt and partially mirror one another. Also, they mirror fragments signify Rushdie’s poetics of fragmentariness which surfaces directly in his statement acknowledging that he too has known Pakistan in slices. Farah’s swearing and narcissism situates her at odds with the pervasive shame culture. However, for Omar, Farah’s shamelessness perfectly falls in line with his own. His declarations of love to her and her subsequent rejection bring us to another pivotal motive in the tale: hypnosis. But before taking up the importance of hypnosis, it is important to understand what is meant by calling the art Omar’s true legacy. The old Mr. Shakil, in whose library Omar hones his scholastic acumen and emerges as the self-taught genius, had few books that were truly his own; and among these were, books on hypnosis. The heterogeneity of the field of this “arcane science” (Rushdie 34) is underlined in the diversity of the books: “Sanskrit mantras, compendiums of the lore of the Persian Magi, a leathern copy of the Kalevala of the Finns, an account of the hypno-exorcism of Father Gassner of Kolsters and a study of the ‘animal magnetism’ theory of Franz Mesmer himself” (Rushdie 33-34). Omar’s hypnosis can be paralleled with Saleem Sinai’s magical clairvoyance, both of which empower them to assume and encompass the entire narrative consciousness, although less intrusively in the former’s case. Things come to a pass when the permeability of all borders (metaphysical or physical) in the text, is manifested at the literal level in the episode when Farah invites Omar out to her father’s customs outpost near the border. All that embody the national boundary are boulders erected at hundred meter intervals. Mirror fragments are stuck on these boulders by Farah in her self-adoration: a fascinating statement which marks the rebellious strand in her character, the will to transgress, and even, transmute the border. It is at this place, that a dark cloud descends ominously, and Omar faints. In Rushdie’s scheme of things, psychological concerns almost always find their manifestations in direct physical correspondences. Omar’s vertigo, in this light, can find resonance in Rushdie’s “floating upwards,” or this fainting feat, can be read as an utter collapse of the mental processes triggered by an overwhelming excess of portentous significations, the burden of a shameful history. Omar, we may recall, is an extremely well-read person, and his fainting feat near the border cannot be dissociated from an overpowering sense of recognition of the violence, in the past as well as in the present, that is inevitable in erecting and maintaining any border. Typifying the tradition of magic realism, Rushdie enacts a “remythification of the present . . . the present is re-enchanted and invaded by its mythical past . . . [Any] vision of the present in forced to include these irrationalities of the past” (Leewen 425). The weight of such excessive overdeterminacy —lurking under certain trenchant present moments — gets articulated by Rushdie’s devise of “fainting.” Omar’s fainting finds echoes in Sufiya’s fainting after waking up in her scene of carnage with two-hundred and eighteen butchered turkeys all around her (Rushdie 139). Violence can be unleashed by something as trivial as noisy birds, or something as farcical as partition. By making facile statements about the putative lack of psychological depth in Omar, critics like Ahmad hardly do any justice to the complexity behind the smokescreen of his peripheral position. Omar is definitely capable of reaching an emotional understanding of the mindless violence caused by his wife, and much else. Associated with hypnosis and later on going on to become an immunologist of international renown, it should be mentioned here how Omar straddles the so-called esoteric appeal of the East and the scientific precision of the West. The disjunction between the East and the West has been collapsed in tracing direct resonance between the two: the practice of hypnosis as a scientific pursuit developed and was fostered strictly in the West, but still, the Western women are allured by it for its Eastern mystery. It is by hypnosis that Omar has sexual intercourse with Farah (arguably leading to her pregnancy and “shame”), and it is the same hypnosis that makes him indispensable to the pre-conversion Iskander, seducing “white” European girls for him with his “unspoken promises of the East” (Rushdie 128). Again it is hypnosis that he performs on Sufiya Zinobia to”cure” her of her violent murderous frenzy. It can be argued that Omar’s hypnosis partially mirrors Talvar Ulhaq’s clairvoyance, which serves the diabolic intelligence section of Isky’s government’s oppressive regime.
From sexual coercion to medical cure, the ethically questionable aspect of hypnosis is conveniently averted by Omar as he muses: “You cannot make them do anything they do not want to do.” This stratagem goads him on to take unscrupulous sexual advantage of women, becoming a shameless debauch, until of course he blushes, on seeing Sufiya, his would-be wife. Thus, the dialectic of shame and shamelessness evolves. Finally, as an enigma in paradoxes, Omar embodies symptoms of postcoloniality and peripheral identity, showing elements of revelation as well as revulsion. It is he who can love Sufiya for what she is, although, too late to assuage the monster that the society bred in her with the daily diet of violence lurking underneath pervasive shame culture.
Leewen, Richard van. The Thousand and One Nights and Twentieth-century Fiction. Brill Sense and Hotei Publishing, 2018.
Rushdie, Salman. Shame. Vintage, 1995.
— Midnight’s Children and Shame, Kunapipi, 7(1), 1985. Available at: https://ro.uow.edu.au/kunapipi/vol7/iss1/3/.
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