Though the characters and events are cast in a fable like fashion, “Shame” is clearly a portrayal of post independence Pakistan, with some of its main characters replicating prominent political figures in real life, albeit loosely. Iskander (a vairant of Sikander/Alexander) Harappa is the liberal Zulfikar Bhutto, Raza Hyder, his subverter and subsequent president, the autocratic General Zia. Iskander’s daughter, Arjumand the virgin Ironpants is Benazir, though the work never spans beyond to that chapter of Pak political history. Though names are altered and lives coloured, the resemblances are unmistakable.
Rushdie takes potshots at Religious fanaticism, through Maulana Dawood and Hyder. In real life, it does seem Gen. Zia’s rule saw the revival of religious extremism. Rushdie notes:
…Islam might well have proved an effective unifying force in post-Bangladesh Pakistan, if people hadn’t tried to make it into such an almighty big deal…
Few mythologies survive close examination, however. And they can become very unpopular indeed if they’re rammed down people’s throats.
He is also critical of Pakistan’s high handed attitude towards Bangladesh – all through fictitious representation of real characters and incidents. His satire, for instance the left right dialectics tormenting Raza Hyder, is also effective.
The book has five sections, the first three serving to explore the origins of the heroes. I found them (the first three sections, that is) too elaborate, especially the one dealing with Omar Khayyam Shakil. He, though dubbed as the main hero, mostly serves as an eyepiece to view others, running into their lives. Of course, Hyder’s end comes due to Omar Khayyam’s choice, in the hands of his mothers (he had three).
It becomes gripping from part IV, titled “IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY” and continues that way till its conclusion.
Overall, it is a great read, accept don’t accept. Rushdie’s prowess as a literary artist is evident page after page, bringing great order to seeming chaos. Rich and fluid writing, full of delirium of the characters, yet carefully choreographed from start to finish, is the novel’s highlight. Magic Realism, though not as profuse as in Midnight’s Children, is nonetheless present – in the psychotic Hyder daughter Sofia Zinobia who transforms into a mythical panther and tears off people’s heads with bare hands, and Talvar Ul Haq’s clairvoyance.