There is a scene in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame, published in 1983 before his work became synonymous with the infamous Satanic Verses affair, which will remain forever etched in my mind. A female character, Sufiya Zinobia, experiences a wild and savage splitting, culminating in a grotesque human-beast transformation: ‘The edges of Sufiya Zinobia were beginning to become uncertain, as if there were two beings occupying that air-space, competing for it, two entities of identical shape, but of tragically opposed natures.’ Sufiya’s splitting, driven by her role as the embodiment of the narrator of the novel’s response to real-life incidents and how they manifest and take form in his own imagination, is utterly beyond her control. Her body is a mere vessel for these responses, which seep from the subconscious to the conscious, eventually locating in her physical being; after all, what else are bodies but socially constructed sites of difference.
To articulate a feeling of difference, such as shame, is not the same as struggling to define a concept. Emotions that are internalised do more than manifest deep within the recesses of our psyche, they locate themselves on these socially constructed sites before burrowing into visceral flesh and blood, expressing themselves in jarred and faltering mechanisms that malfunction in the body. We know that the catastrophic trajectory from shame to violence is mapped, or should we say seared, onto human beings. With the former inevitably leading to the latter, as is the case with Sufiya Zinobia, who ‘had been given to understand that she embodied her mother’s shame’. Starved of love or affection from a mother who, wishing her daughter had been born a boy, declares ‘she is my shame’. Desperate to please her husband who had ‘wanted a hero of a son’ and, most significantly, had fallen out of love with her, she attempts to ingratiate herself back into his affections in the only way society normalises female agency – through her capacity for reproduction. But even this attempt ends in failure, ‘I gave him an idiot female instead’ and in place of a hero son, Sufiya Zinobia is born blushing, imbibing all of the suppressed emotions of unhappiness, injustice, and discontent that provide the context for her entry into the world.
If shame as an emotion transcends the physical body, body politics invite us to consider which bodies are unthinkingly included or excluded in what we might regard as the polity. Rushdie’s novel itself is or is not a fictionalised satire of the burgeoning young nation Pakistan, and dancing across its pages are the fortunes of two prominent dynasties, the Hyder and Harappa families, who may or may not be based on two former presidents of Pakistan and their tribes – the Bhutto clan and the family of General Zia-ul Haq. It is through these families that Rushdie charts a government’s inadequate response to the political demands of those bodies that harbour ideas, thoughts, ideologies, or desires that transgress what society regards as acceptable boundaries. The body, it is often argued by feminist intellectuals such as the late bell hooks and Audre Lorde, is simultaneously socially shaped and colonised. And in Shame, physical representations of difference come alive in the characters’ fortunes; pawns in the crossfire of power relations that impact them and push against the hierarchies of authoritarianism, whether military or theocratic, that they challenge. The consequence is a loss of individual autonomy and what we see in Sufiya Zinobia is the expression of the crushed guilt of her father, Raza Hyder, a military dictator who imposes authority on a population through the violence meted onto their physical bodies and collective psyche. She is both victim and tyrant in this tale of magical realism that throws upside down everything we ever understood of both fictional and historical narrative, to explore shame and violence as they are visited upon a cast of chimerical characters.