Although I always list Rushdie as one of my favorite authors of all time, it had been almost ten years since I picked up one of his books. So when I c...moreAlthough I always list Rushdie as one of my favorite authors of all time, it had been almost ten years since I picked up one of his books. So when I came across Shame in 12th Street books, I decided to dive back in.
I loved the way that the story kept leaping ahead of itself, rushing ahead like an impatient child to tell you things that wouldn’t happen until much later, and when they did happen how different they were from the expectations that had been seeded. The narrator of Shame, like many of Rushdie’s narrators is not only unreliable, he is perfectly honest and upfront about his unreliability, even encouraging you to doubt him at times. The effect is to feel yourself lifted up by the lapels and dragged forcefully into the strange world Rushdie weaves (a Pakistan that is at a “slight angle to reality”) and the bizarre story that enfolds within it. (less)
I toyed with creating a new category for this book: "Nonfiction Stranger Than Fiction." But no. Some of the stories and experiences of people that thi...moreI toyed with creating a new category for this book: "Nonfiction Stranger Than Fiction." But no. Some of the stories and experiences of people that this book chronicles do seem very far-fetched (say, to mention just one out of several dozen, the former newspaper cartoonist who becomes boss of one of the strongest Hindu fundamentalist parties in the country – an Indian Rush Limbaugh – and who provokes some of the most violent riots in the country’s history.) But it is all believable once you recognize that the world is a far meaner, violent, corrupt, or at least a far different place than one would probably imagine living in one of the wealthier countries on the planet.
Although the Maximum City of the title is Bombay, this book is also - and I would say primarily - about poverty, more precisely, the extremes of existence that poverty creates; extremes of tolerance and intolerance, violence and benevolence, community and isolation. Even in chapters that do not directly deal with poverty, such as the excellent chapter on the Indian film industry, the desperate masses are never far from the author’s focal point.
One of my dozen-or-so favorite episodes from this book is "Adjust," a passage about the Bombay train system. Toward the end of this section, a man whose job it is to monitor communal violence and religious flare-ups within the Bombay slums - in short, someone who regularly sees some of the worst aspects of humanity - is asked if he is pessimistic about the human race. He responds "Not at all.... Look at the hands from the train." He is referring to all of the hands that stretch out of the train cars when someone is running alongside the train car, reaching to pull you in. It is one of several very beautiful passages, and all I can do is quote from it at length:
“Your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartments, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss the train, and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable …. All they know is that you are trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough.” (less)