The Widow: Rushdie’s Portrayal of Indira Gandhi in Midnight’s Children
In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie uses witch imagery to depict Indira Gandhi as the Widow. Critics have discussed the historical context of this decision, with some finding it problematic. However, by interpreting the Widow as an element of political satire, we can see that Rushdie’s gendered portrayal of Indira Gandhi reveals a valid critique of her political leadership without blaming her for all of India’s problems. Additionally, Rushdie’s use of witch references for other female characters indicates a more contemporary view of powerful women in India.
Nicole Weickgenannt accuses Rushdie of misogyny in “The Nation’s Monstrous Women, Widows, and Witches in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” Criticizing his portrayal of female characters, Weickgenannt considers Indira Gandhi and “her dictatorial Emergency rule” as the “target of [Rushdie’s] misogynist trajectory” (Weickgenannt 77). She takes issue with Rushdie’s accusation that Indira Gandhi destroyed her father’s vision of India “in the form of the midnight’s children conference.” Her argument focuses primarily on the archetypes Rushdie utilizes to characterize Indira Gandhi as a villain in Midnight’s Children. To Weickgenannt, Rushdie “demonizes” Gandhi through the “derogatory connotations of widowhood and witchcraft” (76). Though accurate, Weickgenannt’s criticism of Rushdie ignores the valid arguments raised in Midnight’s Children. Unable to delegitimize Rushdie’s criticism of Indira Gandhi, her argument is so lacking in substance that it inadvertently categorizes the Gandhi’s rule as “dictatorial,” rather than “allegedly dictatorial.”
Even her criticism of the other female characters is flawed. Weickgenannt discusses how Rushdie’s depiction of Indira Gandhi is based on Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, citing an essay where Rushdie refers to the Widow as a “coming together of the Wicked Witches of the East and the West” (79). In this essay, Rushdie refers to the Wicked Witch as a symbol of “powerful womanhood.” Although he considers the Wicked Witch more powerful than Glenda the Good Witch, the Wizard of Oz analogy reconciles his depiction of other female characters as witches. In fact, Rushdie’s characterization of women can be considered feminist. Building on the Wizard of Oz references, Rushdie’s portrayal of women as witches demonstrates the power of women. Like Saleem, Parvati-the-witch is also one of midnight’s children. By referring to Parvati as a witch, Rushdie indicates that “witch” isn’t an inherently negative word. This is no different from The Wizard of Oz, which draws a distinction between good witches and bad witches.
Upon marrying Parvati-the-witch, Saleem demonstrates reverence toward women by stating that “women have made me; and also unmade. From Reverend Mother to the Widow, I have been at the mercy of the so-called (erroneously, my opinion!) gentler sex” (Rushdie 465). With this in mind, Weickgenannt’s accusation of misogyny seems hollow. Yes, the Widow is characterized with gendered stereotypes, but upon further analysis, powerful women are clearly depicted in both positive and negative light. Padma echoes this sentiment by reassuring Saleem that “a little uncertainty is no bad thing,” since “cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women too” (243). Still, other critics interpret the Widow as an indication that women have taken over the state. In Self, Nation, Text in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Neil Ten Kortenaar argues that “the widow, Indira Gandhi, quite literally threatens men with the loss of their manhood…in the form of forced sterilizations” and “castrations performed on all the Midnight’s Children” (Kortenaar 138). This is a somewhat flawed argument, since there are female Midnight’s Children. Either way, Kortenaar argues that these castrations reduce all of the Midnight’s Children, “male and female alike” to women.
Rama Lohani-Chase offers a more objective analysis of Rushdie’s witch trope. In “Political (W)holes: Post-Colonial Identity, Contingency of Meaning, and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,” she discusses the historical context of Rushdie’s Indira Gandhi character. She argues that the Widow’s role in the Midnight’s Children Conference is “one of the most important aspects of the book” since it offers “commentary on the rule of Indira Gandhi, who gave up the values of secularism espoused by her father Nehru…to gain Hindu votes” (Chase 42). Giving additional credence to Rushdie’s parody of Indira Gandhi, Chase discusses the events referenced by Rushdie’s allegory. She mentions how Indira Gandhi’s administration “forced sterilization on slum dwellers and conjured a state-of-emergency to consolidate power against increasingly popular communist factions” (43).
Thus, characterizing Indira Gandhi as a witch for the latter political decision can easily be considered misogynistic. But the act of sterilizing slum dwellers is a human rights violation that justifies Rushdie’s parody of Gandhi as a witch who sterilizes the midnight’s children. To criticize Rushdie rather than Gandhi in this scenario demonstrates the facile nature of Weickgenannt’s argument. Moreover, the historical context of Chase’s argument debunks Kortenaar’s psychoanalytic analysis of Indira Gandhi as a threat to Saleem’s manhood.
Despite his scathing critique of Indira Gandhi as the destroyer of hope for a secular and diverse India, Rushdie doesn’t place all of the blame on her. Commenting on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Saleem notices that it “occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date” (Rushdie 190). Saleem mentions his inability to identify “the actual sequence of events,” arguing that “in [his] India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time.” This observation demonstrates the opinion that Gandhi’s assassination deprived an independent India of proper leadership, shifting some of the blame away from Indira Gandhi and toward Nathuran Godse. The conflict between Muslims and Hindus is exemplified by the revelation that Godse had killed Mahatma Gandhi. When Godse is named as his murderer over the radio, Amina exclaims “thank God…it’s not a Muslim name” (163). Aadam tells her that “Godse is nothing to be grateful for.” Rushdie features a play on words in this passage by mentioning how “Gandhi’s death had placed a new burden of age” on Aadam.
Gandhi’s assassination takes place a few months after India gains independence, implying this “burden of age” was present from the beginning of India’s independence. India needed to find a way to cope with its religious diversity, and without Mahatma Gandhi, this would be difficult. By pandering exclusively to Hindus, Indira Gandhi abandons her father’s secular view of government. This can be interpreted as the catalyst of India’s problems, rather than their cause.
The witch tropes utilized by Salman Rushdie have sexist connotations, but Midnight’s Children is not a misogynistic text. Instead, it clearly indicates Rushdie’s opinion that women can be just as powerful as men, whether they be good or evil. Rushdie doesn’t slander Indira Gandhi for being a threat to manhood; he criticizes her tyrannical policies, religious demagoguery, and human rights violations.
Kortenaar, Neil Ten. Self, Nation, Text in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. McGill-Queen’s, 2004.
Lohani-Chase, Rama. “Political (W)holes: Post-Colonial Identity, Contingency of Meaning and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, vol. 4, no. 10, 2009, pp. 42-43.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Random House, 2006.
Weickgenannt, Nicole. “The Nation’s Monstrous Women: Wives, Widows and Witches in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 43, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 76-79.
Individual Influence on India’s History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
India – a subcontinent defined by its exceptional diversity, caused by its outstanding history. It has always been a country easy to love, but hard to describe. Salman Rushdie is said to be one of the first authors to have truly written from the heart of India’s people. In Midnight’s Children, the first book to win the prize of the “Best of the Bookers” (Weatherby 20), he successfully narrates the biography of Saleem Sinai, who is inextricably linked to his nation, as a commotion of disasters and triumphs that mirrors the course of modern India at its most impossible and glorious. One of the author’s many attractive qualities as a writer is his clever use of humorous images and metaphors to explain and discuss incredibly controversial and painful issues. He describes various debatable topics, stressing the theme of how of much impact one person can have on history. As the protagonist is born on the stroke of midnight at the precise moment of India’s Independence, he insists that his life is irrevocably connected to India’s post-colonialist journey to create its own history. August 15, 1947, the night of India’s Independence, is probably the most important date this century has contributed to the subcontinent. But can a character – fictional or not – be represented by a nation’s history? By making it the heart of the story, the author speaks the voice of India through his novel. In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie arouses the question of the individual’s role in history, simultaneously depicting India’s diversity through the usage of the narrative form of magical realism when portraying historical and political events.The novel is a unique Anglo-India blend of fiction and imaginative autobiography. Its story is set at the moment that India and Pakistan achieved independence from Great Britain, covering the whole of that vast country and its history according to the author. One of the main reasons why the book was the first winner of the Booker was its usage of magical realism, describing India as a subject and not merely as a background. The fantastic and the magical, the exaggerated and the almost unreal are used to imaginatively portray controversial subjects, especially in societies that have converted from colonies to independence. Therefore, the novel is commonly labeled “magical realism” to “emphasize its juxtaposition of two normally incompatible frameworks” (Kortenaar 17). Magical realism disrupts the normal schemes of causality and time, the laws of physics, and the conventional relationship between the object and its symbolic meaning. The narrative form as a genre comes from countries where the political scene is judged by the standards of a western democracy, that only a sense of magic can do justice to it (“The Lectern”). Furthermore, the novel can be labeled as an epic book, as the story is centered on heroic characters and the action takes place on a grand scale (“Magical Realism and Post-Colonialist Device”). The outstanding narrative form is a characterizing device in Midnight’s Children. The author tends to apply a very traditional Indian form of passing on history: the oral narrative. The events in the novel refer to the world outside the text and to a familiar narrative of history relying on conventions of verisimilitude, yet much that occurs is frankly fantastic, involving superpowers, a divinely mandated destiny, a wildly implausible personal connection to the events of history (Weatherby 17). Nevertheless, Rushdie’s dense and delicate style complicates analysis: moments of humor turn serious in an instant. Therefore, he did not want to call his novel a political novel – because “it is capable of multiple interpretations”, as he claims at an interview with the Times (Weatherby 48). Within the larger frame of the novel’s narrative, the author tells many smaller stories, a technique that Rushdie uses time and again in his fiction works. Stories are culturally important, but they are also deployed here for specific purposes, intended to convey particular lessons, and to do so through metaphor, symbol, and image (“Spit and Memory”). This way, Rushdie offers the reader a wide range of possible interpretations to each one of the stories. The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is portrayed as having an outstanding magical existence. Many aspects of his life do not make much sense. Some of these, such as the magical powers enjoyed by the children of midnight, can be read as symbols of the inherent promise of the generation born into a free country. In other cases, though, Rushdie gives details that do not easily correspond to any larger message. These details, which are notable but not necessarily meaningful, help to heighten the reader’s sense of the absurdity of Saleem Sinai’s world: “Can you believe (…) that I was a heavy child? Blue Jesus leaked into me; and Mary’s desperation, and Joseph’s revolutionary wildness, and the flightiness of Alice… all these made me, too” (146). These multiple references to the Bible may let the reader assume there is a religious coherence, which the author proves to be a wrong expectation in the following chapters. Midnight’s Children is a novel that is fragmented, making frequent and abrupt transitions of place, time, and character. Far from being a careless mistake of the author, the fragmentation serves vital psychological functions, reflecting the divisive experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism. The extreme fragmentation may cause difficulty for the reader, thrusting him or her into the same feeling state experienced by exiles and the characters Rushdie portrays. Furthermore, time plays an important role in the autobiography: “Time, in my experience, has been as variable and inconstant as Bombay’s electric power supply” (142). The main characters oral narrative begins 30 years before Independence and symmetrically ends 30 years after. Practically, the novel covers his whole life in order to come to meaning with his identity. The magical realism especially highlights the absurdity of the political scene in post-Independent India (“The Lectern”). However, factual errors and dubious claims are essential aspects of Saleem’s fantastic narrative. Because of the falseness of Saleem’s historical events, the reader may wonder how much he can trust Saleem’s account. “’I told you the truth,’ I say yet again, ‘Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent versions of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.’” (309). For instance, the fact that the narrator is omniscient through his telepathic abilities makes the reader question if the protagonist is inventing things. Other than that, the memory is a very important characteristic in the novel. Saleem remembers things from before his birth, recalls how his grandparents met and unfolds how even his ancestor enjoyed the privileges of having a gigantic nose. He portrays the road to his birth as if it were completely normal, defending his knowledge by the irrevocable loss of faith his grandfather bequeathed on him. Only later does the reader find out that this is not possible, as Saleem Sinai is not the grandchild of Aadam Aziz (see below). This, once again, calls the reader to doubt the protagonists’ reliability on telling the truth. Yet, throughout the story, Saleem explains that his memory is intensified by his special ability of smelling, which was caused by an operation of his nose to ease his respiratory system. But at a certain point of his life, Saleem Sinai loses his memory. This is when the famous spittoon appears as an important device of the story. Memory, truth, and storytelling are entwined into the motif of the spittoon. It allows the narrative to circle back on itself without losing its forward momentum. By reintroducing the spittoon in different contexts, Rushdie builds meaning into the image and provides the reader with a reference point and familiar angle of insight into the meaning of his tale. One particular spittoon, an extraordinary silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli, becomes a link to reality for Saleem: “What I held on to in that ghostly time-and-space: a silver spittoon. Which, transformed like myself by Parvati-whispered words, was nevertheless a reminder of the outside . . . clutching finely wrought silver, which glittered even in that nameless dark, I survived. Despite head-to-toe numbness, I was saved, perhaps, by the glints of my precious souvenir.” (456). It is a point of return, a lovely but monotonous reminder of truth in a world that threatens to overwhelm with the sheer volume and variety of its voices and experiences (“Spit and Memory”). By the ending of the novel, Saleem loses his spittoon, as Indian bulldozers sent by Indira Gandhi bury it. This is another irony of his life: The nation that held together his memory ultimately destroyed it.Moreover, the novel makes a distinction between lies and fictions. “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems—but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems incredible” (Rushdie 189). Again, in this case magical realism is applied as a device for defamiliarising the familiar (“An Overview”). The birth switch, for example, represents a lie that is only revealed to the reader after the beginning of Part Two. Born on the stroke of midnight of India’s Independence, the family maid Mary Pereira switches nametags of the two children born simultaneously (Shiva and Saleem). This way, Saleem has the fortune of growing up in a rich, Indian family. Actually, he is born to common parents, so poor that the man who is his natural father would have broken the legs of the boy he thought was his son, in order to make him a more effective beggar. For the first ten years of his life, though, neither Saleem nor his family knows of his humble roots, and so he is raised as the son in an educated and wealthy family. In couple with this, the reader is thrown into a state of ignorance: If the baby Saleem is not a Sinai, how can his whole life reflect on the actions of his “grandfather”, Aadam Aziz? How is it possible, that the explanation of a magical existence based on familiar connections is nevertheless so logically entwined in the story? The fiction is not arbitrary but meaningful, and concurrently the meaning is not changed, because after all, the baby switch is discovered (Kortenaar 40). On account of these particularly absurd situations, the reader never knows the deeper truth of what might be happening, and at the same time, so much conjuring going on in the hero’s imagination could bewilder a reader, but as a tour de force his fantasy is irresistible (Weatherby 42). This is exactly what characterized magical realism; the effect of its unpredictability concerning occurring events can be intensified by building up a story on false events – in a sense only to prove the absurdity of the protagonist Saleem’s life.Because he is torn by conflicting evidence that his is either a special, magical existence or quite an ordinary one, Saleem Sinai portrays the story of his life, trying to find his true identity. “Please believe that I am falling apart (…) this is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.)“ (176) He sees himself and his family as a microcosm of what is happening to India. His own life seems so bound up with the fate of the country that he has the impression of having no existence as an individual; yet, he is a distinct person. One of the main questions raised in the book is if the main character mirrors India: “I mean myself, in my historical role, of which prime ministers have written (…) ‘It is, in a sense, the mirror of us all’” (112). His birth conditions show a paradox of rich and poor, which is an actual emerging problem in India. Through the midnight’s children Saleem represents the diversity of India. On top of that, his lack of identity portrays the problems of a country that recently gained Independence. But can a whole subcontinent be summarized by one boy, yet a magical existence?“There is no just explanation for why one person is born into wealth and another doomed to poverty” (Kortenaar 45). Saleem is constantly affected by his birth conditions, and the reader can find a typical western snobbism Saleem portrays throughout the story. Rushdie goes out of his way to show that the opportunities for self-fulfillment that give the citizens a stake in the nation are a question not of merit but of the class one is born into. Because the choice in Midnight’s Children is posed in terms of faith and doubt, it is actually weighed in favor of history and the nation (Kortenaar 45), as to prove that not everything depends on the birth conditions. Rushdie successfully writes about how, despite Saleem’s familiar wealth, he too is touched by fate in a devastating way, when he is sent to war after he loses his whole family.In addition, his mother Mumtaz (Amina) Sinai has to face various incidents of racial discrimination in the course of her life. This is also a very intense but actual problem in the subcontinent. “But then, one night, [Reverend Mother] entered the dreams of her daughter Mumtaz, the blackie whom she had never been able to love because of her skin of a South Indian fisherwoman” (69). She is the only one out of four children that is black. Because of her skin color, her mother Naseem Aziz is incapable of loving her and thinks that she is damned to living a horrible future: “How awful to be black, cousinji, to wake every morning and see it staring at you, in the mirror to be shown proof of your inferiority! (…) Of course they know, even blackies know white is nicer, don’t you think so?” (89) This represents the racial discrimination even within the borders of a family. Directly, this has no effect on Saleem, yet it is another example of how Saleem’s life can be reflected to India’s quotidian life.Ironically, Mumtaz is the one to give birth to a midnight’s child. The mothers of this achievement are promised a high reward in form of money and a short period of fame. The child was born at the exact stroke of midnight of the night of India’s Independence, on August 15th 1947, and the family even received a letter of the Prime Minister Nehru, complimenting on the birth of Saleem. From this point on, he claims to be responsible for the course of history: “At the end of 1947, life in Bombay was as teeming, as manifold, as multitudinously shapeless as ever… except that I had arrived; I was already beginning to take my place at the centre of the universe, and by the time I had finished, I would give meaning to it all” (173).Saleem frequently voices anxiety concerning the “solipsism of arriving at an understanding of the individual’s role in history”, especially when history is unsettlingly permeated by what can only be understood as magic (“The Lectern”). Saleem has placed himself at the centre of his world – his significance confirmed by a prime minister’s letter, a newspaper photo, and the predictions of a holy man. The fact that his birth was actually anticipated by a guru underlines Saleem’s understanding of the importance of his existence: Newspapers shall praise him, two mothers shall raise him! Bicyclists love him, but crowds will shove him! Washing will hide him- voices will guide him! Friends mutilate him- blood will betray him! Spittoons will brain him- doctors will drain him- jungle will claim him – wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will try him- tyrants will fry him. He will have sons without having sons. He will be old before he is old… And he will die… before he is dead. (96) Obviously, as the narrative form of magical realism dominates the story, the predictions become real. But at the moment of hearing the prophecies, his mother was afraid to death, which highlights the relevancy of superstition in India; this tradition to let a guru or a shaman predict the future is a practice still commonly applied to solve delicate issues in the Subcontinent.Another central project of the novel is to answer this question: “How, in what terms, may the fate of a single individual be said to impinge on the fate of a nation?” Salman Rushdie uses magical realism to expose the complex nature of the relationship between the individual and their position in history (“The Lectern”). Saleem’s birth, at the exact moment India gained her Independence, was his first direct connection to his country. “(…) I had been overwhelmed by an agonizing feeling of sympathy for the country which was not only my twin-in-birth, but also joined to me (so to speak) at the hip, so that what happened to either of us happened to us both” (538). Over time, his presence seems to influence important decisions, which makes him believe that he is responsible for the occurring events in his country. From his father’s alcoholism to the petty affairs of the estate, Saleem wants to claim it all as his, no doubt in part to fulfill the enormous weight and prophecy placed on him since birth. With “If I hadn’t wanted to be a hero” (387), Saleem starts an inner monologue rehearsing the curse of his life, claiming how every situation preceded the next. He ends his discourse with the assassination of the Prime Minister: “Nehru’s death; can I avoid the conclusion that that, too, was all my fault?” Saleem constantly lives with an enormous weight of responsibility on his shoulders, which in great part is caused by his enormous self-esteem that makes his believe his fate is directly connected to his nation’s. Nevertheless, the preeminent use of magical realism convinces the reader to think likewise. During his childhood, Saleem shows enormous pride in thinking that things just happen because of him. It makes him arrogant and presumptuous, believing himself greater than others. Subsequently, this is one of the main factors why the midnight’s children conference came to an end. “Why, alone of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?” (534). When Saleem grows older, he understands the amount of responsibility he has to face and learns how to deal with guilt, although he does have his moment of doubt.However, his son (who was not really his son) has to face the same type of destiny his father involuntarily lived through. Parvati the Witch, who is married to Saleem at the time Aadam Sinai is to be born, who was conceived with Saleem’s archenemy Shiva, was in labor for twelve days. In these twelve days, “public discontent with the Indira Congress threatened to crush the government like a fly” (582), as she was accused of two courts of campaign malpractice during the election of 1971. Then, “at the precise moment of Emergency he emerged. (…) And owning to the occult tyrannies of that benighted hour, he was mysteriously handcuffed to history, his destinies indissolubly chained to those of his country. “ (586) As the story ends with Saleem still being the center character, the reader never finds out what happens to the mysterious son.According to V.S. Pritchett, “The book is really about the mystery of being born and the puzzle of who one is” (Weatherby 43). Coupled with the immense responsibility the boy Saleem has to face are his identity issues. Like any other child in puberty, the protagonist is confronted with problems concerning his individuality. Later in the novel, the conflict of the Pakistani and the Indian nationality emphasize this issue. In search for his identity, his narrative discusses aspects such as orality and hybridism in order to “metaphorically” understand his relation to the nation (Kortenaar 41). He exists, as a person and as a narrative voice, within spectra composed of these four poles: Active-literal (how Saleem impacts on history directly), passive-metaphorical (how the growth of the state is symbolizes by the growth of the baby Saleem), passive-literal (how the events of history impact Saleem’s family) and active-metaphorical (how the things that happen to Saleem are shown to be symbolically at one with the events of history). Magic realism lays in the outer two: the subverting of causality with time and object with metaphor (“The Lectern”). In general, the first half of the novel is characterized by the magical literalization of metaphors (active-metaphorical) and the second by the bathetic metaphorization of the literal (passive-metaphorical) (Kortenaar 57). He realizes that his words have a small amount of meaning, especially when confessing his love to his sister: “But even as he spoke he could hear his words sounding hollow, and realized that although what he was saying was the literal truth, there were other truths which had become more important because they had been sanctified by time” (451). Knowing that what he has to say will not be heard as the truth deeply hurts his self-esteem. He openly asks a question about his existence, and what sense life makes if the truth is said to be a lie. “Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. (…) I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world” (535). Saleem realizes that his existence is determined to be a special one; one that is created only through everyday occurrences. But Saleem is not the only one to be born of the stroke of midnight of India’s Independence. Another central motif of the novel is that of omniscience which, made literal, becomes a science-fiction cliché of telepathy (Kortenaar 35). Being born on the exact moment India gained her Independence, every midnight’s child was endowed with a special ability, including supernatural forces. “Understand what I am saying: during the first hour of August 15th, 1947 (…) one thousand and one children were born within the frontiers of the infant sovereign state of India. What made the event noteworthy (…) was the nature of these children, endowed with features, talents or faculties which can only be described as miraculous.” (271) He comes to find that he has supernatural powers too, which he uses to communicate with the other children born on the same day he was, finding that they are all gifted, but not as gifted as he is, except for Shiva, the child with whom he was switched at birth. He sees himself in them, especially in Shiva. He understands his powers through their powers, and he lacks the personal attributes, which Shiva, whom he understands to be his opposite, has, particularly aggression (“Spit and Memory”). Saleem briefly characterizes a few during the first chapters, to summarize: Parvati-the-witch, his closest alliance with actual witch powers, Shiva, who was born with two destructive knees that are able to demolish a human head, aside from children with time-transcendent-, flying-, disappearing-, gender-changing and other abilities. Consequently, as he is only ten years old, the exposure of the voices of the midnight’s children threatens to drown out his sense of himself as an individual human (“Spit and Memory”). Therefore, he soon destroys the conference and forbids the children to enter in his thought process. The magical powers enjoyed by the children of midnight can be read as symbols of the inherent promise of the generation born into a free country. “Midnight’s Children: who may have been the embodiment of the hope of freedom, who may also have been freaks-who-ought-to-be-finished-off” (422). As the novel is characterized by heteroglossia, the presence of many voices and many languages at the same time, make the reader feel as if he was locked into one single head (Kortenaar 46). Also, it suggests that the conference could be a symbol for India’s diversity. The midnight’s children conference is a model for pluralism (“Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human. Violence corruption poverty (…) I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied that I had dreamed” (405)) and a testimony to the potential power inherent with coexisting diversity, which is a natural and definite element of Indian culture.“Shiva and Saleem, victor and victim; understand our rivalry, and you will gain an understanding of the age in which you live” (604). The essential competition of Saleem and Shiva dominates the story. It reflects the ancient, mythological battle between the creative and destructive forces in the world. The reader usually chooses Saleem over Shiva because we cannot but apt for order over chaos (Kortenaar 45). In the story, Saleem is mortally afraid of Shiva and tries to block him out: “Shiva, whom I cold-bloodedly denied his birthright (…) but his existence, somewhere in the world, nagged away the corners of my mind” (415). Eventually, fate clamps down on Saleem and he is forced to face his arch-rival, which brings more infelicity to his life. Consequently, the battle between the two magical existences about fighting over who is in the better position to rule the world continues.Named after the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva is Saleem’s rival and counterpart. He represents the alternate side of India: poor, Hindu, and as aggressive as Saleem is passive. “There are ironies here, which must not pass unnoticed, for had not Shiva risen as Saleem fell? Who was the slum-dweller now, and who looked down from commanding heights? There is nothing like a war for the re-invention of lives…” (569) At the end of the novel, Shiva is the one who successfully demands the destruction of the midnight’s children. For Saleem, this is inexplicable, as he has always been the good one and this example clearly shows how malice in the world can easily dominate. Another irony of the situation is Aadam Sinai, the son. Parvati-the-witch had an affair with Shiva, trying to make Saleem jealous. Knowing of his impotence (which was invented from Saleem), she hoped for a pregnancy, expecting Shiva to run when he hears of his child. Successfully, she grossed Shiva out of her life and leads Saleem into a marriage with her. Saleem wonders how cynical life can be, allowing him to raise a son that is not his but whose grandparents are simultaneously the people he knew as parents.Portraying Saleem’s life, Salman Rushdie cleverly incorporates his own vision of India into the story. Also, the novel depicts many similarities to the author’s life. For instance, Rushdie missed being a midnight’s child by two months, as he was born in Bombay in June 1947 (Weatherby 10). He related many events from the novel to his own life. In his infancy, he imagined himself as a “mild mannered Clark Kent”, protecting his secret identity as Superman (“Spit and Memory”). In comparison, Saleem wants to be a great mythical Indian hero that saves his nation. Rushdie also had his own reception from Britain in mind when the main character of Midnight’s Children described himself as “variously called Snotnose, Stain face, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon” (Weatherby 16). The hundreds of pages that slowly accumulated contain thoughts and dreams going back to the earliest childhood. There are satirical reflections he had never confined to anyone. “It is as if the novel containes his whole life” (Weatherby 41). In addition, Rushdie felt his books filled what he called a “great, gaping hole” in Indian literature (Weatherby 93). India, he said, was a colonial corner for English literature and he thought it was time that was stopped. He tried to give his novel voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture to which he himself is a member. He was also pleased to learn that readers in Bombay had found his book to be full of revelations about their city (Weatherby 76).Furthermore, by presenting actual political disputations, Salman Rushdie evokes the conflict of an individual and their personal influence in historical events. To prevent it from being a “kind of oracle book,” he introduced some trivial historical events on the part of his narrator, Saleem, including getting the date of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination wrong (Weatherby 48). But these multiple uses of lies incorporated into the story make the reader doubt factual events. The first time something absurd happens, Saleem claims that even though “reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real” (278). This way, the author tricks the reader. It is Rushdie’s message conveyed in the most dramatic terms: “Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the 20th century” (Weatherby 102). Saleem offers the reader the choice between faith in the nation and doubt.Many post-colonial works of literature call into question the very nature of history. By juxtaposing local history with world events, or by contrasting two or more versions of the same events, a post-colonial author sometimes presents a story with so many facts that it becomes slightly unclear (“Magical Realism and Self-Conscious Writing”). Therefore, the use of magical realism is crucial to constructing the parallel to the country’s history. “You can even believe that the entire book is a lie and that Saleem may be reinventing history for his own purposes” (Rushdie). The errors in Saleem’s story point out to one of the novel’s essential claims: that truth is not just a matter of verifiable facts. Namely the Independence of India on August 15th 1947. It brought partition, the splitting up of the subcontinent into two nations, India and Pakistan, and with it misery for both (Galbraith 126). The fact that Saleem Sinai’s life begins just as the era of Britain’s colonial control of India ends links the life of the novel’s protagonist to India’s post-colonial growth. As the novel’s narrator, looking back over the events of his life, Saleem proclaims himself to be dying of the same problem that can be seen of any country that has been thrust abruptly from immaturity to maturity: he is, he says, “falling apart.” At first, newly independent India is strong and thrives, enjoying inherited wealth the way that a child like Saleem, born into a prosperous family, might enjoy a secure sense of privilege. This partition of the subcontinent did not occur without bitter fighting between Hindus and Muslims. As Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus to India, millions were killed on both sides (Areas consisting of 75% or more Muslims were to become Pakistan and the rest of the territory India (“Background to India”)). The division of the religion is also very accurate in the novel. Saleem, the protagonist, and his family are Muslims. Concerning Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, an important fact is the religion of the murderer. “’Thank God,’ Amina burst out, it’s not a Muslim name’. And Aadam, upon whom the news of Gandhi’s death had placed a new burden of age: ‚This Godse is nothing to be grateful for!’ (…) Why not, after all? By being Godse he has saved our lives!“ (125) On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was shot while he was walking to a platform from which he was to address a prayer meeting. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu nationalist with links to the extremist Hindu Mahasabha, who held Gandhi responsible for weakening India by insisting upon a payment to Pakistan.Right after Gandhi’s assassination, many revolutions occurred in India. Saleem describes them through the eyes of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, as they were taking place in Kashmir. When a revolution occurs, the people’s next and perhaps even more difficult step is to find or create an authority that means loyalty and obedience. Fortunately, after 1947, this worked out well; as Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the overwhelmingly popular congress party, was voted to be India’s first independent Prime Minister in 1947 (Galbraith 124). On the other hand, after his death, the subcontinent had to suffer: “In 1964, my grandfather Naseem Aziz arrived in Pakistan, leaving behind an India in which Nehru’s death had precipitated a bitter power struggle” (454). India is a land of political up’s and down’s: its independence from Great Britain, then Nehru’s policy which was appreciated around the country, and then the manipulating government lead by Indira Gandhi. Its political instability reflects the people’s need to revolt against any controlling power.Additionally, the second war between India and Pakistan, in 1965, finds its place in the story. It resulted in a stalemate between the two countries for Kashmir. When India invades Pakistan, Saleem’s life is changed forever by the loss of his family, and India’s identity is changed by its brutal suppression of the county that was its twin. Out of revenge for his love, Saleem’s sister Jamila sends him into the Pakistani military troops. Yet another identity conflict takes place, as Saleem does not know which nationality to belong to. The horrible fighting “(…) in those days, assassination became as quotidian as the heat” (356), causes the boy to lose his memory, which only intensified the confusion about his existence. “But who attacked? Who defended? (…) While jeeps with loudhailers saluted me in Guru Mandir, reassuring me: ‘The Indian aggressors will be utterly overthrown! We are a race of warriors! One Pathan; one Punjabi Muslim is worth ten of those babus-in-arms!” (471). On the contrary, Salman Rushdie often describes Pakistan as the “Land of the Pure”. Saleem’s parents said, “We must all become new people’; in the land of the pure, purity became our ideal. But I was forever tainted with Bombayness, (…) and my body was to show a marked preference for the impure” (431). But Saleem refuses to believe in that pureness. He stays convinced about India and holds on to his patriotism. This shows another aspect of personality, that he questions the truths he is told.The presidential coup he experienced at the mere age of 11 probably had its influence on this attitude. His father took him to a governmental reunion where, suddenly, the president announces a violent coup. “What began, active metaphorically, with pepper pots, ended then; not only did I overthrow a government – I also consigned a president to exile” (405) Saleem is surprised at how much applause this injustice receives, but nevertheless takes over responsibility again – as he is “the twin of the nation”. Still, he is torn between two nationalities: “proving to me that I have been only the humblest of jugglers-with-facts; and that, in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything becomes possible except what we are told is the case; and maybe this was the difference between my Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence” (453). When he was trained a “man dog” and had his dignity taken from him completely, “emptied of history” (488), he involuntarily became a citizen of Pakistan. “It is my firm conviction that the hidden purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 was nothing more nor less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth” (469). During the war, he deliberately walks through the streets of Pakistan, hoping to get shot or hit by a bomb to escape his momentary life, especially the incestuous love to his sister. As irony has it, in one day, multiple bombs kill his whole family, excluding his sister Jamila. This again proves how important his life is as to be destroyed by the enemy of his nation. Salman Rushdie also shows his growing antipathy against Indira Gandhi, and thereby against Indian politics. He told a Guardian reporter bitterly, “All the corruption and pettiness that were always there were never open. People felt ashamed of it”. But in India now “it’s very naked power politics: You give your loyalty to whoever pays you the most”. The last third of Midnight’s Children – the most overtly political part – was, he said, designed to make sure that “all this gets on the record” (Weatherby 47). Therefore, he chose the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the archenemy of the protagonist. He almost constantly referred to her as “The Widow”, insinuating the assassination of her husband. She is present almost everywhere and in the end; it is due to her that Saleem becomes suicidal. Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister from 1966-1977 and from 1980-1984 (“Background to India”). Initially, she was highly praised by the Indian people. But when the government threatened to decapitate her due to voter fraud, Indira decided to refuse by introducing the “state of emergency”. The Indian Emergency of June 1975 to March 1977 was a 21-month period, when the President Ahmed, upon advice by Prime Minister Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, effectively bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties (Galbraith 132). She wanted to “organize” the Indian people and “democratize” the country. She ordered the police to arrest rebels without charge or notification of families, abuse and torture detainees and political prisoners, destroy the slum, among others. The book Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie has the protagonist Saleem Sinai in India during the Emergency. The national beautification program destroys his home in a low-income area called the “magician’s ghetto”. The vasectomy program causes his sterilization. Also, there is a direct connection between Indira and Aadam Sinai, Saleem’s son. As mentioned before, the child is born at the exact moment of the Emergency, which automatically links him to India’s history, too. In 1984, Mrs. Gandhi brought an action against the book in the British courts, claiming to have been defamed by a single sentence in Chapter 28, in which her son is said to have had a hold over his mother by him accusing her of contributing to his father’s death through her neglect. The case was settled out of court when Rushdie agreed to remove the offending sentence (Galbraith 154). The most obvious part where the author expresses his loathing towards Indira is when he makes clear that she is responsible for the destruction of the midnight’s children. “O wondrous irony: the Widow, by bringing us here, to break us, has in fact brought us together! O self-fulfilling paranoia of tyrants… because what can they do to us, now that we’re all on the same side, no language-rivalries, no religious prejudices!” (610) The Prime Minister catches Saleem and tortures him until he spits out the name of every single midnight’s child. Having them all gathered together (except for Shiva – he is, after all, a mighty soldier), she performed a lasting psychological torture, the so-called “spectromy” (611): the draining-out of hope. She kept them together, always indicating their proximate freedom. When he portrays this to Padma, Saleem reflects the power-position the Prime Minister enjoyed “organizing” her people: Indira is India and India is Indira (…) The truest, deepest motive behind the declaration of a State of Emergency was the smashing, the pulverizing, the irreversible discombobulating of the children of midnight. (Whose conference had, of course, been disbanded years before; but the mere possibility of our re-unification was enough to trigger off the red alert). (597) In the story, Indira Gandhi is afraid that supernatural powers could overwhelm her political abilities and thus decides to perform vasectomy on each and every left over midnight’s child, to prevent them from devolving their powers to further generations. The vasectomy also causes the loss of supernatural abilities.As they no longer had any connection to one another and their mutual uniform, the telepathy, was taken away, the midnight’s children conference no longer existed. The children of midnight were basically a metaphor of hope and the purpose of them is to be destroyed by Mrs. Gandhi (Weatherby 47). By making Indira Gandhi’s campaign responsible for the destruction of the fictional midnight’s children, Rushdie holds her accountable for destroying the promise of a new future for India. Nevertheless, he declares it as something that was contributed by faith, because “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” (533).Throughout the novel, Salman Rushdie applies Indian background information to stress the crucial effect its diversity has on the main character. One of the fastest growing nations in the world, India has always been incredibly diverse. He thought the defining image of India was the crowd, and a crowd is by its very nature superabundant, heterogeneous, many things at once. Rushdie’s India had “always been based on ideas of multiplicity, pluralism, hybridism: ideas to which the ideologies of the communalists are diametrically opposed.” (Weatherby 77) He lays much emphasis on the large distance between rich and poor: “I breathed in the fatalistic hopelessness of the slum dwellers and the smug defensiveness of the rich” (427). In Saleem, the author portrays what great difference the birth into a rich family makes. During the course of his life, the protagonist acknowledges his luck and, by the will of destiny, learns how to appreciate luxury when he comes back to India after his time as a soldier in Pakistan. Also, through the conference, Rushdie demonstrated the possibility of a harmony in society where there are no social or racial differences. After the vasectomy and the loss of their powers, the midnight’s children return to their old life and brake contact with each other, as they know that a boundary between rich and poor is not possible. Rushdie’s writing is passionately concerned with the fate of the new India, with what sort of nation she is to be for all of her citizens (“An Overview”). One of the major themes that guide the reader through the story is that of India’s multiplicity. Because of its miscellany, India has been a melting pot for multiple cultures over many centuries. As invaders came, they left their mark, and had been absorbed (Galbraith 13). “In India, the nations co-exist. Ancient ways of doing things continue along with the post modern. Planes cross the skies but, on the ground, people ride in horse drawn carriages” (Galbraith 28). In many passing sentences, Rushdie mentions this mixture: “(…) Anglo-Indian teachers giving private Latin tuition” (363). The conference also portrays India’s diversity, as do the different capabilities carried out by the children.Another conflict mentioned in the book is the religious conflict in India. Although Saleem is not directly confronted with the fighting, the competition on Hindu and Sikh is an actual problem in the subcontinent. Especially during the State of Emergency Indira Gandhi ordered the executive to prosecute the Sikhs, provoking such hate in them that finally, her own Sikh bodyguard assassinated her. “[Saleem’s] head was full of all sorts of religions apart from Allah’s (like India’s first Muslims, the mercantile Moplas of Malabar, I had lived in a country whose population of deities rivaled the numbers of its people)” (431). The Republic of India recognizes all religions. There is still, however, a measure of interreligious strife, the legacy of past conflict and hatred (Galbraith 128). But, as Salman Rushdie stated himself: “Religion is the air everyone breathes. If you’re trying to write about that world (India or Pakistan), you can’t make a simple rejection of religion. You have to deal with it because it’s the centre of the culture.” In Midnight’s Children, he cleverly portrays religion as an important issue without making it a central motif.Towards the end, his own narrative raises the question of Saleem’s madness: are the voices of the midnight’s children merely schizophrenic voices; the magical element merely the hallucinations of madness; his arrest and treatment at the hands of the Widow merely an expression of insane paranoia? But this we will never know, as it contributes to the reader’s impression of India. “In Midnight’s Children, the metaphor of the nation as a body is made literal and therefore comical: if India were a person it would be a grotesque person, such as Saleem, its paternity would be in dispute, and its ability to tell its story would be in question.” (Kortenaar 35)But can India be interpreted into the character of Saleem? Can one single person represent a nation’s history? Rushdie cleverly answers this question in his novel: with the sufficient use of fantasy, everything is possible. He tries to describe India as a whole through the eyes of one man, and if a situation wouldn’t fit, the narrative form of magical realism helps the main character develop its personality linked with that of his nation. In his element, Rushdie uses another metaphor I will portray to conclude this essay. One of the recurrent images in Midnight’s Children is the “pickles of history.” Pickles, of course, are an edible comestible, but they have curious properties—they are sour and yet somehow appealing for many people. “One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth…that they are despite everything, acts of love.” (531) The pickles could be described as bringing both pleasure, and a sore taste in the mouth. That is, Salman’s story as an integral part of Indian heritage is not unilateral: it has sunlight, but at the same time it is imbued with darkness. 1. Stewart, Nicholas. “Magic Realism as Post-Colonialist Device in “Midnight’s Children.”” Queen’s University Belfast | Home. Queen’s University Belfast, 21 June 1999. Web. 07 Feb. 2010.
Saleem as an Allegory for India in ‘Midnight’s Children’
“To understand just one life you have to swallow the world” – Explore the presentation of Saleem as an allegory for India in ‘Midnight’s Children’ The peculiarity of the title ‘Midnight’s Children’ makes it immediately obvious that this novel is out of the ordinary. Perhaps its most extraordinary aspect is the allegory of the character Saleem, of just one human being, for the downfall of postcolonial India. Yet Rushdie does not make it as simple as this; combined with the allegorical nature of Saleem are autobiographical and fantastical aspects. And our narrator’s distinctive wit and morals give him an identity, arguably one that’s too narrow to conceivably represent an entire country, the thing which is a conglomeration of people, politics, geography, religions, languages, and cultures. Simultaneously, obvious aspects such as Saleem sharing his birth with that of the independent Indian state, and ultimately his breakdown, mirror that of his homeland. Such associations are superficial however, because it is the depth and style of Rushdie’s narrative which really creates the parallel between Saleem Sinai and postcolonial India. But in terms of the reader’s understanding of Saleem’s life and therefore his world, a solipsistic critic would claim that a life cannot be proved to exist, let alone understood, certainly not within the parameters of a novel and therefore one cannot swallow the world – it is precisely this which needs to be explored. Despite Saleem’s clear purpose of reflecting the events in India, some factors perhaps make it impossible to fully comprehend both person and country. There is the unreliability of Saleem’s narrative, in which he draws attention to his flaws calling himself, “an incompetent puppeteer”, and his memory which “selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies…creates its own reality.” In the essay ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ Rushdie says, “The interior space of the imagination is a theatre that can never be closed down.” On one level this serves as an epistemological idea that the reader can neither know nor understand the truth of contemporaneous India, emphasising the omniscience of Saleem as narrator. On quite another level it shows that history is put together, invented, just like a person invented by circumstance, or a character in a novel. This tells us that perhaps there is also more to the India which we have been taught of, that the facts were overwhelmed by lies, propaganda, agendas. In fact, the moment of independence, a historical fact, is called a “mass fantasy”, a “collective fiction” and coincides with the birth of the midnight children who possess magical powers, a juxtaposition of truth with falsehood, imagination and reality. Rushdie’s narrative mode seeks to convey a coexistence of fantasy and reality. Parvati, who has turned Saleem invisible so he can return to Bombay, fallen in love with him, but endured the impossibility of consummation because her husband “superimposed upon her features the horribly eroded physiognomy of Jamila Singer”, endures a painful labour: “The cervix of Parvati-the-witch, despite contractions as painful as mule-kicks, refused to dilate.” Her role in the novel is magical, yet her troublesome labour coincides temporally with the time between Mrs Gandhi’s guilty verdict and consequent seizure of emergency powers. Likewise, the “grasping, choking” magical power of Shiva’s knees has such significance, as the return of this violent figure into the narrative is at a similar date to that of India’s first nuclear explosion. Of course there are other examples of the overlapping of fiction and fact, but in these, Rusdhie shows how strange and unstable was the political reality of the time. It may also be an ironic suggestion, that despite the novel being written for a Western audience, its magical realism, together with Saleem’s memory confusion, has an alienating effect, perhaps Rusdhie implying that the Western reader is distant and ignorant of India’s past, unable to empathise with the problems of ex-colonial victims but rather feel a sense of shame. This sense of strangeness and instability of the politics and problems of the time becomes associated with Saleem. It seems he is unable to live a personal, independent life, but only one that is occupied with the country’s and other people’s problems, possibly representative of them. His birth being simultaneous with that of ‘new India’ prompts Mr Nehru to write him a letter saying, “It will be in a sense the mirror of our own.” His downfall is simultaneous with that of India, highlighted by his awareness of his bad memory and importantly, the employment of the triple end-stops “…” and a complex, perplexing syntax, “I don’t want to tell it! – But I swore to tell it all. – No, I renounce, not that, surely some things are better left…? – That won’t wash; what can’t be cured must be endured!” This pattern of cracks and splitting of Saleem’s language and psyche increases, which creates incoherence, symbolic of Saleem’s and therefore India’s own ‘cracking up’. This is significant because it again displays Saleem’s lack of individuality, how he is “handcuffed to history” – the macro-scale of history is constantly referred back to the micro-scale of the individual. Ultimately, it is a statement that not only is it possible, but perhaps necessary to observe one particular life in order to try to understand the whole world. Despite his existence as an allegorical device and his lack of individuality, Saleem does have his own personality, and is clearly human. His creativity is displayed in his language, ranging from the colloquial slang of “goonda”, “Sahib”, “nakkoo”, to the eloquent, poetic descriptions like “incomprehensibly labyrinthine salt-water channels overtowered by the cathedral-arching trees”. There are page-long sentences, passages riddled with compound words. His impressionability and cultural diversity are illustrated in the neologisms, “twoness”, “overtowered”, “Godknowswhats”. And his childlike humour is shown, with his account of Zafar’s enuresis: “I awoke in the small hours in a large rancid pool of lukewarm liquid and began to yell blue murder,” and his love of “Snakes and Ladders”, symbolic of his rather cheeky fascination of sex. In creating this image of Saleem, Rushdie has employed a plethora of techniques and styles, such as magic realism, Western, Bollywoodian, and modernism. It’s as if old literary techniques are insufficient in describing the newly independent India with its newfangled diversity. It is appropriate that a postcolonial novel in English tries to create a typically Indian voice and that in its very character, and that of Saleem, displays the plurality of voices that make up the country. Indeed, the idea of plurality is one of the novel’s most important features. The concept that a single person could symbolise a multitudinous, diverse country encapsulates the tension between the one and the many, so relevant to the multilingual, interdenominational, cultural hybrid that was India. “Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me.” This exclamation excellently summarises Saleem’s narrative; in starting his story thirty-two years before his birth, he shows his belief that the past was related to his life in some way. There is a connection between past and present, the individual and the state. As history has shaped what is present, Saleem is shaping the world around him, particularly with his “Midnight Children’s Conference”. Telepathy lets him break barriers of language, barriers which caused categorisation and violence. Rushdie makes his point of view clear giving violent associations to such uniformity, and the peaceful ones to the pluralism of the conference. Saleem’s English blood, poor background, wealthy childhood, different religious influences and “the nose of a grandmother from France” form a cultural composite, that again reflects India’s diversity. A similar illustration is Lifafa Das, who causes Saleem to wonder, “is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality?” A postcolonial interpretation is that Das promotes the multiculturalism that was spawned by colonialisation and the effect it had on imagination and art. Furthermore, the Midnight Children’s Conference is a construct for pluralism; the magical powers of the different members serve to empower ‘the many’. This remains an ideal however, as the conference, their magic, and ultimately Saleem, completely disintegrate, a socio-historical parallel for the demise of India. It is only right that a novel should be as large as it its subject matter, and probably the crucial feature of ‘Midnight’s Children’ is the expansive allegory of Saleem, and the importance of the narrative. An understanding of India is certainly achieved through Saleem’s character and language. The most important themes of ‘unreliability of memory’, and ‘the one and the many’ are paramount in achieving the overall illustration of postcolonial India through our narrator. Interestingly, it is often speculated that the novel is autobiographical. Arguably, this shows Salman Rusdhie as quite vain and dislikeable due to Saleem’s egotism, his self-display of being high-and-mighty. This is not the case; any possible self-portrait is not made explicit at all, but what is very clear is how Rushdie expresses himself through Saleem Sinai, the most important example of which is his promotion of pluralism, and the vitality of cross-cultural fertilisation.
Though Salman RushdieÃ¢s MidnightÃ¢s Children if full of comic details and humorous anecdotes of Saleem SinaiÃ¢s family history, the overall tone of the novel is in sharp contrast. Destruction and deception pervade much of the novel, and in the end, even when Saleem is getting married, he still sees his future as a journey to obliteration. Though it seems that SaleemÃ¢s destruction is necessary to allow Aadam Sinai, who seems even more determined and powerful than the previous generation of midnightÃ¢s children, to continue the life of his parents and country, Rushdie implies that the future offers no hope for Aadam. Despite AadamÃ¢s position as the new child of midnight, his family has been condemned to a life of repetition, and thus he will only experience another cycle of annihilation.SaleemÃ¢s family history is plagued by the curse of repetition. From the spell of the perforated sheet to the name changes to the switching of babies, each generation seems merely an echo of the one past. Throughout the novel, Saleem emphasizes the theme of repetition, saying that Ã¢there was no escape from recurrenceÃ¢? (326) and that his own life is a Ã¢repetitive cycle of my historyÃ¢? (477). Though not directly related to Saleem, Aadam Sinai is the biological grandchild of Naseem and Aadam Aziz, and is convoluted into the history of SaleemÃ¢s life by his association with Shiva. Thus this trend of repetition will also pass on to Aadam. Saleem says, Ã¢as my time of connection nears its end, his beganÃ¢?, indicating AadamÃ¢s fate to carry out the same role as Saleem (477).The events Aadam are to repeat present the most melancholic aspects of AadamÃ¢s future. Saleem SinaiÃ¢s life has, with few exceptions, been a downward path. As midnightÃ¢s child, he was the embodiment of hope for India and her people, the Ã¢happy Child of that glorious HourÃ¢? (133). However, his maturation is entangled in a string of shattered hopes. First, his desire to conduct a united midnightÃ¢s childrenÃ¢s conference was made impossible by the vastly different ideologies of the children. Then his love for Jamila Singer was sternly rejected, and to top it off, he is sent to fight for Pakistan. His dreams of saving India are again destroyed by his poverty, and finally, even his hope, which gave his life purpose, was drained out of him by the castration. Similarly, Aadam is the embodiment of hope, being the child of midnightÃ¢s children as well as a child of the time emergency, Aadam should have even more potent powers. This, coupled with his tenacious will, which was so Ã¢steelyÃ¢? that he would Ã¢surely refuse to be defeated by any mere diseaseÃ¢? (487), indicates that he has the potential for even greater gifts. However, doomed to the curse of repetition, Aadam will simply live to see his hopes and power be crushed, just as his father did.Not only will AadamÃ¢s life be marked by disappointment, the fate of India seems to also be one full of bloodshed. From the massacre of 1915 to the Chinese invasion to the Indo-Pakistani war to Indira GhandiÃ¢s emergency rule, Indian history has been nothing but turmoil and war. Saleem states that his own life is Ã¢handcuffed to historyÃ¢?, demonstrating that his association with the history of India is not a glorious gift, but rather an imprisonment. For Aadam Sinai to live in the same environment, and partake the same role of prisoner as his father, is not an uplifting image.The midnightÃ¢s children are the embodiment of hope for India. Through their magical powers and their sacred bond with each other, they have all the potential to make differences, to be Ã¢the force which drives between the horns of the dilemmaÃ¢? and Ã¢fulfill the promise of their birthÃ¢? (292). Though Saleem tries to direct this power to save India, he concludes, Ã¢the purpose of the five hundred and eighty-one lay in their destruction; that they had come, in order to come to nothingÃ¢? (348). Even the most elite group is powerless to make any progress because Ã¢prejudices and world-view of adults began to take over their mindsÃ¢?, thus they are forever bound to think the same way as their parents, with few ideas of change or advancement (292). It would naturally follow that even though Aadam has magical powers, they will be of no use as well.Saleem asks the question of whether thereÃ¢s any point to action if everything is planned in advance, whether one should just Ã¢give up right here and now, understanding the futility of thought, decision, action, since nothing we think makes any difference anyway; things will be as they willÃ¢? (86). According to him, his life is an exact fulfillment of RavanaÃ¢s prophesies, who Ã¢ got nothing wrongÃ¢? (97). SaleemÃ¢s life is planned and seen in advance, and none of his efforts bring about any results. Thus he indicates that the answer should be simply to give up, to surrender to the pointlessness of life. AadamÃ¢s life is also prophesized by his father to be an exact repetition of his own, thus implying that any effort on AadamÃ¢s part to escape his imprisonment in the repetitive history will be futile as well.What is most surprising about this novel is that romantic love always fails to provide any hope. His love of Jamila Singer only results in his rejection and imprisonment in the military. In the end, his love for Padma also fails to give him any anticipation for the future. He states that Ã¢I will be separated from Padma, my dung-lotus extending an arm towards me across the turbulent sea, until she drowns in the crowd and I am alone in the vastness of the numbers…I am being buffeted right and left while rip tear crunch reaches its climax, and my body is screamingÃ¢? (532). Saleem sees love, the most powerful and uniting force of all, as another inevitable failure. His initial idealism and hopes of unity among all of India has disintegrated slowly as he lives and experiences life outside the overprotected world of the Methwold Estate. Doomed to repeat the past, Aadam will befall the same fate, where his initial determination will disintegrate with time and living. In the end, not even love, the most basic and powerful of human emotions, will be able to save him.Throughout the novel, Saleem refers to optimism as a disease. Regarding his goal of a united midnightÃ¢s childrenÃ¢s conference, he states that this idealism arose from the Ã¢optimism of youth Ã¢” which is a more virulent form of the… disease…Ã¢? (262). Perhaps SaleemÃ¢s bleak outlook arises from his recognition of the blinding nature of optimism. During the optimism disease, Mian AbudullahÃ¢s downfall is attributed to his ignorance of his enemies. Ã¢And so it was that none of the HummingbirdÃ¢s optimists were prepared for what happened. They played hit-the-spittoon, and ignored the cracks in the earthÃ¢? (47). After so many failures, Saleem finally realizes the fallacy of optimism. Ã¢It was the end; Saleem gave way to his grief. All my life, I have tried to keep my sorrows under lock and key…but no moreÃ¢? (499).After experiencing so much defeat and disappointment, Saleem has come to realize that life is pointless, and dreams can never be achieved. He states that life is an Ã¢endless dualityÃ¢?, an inescapable cycle of snakes and ladders, ups and downs that will not alter despite the greatest of efforts. In the end, he concludes that even though his son Aadam, a child of both magical times and magical children, represents a new chapter in history, he will, none the less, be Ã¢trampledÃ¢? by history just as he has been, just as the next 1001 generations will be (533). Perhaps SaleemÃ¢s need for centrality and his willingness to bend history to fit his life arises out of a desire for some form of purpose. He recognizes his failure to fulfill his duty as the savior of India, and thus asserts himself as the key to Indian history in hopes of finding some other connection to his mother nation.
Imaginary Handcuffs: Misguided Concern for the Past in Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie’s creation, Saleem Sinai, has a self-proclaimed “overpowering desire for form” (363). In writing his own autobiography Saleem seems to be after what Frank Kermode says every writer is a after: concordance. Concordance would allow Saleem to bring meaning to moments in the “middest” by elucidating (or creating) their coherence with moments in the past and future. While Kermode talks about providing this order primarily through an “imaginatively predicted future” (8), Saleem approaches the project by ordering everything in his past into neat, causal relationships, with each event a result of what preceded it. While he is frequently skeptical of the true order of the past, he never doubts its eminence; he is certain that everyone is “handcuffed to history” (482). His belief in the preeminence of the past, though, is distinctly different than the reality of time for the Saleem who emerges through that part of the novel that Gerard Genette calls “the event that consists of someone recounting something” (26) (Saleem-now, we can call this figure). Saleem-now is motivated to act not by the past, but instead by the uncertainty and ambiguity of the future. Saleem’s construction of his own story is an effort to mitigate the lack of control he feels in looking toward the unknown future. To pacify himself he creates a world that is ordered but this world is contrary to his own reality. Saleem spends much of his energy in the story setting up neat causal relationships between events in his past to demonstrate his place “at the center of things” (272). He carefully mentions his tumble into the middle of a parade for the partition of Bombay and then proceeds to propose that “in this way I became directly responsible for triggering off the violence which ended with the partition of the state of Bombay” (219). When telling us of his school-mate Cyrus disappearance from school and emergence as a great religious prophet Saleem quickly mentions the Superman comics that he had given Cyrus earlier, and attributes Cyrus’ rise to prophetdom as a direct response to these comics. By viewing Cyrus’ motivation in this way Saleem says “[I] found myself obliged, yet again, to accept responsibility for the events of my turbulent, fabulous world” (309). There is an obvious note of skepticism toward these most overt acts of placing himself at the center of things. At one point he asks himself “am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I’m prepared to distort everythingto re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role?” (190). But while he might doubt his most overt reordering of the past, he is never skeptical of the past’s monolithic effect on its future. Saleem assembles the first book to demonstrate the breadth of his “inheritance” (119), and the heft of the book underscores the degree to which he believes that the past is “the cold waiting vains of the future” (7); to understand the activity of any moment, you need look no further than the past. When considering who he is, he responds, “My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me” (440). His beliefand Rushdie has him carefully say “my answer,” rather than “the answer”leads him to write his autobiography to demonstrate the way each event is the result of “everything that went before.” As intended we come to see the characters as the product not of any forward movement, but as a product of what has already come. That which Jean Paul Sartre says of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is also true of Saleem’s story: “the past takes on a sort of super-reality” (267), for it is here that the answers to the present lay. Saleem, like Faulkner, would have us believe that the characters are “explicable only in terms of what has been” (271).But Saleem-now, Rushdie’s creation, is explicable in very different terms. He is undoubtedly shaped by the past, but the primary motivating factor in his actions is the uncertainty of the future. This motivation falls into two broad categories. First, he wants to impress Padma and his son with his life story. He explains that “this is what keeps me going: I hold on to Padma. Padma is what matters” (337). As he admits, he is “needing-to-be-loved” (392), and by crafting his story carefully he can impress Padma with his worth. The very fact that he is needing to be loved, rather than is loved attests to the uncertainty of this venture. The uncertainty and anxiety is exaggerated when Padma leaves him for a spell, shortly after her departure he laments, “I feel confused . . . in her absence my certainties are falling apart” (187). In a life defined by numerous “exiles,” forced by his parents, Saleem’s uncertainty about any relationship is sorely felt. His other motivation for acting, and acting quickly is his desire to finish the story before his life ends. In the first page he explains, “time (having no further use for me) is running out. I will soon be thirty-one years old. Perhaps. If my crumbling, overused body permits” (3). The “perhaps” suggests his uncertainty with his own mortalityhe is not certain how much more his body can permit, and throughout the story he says that he “must rush on” (475), so that he can finish before an uncertain death. His uncertainty about his position even after death is present in both of these concerns, and motivates him to project his image into the future. While Saleem liked to claim that he is “the sum total of everything that went before me,” it becomes clear that Saleem-now is a being much larger than just the sum of these past parts. The ambiguity and uncertainty of the future is also what forces him into his hopeful belief about the importance of the past. He desires meaning in his life, and as Frank Kermode tells us, concordance, and its attendant meaning comes from an “imaginatively recorded past and imaginatively predicted future, achieved on behalf of us, who remain in the middest” (8). But Saleem is too aware of the uncertainty of the future to predict anything but his own death. He realizes when young that he cannot have control over India’s future (273), and in the end understands that he also cannot have control over his ownhe glumly recognizes that “anything you want to be you kin be” is “the greatest lie of all” (533). Instead he looks backward with the understanding that, “if everything is planned in advance, then we all have meaning” (86). As Saleem searches for form, it is natural for him to turn to that part of his life that he can control, rather than that that he cannot. The construction of the story seems an effort to convince everyone, including himself, that things really are plannedthat the day of his birth really did endow him with meaning. While there is a hint of incredulity toward the idea that everything is planned in advance he never backs down from the idea that they are all “handcuffed to the past” rather than dragged into an uncertain future.The Salman Rushdie-created-consciousness of Saleem, howeverthe only consciousness that we see from the insiderefutes Saleem’s own suggestion that an accurate portrayal of man has him looking backward. Saleem’s efforts are what Gary Morson would call backshadowing, or viewing the past as “having contained signs pointing to what happened later.” Morson says that this kind of storytelling “tends to eliminate sideshadows,” which can be roughly defined as a sense of the openness and ambiguity of the future (235). As we see through Saleem-now, though, sideshadows are an integral element of the texture as life. By creating Saleem-now in this way, Rushdie seems to be agreeing with Sartre, who succinctly stated, “we can no longer arrest man at each present and define him as the sum of what he has'” (270). It is the uncertain futurea coffee cup whose “bottom that you do not see” (271)that pushes man to act, not some element of the past.Kermode’s theory of concordance aims for a reordering of the past and imagining of the future, but his work focuses on the portrayal of the future and some idea of apocalypse. His emphasis on the future rather than the past seems, in part, an implicit statement about the ease with which order is found in the pasthistorians have a much easier time than futurists, and Kermode would rather deal with the task of the tougher profession. Martin Heidigger’s explanation for the way the individual in the midst of time gains meaning similarly emphasizes the future: “running ahead is the fundamental way in which the interpretation of Dasein is carried through” (13). In his creation of Saleem-now Rushdie seems to agree with the vitality of the future in defining the individual, and by juxtaposing this reality with the temporality that Saleem hopes for, Rushdie exposes the temporal myth that a too-strong-desire for concordance can engender.
The Novel Consciousness in Midnight’s Children
In Atlas of the European Novel, Franco Moretti argues that “The novel functions as the symbolic form of the nation-state …and it’s a form that not only does not conceal the nation’s internal divisions, but manages to turn them into a story.” He characterises the ‘nation-state’ as a single geographical territory in which a nation’s pluralistic ideological and cultural landscape coincides with the monolithic notion of a political state, resulting in irreconcilable “internal divisions”. Moretti thus posits the novel as, in the words of Ian Watt in Rise of the Novel, the only “logical literary vehicle of culture” (Watt 13), a discursive site through which an inconclusive dialogue between the multiple fragments that constitute the national discourse can be narrated. It challenges the “literary traditionalism” (Watt 13) of “previous literary forms [that] had reflected the general tendency of their cultures to make conformity to traditional practice the major test of truth”(Watt 13). Hence, this essay aims to explicate how the novel Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie subverts the binary between nation and narrative, asserting that it is only through “individualist and innovating reorientation” (Watt 13) that a literary work can present a cohesive plot which accurately reflects a national narrative.
In focalizing the narrative through the subjective lens of an intrusive narrator who has the ability to “avert [his] eyes” (Rushdie 112) and express issues “in [his] opinion” (Rushdie 112), Rushdie thematizes the individualistic process of personal remembrance of the novel whose “primary criterion was truth to individual experience” (Watt 13). However, rather than advocating a dichotomous relationship between individual recollection and a historical truth, Rushdie establishes instead a mimetic relationship between the two. In tying Saleem’s very existence from the moment of his birth to India’s historical narrative, Rushdie blurs the line between Saleem’s subjective personal recollection and the narration of supposedly objective historical ‘fact’, the latter of which is often widely mistaken for an indisputable truth. Midnight’s Children asserts instead that “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events” (Rushdie 254). Hence, in validating the complex process that personal recollection undergoes before eventually producing a “coherent version of events”, Rushdie mirrors Moretti’s exoneration of the novel form and its role in producing a cohesive narrative encompassing multiple fragments of time.
He likewise posits the novelistic recollection of events at the core of the storytelling, proving hisbelief that a certain extent of “truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses”(Watt 12). Hence, through exposing the inherent fictionality of what the hegemonic reader identifies as ‘fact’, Rushdie thus encourages his readers to question their proclivity for internalizing constructed fictions as a natural truth, given that “fact is produced by the narrative simulacrum” (Bowen 94) and is hence in itself a work of novelistic fiction. The mimetic portrayal of Saleem’s life story in alignment to India’s historical narrative also functions to expose the performativity of nationhood and the illusion of sovereignty. For one, the detailing of the family’s personal relationship with William Methwold serves to parallel the problematic separation between the newly freed India and it’s pre-colonial past. The liminal space of transition between the colonial state and the newly independant India is problematized in how “the sharp edges of things are getting blurred”(Rushdie 98) in such a naturalised way that they fail to realize how the remaining fragments of colonial power “is changing them” (Rushdie 99). The illusion of freedom from imperialist notions upon gaining political independence is exposed instead as an imagined state, whereby in reality, conformity to colonial practices have been so deeply entrenched into the subconscience of the colonial subjects, making their identities inseparable from their colonial past. The private sphere observed and pieced together through the lens of Saleem’s private memory hence constructs a truth that ironically seems to be a more objective representation of reality.
This aligns with Rushdie’s essay Errata, in which he claims “Reality is built on our prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance as well as our perceptiveness and knowledge.” (Rushdie 25). Saleem’s observations of the habitual nature of how “every evening at six they are out in their gardens” and how “they slip effortlessly into their imitation Oxford drawls” (Rushdie 99) thus serve as a subjective yet grounded representation of the transition. The pretentious and affectatious manner with which he observed the locals mirror the mannerisms of the colonizers novelizes the bigger picture encompassing a sense of disconnect between the cultural and political circumstances of the nation. The newly freed nationhood is instead exposed as being merely performative, plagued with an underlying reality of an undocumented legacy. Hence, the individual experience here is revealed to be a reflection on a microcosmic level of the larger truths of the nation-state. The novel as a discursive site not only allows for the utterance of different fragments of discourse within society, it also provides a cohesive structure to disjointed fragments of temporality. As an intrusive narrator whose storytelling not only toggles between his personal narrative and the nation’s political history, the use of analepsis and prolepsis in the novel also gives a temporal dimension to the fragmentation of national discourse.
The novel mirrors the human “consciousness, the awareness of oneself as a homogenous entity in time, a blend of past and present…[that hold] together [his] then and [his] now” (Rushdie 351). It posits itself within a fixed temporality, yet embodies the lapse between private time and public time, making sense of the experiences within ones private consciousness in correlation to the external landscape. Having been tied to India’s political events from birth, Saleem’s consciousness and it’s cohering function within his own personal narrative hence doubles up to present a cohesive archive of national events. Here, the novel becomes a discursive site for the nation to negotiate and overcome its “fear of schizophrenia, of splitting” (Rushdie 351), both spatially and temporally through the utterance of the various fragmented responses to the political shifts within the country. The “past and the present… divided by an unbridgeable gulf” (Rushdie 351) is brought to terms with one another within a literal space harnessing the cohering qualities of the human memory.
The novel in this case not only becomes a reconciliatory tool, but also “responsible… through the workings of the metaphorical works of connection” (Rushdie 351) for influencing the reality of the nation in being the “literary vehicle of culture” (Watt 13). Furthermore, the novel, as in Making the Novel, “is characterized more by certain kinds of discourses with particular ideological agendas, than it is by specific formal features associated with genre” (Hammond and Regan 25) allows for its appropriation in Midnight’s Children to expose the multiplicity of discursive fragments that constitute the notion of the nation. For instance, the cultural discourse, represented by motifs of dreams and the imaginary, collide with realist notions seemingly of the political discourse throughout the novel. In alignment with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, where it is proposed that a nation is “an imagined political community”(Anderson 7), Rushdie’s novel constantly reiterates the idea of the country as being a “new myth”, “a mythical land”, “a collective fiction”, “a fable” and “a dream we all agreed to dream” (Rushdie 112). Yet, notions of the subjective imaginary are plotted alongside realist notions of “the calendar” and “the game of chess” (Rushdie 111), provoking the credibility of such tangible representations of indisputable time and knowledge, seeing as they are inherently notions of subjectivity themselves. As so, Rushdie asserts how “the “real” is the product of the imaginary” (Bowen 94), with fragments of collective discourses only coming together through the novelistic construction of a timely narrative. Furthermore, the public discourses are also interrupted abruptly by a private discourse, which dismiss the former as producing mere “generalized, macrocosmic notions” (Rushdie 112).
The multiplicity of different discourses colliding here to form the narrative of Midnight’s Children hence exemplifies the function of the novel as being the discursive site in which the multiplicity a nation can be dealt with. Hence the novel, characterized by “an unprecedented value on originality, on the novel; and it is therefore well named” (Watt 13), thus functions as an effective literary manifestation of the particularity of the human mind. The discursive site it establishes, mirrored in Saleem’s congregating function amongst the voices of the Midnight’s children, enables the utterances of multiple discourses within the nation to exist within a single cohesive plot. The foregrounding of individualism and personal memory also establishes the imagined and performative nature of the political sovereignty, with it being a mere figment of “mass fantasy” (Rushdie 111).
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s children. Random House, 2010.
Watt, Ian P. The rise of the novel: studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Univ of California Press, 2001.
Bowen, Deborah C. Stories of the Middle Space: Reading the Ethics in Postmodern Realisms. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP, 2010.
Rushdie, Salman. “‘Errata’: Or, Unreliable Narration in Midnight’s Children.” Imaginary Homelands (1991): 22-25.
Benedict, Anderson. “Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.” (1987).
Hammond, Brean, and Shaun Regan. Making the novel: fiction and society in Britain, 1660-1789. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.