Sufiya Zinobia as a Symbol in Salman Rusdie’s ‘Shame’
Although Salman Rushdie’s Shame is considered by some critics a feminist text, others find that Rushdie’s novel “reinscribes the patriarchal role of women as passive”, as commented by Stephanie Moss, in her essay “The Cream of the Crop: Female Characters in Salman Rushdie’s Shame”. The female stories, marginal in Pakistani history, “explain, and even subsume, the men’s” narratives. In particular, Sufiya Zinobia becomes an exemplary case of the concepts contained in the novel’s title – and emerges as a character richly suggestive of both sociopolitical and literary allusions.
Sufiya Zinobia provides the greatest element of magic realism than any other character in the novel. She is the second child of her parents, after their first born son, who was extremely weak and lost his life. Sufiya Zinobia, is the “miracle that went wrong”. She symbolizes the Pakistan that came forth after the partition. She is split in two like the hair she will later divide to its roots, which also anticipates the materialization of Bangladesh. Wise and loving she is also warlike and violent. Blushing from birth, this new Pakistan reddens with shame “whenever her presence in the world was noticed by others. The blood that rushes to Sufiya’s cheeks is a symbol of the blood of the nation ready to trickle. As an infant Sufiya contracts a brain fever that no doctor can cure. She symbolizes the dispossessed and is saved by the concoction of a local Hakim but her development is stunted by his medicine, which is again a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism.
Omar Khayyam Shakil, the embodiment of shame of his three mothers, stands for the shamelessness of a country that is tangential. But all the shame of the people in the country due to social, political and religious reasons finds their embodiment in Sufiya Zinobia.The shame of being born a girl was felt by her from the very beginning- ‘she was too easily shamed’. This shame pervades through all phases of the novel, the private world of Sufiya as represented by her mother Bilquis, Omar and her father Raza, and the public represented by Pakistan. She is the envoy of the spirit of Pakistan. The blushing of Sufiya is the blushing spirit of the country because of the violence forced upon her by those who were supposed to be nice to her. Her humiliation started from her very birth, for her father expected a boy and considered her a mistake born to him. It is already considered shameful in a family to give birth to a girl instead of a boy. Her condition of being an idiot might be something forced upon her by ‘repeated blows on her head’ for ‘hate can turn a miracle-gone-wrong into a basket case.’
Sufia Zinobia gets married to Omar Khayyam, but she is psychologically unstable to have intimate relations with her husband. The reader, here, finds striking parallels between Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’,where she too has to go through a similar experience in her conjugal life with Rochester. Bertha,like Sufiya,is also mentally challenged , and is thus sidelined and imprisoned by her husband. Omar Khayyam’s sharing the bed with Shabanou remains obscure to her. She is expected to be something she is not by the people around her. This results in the release of the beast within her. Rushdie here employs his uncanny use of magic realism. Sufiya, in her bestial condition, goes ahead to rape four young men, and violently tears off their heads. She is Nemesis, personifying all the shame and vengefulness of the family. Her final act of killing her husband, again like Bertha Mason, who tries to kill Rochester by burning the house, suggests the force and violence of a nuclear explosion when she ‘went up in smoke’. The character of Sufiya disturbs both the reader and the author. Rushdie says in an interview with John Haffenden (1983): ‘I find she is the most disturbing thing in the book, and she was very disturbing to write because she more or less made herself up.’
Sufiya Zinobia represents the sufferings of Pakistan masses and women that face harassment and tyranny from the Pakistani rulers. The oppressive rule of the rulers of Pakistan leads to a despondent situation of the populace. Later, she gives birth to twenty-seven children hinting at the sort of violence inflicted on her body and mind by her husband. She goes through the shame, which turned her into a beast in the end.Rushdie comments on her character in an interview in Gentleman (1984) – “Here you have to make connection between shame and violence. If you push the people too far and if you humiliate them too much then a kind of violence bursts out of them I wanted to enclose that idea inside one person Sufiya.” Thus, it can be concluded, that Sufiya is Shame personified, a product of the cultural atmosphere around her, and finally, a victim of the patriarchal society.
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