Judgement Day: Salman Rushdie’s Shame

by Kerrin Ross Monahan

 “Words are the only victors.”—Salman Rushdie’s Victory City

Salman Rushdie is a brilliant, inventive, and most important of all, an acutely perceptive writer. He won the 1981 Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children, and in 1988, with the publication of The Satanic Verses, unleashed the fury of Islamic zealots, causing him to go into hiding for fear of being assassinated, due to a fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1990 he wrote the vastly humorous and magical Haroun and The Sea of Stories. In 1995, he received the Whitbread award for The Moor’s Last Sigh. In 1998 he wrote The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the author issued a collection of non-fiction (1992-2002) Step Across This Line, in which he shows us that he will not let the fatwa define him; he will define it.

Rushdie’s writings demonstrate themes of opposites: comedy and drama, life and death, light and dark, good and evil, angels and devils, and, in Shame, up (hell) down (heaven), as well as shame and shamelessness. He draws on a vast knowledge of Eastern and Western history, literature and culture. The tone of his work also shows opposites: fireworks here, a steady flame there; shooting stars, then an unwavering glow.

Rushdie is a good genie, who holds up his lamp and illuminates the whole world in order to expose the religious, political, and national evils that exist where societies remain closed. He is a great crusader who has given up a large part of his own personal freedom in order that others may keep theirs. (Perhaps some day, the pen will prove mightier than the sword.) But the author knows that good and evil are so often tightly entwined.

In Midnight’s Children (the story of modern India, but can also be applied to the emergence of the evil and destructive component of the modern Arab world as a whole), he laments: “. . . it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.” It can indeed be said that we are all midnight’s children to a degree—caught between good and evil, life and death. Let us pray to Yahweh, Jehovah, Abraham, Jesus, God, Mohammed, and Allah, that we will all be able to live and die in peace.

Pax Vobiscum.

“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful say: I seek refuge in the Lord of men, the King of men, 114:1. The God of Men, from the mischief of the slinking prompter Who whispers in the hearts of men; from jinn and men” 114:6 (The Qumran).

Shame was written in 1983 and can be considered purposefully prophetic today. The Washington Post “Book World” commented back then on Rushdie’s ” . . . ability to convey, to a Western readership, the physical and psychic landscapes of (the East).”

In Salman Rushdie’s Shame, Omar Khayyam Shakil, the most important character in the book, is never really at center stage until the very end of the story. Omar considered himself a “peripheral man . . . born and raised in the condition of being out of things” (p.10). Not only did he feel that he was living at the edge of the world, he also perceived that he had grown up between “twin eternities” (p.17) existing in a kind of limbo between Heaven and Hell. He had an inverted sense of things from the moment of his birth, when, hanging upside down, his first vision was of the “inverted summits” that he later named the “Impossible Mountains” (p.14).

Rushdie plays upon these themes of periphery, limbo, and inversions all through the book, and time and again invests everything with political and religious overtones. The central theme is shame and shamelessness, their evil and violence and how they manifest themselves in all of the characters, especially Omar, and ultimately their consequences.

Omar was named after the famous Eleventh Century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. Not only was he noted for his immortal Rubaiyat (“Quatrains”), a thousand epigrammatic fourth line stanzas, but he was also an important mathematician and astronomer to the Royal Court. Omar Shakil himself, though not a poet, was a brilliant self-taught scholar, and certainly loved his telescope (although he was far more interested in watching the intriguing Farah than in observing the Milky Way). In a sense too, Omar Shakil was, like the first Omar, a courtier.

Omar’s three mothers, the Shakil sisters, made sure that he would be a peripheral man until the moment of his death. Not only did he never find out who his father was, he didn’t even know which of his sisters was actually his biological mother. “Nishapur,” the enormous crumbling structure that was his home (named after the poet’s home) was located in between, as well as a little above, the English (“Angrez”) Cantonment and the native village. Most of the windows in this decaying edifice faced inward, and after the sisters’ infamous party, the subsequent sealing up of the great door and installation of the dumbwaiter, Omar learned to always face inward himself. He spent his formative years in splendid isolation and it is interesting to note that he spent a good part of his life living under other people’s roofs.

Rushdie refers to Omar’s mothers’ “three-in-oneness” (p.31) and speaks of their “anchoritic existence” (p.12) and their “isolated trinity” (p. 6). There is a fascinating paradoxical element about all of this: we see the sisters as a type of cloistered nun on the one hand, and as sensual, obviously fertile women on the other. Omar comes into life “without divine approval” (p.15) the women later tell him that “his maker was a devil out of Hell (p. 308). The reader sees the mothers as the three Fates, the three witches of Endor, or a female Holy Trinity on the one hand, and also feels that they were innocent young women who were adversely and irreversibly affected by their own harsh prison like upbringing on the other.

When Omar is reluctantly allowed into the outside world, the mothers tell him: “Don’t let them make you feel shame.” Rushdie interprets this to mean: don’t let them make you feel embarrassment, modesty, decency, the sense of having an ordained peace in the world—a “remarkable ban” (p. 34). Omar becomes an “invisible” man by becoming unashamed; by existing in a kind of “Eden of the morals” (p.13) and later by wearing nothing but unobtrusive grey clothing (p.136).

Omar’s sense of inversion, his feeling of being turned upside down, turned inward, turned back upon himself, leads him to create his own sort of Cosmos. He feels that, because of the many earthquakes that were always occurring in the region, that Paradise must be underneath his feet and that the motion was caused by Angels emerging through the resultant fissures in the rocks (p.17). Therefore, Hell must be above, and limbo, that “third world” that was neither “spiritual or material” (p. 25) was where he lived. The religious fanatic Maulana Dawood accused him of descending to earth in “the machine of your mother’s iniquity” (p.173) meaning that Omar really came to earth from Hell; and of course, in the last descriptive paragraph, we do see his disembodied cloudy essence floating upward. Rushdie makes a political comment that Islamic fundamentalism is imposed on the people from above, (another subtle example of inversion) and we hear General Raza state the “the higher you climb, the thicker the blasted mud” (p. 223).

Omar made the decision to escape from the “unpalatable reality of dreams into the slightly more acceptable illusions of his everyday life” (p.16). He trains himself to get by on “forty winks” in order to avoid these nightmares. Again, more authorial inversion.
Rushdie cloaks (veils) things in fairy tales. Is he or isn’t he? Is this what it seems to be? Is that real or make believe? Should we feel sorry for Omar? Is Rushdie the narrator? Should we feel sorry for him? Is he or isn’t he talking about Pakistan—(he claims: “not quite.”)The reader follows Omar’s shameless degenerate trail, from Farah’s impregnation (through his use of hypnotism), to whoring and drinking with Isky, to marrying into the family that killed his half-brother Babar, to impregnating his wife’s Ayah (under his father-in-law’s roof, a particularly serious taboo), then to his financing of her abortion.

Omar, because he never knew who his father was (only that he was told that he was “Angrez”), picked the foreign teacher, the kindly Eduardo as a surrogate. Omar himself, having no children—how do we really know that Farah’s child lived?—is himself an unknown father. He also receives censure from his mothers for being a sort of “absent father” to Babar (p.139).

Although we see young Omar vomiting out his shame (at impregnating Farah while she was under his hypnotic spell) (p. 52) Rushdie shows that he later deliberately suppresses it “lest its explosive presence there . . . shatter him” (p. 84). Omar’s shame is signaled by dizziness which serves as a reminder of how close he is to the edge. He learns to distance himself, and in doing so makes himself into an “ethical zombie” (p.137). He is passive, a figure on the sidelines, a shadowy courtier. It is ironic that he becomes a famous immunologist. (He is adept at making himself immune to shame and this choice of profession is certainly apt.)His vertigo will only return when he finally goes back to Nishapur to face his shame, back to his birthplace “where you have been heading all your life.” His mothers had forbidden him to face shame and in the end, upon his return, had forced him to gorge upon it. He had even been obliged to immunize his wife Sufiya from shame—Sufiya, “his destiny” (p.153). Sufiya, the embodiment of shame, vessel of the world’s shame and shamelessness, who is saved again and again from destruction by Omar’s needle, who is rescued from being devoured by the beast of shame that occupies her body. Omar, himself an expert hypnotist, had looked into Sufiya’s eyes and seen “the golden eyes of the most powerful mesmerist on earth” (p.261)—certainly a diabolical reference. The time finally comes when Omar can no longer avoid the last confrontation with his shame.

Back in Nishapur, the beast corners him and he is forced to recite a confession, a sort of litany of his own shameful acts. Omar, in facing his shame and taking on full responsibility for his shameless deeds, finally moves out of the wings and onto center stage. He actively plays his part and in doing so sacrifices himself to Sufiya. She in turn is consumed by the power of shame and blows up. There is a strange, never before consummation between husband and wife. At last they are free of shame, and they float up into the ether; Omar copying exactly his “adopted” father Eduardo’s stance that he had dreamt of long ago: lifting his hand in farewell (benediction?) like a headless genie—not going back into the magic lamp, but emerging from a vessel of shame up into hell. Here Rushdie continues his “veiling” and inversion. Is Omar, in death, finally free of sin (shame) and/or has he been consigned to his own inverted hell?

Rushdie himself has mesmerized us and has also at times distanced himself from us, and in other instances, has drifted close to us. He operates on so many different levels and in so many different ways: practical, journalistic, and incisive, and, dreamlike storytelling, poetic. Who is Rushdie? Who is Omar? He could be Pakistan itself. His mother could be India and his father “Angrez.” He is a country divided, living in limbo, with a “mortal fear of falling into the void” (p.196).Perhaps this story is a veiled political warning to Pakistan. (Look what may happen to you if your shameful politics aren’t subdued. Poof! You may go up in a puff of smoke.) In retrospect we may also see it as a foreshadowing of what has happened to Rushdie, and what may happen to him in future. “Look what may happen to you if your shameful blasphemy isn’t subdued! You may go up in a puff of smoke”—Shazam!” Straight up into a Muslim hell.
God forbid.

Dictionary of Definitions

“Angrez”: English/British

Ayah: native maid, nurse or nanny

Ayatollah: A title in the religious hierarchy achieved by scholars who have demonstrated highly advanced knowledge of Islamic law.

Fatwa: A legal statement in Islam issued by a mufti or religious lawyer, which must be rendered in accordance with fixed precedent, and not an individual’s own will or ideas. A theological decision.

Genie: (Jinn)-(Islamic mythology). Any of a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human and animal forms, and influencing mankind for good and evil.

Intifada: movement, uprising, protest. (Mainly associated with the Palestinian uprising against Israel.)

Jihad: (Islam) To strive in the way of Allah. To fight in order to extend the bounds of Islam. A war against those who threaten the community. A battle, struggle, holy war for Islam. Can be used as a defense as well as an attack.

Mufti: Muslim legal adviser consulted in applying the religious law.

Qur’an: (Koran) Regarded by Muslims as the Word of God revealed in the Arabic language through the prophet Muham.

Shame: The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, done by oneself or another. To cover with ignominy or reproach, disgrace.

Shameless: Lacking any sense of shame. Immodest, audacious, insensible to disgrace. Brazen, unabashed. Hardened, unprincipled. Corrupt.

Freeman, John. Rocky Mountain News. Denver Post. November 3rd, 2002.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991.

The Koran. (N.J. Dawood trans.) 5th rev. ed. London: Penguin Books 1990.

Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Unabridged. New York: 1983.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Picador Ed. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1981.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame. First Adventura Ed. New York: Random House, 1984.

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books Canada LTD, 1988.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and The Sea of Stories. New York: Granta Books/Penguin Books U.S.A, 1990.

Rushdie, Salman. Step Across This Line. (Collected Fiction) 1992-2002. New York: Random House, 2002.

Haiku TV Review: Abbott Elementary

Quinta: The Magical Number

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

Teachers love school true.
Abbott Elementary.
Rome + Juliuss.

Clarence: We call him Mr. C ‘cuz he’s corny. But I like his class. It’s fun. He showed us Summer of Soul. That was good. He’s cool.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Musical

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

Buffy Lunchbox Courtesy of Lili Hardy

I come from the imagination/and I’m here strictly by your invocation.
So what do you say/why don’t we dance awhile?
—intones the devil in a blue suit

The Bewitched television era titles for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s, “Once More with Feeling,” conjures up an I Was a Teenage Werewolf drive-in flick sensation, and forewarns an evening of “retro-pastiche.” Joss Whedon, creator of this hip horror show, wrote the songs and music in addition to writing and directing the episode—wielding the blade that gives Buffy its edge.

The plot is a slayer standard:

A demon causes an imbalance in the universe. In this case, “Sweet” sports a zoot suit and arranges a danse macabre for Sunnydale. Spellbound, Buffy and the Slayerettes burst into song—each revealing their own private hell.

It’s the do or die attitude that prevails, however, as wedding jitters, mind control, ejection from heaven, et cetera, are momentarily set aside for a showstopping number that gives the dapper devil his due. As his “due” is Xander for a bride—the fiend opts to “blow this scene.”

Ah, but Sweet has the last laugh as the devil is always in the details:

“What a lot of fun/you guys have been real swell.
And there’s not a one/who can say this ended well.
All those secrets/you’ve been concealing,
Say you’re happy now/once more with feeling.
Now I gotta run/see you all in hell.”

The day may be saved but relationships are left uneasy and unclear as the characters warble, “Where do we go from here?” The music swells and the curtains close on a kiss between Buffy the teenage zombie and the only one who can make her feel alive—Spike, the dead sexy swain who vamps in the dark shadows.

“Once More With Feeling” can be interpreted as a dialogue Whedon imagines between the audience and himself. When Buffy sings “Every single night, the same arrangement, I go out and fight the fight,” and rejects the notion of just “going through the motions” it’s as if he acknowledges the dangers of bloody boredom that may befall any series in its sixth season. Buffy asks Giles: “What do you expect me to do?” He replies: “Your best.” Fortunately, Whedon’s best exceeds our already high expectations.

Where does Joss Whedon go from here? Wherever that may be, we are certain to be square in front of the tube, invoking the song and dance man to bring in his own brand of funky noise.

My So Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

Forget academics. When it comes to high school, the rule is to be cool. For main characters Angela in the My So Called Life episode “Self-Esteem” written by Winnie Holzman and directed by Michael Engler, and Xander, in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Zeppo” written by Dan Vebber and directed by James Whitmore Jr., image is of utmost concern.

Both episodes of the critically acclaimed television dramas are Dramatica grand argument stories. Each emphasizes the thematic conflict of worth vs. value. In My So-Called Life, feelings of self-worth are explored in the overall story domain of fixed attitudes (mind)-and are directly related to the problem of expectations-high and low. For example, Renee Lerner, the high school math teacher calls out in the hallway:

Angela Chase! Why weren’t you in geometry review? 
Angela, you need this. . . . How do you expect (overall story problem) to pass your midterm? [To other teacher] It breaks my heart, some of these girls. They are just so smart and yet . . .

It’s called low self-esteem.

The thematic issue of worth is carried on when Rayanne and Sharon express disapproval of Angela and Jordan’s (impact character) relationship-one that is confined to kissing in the boiler room:

Why is he keeping you two a secret?

How do you know he’s keeping us a secret?

Rayanne told me.

Look . . . we care about you. When I was drinking and drugging, you wanted me to stop (main character growth), as my friend.

Wait. You’re comparing me making out with Jordan Catalano to you getting your stomach pumped?

You don’t see the connection?

The connection is self-respect. . . . You deserve, like, so much better.

Just because he’s not Kyle and he doesn’t parade with me down the halls holding hands.

In an effort to save face, Angela brazenly lies to her friends, telling them Jordan has asked her to meet him at a music club. Rayanne and Sharon force the issue by accompanying Angela to the Pike Street club. Angela is humiliated when Jordan blatantly ignores her-compelling Rayanne to confront the beautiful, brooding boyfriend:

You know you like her. Would it kill you to admit it? Maybe treat her halfway decent? Because, you know, she deserves it. And she’s not going to wait around for you forever (main vs. impact direction-unending).

Two objective character subplots offer thematic parallels. In one, Angela’s father, Graham, is undergoing a career crisis. Determined (overall story solution) to do what he loves and excels in, instead of what is expected (overall story problem), is behavior Graham’s father-in-law, Chuck Wood, finds indulgent:

Where’s Mr. Fixit tonight?

He’s taking a [cooking] class.

He ought to be pulling his weight. . . . [You should] get one of those . . . headhunter[s]. That’s what you need. Somebody to get him a job . . . [so he can] stop sponging off his wife.

Dad, this is between me and Graham. Okay, please? You don’t know all the particulars.

I’m your father. That’s the particulars. And you deserve better.

Graham’s renowned culinary teacher turns out to be drunken disappointment, prompting a classmate to comment: “We deserve better. I mean, don’t we?”
Much to his and Patty’s surprise (overall story problem-expectations), Graham later informs her: “They want me to teach the class.”

In another subplot, the new English teacher attempts to convince a student to sign up for the drama club:

Why are you doing this? This is not something I am gonna do. I’m not the sort of person who joins things, okay?

I’m really sorry, but no, that’s not okay. . . . Well, I mean, come on, I’m a teacher. How do you expect (overall story problem) me to react to a ridiculous statement like that-you don’t join things? Who are you, Groucho Marx-you’d never belong to any club that would have you as a member? . . . Look, what is holding you back here? That I’m not cool enough? Don’t let the fact that your English teacher is a dork stop you from fulfilling your potential. Just pretend-that I’m a track coach. I happen to notice that you can run fast. I need you on my team (overall story problem-expectation)! It’s as simple as that, Enrique.

Stop calling me that! Why are you calling me that?

I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I keep forgetting. It’s just, it’s just-gee whiz, it’s such a great name. When I was in high school, I hated my name. I hated it.

I don’t-hate my name, I-I just . . .

Oh, oh good. I’m really glad. No-nobody should hate who they are.

After “being made a fool of by the only person I’ll ever love” (main vs. impact thematic issue-fantasy), Angela surreptitiously meets Jordan one last time:

The truly frightening thing, is that even after everything that happened, Jordan Catalano left a note in my locker to meet him in the boiler room. The nauseating part is that I went.

She demands he admit: “That all of this happened (main vs. impact thematic counterpoint-fact). That you have emotions. That you can’t, like, treat me one way in front of your friends then the next minute leave me some note.”

Success (outcome) is illustrated when Jordan, in front of everyone, asks Angela “Can we, like, go somewhere?” (impact character resolve-change) and her immediate response (story goal-preconscious) is “Sure.” With all eyes upon them-they parade down the hall, holding hands (main character judgment-good).

For Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the real horror show in high school is not necessarily Sunnydale’s proximity to the Hellmouth (overall story domain-universe) and the always impending end (overall story focus) of the world, but combating the role (main character concern-being) of the “boy who has no cool.”

It must be really hard when all your friends have, like, superpowers (impact character thematic conflict-experience vs. skill). Slayer, werewolf, witches, vampires, and you’re like this little nothing (main character thematic counterpoint-ability).

. . . I happen to be an integral part of that group (impact character). I happen to have a lot to offer (main vs. impact thematic conflict-worth vs. value).

. . . Oh, please.

Xander obsesses (main character domain-psychology) over his “lack (main character growth-start) of cool,” and sets out to discover what will make him unique (mc thematic issue-desire). In the midst of apocalyptic evil (overall story thematic counterpoint-fact), Xander is only allowed to run inconsequential errandsleaving idle time that allows for running with the wrong crowd-like becoming (main character journey 2) the wheel man for zombies.

At story’s end, Xander comes to realization (main character resolve-change) that cool is not about show and tell-but quiet grace (main character judgment-good) under unexpected (main vs. impact-solution) pressure.