I am currently re-reading Shame. Last I read it, I was maybe 17 or 18. I remember liking parts of it and not understanding any of it. It is an insider novel, drowning in in-jokes, self-allusions, winks and sad nods. I never realized how sad it is – Rushdie pokes into the narrative (in a rather laborious and “showing the seams” kind of way) and just laments those that made this country of shameless religiosity possible. A number of times, he mentions that it isn’t Pakistan but a country set at an angle to it. Evoking the sin or shame in the apocryphal Peccavi, Rushdie tagged shame itself as the generative force at the heart of Pakistan.1 That conceit holds, for a while, but falls apart in the middle of the novel, and it has fallen apart outside of it. I don’t think shame or honor appear in public or private discourses, as the driving cultural forces in or about Pakistan. That takalluf generation, which sparked Rushdie’s imagination, is not around much these days.
The pun Peccavi – I have Sind/Sinned – works with an understanding of shame coupled with the acquisition of a particular piece of geography (of the state of Sindh that contains Karachi in current day Pakistan). This pun of conquest has long been attributed to Charles Napier, but in fact he never said it. Indeed, the notion of sin did not enter into the emotional registers which informed his actions. Charles Napier (1782-1853) was a hermit-turned-warrior, heady with the crusading spirit that afflicted some of the veterans of the European wars of early 19th century. He was clear that the common people of Sindh (Hindus or Muslims) had to be “saved” from the despotic Muslim Mirs of Talpur. Whether there was just cause or not, Sindh had to be taken by the East India Company (EIC), and redemption – for him, as a great General, for the EIC, as a civilizing force, and for Sindh, as a country rendered anew in the Faith – awaited.
I made up my mind that although war had not been declared (nor is it necessary to declare it), I would at once march upon Imangurh and prove to the whole Talpur family of both Khyrpor and Hyderabad that neither their deserts, nor their negotiations can protect them from the British troops. The Ameers will fly over the Indus, and we shall become masters of the left bank of the river from Mitenkote to the mouth; peace with civilization will then replace war and barbarism. My conscience will be light, for I see no wrong in so regulating a set of tyrants who are themselves invaders, and have in sixty years nearly destroyed the country. The people hate them.2
In Napier’s view, a particular violence and terror haunted the valleys of Sindh. It was the Muslim menace in power – the Mirs were the “greatest ruffians,” “imbeciles,” possessing “zenanas filled with young girls torn from their friends, and treated when in the hareem with revolting barbarity,” and even prone to enjoying the occasional human “sacrifice”. His civilizing mission, for which he invented a casus belli, was to counter this terror and violence. The East India Company, and later the Raj, clung to this reading of the Sindh principality, declaring several “Wars On” dacoits, thugs, criminal tribes and the like – the terrorism of Pir Pagaro’s Hur being a late example portrayed in the former British administrator H.T. Lambrick’s novel, The Terrorist (1972).
This violence which was projected onto and into the Sindhis by the colonial voice masked, however, the colonial violence itself. The violence of breaking treaties established since 1801, of invasions, the killing and capturing of a principality on false pretenses (the Mirs were accused of seeking a conspiratorial connection with the Russians or the Afghanis against the EIC). The terror is clear in the dispatches of the Mirs – plaintively begging for some credence from the British for their legitimacy, for their rule. They know that they cannot do anything to stop the British troops and their appeals to past treaties and past promises are all couched in the voice of honor, respect (and shame). “We” had a treaty, will you not honor it? The Mirs had already seen the violence.
Continue reading “Peccavistan”