Shame, Salman Rushdie’s new novel, is written from a very different perspective from that of the earlier Midnight’s Children. The latter novel was a book written about India by an Indian; the white metropolitan reader was an eavesdropper, overhearing the voice of a strange, far-away country of which s/he suspected s/he didn’t know nearly enough. Shame on the other hand is written by a British resident, and its subject-matter is a country to which the author is only a visitor, and, further, a visitor who doubts (to put it mildly) whether the country concerned should exist in its present form at all. Very early on in Shame, Rushdie makes it clear that he (not entirely the same person as the book’s narrator, or not the book’s narrator entirely always, of which more later) is, like his hero, ‘plagued by that improbable vertigo, by the sense of being a creature of the edge: a peripheral man’. And as he puts it a few pages later: ‘The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centring to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate.’

In brief, Shame is about the contest-to-the-death of two men, one an internationalist playboy politician, Iskander Harappa (loosely based, one might think, on Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto), the other a fundamentalist Army General, Raza Hyder (not a million miles removed, one suspects, from Muhammad Zia-al-Haque), seen from the perspective of the wives and daughters of the two men, one of whom (Hyder’s retarded daughter Sufiya Zinobia) is married to the book’s peripheral hero, Omar Khayyam Shakil, and who, in addition, in the novel’s closing moments, brings about Raza Hyder’s overthrow. (As Rushdie disarmingly admits, this is a fairy-tale ending, but ‘you try and get rid of a dictator some time’). But Sufiya Zinobia does not bring down her father by political, nor even politico-military means; she does by herself becoming and then unleashing in her own person the violence of Hyder’s state, embarking on an orgy of murderous decapitation, first of turkeys, then of other animals, then of men.

In his review of Rushdie’s earlier novel (nlr 136), Tariq Ali expressed the widespread opinion that Midnight’s Children was marred by pessimism. If that’s true, then Shame is even more so. The ending of the first novel, for instance, is ambiguous: although the hero may be ‘trampled underfoot’ in the long march of the millions through the centuries, at least there is a march and a direction and a future, whereas Shame ends in the conclusive futility of an explosion, and ‘a silent cloud, in the shape of a giant, grey and headless man, a figure of dreams, a phantom with one arm lifted in a gesture of farewell’. Rushdie’s reply to his critics (quoted by Ali) was that despite the agony of his country’s birth and adolescence, ‘the story is told in a manner designed to echo, as closely as my abilities allowed, the Indian talent for non-stop regeneration. This is why the narrative constantly throws up new stories, why it “teems”.’ It is, I think, somewhere within that notion of ‘teeming’ that the essence of Rushdie’s political art is to be found.

First of all, it should be said that the ‘teemingness’ of the novel is not merely, or even mostly, to do with the number of plots and sub-plots, even though Shame covers a long period of time and the doings of three families over at least three generations. Indeed, the plotting of this book is much tighter than that of Midnight’s Children, and the relation of the sub-plots to the main action is, at least, less opaque that it sometimes was in the earlier novel. Thus the anecdote of Mahmoud, father of Bilquis, later wife to Raza Hyder/Zia, is an extraordinary concentrate of the themes of the whole. Mahmoud (nicknamed ‘Mahmoud the Woman’) is a cinema manager, irritated by the partition of India, who as a gesture of religious reconciliation decides to present in his cinema a double-bill of the Hindu film Gai-Wallah with an American Western, ‘in which cows get massacred and the good guys feasted on steaks’. Not surprisingly, this bold decision empties the picture-house (The Empire, naturally), but Mahmoud, in no way deterred, announces the retention of the programme ‘for a Second Sensational Week’. Both sides of the vegetarian/non-vegetarian controversy continue to boycott the films, however, and as Mahmoud ‘sat grimly amidst vacant seats watching the show’, a partitionist from one side or the other blows up the cinema, killing Mahmoud and stripping his daughter Bilquis by the force of the explosive blast. In addition to the metaphors inherent in the incident, Rushdie uses the anecdote to explore ideas of femininity that are central to his story (Mahmoud’s nickname originally referred to his widowerhood, and his consequent ‘motherhood’ of his daughter; now ‘Mahmoud the Woman’ also means ‘Mahmoud the Weakling, the Shameful, the Fool’). Second, Rushdie transforms Bilquis’ sudden physical nakedness into a striking image of his (Rushdie’s) own condition of migrancy: ‘O Bilquis. Naked and eyebrowless . . . wrapped in the delirium of the firewind, she saw her youth flying past her, borne away on the wings of the explosion which were still beating in her ears. All migrants leave their pasts behind, although some try to pack it into bundles and boxes—but on the journey something seeps out of the treasured mementoes and old photographs, until even their owners fail to recognize them, because it is the fate of migrants to be stripped of history, to stand naked amidst the scorn of strangers upon whom they see the rich clothing, the brocades of continuity and the eyebrows of belonging—at any rate, my point is that Bilquis’s past left her even before she left that city; she stood in a gully, denuded by the suicide of her father, and watched it go.’

In a passage of two or three pages, then, Rushdie brings together all the main themes of his novel, the political (the madness of partition, but the incapacity of mere reason to counter the atavism that brought it about), sexual (the constant confusion of sexual identity, in a country whose parenthood was itself so dubious), psychological (shame, weakness, nakedness) and historical (the migrant and his/her ambiguous relationship to the past). But in addition—and absolutely crucially—there is a tone to the passage, a tone that is that of someone speaking from a distance, who understands much more of these people than (he suspects) his readers do, but is nonetheless speaking to them in a manner he feels they, but not his subjects, would understand. It is affectionate, it is understanding, it is involved. But it is from the outside.