Salman Rushdie was born on June 19, 1947, to an affluent family in Bombay, India. Rushdie’s birth coincided with a particularly important moment in Indian history: after nearly one hundred years of colonial rule, the British occupation of the South Asian subcontinent was coming to an end. Almost exactly three months after Rushdie’s birth, Pakistan and India achieved their long-awaited independence when, at the stroke of midnight on August 14 and 15, respectively, power was transferred from Great Britain to the sovereign governments of each country. The period that immediately followed independence proved tumultuous. Political and social tensions between Hindus and Muslims caused not only the division of India into two separate countries-a calamitous event referred to as Partition-but also wide-scale riots that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The violence that accompanied independence was a prelude to the multiple wars, coups, and governmental abuses that plagued the area in the years that followed.
The political upheaval and constant threat of violence that marked the first three decades of independence forms the backdrop for Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s most celebrated novel. Like Rushdie himself, Saleem, the narrator of Midnight’s Children, is born on the eve of independence, and the events of his life closely parallel events in the development of both India and Pakistan. Most of Rushdie’s novels concern themselves, to some extent, with the character and history of these two major South Asian nations and describe the various, often violent struggles between different religions, classes, languages, and geographical regions. In the thirty years following independence, India and Pakistan fought three separate wars: two over Kashmir, and one over the creation of an independent Bangladesh. The wars produced millions of refugees, claimed thousands of lives, and led to a nearly permanent state of tension between the two countries.
Raised in a well-to-do Muslim household, Rushdie was given an excellent education. After graduating from the University of Oxford in 1968, he moved briefly to Pakistan, where his family had immigrated after Partition, before returning to England to work as an actor and copywriter. Soon after, Rushdie published his first novel, Grimus (1975). A blend of science and literary fiction, Grimus, though generally ignored by critics, nonetheless marked the debut of a new literary talent that incorporated myth, magic, and fantasy into his narratives. Six years later, Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, and was later deemed the best Booker-winning novel from the first twenty-five years of the competition, earning the title “Booker of Bookers.” Heralded by critics as an enormous literary achievement, the novel instantly earned Rushdie comparison with some of the world’s greatest contemporary writers. However, Rushdie’s great international fame is mainly owed to his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses and the controversy that followed its publication. Muslim religious clerics and politicians deemed The Satanic Verses sacrilegious and offensive for its harsh, critical portrayal of Islam and for its less-than-reverent treatment of the Prophet Mohammed. The novel was banned in Rushdie’s native India and prompted the theocratic Iranian government to issue a fatwa-a religious ruling-calling for his death in 1989.
Rushdie spent the next nine years living in secrecy, under the protection of bodyguards and the British government. Fearful for his life, Rushdie nonetheless continued to write and publish books, most notably Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and the Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), as well as two works of nonfiction, The Jaguar Smile (1987) and Imaginary Homelands (1991). When the Iranian government lifted the fatwa in 1998, Rushdie was able to enjoy a return to a moderately normal life and eventually settled in New York City.
Rushdie’s work, and Midnight’s Children in particular, is often associated with several categories of literary fiction, including magical realism, postcolonial fiction, and postmodern literature. His work is often compared to, and admittedly influenced by, novels like Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Equally significant as the incorporation of mythical and fantastical elements into his fiction is Rushdie’s uniquely Indian perspective on the English language. Rushdie’s novels hum with an eclectic mix of prose styles, which echo the rhythm and slang of English as it is colloquially spoken in India. Familiar English words get combined in new and unusual ways, and long, unbroken sentences run on freely, sometimes spanning a page or more. The inspiration Rushdie draws from both ancient and contemporary Indian culture is also notable in his fiction. Elements taken from traditional Indian mythology and religion thread themselves through the novel, as do the artistic conventions of modern Bollywood, the vigorous, populist cinema industry based in Bombay. In its sheer exuberance and sprawling range of cultural sources, as well as its attempt to include as much of India’s vast cultural identity and contemporary history as possible, Midnight’s Childrenis as complete a reflection of the life and character of the subcontinent as any single novel could possibly provide.
Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Midnight’s Children, opens the novel by explaining that he was born on midnight, August 15, 1947, at the exact moment India gained its independence from British rule. Now nearing his thirty-first birthday, Saleem believes that his body is beginning to crack and fall apart. Fearing that his death is imminent, he grows anxious to tell his life story. Padma, his loyal and loving companion, serves as his patient, often skeptical audience.
Saleem’s story begins in Kashmir, thirty-two years before his birth, in 1915. There, Saleem’s grandfather, a doctor named Aadam Aziz, begins treating Naseem, the woman who becomes Saleem’s grandmother. For the first three years Aadam Aziz treats her, Naseem is always covered by a sheet with a small hole in it that is moved to expose the part of her that is sick. Aadam Azis sees his future wife’s face for the first time on the same day World War I ends, in 1918. Aadam Aziz and Naseem marry, and the couple moves to Agra, where Aadam-a doctor whose loss of religious faith has affected him deeply-sees how protests in the name of independence get violently suppressed. Aadam and Naseem have three daughters, Alia, Mumtaz, and Emerald, and two sons, Mustapha and Hanif. Aadam becomes a follower of the optimistic activist Mian Abdullah, whose anti-Partition stance eventually leads to his assassination. Following Abdullah’s death, Aadam hides Abdullah’s frightened assistant, Nadir Khan, despite his wife’s opposition. While living in the basement, Nadir Khan falls in love with Mumtaz, and the two are secretly married. However, after two years of marriage, Aadam finds out that his daughter is still a virgin, as Nadir and Mumtaz have yet to consummate their marriage. Nadir Khan is sent running for his life when Mumtaz’s sister, Emerald, tells Major Zulfikar-an officer in the Pakistani army, soon to be Emerald’s husband-about his hiding place in the house. Abandoned by her husband, Mumtaz agrees to marry Ahmed Sinai, a young merchant who until then had been courting her sister, Alia.
Mumtaz changes her name to Amina and moves to Delhi with her new husband. Pregnant, she goes to a fortune-teller who delivers a cryptic prophecy about her unborn son, declaring that the boy will never be older or younger than his country and claiming that he sees two heads, knees and a nose. After a terrorist organization burns down Ahmed’s factory, Ahmed and Amina move to Bombay. They buy a house from a departing Englishman, William Methwold, who owns an estate at the top of a hill. Wee Willie Winky, a poor man who entertains the families of Methwold’s Estate, says that his wife, Vanita, is also expecting a child soon. Unbeknownst to Wee Willie Winky, Vanita had an affair with William Methwold, and he is the true father of her unborn child. Amina and Vanita both go into labor, and, at exactly midnight, each woman delivers a son. Meanwhile, a midwife at the nursing home, Mary Pereira, is preoccupied with thoughts of her radical socialist lover, Joseph D’Costa. Wanting to make him proud, she switches the nametags of the two newborn babies, thereby giving the poor baby a life of privilege and the rich baby a life of poverty. Driven by a sense of guilt afterward, she becomes an ayah, or nanny, to Saleem.
Because it occurs at the exact moment India gains its independence, the press heralds Saleem’s birth as hugely significant. Young Saleem has an enormous cucumberlike nose and blue eyes like those of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz. His mischievous sister, nicknamed the Brass Monkey, is born a few years later. Overwhelmed by the expectations laid on him by the prophecy, and ridiculed by other children for his huge nose, Saleem takes to hiding in a washing chest. While hiding one day, he sees his mother sitting down on the toilet; when Amina discovers him, she punishes Saleem to one day of silence. Unable to speak, he hears, for the first time, a babble of voices in his head. He realizes he has the power of telepathy and can enter anyone’s thoughts. Eventually, Saleem begins to hear the thoughts of other children born during the first hour of independence. The 1,001 midnight’s children-a number reduced to 581 by their tenth birthday-all have magical powers, which vary according to how close to midnight they were born. Saleem discovers that Shiva, the boy with whom he was switched at birth, was born with a pair of enormous, powerful knees and a gift for combat.
One day, Saleem loses a portion of his finger in an accident and is rushed to the hospital, where his parents learn that according to Saleem’s blood type, he couldn’t possibly be their biological son. After he leaves the hospital, Saleem is sent to live with his Uncle Hanif and Aunt Pia for a while. Shortly after Saleem returns home to his parents, Hanif commits suicide. While the family mourns Hanif’s death, Mary confesses to having switched Saleem and Shiva at birth. Ahmed-now an alcoholic-grows violent with Amina, prompting her to take Saleem and the Brass Monkey to Pakistan, where she moves in with Emerald. In Pakistan, Saleem watches as Emerald’s husband, General Zulfikar, stages a coup against the Pakistani government and ushers in a period of martial law.
Four years later, after Ahmed suffers a heart failure, Amina and the children move back to Bombay. India goes to war with China, while Saleem’s perpetually congested nose undergoes a medical operation. As a result, he loses his telepathic powers but, in return, gains an incredible sense of smell, with which he can detect emotions.
Saleem’s entire family moves to Pakistan after India’s military loss to China. His younger sister, now known as Jamila Singer, becomes the most famous singer in Pakistan. Already on the brink of ruin, Saleem’s entire family-save Jamila and himself-dies in the span of a single day during the war between India and Pakistan. During the air raids, Saleem gets hit in the head by his grandfather’s silver spittoon, which erases his memory entirely.
Relieved of his memory, Saleem is reduced to an animalistic state. He finds himself conscripted into military service, as his keen sense of smell makes him an excellent tracker. Though he doesn’t know exactly how he came to join the army, he suspects that Jamila sent him there as a punishment for having fallen in love with her. While in the army, Saleem helps quell the independence movement in Bangladesh. After witnessing a number of atrocities, however, he flees into the jungle with three of his fellow soldiers. In the jungle of the Sundarbans, he regains all of his memory except the knowledge of his name. After leaving the jungle, Saleem finds Parvati-the-witch, one of midnight’s children, who reminds him of his name and helps him escape back to India. He lives with her in the magician’s ghetto, along with a snake charmer named Picture Singh.
Disappointed that Saleem will not marry her, Parvati-the-witch has an affair with Shiva, now a famous war hero. Things between Parvati and Shiva quickly sour, and she returns to the magicians’ ghetto, pregnant and still unmarried. There, the ghetto residents shun Parvati until Saleem agrees to marry her. Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India, begins a sterilization campaign. Shortly after the birth of Parvati’s son, the government destroys the magician’s ghetto. Parvati dies while Shiva captures Saleem and brings him to a forced sterilization camp. There, Saleem divulges the names of the other midnight’s children. One by one, the midnight’s children are rounded up and sterilized, effectively destroying the powers that so threaten the prime minister. Later, however, Indira Gandhi loses the first election she holds.
The midnight’s children, including Saleem, are all set free. Saleem goes in search of Parvati’s son, Aadam, who has been living with Picture Singh. The three take a trip to Bombay, so Picture Singh can challenge a man who claims to be the world’s greatest snake charmer. While in Bombay, Saleem eats some chutney that tastes exactly like the ones his ayah, Mary, used to make. He finds the chutney factory that Mary now owns, at which Padma stands guarding the gate. With this meeting, Saleem’s story comes full circle. His historical account finally complete, Saleem decides to marry Padma, his steadfast lover and listener, on his thirty-first birthday, which falls on the thirty-first anniversary of India’s independence. Saleem prophesies that he will die on that day, disintegrating into millions of specks of dust.
Saleem Sinai – The narrator and protagonist of the novel. Born at the moment of India’s independence and blessed with the powers of telepathy and an uncanny sense of smell, Saleem tells his extraordinary life story as his body begins to crumble, an account that significantly parallels the history of postcolonial India. As a narrator, Saleem can be both unreliable and self-centered at times.
Aadam Aziz – Saleem’s grandfather. Aadam is the patriarch of the family, a doctor and skeptic whose loss of faith leaves what he refers to as a “hole” inside of him. Aadam falls in love with his wife, Naseem, after only being allowed to see her through a hole in a perforated sheet.
Ahmed Sinai – Saleem’s father. A shrewd businessman who is nonetheless destined for failure, Ahmed spends much of his marriage fighting his wife and his alcohol addiction.
Mumtaz (Amina Sinai) – Saleem’s mother, and the daughter of Aadam Aziz. Born Mumtaz, she changes her name to Amina after her marriage to Ahmed. A loving, devoted mother, she inherits her father’s skepticism and her mother’s determination. Despite being married to Ahmed, she is never able to forget her first husband, Nadir Khan.
Mary Pereira – Saleem’s ayah and surrogate mother. Mary is responsible for switching Saleem and Shiva at birth out of a misguided sense of social justice. In order to compensate for her crime, she dedicates her life to raising Saleem.
Shiva – Saleem’s archrival. Shiva is born at exactly the same moment as Saleem. While Saleem is raised in a loving, wealthy household, Shiva is raised in abject poverty by a single father. He is blessed with a pair of preternaturally strong knees and an amazing prowess in war. Shiva is named after the Hindu god of destruction, who is also the god associated with procreation.
Parvati-the-witch – A real witch, and, like Saleem, one of the children born at the moment of India’s independence. Parvati is Saleem’s closest ally as a child and later becomes his wife. Despite her fantastic powers, she is unable to make Saleem fall in love with her and, as a result, embarks on an affair with Shiva that results in a child. In the Hindu religion, Parvati is the consort of Shiva.
Padma – Saleem’s devoted caretaker and future wife. Padma is as strong and down-to-earth as Saleem is weak and dreamy. She provides Saleem with a skeptical yet patient audience.
Naseem Ghani – Saleem’s grandmother, and Aadam Aziz’s wife. After marriage, Naseem becomes known as Reverend Mother, in part because of her religious devotion. As her husband withers away with age, Reverend Mother grows increasingly large and powerful.
William Methwold – Saleem’s biological father. An Englishman, William Methwold seduces women with his perfectly parted hair, which is actually a wig. He owns Methwold’s Estate, a portion of which he sells to Ahmed Sinai. He sees his departure from India as marking the tragic end of an era.
Alia – Saleem’s aunt, and a sister of Amina. After Ahmed Sinai rejects her for her sister, Alia harbors a lifelong bitterness and determination to destroy her sister and her sister’s family.
Hanif – Saleem’s uncle, and a brother of Amina. Hanif was once one of the most promising film directors in India. However, his dream to create art free from melodrama and superstition fails, and, as his career falls apart, he commits suicide.
Nadir Khan – Amina’s first husband. As a young man, Nadir Khan is the personal assistant to Mian Abdullah, as well as a bad poet. He falls in love with Amina but is forced to divorce her on account of his impotence. He later changes his name to Qasim Khan and becomes a communist.
Mustapha – Saleem’s uncle, and a brother of Amina. Mustapha is the ideal, obedient civil servant. He is so passive, he’s nearly inconsequential-a fate he takes out on his children by constantly beating them until they have no personality left.
Emerald – Saleem’s aunt, and a sister of Amina. Emerald marries Major Zulfikar and enjoys an opulently comfortable lifestyle. Selfish and self-absorbed, she only reluctantly comes to her sister’s aid.
General Zulfikar – Emerald’s husband, and an important figure in the Pakistani army. General Zulfikar helps orchestrate a coup against the Pakistani government and makes money by smuggling items into the country. His constant abuse of his son, Zafar, eventually provokes Zafar into killing him.
Zafar – The son of General Zulfikar and Emerald. Zafar wets himself throughout his life and is ridiculed and abused by his father as a result.
Aadam Sinai – The biological son of Shiva and Parvati-the-witch. Saleem raises Aadam as if he were his own child. Aadam is just three years old at the novel’s conclusion.
Picture Singh – A snake charmer, and the leader of the magician’s ghetto. Charming and diplomatic, Picture Singh is Saleem’s closest friend. He is undone by his desire to prove himself the world’s greatest snake harmer.
Wee Willie Winkie – Shiva’s father. Wee Willie Winkie is a poor man who earns a living by singing for the wealthy families of Methwold’s Estate.
Vanita – Saleem’s biological mother. Vanita dies during labor.
Evie Lilith Burns – A violent, tough American girl. Evie is briefly the leader of the children living on Methwold’s Estate, and she is Saleem’s first love.
Sonny Ibrahim – One of the children living on Methwold’s Estate. Sonny is Saleem’s best friend. He is also in love with Saleem’s sister, the Brass Monkey.
Joseph D’Costa – A social radical who later becomes a ghost. Joseph D’Costa’s political beliefs inspire Mary’s decision to switch Shiva and Saleem, and his ghost later compels her to confess her crime.
Commander Sabarmati – A high-ranking official in the Indian navy. After learning that his wife, Lila, has had an affair, Commander Sabarmati shoots her, kills her lover, and then surrenders. He temporarily becomes a national hero.
Homi Catrack – A film magnate, and resident of Methwold’s Estate. Homi Catrack has an affair with Lila, the wife of Commander Sabarmati, and is subsequently murdered by the commander.
Lila Sabarmati – The wife of Commander Sabarmati. Lila’s husband shoots her in the stomach for having an affair.
Doctor Narlikar – A doctor, and Ahmed’s business partner. Dr. Narlikar devises a scheme for reclaiming land from the ocean but dies before he can implement it.
Alice Pereira – Mary’s sister. Alice eventually works for Ahmed Sinai and is responsible for Mary’s chutney factory.
Farooq, Shaheed, and Ayooba – Three soldiers assigned to work with Saleem in the Pakistani army. Each one is eventually killed during the war.
Narlikar Women – An unnamed, unnumbered group of “grossly competent” women who take over Dr. Narlikar’s affairs after his death.
Mian Abdullah – A political figure before independence. Mian Abdullah is the founder of the Free Islam Convocation, an organization dedicated to resisting the partition of India along religious lines.
Ghani – Naseem’s father. Ghani is a blind, wealthy landowner.
Tai – An old boatman from Kashmir. Tai is a mysterious, ancient, and wise figure who remains resentful of the world’s encroachment into his territory until his death.
Ramram Seth – A prophet who predicts Saleem’s future while Amina is pregnant.
Saleem Sinai is the protagonist and narrator of Midnight’s Children. He is born, along with one other child, at the exact moment of India’s independence. His identity, however, is switched at birth. As a result, he is raised by a prosperous family in Bombay, while his counterpart and future rival, Shiva, is raised in poverty. Saleem has the powers of telepathy and a preternaturally acute sense of smell, which allow him to find the other children of midnight and create the Midnight’s Children’s Conference. As he approaches his thirty-first birthday, he says he is nearing death. His body is literally falling apart, and it’s only a matter of time before he crumbles into dust. Driven by a desire to beat his biological clock, Saleem narrates his life story to his devoted and loving caretaker, Padma. His tale, which begins with his grandfather Aadam and is at times unreliable and contrived, represents not only his individual life story but also the entire history of postcolonial India. All the major events in his life correspond to important political events in Indian history, leading him to compare his narrative to religious texts. Given his fantastic birth and extraordinary powers, the prime minister of India, Indira Ghandi, seeks to destroy him along with the other midnight’s children.
Padma is Saleem’s loving companion and caretaker, and she will become his fiancée at the end of the novel. She is the audience for Saleem’s narrative. With strong, hairy forearms, a name associated with dung, and a cynical and often impatient ear, Padma represents the antithesis to Saleem’s magical, exuberant, freewheeling narration. She hurries the narrative along, imploring Saleem to get on with the plot rather than veering off into tangents, and often she expresses doubts as to the veracity of Saleem’s account. As a rhetorical device, Padma allows Rushdie the chance to acknowledge explicitly any doubts or frustrations the reader may feel in response to the novel. She is the practical voice of criticism. Because she is there to counteract its most extreme tendencies, she supports the novel’s more willfully excessive indulgences. Saleem’s frequent interruptions, digressions, and self-obsession are all, to some degree, made possible by Padma’s expressions of doubt and frustration: the two sides work together to create a holistic reading experience. By explicitly taking into account the difficulties of the narrative, Rushdie is able to move beyond them.
Born at the stroke of midnight and named after the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva is Saleem’s rival and counterpart. Switched at birth with Saleem, Shiva is robbed of his affluent birthright and raised in abject poverty. Blessed with a pair of enormous and powerful knees, Shiva is a gifted warrior and, therefore, a foil for the more mild-mannered Saleem. Shiva represents the alternate side of India: poor, Hindu, and as aggressive as Saleem is passive. As a young child, he is the leader of a street gang and possibly a murderer. He is driven by a determinedly individualist perspective and grows up unable to form any human attachments. Although he is a violent character, he is, nonetheless, a tragic figure, damaged and shaped by the forces of history and class. During the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, Shiva lives up to his name and becomes a war hero, eventually promoted to the rank of major. Along with his military reputation, Shiva also becomes a noted lover among the women of Indian high society, siring a number of illegitimate children. In the end, Shiva hunts Saleem down and turns him over to one the camps opened during Indira Gandhi’s state of Emergency, where Saleem, along with the other midnight’s children, is administered an operation that renders him sterile. In this way, Shiva manages to effectively destroy the children of midnight.
Indira Gandhi was the prime minister of India from 1966-1977, then again from 1980-1984, a term that ended with her assassination. Indira was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and the widow of Feroze Gandhi, an Indian journalist and politician. Though Mahatma Gandhi was a family friend and political ally, the two are not related.
In her first term, various political and economic reforms made Indira Gandhi highly popular, as did an Indian victory in the 1971 conflict with Pakistan over the creation of an independent Bangladeshi state. However, in 1971, Gandhi was also found guilty of election fraud. Rather than face charges, Gandhi declared a State of Emergency, tightening her hold over the government and ushering in a period of drastically reduced civil liberties, as well as a severe crackdown on political opposition. The emergency lasted nineteen months, after which Gandhi-misjudging the extent of the population’s resentment-held an open election and lost. She stepped down but was reelected to office in 1980. Four years later, after a disastrous series of events involving Sikh activists, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her and was also assassinated while in office, in 1991. The Gandhi family, however, continues to be a central force in Indian politics.
Long before Indira Gandhi enters Saleem’s story in a direct fashion, vague references to “the Widow” hint at her eventual role in the destruction of the midnight’s children. Her actual presence in the story is brief, but it is nonetheless of great significance. Throughout the novel, Saleem’s personal life constantly reflects India’s political turmoil. Finally, with the arrival of Indira Gandhi and the State of Emergency, Rushdie fuses the two narratives with a single crisis. The reforms of the emergency, which included a widespread campaign of forced sterilization, were widely seen as massive abuses of government power and human rights. The nation of India is metaphorically thrown into perpetual darkness just as Saleem’s wife, Parvati-the-witch, is killed and the magicians’ ghetto destroyed. By making Indira Gandhi’s campaign responsible for the destruction of the fictional midnight’s children, Rushdie holds her accountable for destroying the promise and hope of a new future for India.
The Brass Monkey (Jamila Singer)
Saleem’s younger sister, initially known as the Brass Monkey, is born into the world with little fanfare. She eventually grows up to become the most famous singer in Pakistan, adored throughout the country. As a child, Saleem notes that the Brass Monkey learned at an early age that if she wanted attention, she would have to make a lot of noise, which is precisely what she does. She becomes a mischievous child who garners attention by destroying things and remains unable to accept love throughout her adult life. The playful and impish nature of her youth is lost almost immediately upon her arrival in Pakistan. There, in a religiously devout country, she succumbs to the laws of devotion and patriotism, just as her brother becomes more invested in the profane elements of life. She goes through extraordinary lengths to keep herself veiled, and her voice is described as being “pure,” reflecting the ideals of a country that values wholesomeness in its women. Despite her devotion, Jamila Singer retains elements of her former self. She rebels against her dietary constraints by secretly eating leavened bread, baked by Catholic nuns, and she openly criticizes the Pakistani army when they abuse her brother.
The Single and the Many
Born at the dawn of Indian independence and destined, upon his death, to break into as many pieces as there are citizens of India, Saleem Sinai manages to represent the entirety of India within his individual self. The notion that a single person could possibly embody a teeming, diverse, multitudinous nation like India encapsulates one of the novel’s fundamental concerns: the tension between the single and the many. The dynamic relationship between Saleem’s individual life and the collective life of the nation suggests that public and private will always influence one another, but it remains unclear whether they can be completely equated with one another. Throughout the novel, Saleem struggles to contain all of India within himself-to cram his personal story with the themes and stories of his country-only to disintegrate and collapse at the end of his attempt.
Politically speaking, the tension between the single and the many also marks the nation of India itself. One of the fastest growing nations in the world, India has always been an incredibly diverse. Its constitution recognizes twenty-two official languages, and the population practices religions as varied as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism, among many others. Indian culture is similarly hybrid, having been influenced by countless other cultures over the millennia of its development. At the same time, however, maintaining India’s sprawling diversity in a peaceful fashion has often proved difficult: India’s division into the Islamic nation of Pakistan and the secular, but mostly Hindu nation of India-a process known as Partition-remains the most striking example of the desire to contain and reduce India’s plurality. In Midnight’s Children, the child Saleem watches as protestors attempt to do divide the city of Bombay along linguistic lines, another attempt to categorize and cordon off multiplicity.
Saleem, a character who contains a multitude of experiences and sensitivities, stands in stark contrast to the protestors who demand their own language-based region, the strict monotheism of Pakistan, and Indira Gandhi’s repression of contradictory dissension. His powers of telepathy allow him to transcend the barriers of language, while he himself-with his English blood, poor background, wealthy upbringing, and eclectic religious influeces-reflects India’s diversity and range. The Midnight Children’s Conference that he convenes is, in its initial phase, a model for pluralism and a testimony to the potential power inherent within coexisting diversity, which is a natural and definitive element of Indian culture. In Midnight’s Children, the desire for singularity or purity-whether of religion or culture-breeds not only intolerance but also violence and repression.
The Unreliability of Memory and Narrative
Factual errors and dubious claims are essential aspects of Saleem’s fantastic narrative. He willfully acknowledges that he misplaced Gandhi’s death, an obviously seminal moment in India’s history, as well as willfully misremembers the date of an election. He frets over the accuracy of his story and worries about future errors he might make. Yet, at the same time, after acknowledging his error, Saleem decides to maintain his version of events, since that’s how they appeared to occur to him and now there can be no going back. Despite its potential historical inaccuracies, Saleem sees his story as being of equal importance as the world’s most important religious texts. This is not only his story but also the story of India. The errors in his story, in addition to casting a shadow of doubt over some of what he claims, point to one of the novel’s essential claims: that truth is not just a matter of verifiable facts. Genuine historical truth depends on perspective-and a willingness to believe. Saleem notes that memory creates its own truth, and so do narratives. Religious texts and history books alike stake their claim in truth not only because they are supported by facts but also because they have been codified and accepted upon, whether by time or faith. The version of history Saleem offers comes filtered through his perspective, just as every other version of history comes filtered through some alternate perspective. For Saleem, his version is as true as anything else that could be written, not just because this is the way he has arranged it, but because this is the version he believes.
Destruction vs. Creation
The battle between Saleem and Shiva reflects the ancient, mythological battle between the creative and destructive forces in the world. The enmity and tension between the two begin at the moment of their simultaneous births. The reference to Shiva, the Hindu god of both destruction and procreation, reflects not only the tension between destruction and creation but also the inextricably bound nature of these two forces. Saleem, as the narrator of Midnight’s Children, is responsible for creating the world we, as readers, are engaged in. He represents Brahma, the god of creation. What Saleem creates, however, is not life, but a story. By delivering Saleem into the hands of the Widow, Shiva is responsible for the destruction of the midnight’s children, and yet, by fathering Aadam and hundreds of other children, he ensures the continuation of their legacy.
Beginning with the snake venom that saves Saleem’s young life, snakes play an ambiguous and complicated role in the novel. Saleem often refers to his favorite childhood board game, Snakes and Ladders. In the game’s simple formula of good and evil, Saleem learns an important lesson: for every up, there is a down, and for every down, there is an up. Missing from the board game, however, is the ambiguity between good and evil that he later detects as a natural part of life. Generally considered to represent evil, snakes are, in fact, much more complicated than that simple generalization might imply. While venom has the power to kill, it also has the ability to bring life, and it does so not once but twice in the novel. Snake venom represents the power of Shiva, who is both destroyer and procreator in the Hindu pantheon. In Midnight’s Children, snakes are also associated with Picture Singh, Saleem’s closest friend, whose career is both dependent upon and destroyed by snakes.
Throughout the novel, the past finds ways to mysteriously insinuate itself into the present, just as Saleem’s personal compulsions and concerns find themselves inexplicably replicated in national, political events. Perhaps inspired by his own constantly running nose, Saleem uses the termleaking to describe this phenomenon. The lines separating past, present, and future-as well as the lines separating the personal and the political, the individual and the state-are incredibly porous. When Saleem begins having dreams about Kashmir, for example, the stirring images of his dreams seems to seep into the national consciousness, and India and Pakistan begin to battle over possession of the beautiful region. InMidnight’s Children, the interplay between personal and public, past and present, remains fluid and dynamic, like leaking liquid.
Saleem claims that, much like his narrative, he is physically falling apart. His body is riddled with cracks, and, as a result, the past is spilling out of him. His story, spread out over sixty-three years, is a fragmented narrative, oscillating back and forth between past and present and frequently broken up further by Saleem’s interjections. In addition to the narrative and physical fragmentation, India itself is fragmented. Torn apart by Partition, it is divided into two separate countries, with the east and west sections of Pakistan on either side of India. This division is taken even further when East and West Pakistan are reclassified as two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Within India, language marchers agitate for further partitions based upon linguistic lines. New nationalities are created, and with them come new forms of cultural identity that reflect the constant divisions.
The Silver Spittoon
The silver spittoon given to Amina as part of her dowry by the Rani of Cooch Naheen is responsible for Saleem’s loss of memory. Even when he has amnesia, however, Saleem continues to cherish the spittoon as if he still understands its historical value. Following the destruction of his family, the silver spittoon is the only tangible remnant of Saleem’s former life, and yet it too is eventually destroyed when Saleem’s house in the ghetto is torn down. Spittoons, once used as part of a cherished game for both old and young, gradually fell out of use: the old men no longer spit their betel juice into the street as they tell stories, nor do the children dart in between the streams as they listen. The spittoon is the symbol of a vanishing era, which, in retrospect, seemed simpler and easier. And so, although Saleem may not be able to recall the specific association between the spittoon and his family, the spittoon maintains its symbolic quality as both a container of memory and source of amnesia.
The Perforated Sheet
The perforated sheet through which Aadam Aziz falls in love with his future wife performs several different symbolic functions throughout the novel. Unable to see his future wife as a whole, Aadam falls in love with her in pieces. As a result, their love never has a cohesive unity that holds them together. Their love is fragmented, just as their daughter Amina’s attempts to fall in love with her husband are also fragmented. Haunted by the memory of her previous husband, Amina embarks on a campaign to fall in love with her new husband in sections, just as her father once fell in love with her mother. Despite her best attempts, Amina and Ahmed’s love also lacks the completion and unity necessary for genuine love to thrive. The hole of the perforated sheet represents a portal for vision but also a void that goes unfilled. The perforated sheet makes one final appearance with Jamila Singer: in an attempt to preserve her purity, she shrouds herself completely, except for a single hole for her lips. The perforated sheet, in addition to preserving her purity, also reduces to her to nothing more than a voice. The sheet becomes a veil that separates her from the rest of the world and reflects her inability to accept affection.
Knees and Nose
The seer, Ramram, predicts the birth of “knees and nose,” which represent Shiva and Saleem, respectively. In addition to symbolizing each boy’s special power, knees and nose also play another role. When Aadam Aziz first kneels down to pray, his knees touch the floor and his nose hits the ground. Knees and nose, in this instance, represent an act of prayer, as well as the submission and humility necessary faith. After hitting his nose on the ground, however, Aadam rejects that submission, and a hole opens up inside of him. Knees and nose also become significant with Farooq’s death via a sniper bullet. Shot, Farooq first drops to his knees, then hits his nose on the ground. Just as Aadam bowed before god, Farooq bows before death. Shiva is suspected of killing a string of prostitutes with his powerful knees, while Saleem uses his nose to discover the most decrepit prostitute in the city. Knees and nose-just like Shiva and Saleem, destruction and creation, faith and humility-are inextricably related.
Important Quotations Explained
1. “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.”
This quotation occurs in Book Two, in the chapter “At the Pioneer Café.” Saleem has interrupted his story in order to defend its accuracy to Padma. Throughout his story, Saleem has appeared anxious about his historical inconsistencies. He is also acutely aware of how fantastic and far-fetched his narrative sounds to the skeptical, pragmatic Padma. After he emerges from his fever-induced dream, it becomes especially important for Saleem to assert the veracity of his story. For Saleem, everything he says is true-not necessarily because it happened that way, but because he remembers it that way. An event from a person’s past gains meaning for that person’s present existence only when it becomes filtered through memory and becomes part of the overall story of that person’s life. Only then can connections be made and conclusions drawn, and events and instances accrue significance. Saleem has rearranged history not only because he has forgotten the proper order of events, but also because by doing so his story gains greater depth and meaning. Saleem’s rearrangement of facts serves a greater truth as he creates a new pattern through which to interpret both his own history and that of India itself.
2. 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.
This quotation occurs in Book Two, at the end of the chapter titled “Jamila Singer.” Reflecting on his time in Pakistan, Saleem makes an explicit argument against the strict political control and religious dogmatism of the Pakistani government. In a nation defined by one official perspective, with a government that violently rejects any threat to its singularity, reality cannot exist, since reality is inherently composed of multiple perspectives. Reality is not just composed of a single truth, as the repressive rulers of Pakistan would have the people believe. Lies become necessary to live in a place like Pakistan, in order to maintain the fiction of singularity. Saleem argues that although his narrative may play fast and loose with historical facts, his story is still more truthful and authentic than the Pakistani government’s, because his tale celebrates and welcomes plurality, a multiplicity of perspectives, and the possibility of contradiction.
3. Let me state this quite unequivocally: 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.
This quotation occurs in Book Two, in the chapter “How Saleem Achieved Purity.” Throughout the telling of his story, Saleem often places himself at the center of major political events. While we can detect a strain of narcissism in Saleem’s desire to see himself as either the central cause or primary victim of various historical events, his life does converge with national history on countless occasions. If we consider that Saleem-born at the dawn of India’s independence, and destined to break into as many pieces as India has citizens-represents the entire population of India, it makes sense that his life seems directly impacted by national events. Things that happen on a national or global scale will always affect the collective life of a nation’s people.
By claiming that the purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war was to eliminate his family, Saleem draws critical attention to the fact that the war was justified in religious terms. The Indian presence in Kashmir was represented as a kind of defilement, and the Pakistani government claimed that Pakistan needed to reclaim Kashmir for the good of the country. Saleem claims that he and his grotesque family also needed to be cleansed in order for the nation to be purified. The absurdity of Saleem’s claim that an entire war might be fought in order to murder a family of civilians highlights the absurdity of Pakistan’s claim.
4. 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 quotation appears in Book Three, at the end of the chapter “Sam and the Tiger.” Saleem has just finished recalling the rage he felt upon realizing the fundamental unfairness of life. This passage is a perfect expression of Saleem’s narrative. He begins his life story thirty-two years before his birth, and from that moment, considers everything that has happened as being somehow related to his life. There is a connection between past and present, between the state and the individual. History is never past. It plays an active role in shaping the present, and Saleem’s story is an attempt to capture that dynamic relationship.
5. Futility of statistics: during 1971, ten million refugees fled across the borders of East Pakistan-Bangladesh into India-but ten million (like all numbers larger than one thousand and one) refuses to be understood.
This quotation appears in Book Three, in the chapter “The Buddha.” Saleem, now in the service of the Pakistani Army, finds himself aiding the violent repression of the Bangladeshi independence movement. In a novel already riddled with violence and massive causalities, this is a blunt acknowledgement of the fact that there is no way to express the scale of violence and suffering that is occurring. Even Saleem’s first hand account of the atrocities he witnesses becomes suffused with a sense that what he sees is incomprehensible. The human mind cannot grasp tragedies of this scale, and we require a microcosmic representation of the victims-midnight’s children-to attach individual identities to historical realities. One thousand and one is the largest number that can be understood, according to Saleem, and so rather than try and represent the loss of hope for an entire generation, Rushdie has him offer us the representative destruction of these children.
narrator · Saleem Sinai
point of view · This novel is narrated in the first person. The narrator is subjective, though he claims omniscience as he speculates on the motives and thoughts of all the major characters
tone · Urgent; ironic; satirical
tense · Saleem, age thirty, generally narrates in the present tense. Most of the events he describes, however, occur in the past, at which point Saleem switches to the past tense.
setting (time) · From 1915 to 1977
setting (place) · India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh
protagonist · Saleem Sinai
major conflict · The battle between Saleem, who represents creation, and his archrival, Shiva, who represents destruction, encapsulates the major conflicts of the novel.
rising action · The birth of Parvati and Shiva’s son, which occurs at the same moment that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declares a State of Emergency.
climax · Shiva and the army’s destruction of the magicians’ ghetto, where Saleem has been living with his wife and her son
falling action · After his home is destroyed and his wife is killed, Saleem is taken to the Widow’s hostel, where heand the rest of the midnight’s children are sterilized.
themes · The single and the many; truth of memory and narrative; destruction vs. creation
motifs · Snakes; leaking; fragmentation
symbols · Silver spittoon; the perforated sheet; knees and nose
foreshadowing · Ramram’s prophesy of Saleem’s birth; Saleem’s fever induced dream of the Widow
Summary: The Perforated Sheet
Saleem Sinai opens the novel by explaining the exact date and time of his birth: August 15, 1947, at midnight. Saleem’s birth coincides precisely with the moment India officially gains its independence from Britain. Thus, as Saleem notes, his miraculously timed birth ties him to the fate of the country. He is thirty-one years old now and feels that time is running out for him. Saleem’s believes his life is ending and he must tell all of the stories trapped inside of him before he dies.
Saleem begins the story with his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, on an early spring morning in Kashmir. Saleem describes Kashmir as a place of incredible beauty and notes that, in 1915, Kashmir was still pristine, looking just as it had during the time of the Mughal Empire. At this point in the story, Kashmir is free of the soldiers, camouflaged trucks, and military jeeps that will come to characterize it in later years.
While praying, Aadam bumps his nose against the hard ground, and three drops of blood fall from his nose. As a result, he vows never again to bow before man or god, and consequently a “hole” opens up inside of him. Aadam has recently returned home from Germany, after five years of medical study. While Aadam was away, his father had a stroke, and his mother took over his duties in the family gem business. As Aadam stands on the edge of a lake, Tai, an old boatman, comes rowing toward him. Saleem describes Aadam’s features, particularly his prominent nose. Saleem also describes the enigmatic Tai and the local rumors that surround him.
Tai’s boat draws closer. He shouts out to Aadam that the daughter of Ghani the landowner has fallen ill. Here, Saleem interrupts his narrative to note that most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence, but he reassures us that he has the ability to see things he didn’t actually witness. In this way, he is able to describe Aadam taking care of his mother, attending to the landowner’s daughter, and being ferried across the lake by Tai, all at the same time.
At the landowner’s opulent house, Aadam realizes that the old man, Ghani, is blind. While waiting to see the patient, Aadam gets nervous and considers fleeing, but then he has a vision of his mother and decides to stay. Aadam is taken in to see the patient, who is flanked by two extremely muscular women holding a white bed sheet over her like a curtain. In the center of the sheet is a hole, approximately seven inches in diameter. Ghani tells Aadam that, for modesty’s sake, he can only examine his daughter through the seven-inch hole.
Saleem sits at his desk, writing. Padma, described as a great comfort despite her inability to read, cooks for Saleem and presses him to eat. Saleem returns to his story, saying that his grandfather’s premonition to run away was well founded, because, in the ensuing months and years, Aadam fell under the spell of the perforated cloth. The isolated parts of Naseem’s body that Aadam has seen begin to haunt him, and his mother notes that Ghani is using the illnesses as a ploy, to arrange a marriage between his daughter and Aadam. Saleem notes that his grandfather fell in love through a hole in a sheet and that this love filled in the hole left by Aadam’s renunciation of his faith.
Naseem experiences numerous ailments over the next few years, and, in each case, Aadam examines her by moving the sheet so that the hole exposes the affected area. However, as Naseem never develops pains in her head, Aadam never lays eyes upon her face. On the day World War I ends, Naseem finally complains of a headache, and the doctor receives permission to see her face, at which point he falls even further in love with her. In that same year, Doctor Aziz’s father dies, followed shortly by his mother. Ilse, Aadam’s anarchist friend from Germany, comes to visit him and deliver the news that their friend Oskar has died. Agra University offers Aadam a job, and he decides to leave Kashmir and proposes to Naseem. Ilse drowns herself in the lake that same day, in a spot where, as Tai once told the young Aadam, foreign women often come to drown themselves without their knowing why.
Padma, who has brought in Saleem’s dinner, interrupts the narrative and demands he read her what he has written. When Saleem returns to the story, it is August 6, 1919, and Aadam and Naseem are in the city of Amritsar. Mahatma Gandhi has issued a call for a day of mourning-Hartal-on August 7, to protest the British presence. On the day of Hartal, riots break out, and Aadam treats the wounded with Mercurochrome, which leaves bloodlike red stains on his clothing. Six days later, a peaceful protest erupts, in violation of the martial law regulations. The crowd moves into a compound, where Brigadier R. E. Dyer and his troops eventually surround them. Aadam’s nose begins to itch furiously. As the brigadier issues a command, Aadam sneezes violently, falling to the ground and thereby missing a bullet aimed in his direction. The troops continue to fire into the crowd. Of the 1,650 rounds fired, 1,516 find their mark.
Before concluding the chapter and going to bed, Saleem discovers a crack in his wrist. He then tells how Tai, the boatman, died in 1947, protesting India and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir. Tai walked to where the troops were stationed, intending to give them a piece of his mind, and was shot dead.
Saleem’s account of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, resembles the story found in the biblical book of Genesis. Aadam’s name suggests the biblical Adam, the world’s first man. Adam and his consort, Eve, lived in the Garden of Eden, and Aadam’s hometown in Kashmir is similarly described as a lush, beautiful locale. The story of Adam, Eve, and their eventual expulsion from Eden provides Christians with an inaugural narrative, from which they can trace the development of the world. Similarly, the story of Aadam and Naseem in Kashmir provides Saleem with an original myth that helps shape and give meaning to the rest of his story. Rushdie’s use of the biblical tale demonstrates his willingness to incorporate and transform various literary traditions into his own narrative.
Aadam’s friend Tai plays an important role in the novel’s early development of certain symbols and themes. Although most of the local people attribute his seemingly nonsensical statements to delirium, insanity, or stupidity, Tai ultimately demonstrates great wisdom. Regarding Aadam’s prominent nose, Tai warns the boy to trust the nose’s feelings, as the nose will indicate when something is wrong. Here, Tai alludes to the important role noses will play not only in Aadam’s life but in future generations of his family. Tai’s comments also introduce the idea that sensory experience and instinctual behavior are linked entities. Most important, however, Tai’s warning suggests the ways in which personal and public concerns collide, a dominant theme of the novel.
ThroughoutMidnight’s Children, Indian and global politics resonate in the lives of the characters, often to an improbable degree. As Saleem’s grandparents fall in love, we witness the first occasion in which a great event in world history corresponds to a personal event in the lives of Saleem’s family: World War I ends on the same day that Aadam finally sees Naseem’s face. Rushdie links the two events to illustrate the ways in which humans rely on their individual experiences to make sense of huge, abstract historical events. Sometimes, public history and private history relate in parallel but apparently unconnected ways. Aadam doesn’t see Naseem’s face because the war has ended, but the two events seem linked, because each heralds a major transition. Sometimes, however, public and private histories intersect directly, as when Aadam participates in the proindependence riots and, miraculously, manages to avoid being shot. The proindependence riots are significant for the nation, but they gain an added significance for Saleem’s family, since Aadam’s experience there provides one more prominent example of the important role of noses play in Midnight’s Children.
From the very first passages of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie establishes the novel’s unique narrative voice. Saleem narrates in the first person, often addressing the audience directly and informally. He also writes in a prose style that feels spontaneous and improvised, as if he were writing his thoughts down as fast as he can, without stopping to revise or edit.Midnight’s Children doesn’t represent a cool, composed account of past events, nor does it resemble an objective voice recollecting events from a distant vantage point. Saleem rambles and veers off, rephrases and reworks, much as one does in coversation. This prose style is referred to as stream of consciousness, and, in its immediacy, it reflects Saleem’s desperate, urgent need to finish his tale before he dies.
The prose style also makes the novel resemble a session of oral storytelling, a feature highlighted by the presence of Padma, Saleem’s faithful listener and the reader’s stand-in within the pages of Midnight’s Children. At times, Padma plays the role of a passive audience member, while at other moments she actively interjects, making comments and suggestions and calling Saleem to task for some of his more excessive flights of fancy. In this way, acting on our behalf, Padma plays the role of skeptic and critic. Through Padma, Rushdie can anticipate and acknowledge the reader’s potential frustrations. By preemptively addressing any doubts and concerns we might have, Rushdie is then free to pursue the narrative as he sees fit.
Saleem claims that his body-worn down by time, history, and fatigue-will soon break into hundreds of millions of pieces. He describes how he makes his living making chutney and other condiments and how Padma prepares his food and bed in the factory. Being impotent, Saleem can’t respond to Padma’s sexual advances.
Saleem returns to his family history, jumping ahead to the summer of 1942. Aadam and Naseem now live on Cornwallis Road, in Agra, and have five children: Alia, Mumtaz, Hanif, Mustapha, and Emerald. Naseem has become a formidable figure with age and is now generally referred to as Reverend Mother. She has also developed a verbal habit of referring to things as whatsitsname. Saleem recounts a story of how, in the early 1930s, Naseem became furious with Aadam for dismissing the children’s religion tutor, whom he felt was teaching the children to hate people of other faiths. Incensed, Naseem refuses to feed Aadam, waiting until he’s almost dead of hunger before she relents.
Back in 1942, Aadam has aligned himself with a charismatic man named Mian Abdullah, also known as the Hummingbird. Abdullah heads the Free Islam Convocation, which opposes the creation of a separate Muslim state. One day, during a visit to a university campus with his personal secretary, Nadir Khan, Mian Abdullah is attacked by a band of assassins. When the assassins begin to cut him with their knives, Abdullah starts to hum, the pitch growing increasingly higher. One of the killers’ eyes shatters and falls out of its socket; the surrounding windows shatter as well. Dogs throughout Bombay hear the Hummingbird and rush to the scene, injuring the assassins to such a degree that the murders are rendered unrecognizable. Mian Abdullah dies, but Nadir Khan manages to escape and, finding Rashid the rickshaw boy in the field surrounding Doctor Aziz’s house, pleads with Rashid to notify Aadam of the situation.
Summary: Under the Carpet
The period of optimism that Mian Abdullah inspired ends with his assassination. The Rani of Cooch Naheen, one of Abdullah’s allies, takes to her bed, while Aadam puts his energy into treating the poor. One day, while using the bathroom, Aadam is startled to find Nadir Khan hiding in the laundry bin. Aadam agrees to provide him sanctuary, despite his wife’s protests and concerns for their daughters’ purity. In retaliation, Naseem promises never to speak again, and silence descends upon the house.
Several suitors line up for the three Aziz daughters, including Major Zulfikar, an official in the Pakistani army; Nadir Khan, who lives hidden in the Aziz basement; and Ahmed Sinai. Mumtaz, Aadam’s favorite daughter and the darkest-skinned of all the children, tends to Nadir Khan. The two fall in love without ever exchanging a word, and Nadir asks Aadam for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The family arranges a secret marriage between the two. Afterward, Mumtaz happily moves into the basement, returning to the upper floors by day to preserve the secrecy of her husband’s concealment.
The Rani of Cooch Naheen dies, her skin having turned completely white, and bequeaths a silver spittoon to the Aziz family. Mumtaz falls ill, and, while giving her a check-up, Aadam discovers that after two years of marriage Mumtaz remains a virgin. Upon hearing the news, Naseem ends her three years of silence, releasing a torrent of abusive words at her husband. Saleem notes that this occurred on the same day that America dropped the atomic bomb on Japan: August 9, 1945. Emerald runs out of the house and tells her suitor, Major Zulfikar, that Nadir Khan is living in her basement. Nadir Khan flees, leaving a note for Mumtaz that reads, “I divorce you.”
Emerald goes on to marry Major Zulfikar. At Emerald’s wedding, Mumtaz and Ahmed Sinai-who had previously been courting Alia, the eldest daughter-have a conversation. They eventually marry, and Mumtaz changes her name to Amina Sinai.
In these chapters, the private life of Saleem Sinai once again coincides with the public life of India. Saleem claims that his body is falling apart and that he’s destined to crumble into approximately 630 million particles of “anonymous” dust. At the time of Midnight’s Children’s publication, India’s population stood at about 630 million. Born at the moment of India’s independence, Saleem symbolizes modern India and conceives of himself as a physical embodiment of India’s history. By claiming that he will crumble into 630 million pieces, Saleem suggests that when his body falls apart, he will release all of India. With the notion that, in his individual body, Saleem contains a physical representation of every single “anonymous” Indian citizen, Rushdie takes a symbolic metaphor-Saleem as modern India-and makes it concrete. Saleem’s bodily disintegration also reflects the literary fragmentation of the novel as it skips haphazardly through time. Because Saleem’s body seems doomed to collapse from the beginning, we might wonder whether the narrative is destined to fall apart as well. Saleem’s constant pleas for his story to be taken seriously cast further doubt on the truthfulness of his account-and make Saleem an increasingly unreliable narrator.
Once again, Padma urges the narrative forward, and we jump to 1942 and what Saleem refers to as “the optimistic epidemic.” The word epidemicsuggests that the hope inspired by Mian Abdullah is contagious, out of the ordinary, and potentially dangerous. In the early 1940s, time has not only put a strain on Aadam and Naseem’s relationship but on the country as well. Religious strife is beginning to fill the air, and that tension takes violent shape in the form of the crescent knives that kill Mian Abdullah. The shape of the knives is particularly significant, since they recall the crescent moon and star, which together serve as a symbol of the Islamic faith. The knives silence Mian Abdullah’s optimistic hum and symbolically destroy any hope for a unified India, postindependence. The tension between religious pluralism and dogmatism can also be seen in Aadam’s relationship with his wife, whose new name testifies, in part, to her stubborn religious devotion. Reverend Mother remains dogmatic in her faith, so much so that she is ready to watch her husband die of starvation in order to defend her principles. And yet Saleem comments that his grandmother, despite her convictions, remains adrift in the universe. Her constant use of the word whatsitsname suggests that Reverend Mother has increasing difficulty pinning down names to objects or, by extension, meaning to reality.
At this point, members of Saleem’s extended family, including his parents, aunts, and uncles, have all entered the story. The silver spittoon of the Rani of Cooch Naheen, the impotence of Nadir Khan, and the steely determination of Reverend Mother each play an important role as the narrative progresses. That Reverend Mother breaks her silence on the same day the United States drops the atomic bomb on Japan not only repeats the continued theme of personal history intersecting with political history, but it also illustrates the significance of individual events in the history of a family.
Summary: A Public Announcement
Saleem begins describing the political events of 1947. He interrupts his story at one point to complain that a Dr. N. Q. Balliga has dismissed his claims to have cracks in his body. He returns to his historical account and describes his mother and father’s departure from Agra and their subsequent arrival in Delhi. Amina remains in love with her first husband, Nadir Khan. However, with her typical assiduousness, she trains herself to fall in love with her new husband by focusing on one part of his body or personality at a time, echoing the courtship of her mother and father through the perforated sheet. Without fully being aware of it, she slowly transforms her new house into the basement she used to live in, and Ahmed gradually begins to resemble Nadir Khan as he puts on weight and loses his hair.
One morning, two of Ahmed’s business associates, Mr. Mustapha Kemal and Mr. S. P. Butt, arrive at Ahmed and Amina’s house. The men tell Ahmed about a fire at one of his warehouses, set by a radical anti-Muslim organization named Ravana, after a many-headed demon. On the street, a young man named Lifafa Das calls out for people to come “see the world” through his peepshow box. The peepshow contains as many postcard images as Lifafa could find depicting global scenes. As eager young children surround him, one girl starts a chant, scorning Lifafa as a Hindu. Soon, others join in, and a mob forms, accusing Lifafa of being a rapist. Amina brings Lifafa into her house, securing his safety by announcing to the crowd that they’ll have to kill her, a pregnant woman, before she’ll let them harm him. In exchange for saving his life, Lifafa offers to take Amina to see his cousin, a great seer who will tell her unborn child’s fortune. Musa, a household servant, says nothing, although Saleem notes that Musa will eventually be responsible for destroying the world, albeit by accident.
Summary: Many-headed Monsters
Saleem questions the roles that chance and providence play in determining the future. He wonders about his father’s perspective on fate as it relates to Saleem’s own impending birth and considers the role time plays in the partition of India. He notes that what’s true isn’t necessarily what’s real and briefly introduces his ayah, or nanny, Mary Pereira and the stories she told him during his childhood.
Amina Sinai sets off to visit the seer as her husband sets off, with money hidden under his coat, to pay off the Ravana. The narrative jumps back and forth between these two clandestine journeys. As Amina leaves the city in a taxi with Lifafa, she loses her “city eyes” and becomes aware of the abject poverty around her: the beggars, cripples, and starving children clutching at her saris. Meanwhile, Ahmed, surrounded by the stench of failure, is consumed by his money problems and the knowledge that he will never rearrange the Quran in chronological order, as he has always wanted too. Saleem relates a host of disappointments and missed opportunities that will haunt his unhappy father for the rest of his life, as well the tragic deaths awaiting Ahmed’s companions, Mustapha Kemal and S. P. Butt. Lifafa reassures and comforts the frightened Amina as they walk up dark steps, past cripples, to the room where Lifafa’s cousin appears to be sitting six inches above the ground. Ahmed and his companions follow the orders of the Ravana and deposit the money at an ancient fort overrun with wild monkeys who are taking the building apart brick by brick. In the room with the prophet, Ramram, Amina lets him touch her belly, at which point he falls into a trance and begins to deliver an almost incomprehensible prophecy. He tells her that her son will never be older or younger than his country and there will be two heads, knees, and a nose. He eventually collapses onto the floor, overwhelmed by what he has seen. At the temple, wild monkeys attack the Ravana members assigned to collect the ransom, and Ahmed and his associates begin scrounging to re-collect their money. As a result, the Ravana burn down the men’s warehouses. Ahmed decides to get out of the leather business and move to Bombay, where land is cheap. On June 4, as Earl Mountbatten announces the partition of India into two separate nations, Ahmed and Amina board a train for Bombay.
Historical patterns become more apparent now, as Saleem reflects on the incidents leading up to India’s independence as well as on his parents’ relationship. The role of the perforated sheet, which first appeared in the love affair between Aadam and Naseem, seems to be reprised between Ahmed and Amina. One person falls in love with the other through a series of isolated glimpses, creating affection in a piecemeal fashion. This approach fared poorly for Aadam and Naseem, who, after falling in love with each other in parts, failed to recognize each other as whole people. Whether the same will be true of Ahmed and Amina’s relationship remains to be seen. However, as these patterns grow clearer, a sense of inevitability begins to emerge. Indian history seems to be moving inexorably toward independence, and the power of Amina’s reenactment of the perforated sheet proves so great that it seems to physically transform Ahmed Sinai into Nadir Khan. However, just as the formal patterns of the novel are becoming increasingly complex, Saleem casts doubt over his reliability as a narrator. Saleem tells us that Dr. N.Q. Balliga has rejected Saleem’s self-diagnosis and that the doctor cannot find any cracks on his body. Saleem takes the parallels between India and his physical body as evidence of the fact that he, as an individual, represents the totality of Indian history. If that piece of evidence is questioned, it is possible-and perhaps wise-to doubt all the patterns and parallels that Saleem has so painstakingly insisted upon.
The incident with Lifafa Das represents another manifestation of the tension between pluralism and singularity. Lifafa’s peepshow box literally symbolizes the concept of looking at the world through a multiplicity of perspectives and viewpoints. The mob that surrounds him, however, can only see Lifafa’s religion and nearly kills him because of its singular view. The allusion in these chapters to Ravana, a many-headed demon from the Indian epic the Ramayana, emphasizes the frightening specter of mob mentality. The incident with the peepshow box exemplifies the nationwide tension already threatening to tear India apart along religious lines. That tearing will, of course, become literal once India gets divided into the Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.
That Saleem’s birth should first be proclaimed to an angry mob foreshadows the intensely public role Saleem will play for the rest of his life. This event also provides a glimpse into the world he will be born into, a world divided by religious tension and constantly threatened by outbreaks of violence. As the story draws closer to his birth and India’s independence, Saleem begins to cryptically foreshadow many forthcoming events. He introduces his ayah, Mary Pereira, and enigmatically refers to Musa’s destruction of the world, as well as the role of fate, chance, and lies. The prophecy of Ramram represents the most significant and explicit example of foreshadowing in these sections: although we can understand very little of what he says at this point, his divination will prove crucial.
Amina’s experience with Ramram includes a shocking, vivid portrayal of the destitution and abject poverty that afflicts so much of India. In the world ofMidnight’s Children, the magical and the squalid are interconnected. As Amina encounters the impoverished people she had once ignored, Ahmed and his business associates carry huge bags of money earmarked for a terrorist ransom. When the Ravana members drop the money, Saleem describes Ahmed and his partners scrounging through dirt and feces to pick it up, just as starving men, women, and children beg Amina for spare change in order to survive. The narrative deliberately oscillates back and forth between these two scenes, calling attention to the drastic divide that separates rich from poor in India.
Saleem describes the estate that once belonged to an Englishman, William Methwold.
The estate is comprised of four identical houses, each bearing the name of a different European palace. Saleem’s parents buy one of the houses, agreeing to the conditions that they purchase everything inside the house and that the legal transfer of property will not occur until midnight, August 15. Methwold says that his reasons for the conditions are allegorical, as he equates the sale of his estate with the national transfer of sovereign power.
Saleem lists the other inhabitants of Methwold’s Estate: Mr. Homi Catrack, a film magnate who lives with his idiot daughter; old man Ibrahim, his sons, Ismail and Ishaq, and his wife, Nussie; the Dubashes, who become parents of Cyrus, Saleem’s first mentor; Doctor Narlikar; and finally, Commander Sabarmati, his wife, Lila, and their two sons, who will grow up to be nicknamed Eyeslice and Hairoil. As the transfer of power draws closer, the inhabitants of Methwold’s Estate complain incessantly of having to live among Methwold’s things. As the inhabitants settle in, they remain unaware of the fact that they have begun to imitate Methwold’s habits, from the cocktail hour he keeps to the accent with which he speaks.
The Times of India announces a prize for any child born at the exact moment of independence. Still recalling the prophet’s words, Amina declares that her son will win. The summer rains begin, and Amina grows so heavy she can scarcely move. After the rains end, Wee Willie Winkie, a poor clown, returns to the estate to perform for Methwold and the new families. Willie Winkie tells the crowd that his wife is expecting a child soon as well. Saleem tells us that the child actually belongs to Methwold, who seduced Winkie’s wife with his perfectly parted hair. Saleem’s narrative then jumps to a church, where a midwife named Mary Pereira sits in a confessional booth, telling the young priest about her relationship with an orderly named Joseph D’ Costa, who has taken to committing acts of violence against the British. Saleem says that on the night of his birth, this woman made the most important decision in the history of twentieth-century India. Back at Methwold’s Estate, Musa is still “ticking like a time-bomb” as the hour approaches midnight.
Summary: Tick, Tock
On August 13, 1947, Bombay comes alive as the city prepares for India’s imminent independence from the British. At midnight, the nation of Pakistan will officially be created, a full day before India will be declared independent. Violence breaks out on the borders of Punjab and in Bengal.
A series of events occurs all at once, and Saleem’s narrative skips between them. At Methwold’s Estate, Ahmed and William Methwold drink cocktails in the courtyard. Meanwhile, at the old house on Cornwallis Road, in Agra, Aadam Aziz rises from his bed and nostalgically pulls out the perforated sheet, only to discover that moths have eaten it. Back at Methwold’s Estate, Wee Willie Winkie’s wife, Vanita, goes into labor. William Methwold walks into the courtyard of his former compound, stands in the exact center, and salutes the landscape. Shortly afterward, a sadhuji, or holy man, enters the compound and sits under a dripping water tap. He proclaims that he awaits the birth of the One, the Mubarak. As soon as he says this, Amina goes into labor. Once the sun has set, Methwold ends his salute and pulls off his hairpiece. Amina and Vanita lie in adjacent rooms at the nursing home, and two boys are born at midnight. Upon hearing the news, Ahmed drops a chair on his toes. In the ensuing confusion, Mary Pereira switches the babies’ nametags in memory of her revolutionary Joseph, giving Saleem, biologically the son of Willie Winkie and Vanita, to Ahmed and Amina.
Padma interrupts the story to call Saleem a liar. He responds by saying that even after his parents discovered what Mary Pereira had done, they could not go back and erase the past, so he remained their son. Saleem mentions a letter the prime minister sent when he was born, which he buried in a cactus garden along with a newspaper article titled “Midnight’s Child.” He tells us that the newspapermen who came to take pictures of him gave his mother a pathetic sum of one hundred rupees.
The small-scale property transfer at Methwold’s Estate clearly corresponds to the larger political situation, as Great Britain prepares itself to transfer sovereign power over India to the independent governments of India and Pakistan. Neither transfer is complete or uncomplicated. Just as independent India must now deal with the cultural legacy of British colonialism, which remains active long after the British vacate the country, so too will the inhabitants of Methwold’s Estate have to live with physical reminders of the estate’s former owner. The British continue to exert a powerful influence over independent India, as symbolized by the unconscious ways the Methwold residents begin conforming to Methwold’s customs. Methwold’s nostalgia for his estate, in turn, echoes the wide-scale nostalgia felt by the British upon leaving the former crown of their colonial empire.
As the moment of Saleem’s birth approaches-ostensibly the most significant event of the novel thus far-the narrative seems to swell to the point of breaking. Saleem wants to take into account everything he can, because everything, he believes, has been working in tandem to arrive at this exact moment. In order to understand the significance of his birth, Saleem reminds the reader of everything that came before it and all the family history that went into making Saleem who he is. However, after accumulating all this momentum, it becomes clear that the history is actually someone else’s history-it belongs to Shiva, the boy with whom Saleem gets switched at birth. Thus the narrator isn’t actually related at all to the people whose stories he has been detailing so meticulously. Significantly, in this same chapter, Aadam discovers that the sacred perforated sheet has been gnawed full of moth holes. As one of the central symbols of Saleem’s story, the partial damage of the perforated sheet seems to bode poorly for the truthfulness of the narrative as a whole.
However, Saleem remains the narrator of this tale, and the story still fundamentally belongs to him. That Saleem has told this family’s history as if it were his own highlights one of the narrative’s central themes: that truth is created and shaped, not fixed and static. Regardless of whether he is Ahmed and Amina’s biological son, they raise him up in their family, and he enjoys all the privileges and problems that birthright entails. Saleem can rightfully claim the history he has told as his own, because he believes it to be so. The truth of the situation, therefore, seems relative.
At the same time, the fact that William Methwold, an Englishman, is revealed to be Saleem’s biological father proves appropriate, given that Saleem sees himself as the perfect embodiment of modern India. The legacy of British colonialism has undoubtedly shaped the newly independent India, just as William Methwold has undeniably shaped Saleem. It is also important to note that by switching the nametags, Mary Pereira makes a distinct political decision. Alhough her primary motivation remains a romantic one, Mary nonetheless attempts to redress the vast social divide that separates rich from poor. The child of a poor woman who dies in labor and an English father who has returned to England, Saleem turns out to be an extraordinarily apt representative of the new Indian nation.
Summary: The Fisherman’s Pointing Finger
Padma becomes upset at Saleem because he has used the word love in reference to her. Saleem returns to his story and describes a painting of Walter Raleigh that hung above his crib as a child. In the painting, a fisherman points off into the distance, and Saleem speculates as to what his finger might be pointing at.
Amina and Ahmed bring Saleem home from the hospital. Saleem is not a beautiful baby, but he is a large one, with an enormous cucumber nose and blue eyes that the family assumes came from his grandfather. The residents of the estate pass him around like a doll, and Mary and his mother dote on him. Wee Willie Winkie continues to come to the compound and sing, eventually bringing his son, Shiva, who has knobby knees and, according to Saleem, will later be saved by a war. The baby Saleem witnesses all of the compound inhabitants’ private lives-their affairs, fights, and habits. Saleem the grown-up narrator claims responsibility for almost everything that happens, including his father’s eventual alcoholism. Feeling neglected by his wife, Ahmed begins to flirt with his secretaries and curse Amina. He later embarks on a scheme with his neighbor, Dr. Narlikar, to reclaim land from the ocean with tetrapods. One day, Ahmed receives a letter from the government saying his assets have been frozen, presumably because of his Muslim faith. The news gives him a permanent chill and sends him to bed, thereby allowing for the conception of Saleem’s sister, the Brass Monkey.
Summary: Snakes and Ladders
During the winter of 1948, bad omens appear everywhere. To make ends meet, the family rents the top floor of the house to Dr. Schaapsteker, who has spent his life studying snakes. Amina writes her parents a letter, telling them of their hard luck, and Aadam and Reverend Mother arrive a few days later. Reverend Mother takes over the household, and her temperament seeps into the food she cooks. From this, Amina finds a new, courageous spirit. She takes the money from her dowry to the racetrack, where she wins repeatedly. She takes some of the money and pays their neighbor, Ismail, to fight the government’s freezing of Ahmed’s assets. Saleem claims that, even though he was just a baby, he was responsible for his mother’s amazing success at the racetrack.
As a child, Saleem loves to play the board game Snakes and Ladders. For him, the game perfectly reflects an essential truth: for every “ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner,” and vice versa. However, the game lacks the ambiguities that are part of life. Saleem offers Amina’s brother Hanif as an example of the rule of snakes and ladders. Instead of moving to Pakistan, Hanif moved to Bombay, to follow his dream of making movies. He marries a beautiful film star and becomes the youngest film director in Indian cinema history. On the opening night of his film, however, the theater manager interrupts the screening to announce that Mahatma Gandhi has been killed. Amina and her husband run home and board up the house, terrified that if the killer turns out to be a Muslim, violence will break out. But the killer is revealed to be a Hindu, and the family returns to normal, thereby illustrating Saleem’s point that for every up there is a down, and for every down an up.
Mary, the ayah, and Musa, the longtime house bearer, engage in a hostile battle. Musa, believing he’s about to be fired, steals some of the family’s valuables. They catch him before he can escape, and Musa leaves the house ashamed. Saleem reminds us that Musa will eventually destroy everything.
One night, Mary Pereira sees the figure of a man floating across the rooftops. The family calls the police. They execute a sting operation and, in the process, shoot and kill the shadowy figure. The dead man is revealed to be Joseph D’Costa, Mary’s former lover, since turned terrorist. Soon after, baby Saleem falls ill with typhoid. The family expects him to die, until Dr. Schaapsteker offers a remedy made of snake poison. The poison saves Saleem’s life, lending Saleem “an early awareness of the ambiguity of snakes.” The government unfreezes Ahmed’s assets. Saleem’s sister, nicknamed the Brass Monkey because of the red-gold hair she sports at her birth, arrives with no fanfare. Saleem closes by noting that his sister learned from an early age that if she wanted attention, she would have to make a lot of noise to get it.
Saleem not only claims that he was immediately conscious and self-aware as an infant but also that he was ultimately responsible for the events that unfolded during his early childhood. Saleem has placed himself at the center of his world-his significance confirmed by a prime minister’s letter, a newspaper photo, and the predictions of a holy man. At the same time, Saleem is perfectly aware of his features, particularly his enormous nose, which he willingly describes as ugly. Saleem’s features, however, are more than just his own: he has his grandfather’s nose and eyes, and yet he is not biologically related to Aadam Aziz. He has two birthmarks, which he describes as being on the west and east sides of his face, and a nose shaped like a cucumber. His face resembles, to some degree, a map of the Indian subcontinent.
The baby Saleem is already devouring the world with his gaze, in much the same way that the narrative crams itself with incredible amounts of data and sensory experience. Saleem takes responsibility for everything, saying “everything that happened, happened because of me.” Like the narrative, Saleem struggles to contain everything within his grasp. 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. He has piled the frustrated desires and failures of his world onto himself. Rushdie began the novel with references to Adam and the Garden of Eden, and here he draws parallels between young Saleem and the Christ child, as both are presented as magical, redemptive infants whose powers had been prophesied long before their births. Saleem’s ayah, who represents as strongly a maternal figure as Amina does, is named Mary, like Jesus’ mother, and she has a love interest named Joseph, like Jesus’s father. When Amina goes to the racetrack, the baby Saleem claims to have performed what could be called his first miracle: he multiplies.
Continuing to make use of myths, religions, and symbols, Rushdie employs a childhood board game, Snakes and Ladders, to reinterpret the image of the snake. In the Bible, the devil appears to Adam and Eve as a snake and tempts Eve to break their promise to God and eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Traditionally, good and evil, like snakes and ladders, are seen as opposing and separate forces. However, in real life, these clear categories become confused, and the distinction between them can be ambiguous. The fact that Dr. Schaapsteker could save Saleem’s life by using snake poison represents the notion that the line separating good and evil is never as stark or clear as one might like.
Summary: Accident in a Washing-chest
Padma has stormed out on Saleem because he compares the writing of his narrative to the recording of the sacred Hindu text the Ramayana by the elephant god Ganesh.
Saleem continues the story in the summer of 1956 when his sister, the Brass Monkey, began burning shoes, perhaps to force people to notice her. Starved for attention, she is a mischievous child, prone to breaking windows, spreading lies, and lashing out at anyone who shows her affection.
By the time he reaches the age of nine, Saleem becomes acutely aware of the expectations surrounding him. In order to escape the fear of failure, he hides in his mother’s large white washing chest. He begins to attend school with his friends from the compound, Eyeslice, Hairoil, Sonny Ibrahim, and Cyrus-the-great. His early growth spurt has stopped, but his nose, full of snot, continues to grow. He seeks refuge from the insults and names in the washing chest, where his imagination is free to roam. Years later in Pakistan, just before a roof crushes his mother, Amina, she sees the washing chest one more time in a vision. Saleem says that a black fog of guilt began to surround his mother so that on some days it was impossible to see her from the neck up. Her own sense of guilt brings other people’s confessions out. Saleem says that the afternoon phone calls from her ex-husband, Nadir Khan, are the real reason for his mother’s guilt.
One afternoon, while Saleem seeks refuge in the washing chest, his mother receives another phone call. Unaware of Saleem, she goes to the bathroom and begins to sob, repeating the name of her ex-husband. She takes off her saris to use the bathroom, unwittingly exposing her naked rump to Saleem. His nose twitches, he sniffs, and his mother discovers him hiding in the washing chest. She punishes him to one day of silence. During that quiet day, Saleem begins to hear voices rattling in his head, which he compares to the divine voices heard by Mohammed and Moses. The next day, he tells the entire family that angels are speaking to him. Everyone grows angry with Saleem, and his father hits him so hard that Saleem permanently loses some hearing in his left ear. Later that evening, however, Amina remembers the words of Ramram, the prophet, who told her, “washing will hide him . . . .voices will guide him.” She asks Saleem about the voices again, but he claims it was all just a joke, and she dies, nine years later, without ever knowing the truth.
Summary: All India Radio
Padma’s continued absence haunts Saleem, making him uncertain about the accuracy of his narrative. He acknowledges that he made a mistake about the date of Gandhi’s death, but it no longer matters since his story will continue nonetheless. He lists the similarities between himself in the present and the Saleem of the past. He says the voices are gone now, but the heat remains.
During the summer of 1956, language marches fill the city streets, with protesters demanding that Bombay be partitioned along linguistic lines, dividing the Marathi speakers from the Gujrati speakers. At the same time, various languages and voices fill Saleem’s head. The voices are not angels, but telepathy. Beneath the teeming babble of different languages, Saleem says he could hear a purer, intelligible thought-form, greater than words. Saleem also hears the voice of the other midnight’s children-initially far-off and faint-stating simply, “I.” Still afraid of his father’s wrath, Saleem keeps these voices a secret. Saleem puts his power in a historical context, noting that at the time of his discovery, India was developing its Five-Year Plan. He also explains that instead of using his gift for the betterment of the country, he cheated in his classes, kept his gift a secret, and essentially frittered it away.
Saleem begins hiding in an old clocktower. There, he enters the thoughts of strangers all across India, from movie stars and politicians to cab drivers and tourists. Despite his belief that he can see and know everything, Saleem fails to see Dr. Narlikar’s murder by a crowd of language marchers, who hurl him into the sea, along with his concrete tetrapod. The doctor’s death ends his father’s plan to reclaim land from the ocean. A group of very competent female relations takes over the doctor’s businesses and possessions. Shortly after Dr. Narlikar’s death, Ahmed begins to grow paler and paler. Saleem traces the cause back to the Rani of Cooch Naheen, who may, he speculates, have been the first victim of a disease that turned India’s businessmen white. He closes the chapter by noting what lies ahead-including his alter ego, Shiva, and Evelyn Lilith Burns-and by saying, as an afterthought, that Wee Willie Winkie, “in all probability,” met his death at the end of 1956.
By burying himself in a laundry bin of dirty clothes, Saleem is able to take the first step toward realizing that important destiny he has so desperately longed for. That Saleem can only find comfort in the company of dirty clothes indiactes something about his self-perception: mocked and ridiculed by his classmates, Saleem inevitably sees himself as soiled. He finds comfort in the washing chest not only because it provides isolation but also because he sees a reflection of himself in the stained clothes. He describes his birth as crime-ridden and his face as stained, which make him a perfect match for his hiding place. At the same time, there is a direct causal link between Saleem’s hiding in a basket of dirty clothes and the discovery of what he initially believes to be his god-given powers. InMidnight’s Children, the sacred and the profane are inextricably linked. Therefore, it seems appropriate that Saleem would hear what he believes to be angels while watching his mother naked and relieving herself.
Saleem demonstrates his exalted sense of purpose, as well as his wide-ranging cultural inspiration, by comparing himself to the Hindu Ganesh, the Muslim Mohammed, and the Judeo-Christian Moses within a single chapter. This contrasts with Saleem’s other perception of himself as dirtyand also illustrates the multiplicity of religions that have played a role in India’s development. India is primarily Hindu, whereas Saleem’s family is Muslim and his ayah, Mary, is Catholic. The narrative incorporates them because all three are a part of India. The narrative, in many ways, becomes a sacred kind of text in its own right.
Undermining Saleem’s perception of his narrative as a sacred book, however, are the historical inconsistencies that he freely acknowledges. Saleem has made a mistake in his account of Gandhi’s death, an obviously seminal moment in the history of India. Yet, rather than dwell on it for too long, he insists on the primacy of his story and moves on. Narratives make their own truth and are inevitably fictitious, whether they are novels or religious texts. Saleem has created his version of reality and is determined to uphold it.
Saleem’s dedication to multiplicity finds a contrast in the language marches beginning to parade throughout India. Like the religious divisions that led to the Partition of India and Pakistan, the language marchers are concerned only with their singular, shared identity and seek to exclude others who are dissimilar. Saleem has moved from the washing chest to the clocktower, which, given the narrative’s insistence on the importance of time, is perhaps a more fitting symbol. While crowds gather in defense of a single tongue, Saleem finds inside of his head a purer form of communication that transcends the barriers of language. Given the essential nature of communication that Saleem has discovered, the differences between any one language and another are petty, since a universal thread unites us all, despite any surface differences. The babble of voices in Saleem’s head makes an argument for plurality in a country that is struggling to remain united. The citizens of India constitute an enormous range of humanity, and Saleem illustrates that wide range by traveling from the mind of a cab driver directly into 1the thoughts of the prime minister.
Summary: Love in Bombay
Saleem describes how, during the holy fasting month of Ramzan, he and his sister went to the movies as often as possible. They particularly loved going on Sundays, when the movie theater holds Metro Cub Club viewings, especially for children. There, Saleem falls in love with an American girl, Evelyn Lillith Burns, who arrives at Methwold’s Estate on New Year’s Day, 1957. Evelyn, however, loves Saleem’s best friend, Sonny Ibrahim, who loves the Brass Monkey. Saleem describes Evie’s braces and scarecrow-straw hair. A tough girl, she impresses and conquers the children of Methwold’s Estate on her first day by riding her bicycle while doing a headstand. Saleem asks Sonny to speak to Evie on his behalf, and, to impress Evie, Saleem tries to learn how to ride a bike. On his first attempt, he crashes head-first into Sonny, his bulging temples meeting perfectly with Sonny’s indented temples.
Saleem describes how India became organized into fourteen states and six territories, based upon common language. Bombay, however, remained a multilingual state. As a result, in February 1957, a massive parade of demonstrators marched through the city, seeking a partition of the state along linguistic lines. The children of the estate watch the parade while Saleem tries to impress Evie with his new bike-riding skills. She ignores him, so he delves deep into her thoughts until he comes upon an image of her, standing in a doorway, holding a knife that drips blood. Saleem delves so deep into Evie’s thoughts that she can feel him there, and she pushes him into the parade to get rid of him. Confronted by an angry, mocking crowd, Saleem recites a rhyme in Gujarati to placate the crowd. They move on, singing his offensive rhyme, until they run into a parade of pro-Gujarati marchers. Throats are slit, and, in the end, the state of Bombay is partitioned.
Summary: My Tenth Birthday
Padma has returned to Saleem. In an attempt to cure his impotence, she put herbs in his food that left him delirious and ill for a week. Still consumed by a fever, he returns to his narrative once again. He says that during the first hour of August 15, 1947, 1,001 children were born in the newly independent India, each with a special, miraculous power. He speculates that perhaps history, arriving at a new frontier, wanted to endow the future with something genuinely different from the past. Of the 1,001 children, 420 die by the time Saleem realizes their existence, leaving 581 midnight’s children. Saleem describes the children’s various powers, which he discovers by traveling into their minds. He notes that the closer to midnight the child was born, the more extraordinary the power the child had. Parvati-the-witch has the powers of a real witch, while Shiva, born with Saleem on the stroke of midnight, has the power of war.
Meanwhile, Ahmed continues his steady descent into alcoholism and isolation. Nonetheless, he remains a successful businessman, even after all his secretaries leave him and Mary Pereira’s sister, Alice, comes in to work for him. The ghost of Joseph D’Costa continues to haunt Mary and will continue to do so until she confesses her crime. Saleem’s tenth birthday arrives. He recounts all of the things that happened that day, beginning with the failure of the government’s Five-Year Plan, his mother’s suspicious blushing at the mention of the word communist, and, finally, his decision to create his own gang, the Midnight’s Children’s Conference (MCC).
From the moment Saleem and his sister begin to go to the movies, the relationship between Saleem’s narrative and the cinema becomes evident. Saleem pits the holiest month in Islam, Ramzan, against the allure of the cinema. The experience of the cinema makes up for the privations of religion, and yet this period doesn’t represent a clash of cultures or values so much as a melding. The mirroring of the Metro Cub Club, MCC, with those of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference seems apt. In addition, Rushdie invests Evie with a cinematic quality as soon as she enters the story. Riding her bike in circles around the “Indian” children and armed with a Daisy air-gun, she represents a childish caricature of the classical western film. Instead of John Wayne, Methwold’s Estate has the American Evie Burns to dictate commands and serve as the new leader of the Indians, who fall almost immediately under her control. Given the significant role of film in postcolonial India, Rushdie’s portrait is as much social commentary as it is a faithful depiction of the influence of film on a child’s imagination. The influence is also evident in Saleem’s narrative style, which pulls back from an image and hovers over the landscape like a camera sweeping over the city. Furthermore, in its exuberant, populist melodramatics, Saleem’s narrative draws on aesthetic conventions influenced by Bollywood, the massive Bombay-based film industry that dominates cultural markets throughout the world.
Saleem’s failed attempt to woo Evie Burns is mirrored in the pleas of the language marchers, who demand the creation of their own language-partitioned region. In a chapter titled “Love in Bombay,” love is the one thing that is missing. Instead of love, frustrated desires dominate the chapter: the frustrated desire of Sonny for the Brass Monkey, Evie for Sonny, and Saleem for Evie all point to a world in which love is absent. In almost every case, these desire are not only thwarted but result in acts of violence. The theme of unrequited love continues, albeit in an altered form, with the return of Padma, who genuinely loves Saleem yet is unable to have a relationship with him. Even her good-natured attempt to cure his impotence ends in a minor act of violence.
The arrival of the other midnight’s children, long-awaited and foreshadowed, is a seminal moment in the novel. The children are full of symbolic meaning, from their number, originally 1,001, to their very existence. As Saleem notes, they mark a break from the past-and perhaps an attempt on the part of history to bring something new into the future. Their powers range from the fantastic to the grotesque and unfortunate. To be one of midnight’s children is not necessarily a blessing, and it can sometimes be a tragedy. Like the ambiguity of the snakes and ladders, the midnight’s children are also an ambiguous group-fortunate and scarred, poor and rich. As such, they are a perfect reflection of India itself. In their sheer numbers and range of powers, they are an argument on behalf of plurality. They are the children of the country, and they represent its range and scope.
Saleem notes that 1,001 is a magical number. Scheherazade, the heroine of The Arabian Nights, tells 1,001 stories in order to delay her execution. Scheherazade is the archetypal storyteller, and she provides a fitting model for Saleem’s own narrative project. The number is also a palindrome, which means it can be read both backward and forward. In this way, the number 1,001 represents the reversal of Saleem and Shiva’s fortunes.
Summary: At the Pioneer Café
Saleem describes a fever-induced dream in which someone he calls “the Widow” reaches out and destroys the children by ripping them all in two. Someone brings Saleem’s son to the pickle factory, although the boy will not say whom. Saleem says that he is telling this story for his son and that memory has its own special truth. He compares himself and his story to figures and stories from various world religions.
Saleem returns to the year he turned ten. Purshottam, the sadhu, has died from a fit of suicidal hiccups. Saleem restricts his communication with the other midnight’s children to a single hour a day, between the times of midnight and 1 a.m. One day, as his mother goes on a shopping trip, he hides himself in the car and uses his telepathy to follow, through his mother’s mind, the route they are taking. He watches as his mother enters a dirty restaurant called the Pioneer Café. In the morning, film studios pick up extras at the Pioneer Café, but in the afternoon it becomes the hangout of the Communist Party. Saleem watches as his mother sits across from Nadir Khan, now named Qasim Khan, and the two of them exchange meaningful looks and gestures.
Saleem describes how he brought the midnight’s children together, breaking through the barriers of language and eventually transmitting an image of himself into their brains. They each have a horrible sense of self-image. He introduces himself to Shiva, who recognizes him as the rich kid from the estate his father used to work on. Shiva suggests that the two of them should be the leaders of the gang. Shiva scorns and mocks Saleem’s attempts to create a meaningful purpose for the conference. Shiva, Saleem notes, is the god of destruction and the Hindu pantheon’s most potent deity. He tells how Shiva’s father tried to mutilate him in order to make him a better beggar and how, at the last moment, Shiva saved himself by gripping his father with his powerful knees.
Saleem describes the events of the 1957 election. The Communist Party makes a powerful showing, although the Communist candidate Qasim Khan lost his race, due, in part, to Shiva and his intimidating gang of thugs. Suddenly, however, Saleem realizes that he’s gotten the dates wrong and that the election of 1957 occurred before his tenth birthday.
Summary: Alpha and Omega
Saleem says he will describe the fall of Evie Burns, but, before doing so, he offers a list of alternative titles for the chapter, as well as a description of the events of that winter. Bombay is on the brink of partition. A severe drought occurs, and vandals sabotage the city’s water reserves. Several whores are found murdered, bearing strange bruises that look as if made by a pair of giant, powerful knees. As a result of the water shortage, stray cats in search of water overrun Methwold’s Estate. Evie promises, in exchange for payment, to rid the estate of the cats. Armed with her Daisy air-gun, Evie ends the plague of cats by shooting them. The Brass Monkey, who was rumored to have been able to speak to animals as a child, is outraged. She calls Evie outside, then pounces on her. The two have a terrible fight, and, a few weeks later, Evie’s father sends her away for good. Months later, Evie writes Saleem a letter confessing to have once stabbed an old woman who complained about her assault on the cats. Saleem suggests that perhaps his sister acted out love for him.
Saleem says that he never liked Shiva but nonetheless could not keep him out of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference. Saleem’s mental powers grow stronger, and he is eventually able to turn his mind into an open forum in which all the children can speak to each other. Saleem notes that the conference ignored the warnings of Soumitra, the time-traveler among them, who insisted, “all this is pointless-they’ll finish us before we start!”
At school, Saleem’s geography teacher rips out his hair. Shortly afterward, Saleem loses part of his finger during a school dance while attempting to impress a girl. Saleem is rushed to the hospital, where his parents are asked to donate blood. His parents’ blood types are A and O, but he is neither-thereby proving that they could not be Saleem’s biological parents. Ahmed assumes that his wife had an affair. Saleem, looking back on his ten-year-old self, endows him with the gift of hindsight and allows him to ruminate on the homogenous nature of the body and the profound consequences of his mutilated finger. He closes with the image of a ten-year old boy with a bandaged hand thinking about blood and the last look he saw on his father’s face.
Saleem’s fever-induced nightmare of the Widow, the introduction of his son, and the description of the chutney factory clarify certain elements of Saleem’s current situation. The Widow, whom Saleem has referenced several times as his destroyer, grows into an even more ominous figure during the dream Saleem recounts. As cryptic as Ramram’s prophesy, Saleem’s dream also foreshadows future events in the narrative. In addition, we learn that Saleem is a father and that he’s recording his history for his son. Saleem claims 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.” This reinforces the idea, present since the beginning of the novel, that the truth of facts, figures, and chronologies represents only one kind of truth. When experiences filter through a person’s consciousness and are recomposed by that individual consciousness into a work of art, the resulting narrative produces a different, but equally legitimate, kind of reality. History is always a kind of storytelling, and Saleem argues that his version of events should be considered just as valid as any other.
As Saleem’s mother flirts with a figure from her past, now turned communist, India finds itself flirting with communism as well. Once again, we can see the influence of the cinema on Saleem’s narrative. Not only is the Pioneer Café the afternoon hangout for the Communist Party, it is also the recruiting spot for film extras. The communists, like the film extras, are looking for a role, however minor, to play in their nation’s political drama. And India’s political turmoil, with its widespread corruption, certainly seems dramatic enough to warrant a film treatment. Saleem’s mother and Qasim Khan, in restrained flirtation, mirror the gestures of a Bollywood film, and Saleem describes their scene in cinematic terms: their hands “enter the frame,” but Saleem “left the movie before the end.” Saleem’s ability to enter other people’s minds, and see through eyes that are not his own, mimics the power of a film camera to capture perspectives unavailable to normal human eyes.
These chapters also offer insights into the character of Shiva, Saleem’s main antagonist. Their debate about their purpose in the world, while slightly unbelievable, coming as it does out of the mouths of ten-year-olds, points to one of the fundamental differences between the two boys. Shiva is named after the god of destruction, whereas Saleem represents Brahma, the god of creation. The two boys represent destruction and creation, violence and restraint, respectively. The ambiguity that Saleem found lacking in his childhood board game of Snakes and Ladders is evident in his portrait of Shiva. Born into abject poverty and nearly mutilated by his father in order to make a living, Shiva is as tragic as he is violent. His anger and his attraction to destruction are inescapably related to his upbringing-an upbringing that the older, mature Saleem knows was meant for him.
Summary: The Kolynos Kid
Saleem asserts that though he appears to be a perennial victim, the kind of person “to whom things have been done,” he persists in seeing himself as the protagonist of his story. He contemplates how an individual’s life might be connected to the history of a nation and says that he is linked to India “literally and metaphorically, both actively and passively,” and every combination after that: “actively-literal, passively-metaphorical, actively-metaphorically, and passively-literally.”
Saleem returns to his story, to the day he left the hospital after losing a portion of his finger. Mary Pereira and his uncle Hanif pick him up from the hospital instead of his parents. They assuage his fears with promises of sweets and food as they drive to Hanif’s home on Marine Drive. On the way, they pass a billboard for Kolynos toothpaste, which depicts the brand mascot, the Kolynos Kid, brushing his teeth. Grateful to his uncle and his uncle’s wife Pia, he vows to be an exceptional son to the childless couple.
Mary stays with Saleem, feeding him enormous quantities of food, which fuel a rapid growth spurt in him. She tells him fantastic stories in which India’s ancient past returns to life. Now that he’s growing up, Saleem can’t help but notice his aunt Pia’s beauty, which persists even though her film career has begun to fade. She blames her career failure on Hanif, who has refused to write anything besides strictly realist film scripts, which, in the current film industry, will never get made. Hanif and Pia only manage to make ends meet because Homi Catrack continues to pay Hanif a studio salary. During one of his aunt and uncle’s popular card parties, Homi Catrack hands Saleem a note. He tells him to give it to his aunt without telling anyone, or he’ll have Saleem’s tongue cut out. Later that evening, Saleem has a nightmare and goes to his aunt and uncle’s bed. Curled up next to his aunt, he hands her the note and feels her body stiffen. The next day, she comes home and launches into a tirade against her husband. She storms off to her bedroom, and Saleem follows. Pia throws herself onto the bed, and, while attempting to comfort her, Saleem is overwhelmed by his aunt’s beauty and fondles her. Pia smacks him and calls him a pervert. Mary appears in the doorway, embarrassed, and tells Saleem that his parents have just sent him his first pair of long trousers.
Amina comes to the apartment on Marine Drive to bring Saleem home. On the drive back to their house, she tells Saleem to be good to his father, as Ahmed is unhappy these days. Saleem recalls his mother’s indiscretion and is filled with a desire for revenge. In the meantime, the children’s conference has been set aside.
Summary: Commander Sabarmati’s Baton
After returning to Methwold’s Estate, Mary Pereira discovers that Joseph D’Costa’s ghost has fallen into decay. The ghost tells Mary that until she confesses to having switched the babies, he will be held responsible for her crime.
Saleem realizes that his father no longer wants anything to do with him and that his sister, the Brass Monkey, has become the new household favorite-a fact that surprises her as much as it surprises him. In an attempt to lose her favored position, she tries to become a devout Christian. Saleem notes that this is the first instance of the Brass Monkey’s fanatical tendencies, which come to dominate her life in later years.
The Midnight’s Children Conference begins to fall apart. Many of the children are already beginning to go their separate ways, as they become increasingly affected by the religious, cultural, and class-based prejudices of their parents. Saleem and Shiva openly debate the merits of the conference. Saleem pleads for mutual tolerance and a sense of shared purpose, while Shiva mocks him as a naïve “little rich boy,” full of idealistic notions.
Saleem begins to visit the old, crazy Dr. Schaapsteker. From him, Saleem learns about snakes and how to watch for his enemies. With his new knowledge, Saleem plots his first attack against Homi Catrack and Lila Sabarmati to punish them for their illicit affair. He clips out letters from newspaper headlines that, once assembled, spell out “Commander Sabarmati Why Does Your Wife Go to Colaba Causeway on Sunday Morning?” He hides the note in the commander’s clothes.
Commander Sabarmati hires a detective to follow his wife. One Sunday, after receiving the investigator’s report, the commander checks out a revolver, finds Lila and Homi Catrack, and shoots them both. He manages to kill Homi Catrack and severely injure his wife. Afterward, he approaches a traffic cop and tries to turn himself in. The officer flees when he sees the gun, so Commander Sabarmati is left to direct the traffic until a squad of police officers arrives to arrest him. Ismail Ibrahim, the lawyer who once defended Ahmed, agrees to defend Commander Sabarmati, as well. The Commander becomes a national hero, and the first jury to hear his case acquits him. The judge, however, overturns the verdict. The special treatment has turned the public against him, and the president refuses to pardon him.
Amina never again goes to the Pioneer Café to see Qasim Khan. The residents of Methwold’s Estate begin selling their houses to Dr. Narlikar’s female relatives, who want to raze all the houses and build an enormous mansion for themselves. Ahmed, still angry over the tetrapods, refuses to sell. After everyone else has moved off of Methwold’s Estate, Saleem sits in the yard playing with a small globe. The Brass Monkey comes outside and crushes the globe with her feet. Saleem speculates that perhaps she did so because she missed Sonny Ibrahim, her long-time admirer.
Midnight’s Children represents an attempt by both Rushdie and Saleem to write a new history of India, one that takes all facets of the great nation into account. The hyphenated terms Saleem generates to describe his relationship with India suggest that there are multiple, varied, and equally legitimate ways in which to experience-and, therefore, write-history. These new, hyphenated definitions reflect Saleem’s intention to redefine national history according to his own personal narrative. In order to succeed, Saleem must bend and reshape language. Words get jammed together, just as the details of Saleem’s life are jammed into the political history of India. By redefining language, Saleem redefines reality. The old, formal conventions of narrative can’t sufficiently convey this new story, so Saleem breaks those conventions, playfully violating the rules of time, space, and language.
The themes of nostalgia and lost innocence run throughout these two chapters, triggered by the shocking discovery that Saleem cannot be Ahmed and Amina’s biological son. The exile that follows Saleem’s hospital stay bears a painful resemblance to his first days in Methwold’s Estate, when his mother reluctantly shared the newborn Saleem out of a sense of pride and love. Now, Saleem’s parents have banished him from their home, sending him to live with his aunt and uncle out of a sense of shame and confusion. The revelation about Saleem’s true parentage represents a major shifting point in this family’s history, one from which they can never return.
Since Saleem’s personal identity is inextricably entwined with that of India, Saleem’s disappointments may be seen as a reflection of the newly forming country’s own problems. Saleem wistfully describes the timeless Kolynos Kid, trapped forever in his billboard but free from the ravages of time and age. Saleem longs for his lost childhood in the same way that India is currently overcome by a sense of nostalgia, looking back longingly at its ancient past as it lurches inexorably into the future. With every uncomfortable step forward, something else must be discarded, a sentiment dramatically captured by Saleem’s lost finger. Saleem’s awkward, inadvertent sexual experience with his aunt represents a loss of a different kind of innocence. As uncomfortable as the moment is, it marks a turning point for Saleem. Immediately afterward, Mary shows up with new long trousers. As Saleem trades his short pants for long ones, he takes a distinct step into adulthood. The world as Saleem knows it is over, a point the Brass Monkey drives home when she steps on his globe, shattering it.
Like Saleem and the nation of India, the children of the conference and the families of the estate are also beginning to shed their innocence. The midnight’s children begin to take after their parents, developing prejudices and biases. Divisions begin to break them up, andSaleem and Shiva’s highly philosophical debate demonstrates the turmoil within the conference, which reflects the political turmoil facing India at the time. Saleem’s speeches align him with the Communist Party, while Shiva seems to espouse the benefits of a system based on individual-focused, free-market capitalism.
India’s difficulties in moving forward are also symbolized in Commander Sabarmarti’s trial. The debate surrounding the commander’s innocence pits traditional and progressive values against one another. That a judge finds Sabarmati guilty represents a victory for liberal progress, yet the favored treatment he receives, along with the fact that Lila is forced to abdicate custody of their children, seems to temper that victory.
Saleem tells us that Lord Khusro, today the wealthiest and most famous guru in India, was once his childhood friend, Cyrus-the-great. After Cyrus’s father dies from choking on an orange seed, Cyrus’s fanatical mother begins claiming her son is a holy child and invents a history for him based, in part, on a Superman comic book that Saleem had once given to Cyrus.
As the Narlikar women begin to demolish the houses of the estate, Pia calls to tell the family that Hanif has committed suicide. The entire family gathers at the house for a forty-day mourning period. Infuriated by the dust from the demolition, as well as Pia’s refusal to mourn, Reverend Mother vows not to eat until her daughter-in-law shows her dead son some respect. After twenty days, Saleem breaks the stalemate by apologizing to his aunt for his previous indiscretion. Pia tells Saleem that she refuses to mourn because Hanif always tried to avoid melodrama in his films, and she wants to respect that. Once she finishes explaining this, however, Pia breaks into a torrent of grief that amazes everyone. Pia begs Reverend Mother for forgiveness and places herself in her mother-in-law’s control. Reverend Mother declares that Pia will move to Pakistan with her, where they will realize Reverend Mother’s long-held dream of purchasing a petrol pump.
On the twenty-second day of the mourning period, Aadam Aziz sees God. Aadam tells his family that he asked God why his son died, to which God replied: “God has his reasons, old man; life’s like that, right?” Mary believes that Aadam actually saw Joseph D’Costa’s ghost, but she keeps this to herself, and the vision of an indifferent god haunts Aadam for the rest of his life. In his old age, he takes to shouting and cursing at mosques and holy men. Finally, on Christmas Day, he takes a train to Kashmir. Two days later, at a mosque in Kashmir, a man fitting Aadam’s description steals a lock of hair that once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. Later, the government replaces the stolen lock with a replica, claiming to have recovered the precious artifact.
On the thirty-eighth day of mourning, Mary sees the ghost of Joseph D’Costa for herself. She calls the entire family together and confesses that eleven years ago she switched Shiva’s nametag with Saleem’s. Ahmed recognizes the supernatural figure, however, and realizes that it isn’t the ghost of Joseph D’Costa, after all. The “ghost” is Ahmed’s old servant, Musa, now afflicted with leprosy and returning to seek forgiveness. Mary returns to her mother’s house in Goa, though her sister, Alice, stays on to assist Ahmed.
Summary: Movements Performed by Pepperpots
Afraid that Shiva will discover the truth about their parentage, Saleem bans him from the children’s conference. Meanwhile, Ahmed, distraught over what has happened, drunkenly berates his wife. Reverend Mother advises Amina to take her two children away from Ahmed, so Amina, Saleem, and the Brass Monkey move to Pakistan to live with Emerald and General Zulfikar. At the general’s opulent house, Emerald and the general treat Saleem and his family worse than the general’s mine-sniffing dog, Bonzo. Once in Pakistan, Saleem finds himself unable to communicate with the other children.
One evening, General Zulfikar hosts an important dinner, attended by many high-ranking military officials. During the dinner, the general allows his son, Zafar, and Saleem to join the men at the table. The commander-in-chief of the army, General Ayub, declares that the government has failed and announces his plans to take over Pakistan. When Ayub decrees a state of martial law, Zafar-who has a tendency to wet his pants-gets frightened and has an accident. General Zulfikar chases his son out of the room, then asks Saleem to come help him. Saleem helps the officers map out their strategy, using pepperpots and other condiment jars to symbolize troop movements. On November 1, General Zulfikar takes Saleem to the president’s house, where Saleem watches as the general forces the naked president out of bed and onto a plane.
Saleem and his family stay in Pakistan for four more years, during which time he becomes a teenager and his sister grows increasingly devout, falling under the country’s religious spell. Relationships between India and Pakistan deteriorate. Along the Indian-Chinese border, skirmishes arise.
On her fourteenth birthday, the Brass Monkey sings, astonishing everyone with her beautiful voice. Everyone begins referring to her as Jamila Singer, and Saleem acknowledges that from then on he would always take second place to her.
With the revelation of Saleem’s true parentage, the action of the story begins to mimic the style of the narration. Rather than describe his life in a linear, straightforward fashion, Saleem chooses to skip back and forth in time, hashing up and then reassembling his biography in order to reveal connections that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In this way, Saleem does more than just recount his life story: he draws attention to particular themes, motifs, and patterns, thereby shaping his story and giving it meaning. When Mary Pereira reveals the truth about Saleem’s birth, the characters experience a similar time warp, as the past forcefully asserts itself on the present. History is never dead, as we have seen throughout the novel. History not only repeats itself, but it also comes back-sometimes, literally back from the grave-to destroy the illusions of the present.Midnight’s Children, with its tangled, circuitous chronology, to some degree, attempts to destroy the illusions of time itself.
The chapter title “Revelations” evokes the Book of Revelation, the final section of the New Testament, which describes the end of the known world and the salvation of the faithful by Jesus. In addition to meaning “a dramatic disclosure,” the word revelation can also carry a theological dimension, meaning “the disclosure of a divine will or truth.” In Midnight’s Children, one seemingly divine revelation has already occurred-when Saleem mistakes the detached voices of the midnight’s children for the miraculous voices of angels. In this chapter, his grandfather Aadam has a false revelation as well, mistaking the ghost of Joseph D’Costa for a vision of God. In both cases, these false revelations have dire consequences. When Saleem announces his newfound ability to his family, his father strikes him, leaving him forever deaf in one ear. Aadam, in his turn, becomes so distraught over what he believes to be God’s indifference that he becomes consumed by a need to seek revenge on his faith. Aadam becomes overwhelmed by the hole inside him, which appeared after he hit his nose on the hard ground of Kashmir and which represents the absence of his faith. Just as the sanctity and integrity of time has been shown to be an illusion, many of the revelations experienced by the characters are also exposed as false impressions. Saleem’s voices were no more the voices of angels than decrepit Musa was the ghost of Joseph D’Costa, or Joseph D’Costa was, in turn, God.
In a novel so suffused with magic, it seems ironic that many of the most fantastical, supernatural elements are eventually revealed to have human sources. However, this trend emphasizes the novel’s larger theme: to show that no solid, definitive truths exist. Midnight’s Children operates on several different levels of reality, including the political, the personal, the fantastical, and the factual. Each of these provides a lens through which one might view the story in question. Each lens will provide a different vision, but each of those visions remains valid in its own right. Even fictions can claim to have their own kind of reality. Saleem may not be Ahmed and Amina’s biological son, but the fiction, once it is revealed as such, proves impossible to shake off completely. Similarly, Saleem knows that his friend Cyrus-the-great possesses no special powers and that the myth of Lord Khusro is nothing more than a fictional concoction, dreamed up by a fanatical mother and inspired by an American comic book. Whether or not the Pakistani government replaced the sacred hair of Mohammed with a fake replica remains irrelevant, since the people continue to have faith in the artifact. Legitimacy lies not in fact, but in the willingness and ability to believe. Saleem emphasizes this point when he continually defends the validity of his fantastical narrative to Padma, his skeptical listener.
Summary: Drainage and the Desert
On September 9, 1962-at the exact moment that India’s defense minister decides to use force, if necessary, against the Chinese army-Amina receives a telegram saying that Ahmed has suffered a “heartboot.” She announces that, after four years in Pakistan, the family is returning home to Bombay. Upon seeing her broken husband, Amina becomes determined to help him recover. During Ahmed’s recovery, the two gradually begin to fall in love with one another.
On October 9, as India prepares for war with China, Saleem reconvenes the conference. The children greet one another excitedly as if they are at a family reunion. Six days later, as India faces an unprovoked attack by China, the children begin to turn on Saleem, blaming him for Shiva’s absence and chastising him for having sealed off a part of his mind. On October 20, as the Indian army is badly beaten by Chinese forces, the children launch a full-scale attack against Saleem for his secrecy and elitism. During the next month, the children leave him, one by one.
After its initial defeat by the Chinese army, India experiences a new optimism, believing the defeat of the Chinese to be near at hand. At the same time, Saleem’s perpetually congested sinuses become completely blocked. As the war between India and China draws closer, Saleem’s sinus problems grow worse. On November 20, news of India’s defeat by the Chinese dominates the news. The papers proclaim, “Public Morale Drains Away.” The next day, the advancing Chinese army halts its progress, and Saleem’s parents take him to the hospital to have his sinuses cleared. After the operation, Saleem discovers that his connection to the children has disappeared along with the congestion in his sinuses.
Amina convinces Ahmed that they should move to Pakistan and join her sisters, and they sell their house on Methwold’s Estate to the Narlikar women. On their last day in Bombay, Saleem takes the letter from the prime minister, the newspaper photo, and an old tin globe and buries them on the property. The family arrives in Karachi on February 9. Soon afterward, Jamila begins her singing career, while Saleem enjoys the pleasure of being able to smell for the first time in his life.
Summary: Jamila Singer
Saleem’s nose can now detect emotions, feelings, and lies, as well as smells. Saleem’s sense of smell has become so acute that, upon arriving at Karachi, he can smell his aunt Alia’s bitterness and hypocrisy. Living with his aunt in the shadows of a mosque at the center of Karachi, Saleem explores the city on his Lambretta scooter. Ahmed decides to build the family a new home and has the land consecrated with the brine and umbilical cord from Saleem’s birth.
Still emotionally attached to Bombay, Saleem finds himself unable to feel at home in the overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. Ahmed buys a towel factory, names it after his wife, and declares that someday he will produce the most famous towel in the world. Soon after, Major (Retired) Alauddin Latif comes to hear Jamila sing. Saleem and Jamila nickname him Uncle Puffs. Uncle Puffs becomes a fixture at the house and makes Jamila a famous singer. He keeps her face hidden from her audience, however, claiming that a horrible accident has disfigured her face. Jamila performs behind a curtain, which has a single hole for her lips.
Jamila becomes the most celebrated singer in Pakistan, and Saleem confesses that he was in love with her. He demonstrated his affection by bringing her fresh, leavened bread from a secret Catholic nunnery. Sullen and melancholy, Saleem spends his days riding his scooter, taking in the city’s smells. His fondness for profane smells brings him to Tai Bibi, who claims to be, at 512 years old, the world’s oldest whore. Saleem finds Tai Bibi irresistible, because she can take on the scent of any person. While trying out a series of smells on Saleem, she finds one that particularly affects him. Saleem realizes that she’s taken on Jamila’s scent and runs out of Tai Bibi’s house.
General Zulfikar’s son, Zafar, becomes engaged to a prince’s daughter from Kif. The prince also has a son, Mutasim, who is well known for his looks and charm. At Zafar’s engagement ceremony, Jamila Singer performs, and Mutasim, who has yet to see her face, immediately falls in love with her. After hearing her sing, Mutasim takes Saleem aside and, after asking Saleem to describe his sister, tells Saleem that he has a love charm for her. Saleem tells Mutasim to hand him the charm, then creeps into his sister’s bedroom and gives it to her himself. He confesses his love to Jamila while pressing the charm against her palm. The charm works briefly, but Jamila is ashamed and horror stricken, even though she and Saleem share no blood relation. Saleem realizes that even though he and Jamila are not truly related, they are still brother and sister. Saleem reflects that the difference between his Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence was the difference between an infinite variety of alternatives and an infinite number of lies.
When Saleem returns to India, he once again finds the details of his personal life closely mirrored in the events of national politics. Amina learns of her husband’s “heartboot” just as the public learns of India’s intention to use necessary force against China. As Saleem notes, both of these revelations will end with an eviction, as China boots out the Indian troops and Saleem’s parents boot him out of India. India’s defeat in the war metaphorically drains the country of its optimism, just as Saleem’s operation literally drains his congested sinuses. In addition to the rhetorical similarity, the narrative also implies that Saleem, in losing his ability to communicate with the midnight’s children, becomes drained of hope and optimism along with India. His seemingly personal loss resonates across the entire country, since the Midnight’s Children’s Conference represented India’s potential future.
Back in Pakistan, the country’s religious dogmatism confronts Saleem. His life in Pakistan becomes riddled with hypocrisies and ironies. His aunt Alia, who once loved Ahmed, greets them effusively while inwardly seething with bitterness and resentment. Despite Pakistan’s reputation as the “Land of the Pure,” Saleem manages to discover the world’s oldest whore living in Karachi. The newly devout Jamila secretly yearns for leavened bread made by Catholic nuns. Finally, Ahmed attempts to consecrate his home’s building site with his son’s umbilical cord and afterbirth-which, as we know, may or may not actually belong to Saleem.
Throughout the novel, Rushdie remains intent on dismantling the false veneer of faith, exposing and exploring the essential human frailties and complexities that lie beneath. In Pakistan, Saleem actively resists that nation’s self-proclaimed purity. He seeks out the profane and wretched and, in the end, flouts a sacred social taboo by falling in love with his own sister. Jamila, on the other hand, becomes the embodiment of the passive and devout believer. However, because we have already witnessed Jamila’s growth and development, not to mention her forceful and magnetic personality, we know that underneath the ever-present veil remains a complex individual. Jamila’s love for the unleavened bread represents a seemingly minor transgression, but it highlights the fact that religious purity cannot completely efface an individual’s character or desires.
Throughout the novel, romantic love has remained noticeably absent or, at the very least, elusive. Often unrequited-and when it is requited, just as often erroneous and unfounded-romantic love has a played a complicated and frequently contradictory role in the novel’s development. Saleem blames his parents’ newfound love for the destruction of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference, just as his love for his sister ironically destroys the intimate connection they once shared. For Saleem, every act of love seems inevitably to carry an act of destruction with it, a connection that speaks as much to the complicated intentions behind each action as it does to a larger, universal claim about love’s cataclysmic potential. At the same time, unrequited love continues to play a dominant role in shaping the lives of the characters. From Mutasim’s and Saleem’s failed courtship of Jamila to Zafar’s never-consecrated marriage, love extracts a heavy toll. Alia, after a number of years, remains burdened by anger and jealousy at having been denied Ahmed’s love, while Jamila, shrouded in purity, remains unable to accept it.
Summary: How Saleem Achieved Purity
Saleem recounts the events leading up to midnight, September 22, 1965, the moment he achieved purity. Saleem begins to have dreams about Kashmir and says that his dreams spilled over into the general population, becoming public property in 1965. In that year, India and Pakistan fought their second war, largely over the disputed region of Kashmir.
Reverend Mother and Saleem’s aunt Pia now run a petrol (gas) station. As Reverend Mother grows larger and hairier with age, Pia embarks on a series of romantic liaisons. Meanwhile, Alia’s bitterness begins to take effect, and she exacts her revenge through her cooking. In January, Amina becomes pregnant. Alia’s cooking causes her to have terrible nightmares, and she begins to shrivel and age rapidly. Ahmed, distraught over his wife’s condition and poisoned by Alia’s cooking, becomes listless at work, and the factory begins to fall apart.
In April 1965, Zafar, now a lieutenant in the army, is dispatched to help guard the Rann of Kutch, a disputed territory on the border between India and Pakistan. While waiting for replacement troops, he and his companions think they see a ghost army descending on them. Zafar and his troops lay down their weapons, only to discover that the ghost army is actually a band of smugglers working with General Zulfikar’s full permission. Zafar returns to his father’s house and slits the general’s throat with a curved smuggler’s knife. As a result, Emerald is given permission to emigrate to England, though the war prevents her from leaving the country.
On the first day of a short-lived peace between India and Pakistan, Ahmed suffers a stroke that leaves him partially paralyzed and nearly infantile. Saleem says he’s now convinced that the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 took place solely to eliminate his family. On the night of September 22, 1965, air-raid sirens ring throughout Pakistan. The first bomb that falls kills Reverend Mother and Pia; the second bomb hits the jail and releases Zafar; and the third destroys Emerald’s house. Of the three bombs that land in Karachi, one kills Major (Retired) Alauddin Latif and all of his daughters.
While the bombs fall, Saleem rides his Lambretta toward his home. Two final bombs fall from the sky. One destroys Saleem’s mother and father, his unborn sibling, and his aunt Alia. The other destroys the unfinished house Ahmed had been building for the family. As Saleem’s house crumbles, the silver spittoon that once belonged to his grandfather hits him in the head, erasing his memory entirely and thus purifying him.
In this chapter, private and public histories become completely fused and thoroughly inextricable, as the narrative hurtles forward to a shocking, yet seemingly inevitable, catastrophe. Saleem claims that the war of 1965 occurred for two reasons: “because I dreamed Kashmir into the fantasies of our rules; furthermore, [because] I remained impure, and therefore the war was to separate me from my sins.” Once again, Saleem claims personal responsibility for large-scale, national events. Saleem begins dreaming about Kashmir-the beautiful, idyllic landscape that was his grandfather homelandand which remains to this day a symbol of great national pride for Indians and Pakistanis alike. In the first chapter of the novel, Kashmir was presented as an heir to the biblical Garden of Eden, with Aadam and Naseem playing the roles of Adam and Eve, the world’s first man and woman. In the Christian faith, Eden represents a vanished perfection to which humans aspire yet can never attain on the physical, earthly plane. Exhausted, Saleem yearns for a return to uncomplicated purity. As readers, we too may feel exhausted and worn-down by the endless complexities of Midnight’s Children and wish for a return to a less-convoluted narrative, such as that of the novel’s opening chapters.
However, just as Adam and Eve can never return to Eden, Saleem cannot return to Kashmir-at least, not to the Kashmir he remembers through Aadam. That Kashmir doesn’t exist anymore, a fact Saleem himself hints at when he first describes Aadam’s Kashmir and claims that “[i]n those days there was no army camp at the lakeside, no endless snakes of camouflaged trucks and jeeps clogged the narrow mountain roads, no soldiers hid behind the crests of the mountains past Baramulla and Gulmarg.” Even at the beginning of the novel, the beauty of Kashmir is tainted by hindsight. In 1915, the valley may have seemed “hardly changed since the Mughal Empire,” but by the time Saleem begins telling his story, Kashmir has transformed irrevocably. Whether or not we believe Saleem’s claim that he directly influenced the political situation, his dreams remain a concrete expression of the nostalgia and desire that fed India and Pakistan’s struggle over Kashmir. Saleem’s inability to recapture his lost Eden reflects the futility of the unyielding struggle between India and Pakistan for control of the region.
Saleem also claims to Padma that the India-Pakistan war of 1965 was a personal Jehad, or holy war, against him. Before Saleem’s family gets eradicated, bitterness and deception have already brought them to the breaking point. Since arriving in Pakistan, each of their lives has taken a drastic turn for the worse. Rushdie accelerates the narrative by packing Amina’s pregnancy, Ahmed’s rapid decline, Pia’s numerous affairs, Zulfikar’s murder, and Alia’s hateful revenge into the span of a single chapter. The family’s existence has become grotesque, and Saleem believes that Pakistan must be trying to drive out his wretched family, the way the human body rejects and expels hazardous material. Only by laying waste to the past and annihilating his memory can Saleem achieve blankness and thus cleanliness. Echoing the novel’s earlier claims that creation and destruction are intimately linked, Saleem achieves purity in the “Land of the Pure” through cataclysmic and utter devastation.
Summary: The Buddha
Saleem survives the bombing campaign but retains no memory of his past. When Padma starts to weep for his dead family, he yells at her to weep for him instead. He describes the events following the bombing as if he were narrating a movie trailer.
Saleem describes a secret army camp in the hills. An army officer, Brigadier Iskander, yells at three young recruits to the army’s Canine Unit for Tracking Intelligence Activity (CUTIA),. The army has assigned these three teenage boys-Ayooba Balcoh, Farooq Rashid, and Shaheed Dar-to work with something called the man-dog, tracking down rebels. Saleem, meanwhile, sits cross-legged under a tree, holding a silver spittoon in his hand. The recruits have heard various rumors about the man-dog: that his sister is the famous Jamila Singer, that he comes from a wealthy family, and that he can’t feel anything but has amazing tracking abilities. The man-dog is, of course, Saleem himself. Ayooba, Farooq, and Shaheed nickname Saleem ‘buddha,’ or old man, which Saleem finds appropriate because of its religious connotations. Saleem claims that Jamila put him in the army’s care to punish him for loving her. After months of training together, Saleem begins to irritate the three boys, especially Ayooba. Irritation seems to be in the air since, in the eastern portion of Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib, the leader of the Bangladeshi independence movement, is agitating to form his own government. Saleem grows fond of the gloomy, private Shaheed, however. Shaheed’s name means “martyr,” and Shaheed often has dreams of his own death, in which he sees a bright pomegranate floating in front of him.
The Pakistani troops assemble on March 15, 1971, and fly to Dacca along with sixty thousand other troops. At midnight on March 25, the troops march into the city and Saleem leads his team to Sheik Mujib. As they drive through the streets, they see the Pakistani troops murdering, raping, and pillaging the town. Ten million refugees flee from Bangladesh into India. Saleem says the human mind cannot comprehend this number, despite the news headlines that proclaim the “biggest migration in history.” Despite all the atrocities they witness, Saleem and his unit refuse to question orders. Setting out to track an unnamed individual, they move further and further out of the city. They commandeer a boat and head down the Padma River. Saleem reveals to readers that he is leading his companions on a meaningless chase, since they’re following an imaginary enemy. He directs them from one place to the next, eventually driving them into the Sundarbans, an enormous jungle on the border of Bangladesh and India that is a maze of foliage and waterways.
Summary: In the Sundarbans
Saleem admits that no enemy awaits them in the Sundarbans. No longer able to accept orders, he flees and takes the three boys with him. As the jungle closes in on them, the group realizes they are lost. Rain begins to fill the boat, so they pull onto dry land. Drinking the rain that falls from the leaves, the insane logic of the jungle infects them. The days pass in a haze. Ayooba sees the ghost of a man he killed, and the ghost’s fluids drip onto his arm, paralyzing it. All the men begin to see the ghosts of the people they have arrested. After the nightmares, they become overwhelmed by nostalgia, and begin to see images from their past. Saleem, however, remembers nothing until a poisonous snake bites him in the heel.
After two days on the verge of death, Saleem’s memory comes flooding back to him. He tells the three boys his entire life story, but in the end he cannot remember his own name. The ghosts come back. In order to silence them, the three boys fill their ears with mud, becoming deaf as a result. The four wander through the jungle and come across an ancient Hindu temple, dedicated to the multi-limbed goddess Kali. Inside the temple, four beautiful women visit them and take them into their arms night after night. Saleem realizes that they are all growing increasingly hollow and translucent. They notice four skeletons in the corner, and can see that the temple is on the verge of falling apart. They flee from the temple and head back to the boat, where an enormous tidal wave carries them out of the Sundarbans. It’s October 1971. In the present time, Saleem notes that no tidal waves were recorded that month.
When Saleem and the boys return, they discover that guerrilla soldiers led by Mukti Bahini have begun to terrorize the Pakistani Army with sniper attacks. In a deserted village, the three boys begin to panic. Saleem, however, can only think about his name and how unfair everything is. He begins to weep, and Ayooba comes over to comfort him. At that moment, a bullet zips by and kills Ayooba. Saleem, Shaheed, and Farooq steal some bikes and begin pedaling. In December, they arrive at a field outside of Dacca, littered with rotting corpses. A peasant stands nearby, selling what he has scavenged. He tells Saleem that India has joined the war, led by a man with enormous, powerful knees. A bullet whips through the air, killing Farooq. Saleem stumbles across the field and comes upon a tangled pyramid of bodies. The bodies are those of Saleem’s childhood friends, Eyeslice, Hairoil, and Sonny. The latter speaks briefly to Saleem before dying. Saleem says he believes the war happened in order to reunite him with his old friends.
In these chapters, Saleem transforms into a half-animal, half god-like figure. Relieved of his memory, Saleem cannot feel pain or emotion, implying that a connection to our past represents an essential part of being human. Saleem spends his days sitting under a tree, free from the trials of his past, the monklike hairdo he first adopted as a child giving him an added air of religious solemnity. Once again, we witness a melding of religious traditions, as Saleem comes to resemble both a Christian monk and the figure of the Buddha. Saleem’s new, divine affectation contrasts with the army’s derisive nickname for him, “the man-dog.” Part beast, part divine figure, Saleem one again represents the meeting point of the sacred and the profane. He willfully acknowledges how his life currently resembles a cheap movie, indulging in that similarity as he recounts the following events in the style of a movie trailer.
Saleem’s story hardly skips a beat between the two wars, the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir and the 1971 conflict over Bangladeshi independence. The central role that politics and warfare played in the shaping of India and Pakistan’s history becomes increasingly evident. The violence escalates and grows larger in scale as Saleem plays the dual roles of witness and active participant in the pillaging of Dacca. At this point, informing the reader of the factual details of the military conflict becomes one of the narrative’s clear objectives. Saleem takes care to list the names of major generals and political leaders, not to mention the political events occurring in India at the same time. In these chapters, Saleem’s story becomes equal parts history lesson and wartime memoir.
Saleem enters the Sundarbans to leave behind what he has seen and done, yet ironically manages to reclaim his memory there. The jungle of the Sundarbans is a densely magical place, populated by voices, ghosts, and apparitions. The massive, mysterious tidal wave that carries Saleem and his companions out of the jungle seems a fitting conclusion to the interlude. The snake that bites Saleem in the heel, thereby restoring his memory, represents the latest instance of the novel’s snake motif, following Joseph D’Costa’s snakebites, Dr. Schaapsteker’s life saving venom, and Saleem’s beloved Snakes and Ladders board game. Snake venom saved Saleem’s life once before, and now it brings that life back to him. As the young Saleem noted, the distinction between good and evil, or snakes and ladders, is always ambiguous. With his memory restored, Saleem can now encounter his childhood friends. In one of the novel’s more tragic and violent images, Saleem stumbles across the human pyramid of dying bodies, comprised of Eyeslice, Hairoil, and Sonny Ibrahim. The bodies of his dying friends, and the description of Farooq’s death, which very closely echoes Aadam Aziz’s prayer from the opening chapter, demonstrate how images of the past can become corrupted and deformed by the violence of the present. Time and age have only made matters worse for the former children of Methwold’s Estate.
Summary: Sam and the Tiger
On December 15, 1971, Tiger Niazi, the Pakistani army officer in charge of the war against Bangladesh, surrenders to his Indian counterpart and old friend, Sam Manekshaw. Saleem says that he, in turn, surrendered to an old friend, a girl with saucer eyes.
As Saleem and Shaheed return to Dacca, they once again witness the Pakistani army’s atrocities. Saleem enters a deserted house that once belonged to a notary, while Shaheed stands outside watching the soldiers. Shaheed looks up just in time to see a grenade heading toward him. It explodes at his midsection, splitting him in half. Shaheed points to a nearby mosque and asks Saleem to bring him to the top of it. Once there, a trail of ants follows Shaheed’s blood and begins to devour him. The mosque’s loudspeaker picks up his screams, echoing them throughout the city.
As the Indian army advances into the defeated city, a troop of magicians precedes them. A snake charmer by the name of Picture Singh travels with the troops, along with Parvati-the-witch, one of the former midnight’s children. Parvati sees Saleem and shouts out his name, restoring his lost identity to him and reuniting him with an old, lost friend. At the same time, Sam and Tiger reminisce about their old days in the British Army, and Tiger denies rumors of war crimes. Parvati offers to help Saleem escape from Pakistan by magically transporting him in her basket. Saleem disappears into the basket, and while inside he discovers a rage within him, an anger at all he has seen and had done to him, everything that he has “blindly accepted.”
Saleem says that the Widow has now drained the anger out of him, but at that time, his anger was responsible for restoring his ability to feel.
Summary: The Shadow of the Mosque
Twenty-six pickle-jars sit on a shelf, corresponding to the twenty-six chapters of the novel thus far. Padma suggests, hopefully, taking a Kashmiri vacation with Saleem.
By the time Saleem arrives in India and stumbles out of the basket, Indira Gandhi’s New Congress Party holds a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Saleem becomes determined to save the country. At the magician’s ghetto, which lies in the shadow of a mosque, an old woman named Resham Bibi tells Saleem to leave before he destroys everything. However, Picture Singh, as the head of the magician’s ghetto, declares Saleem his personal guest.
Saleem decides to leave soon after, though, because he remains convinced that he will play a crucial role in India’s salvation and feels that his destiny will be impossible to fulfill while living in the ghetto with Parvati and Picture. He decides to go to his uncle, Mustapha Aziz, a senior Civil Servant, for assistance. Saleem admits that he also had a personal, less noble reason for leaving. In Dacca, Parvati had seen Shiva, driving through the streets in a tank and decorated as a military hero. Parvati asked Shiva for a lock of his hair, and Shiva obliged. Parvati felt hopeful that the meeting was a good sign, and that the three of them would someday be reunited. Saleem admits that a fear of seeing Shiva again also prompted him to leave.
When Saleem arrives at his uncle’s house, his uncle’s wife greets him harshly. Saleem learns that all of his relatives have died and enters a 400-day mourning period for them. He also learns that once his sister discovered that he had disappeared during the war, she turned against the government and began to criticize it openly. Jamila is never seen or heard from again. Saleem, however, has a dream in which Jamila returns to the secret monastery where he used to get her leavened bread. On the 418th day of his stay, a man whom Saleem believes might be Indira Gandhi’s son comes over to dinner. Saleem sees a black leather folder in his uncle’s study, labeled Top Secret and titled “Project M.C.C.” Saleem says he doesn’t condemn his uncle, and notes that he, too, has been a traitor before. Saleem says that, although he didn’t know this at the time, the Gandhi family has acquired the ability to replicate themselves, and that is why they wanted to impose birth control on everyone else.
Parvati-the-witch visits Saleem the next day. That evening, Saleem’s aunt finds him in bed with Parvati and throws them out of the house. Back in the ghetto, Picture Singh and Saleem discuss the rampant corruption in the government and in the country. Parvati-the-witch shows Saleem the full extent of her fantastic magical powers, casting spells to grow his hair back, erase the birthmarks on his face, and straighten his bandy legs. However, she remains restless, because she wants more than friendship from Saleem. Yet every time Saleem tries to sleep with Parvati, he sees her face transform into a grotesque version of his sister’s. After repeated efforts, Parvati gives up, developing a permanent pout on her lips. When Picture Singh suggests that Saleem marry her, Saleem lies and says that he’s impotent, thereby wishing upon himself the curse that once afflicted Nadir Khan and, briefly, his father.
Shaheed’s cry of agony, broadcast over the mosque loudspeaker, comprises one of the novel’s most chilling and brutal moments. Shaheed’s scream expresses the narrative outrage at the senseless deaths of thousands of young men during the Indo-Pakistan war. Shaheed’s name means martyr, and in the end he does die like a martyr, the shining pomegranate of his dream transforming into a live grenade and destroying the lower half of his body. However, Shaheed is unlike a martyr in that his death proves incidental and capricious, and thus martyrdom itself, at least in this conflict, is revealed to be an empty notion. His death serves no purpose and makes no statement-it is merely gruesome, painful, and tragic. Searching for some dignity and meaning, and seeking to fulfill the weighty prophecy of his given name, Shaheed asks Saleem to bring him to the top of the mosque. However, instead of finding God there, Shaheed finds himself being consumed by greedy ants. Shaheed’s death gains no nobility in the mosque, and his split corpse proves no more sacred than the dead cockroach the ants had previously been feasting on. The mechanized call to prayer-a recorded voice, which always skips in the same place-reinforces this feeling of hollowness. Shaheed’s scream, however, is real. Though he cannot articulate words, the Shaheed’s voice cries out not only for his own death, but also for the thousands of other atrocities being committed throughout the country.
After Parvati transports Saleem to the magician’s ghetto, he ends up living in the shadow of yet another mosque, an echo of the mosque that loomed over his aunt Alia’s house in Karachi, the site of his family’s extermination. The combination of this ominous setting and Resham Bibi’s warnings seems to suggest doom for Saleem. After leaving the ghetto for his uncle’s house, Saleem makes two startling revelations. He learns about the death of his family members and discovers his uncle’s secret folder, labeled “Project M.C.C.” In addition, a mysterious man comes to visit his uncle-who, despite being a Muslim, remains a deeply devoted Indian civil servant. Saleem believes the man to be Sanjay Gandhi, elder son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, though he never manages to confirm his suspicions. Sanjay was the government official primarily responsible for the sterilization campaign, a central program enacted during the State of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi between 1975-1977. When Saleem sees the man he believes to be Sanjay, he says that the prime minister’s family had discovered how to replicate themselves. This is a sly reference to the Gandhi political dynasty, which began with Indira’s father and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and continued through Indira and onto Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi. Even today, the Gandhi family remains hugely influential in Indian politics, with Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, serving as president of the Indian National Congress Party, and Rajiv’s children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadera, politically active as well.
Summary: A Wedding
Saleem describes how Parvati succeeded in getting him to marry her, on February 23, 1975. Having heard of Saleem’s impotence, Parvati decides to take her fate into her own hands. Using a magical spell, she summons Shiva to her. Not knowing why, Shiva becomes compelled to come to the ghetto.
Saleem describes Shiva’s career for us. Following the war, Shiva becomes a national hero. He grows more refined and sophisticated and develops a reputation as a great lover and seducer. Soon, women from the highest echelon of society are devising ways to have affairs with him. They tuck secret notes into their toes, drop handbags, and spill drinks. A number of illicit children are born from his affairs, although he falls out of love with any woman who bears his child. One woman, angry and bitter, approaches him during a horse race and tells him that he’s become the laughingstock of all the rich women. After this revelation, Shiva grows uncomfortable in his new life and becomes unintentionally cruder than ever.
After Parvati casts her spell and brings Shiva to the ghetto, Shiva takes her back to his barracks. The two are briefly happy until, on September 12, she tells him she’s pregnant with his child. Their relationship grows violent, and Shiva begins to sleep with prostitutes, siring a line of poor illegitimate children to match his earlier line of rich ones. Meanwhile, the political situation grows darker, as students and workers begin protesting government corruption. The protests lead to the development of an opposition party, the People’s Front. Parvati releases Shiva from her spell and he promptly returns her to the ghetto, where she finds Saleem and Picture Singh running from tear gas, launched by the police during a political rally.
In the magician’s ghetto, everyone shuns Parvati because of her pregnancy. Picture Singh suggests again that Saleem marry her, and Saleem finds himself unable to ignore his plea-fully aware of the fact that, since Shiva is Ahmed and Amina’s true son, Parvati’s child will be his parents’ true grandchild. Parvati converts to Islam and becomes Laylah, and the magicians perform incredible feats after the wedding ceremony.
While public dissent with the government grows, so does Parvati’s stomach. On June 12, at 2 p.m.-the exact moment the prime minister is convicted of campaign malpractice-Parvati goes into a labor that lasts thirteen days. Her labor pains correspond to political events involving the prime minister, until finally, at midnight on June 25, the prime minister declares a State of Emergency, allowing her to arrest her opposition and censor the press. At the same moment, Parvati’s child is being born, and Saleem laughs hysterically at the sight of his son’s enormous, floppy ears. Saleem describes the boy as a grave, good-natured child who refuses to cry. Saleem wonders if his long-held belief in the intimate connection between the nation and the individual has leaked into the prime minister’s mind, since her new slogan has become “India is Indira and Indira is India.” Saleem gives a brief synopsis of Indira’s life, including a description of her husband’s death, and the prominent role her son Sanjay played in the sterilization campaign of 1975. He points out that, in 1975, Indira had been a widow for fifteen years.
Saleem says he can’t go on with the story, but that he must. He struggles to find the right words, trying to tell it as a dream, but then stops and decides to tell it directly. He says that the winter of 1975-76 brought with it an endless darkness. His son, Aadam, suffers from tuberculosis, and neither he nor Parvati can cure the boy. Saleem insists that, as long as the Emergency lasts, his son will be ill. Parvati tries to make Aadam cry by using magic, but instead he holds in all of his sound. Meanwhile, the government alters the constitution, giving the prime minister nearly unlimited power. Saleem can smell danger in the air.
On the last night before “what-has-to-be-described,” Nadir Khan visits Saleem and tells him to hide. However, it’s already too late, and the next morning bulldozers announcing a “civic beautification program” invade the ghetto. Soldiers drag people into vans and a rumor spreads that the people are being sterilized. The magicians fight back and are successful until military troops arrive. Saleem loses Parvati and Picture Singh. Major Shiva comes and captures Saleem. Parvati dies violently, and by the end of the afternoon, nothing remains of the ghetto, including Saleem’s spittoon.
Saleem is taken to Benares and locked in the palace of the widows, on the shores of the Ganges. Though Saleem cannot remember how he was induced to do so, he tells his interlocutors where all of the midnight’s children can be found. The walls of Saleem’s cell begin to whisper with the voices of the children. He gives them a long apology, but they are so excited and happy to hear each other again that they remain unconcerned. He becomes briefly optimistic, until on New Year’s Day a beautiful woman explains to him that the people worship the prime minister as a god, and that nothing can compete with her supremacy.
Saleem and the other midnight’s children undergo sterilization operations, although-not wanting to leave anything to chance-the doctors perform more aggressive operations on them than on the rest of the population. The doctors remove testicles and whole wombs from the midnight’s children, who, as a result, lose all their magical powers. Saleem learns that Shiva had a voluntary vasectomy, and begins to laugh, since Shiva’s namesake was the god associated with procreation, and Shiva himself has already fathered a whole new generation of midnight’s children. In late March of 1977, Saleem is released, along with the other midnight’s children. The prime minister calls for elections and loses. Shiva is arrested, and then later killed by the same woman who had mocked him for impregnating her. Back in Delhi, Saleem walks around until he eventually finds Picture Singh, holding a small boy of twenty-one months.
The novel begins to come full circle when Saleem marries Parvati. As Saleem prepares to raise Shiva’s child, he finds himself in a similar position to his father, who also raised another man’s child. And just as Saleem’s midnight birth corresponded to the birth of a new nation, so too does his son’s birth correspond to the beginning of a new era in Indian history. However, there are crucial differences between this iteration and the original instance. Whereas Saleem was born at a moment suffused with optimism, his son Aadam is born during the State of Emergency, a time of anxiety and discord. With the birth of Aadam, the story of the original band of midnight’s children draws to a close, only to begin a new story. Instead of Shiva’s knees and Saleem’s nose, Parvati gives birth to a baby with a pair of enormous ears. Shiva had the power of war, and Saleem the ability to smell. Aadam, with his enormous ears, will have the power to listen to his father’s story.
Shiva is unmade by women and saved by a war, just as Saleem had promised at the start of the novel. For all of his military might and rumored prowess as a lover, Shiva remains unable to accept or give love. He turns on the midnight’s children, and on Saleem in particular. In his wanton desire to destroy Saleem, he voluntarily permits himself to be destroyed as well. Throughout the novel, Shiva’s greatest insecurities stem from his class standing, and thus generate his resentment and hatred of Saleem. By the end of the novel, however, the reversed fortunes of the two have righted themselves. Shiva, the poor child who should have been rich, becomes wealthy and respected, and Saleem, the rich child who should have been poor, loses his inheritance and dwells in a slum. However, Shiva remains unable to shake the legacy of poverty that shaped him, emphasizing once again that our personal histories mold us in inexorable ways.
In these chapters, Saleem finally reveals the mystery of the Widow’s identity: she is Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister. With this revelation, Saleem’s life and the nation’s history become unified a final time. When Saleem was born, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, wrote him a letter and welcomed him into the world. Now Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, bears the responsibility for destroying Saleem. After declaring the State of Emergency in 1975, Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties, engaged in massive arrests, initiated a campaign of forced sterilization, and destroyed ghettoes throughout the country. The political and human rights abuses of those years are among the novel’s central tragedies. Rushdie has his Indira Gandhi specifically target the midnight’s children, sterilizing them and thereby draining them of their powers. Rushdie implies that Gandhi was responsible for destroying not only the hope and future of an entire generation, but that of a still fledgling democracy as well. The chant “India is Indira and Indira is India” represents a call for singularity. Just as Pakistan defines itself according to a single god, the slogan for Gandhi reduces the entire multitudinous nation to a single woman. In their multiplicity and the diversity of their powers, the midnight’s children post a threat to Gandhi and the single-ruler state. At the Widow’s hostel, the prophesy of Saleem’s birth is fulfilled, the nightmare of green and black is illuminated, and the Midnight’s Children’s Conference is brought to its resounding end.
Saleem confesses that his story about Shiva’s death was a blatant lie. Shiva is still alive, and Saleem says that unfinished business remains between them. Padma proposes to Saleem, and he accepts. The honeymoon will be in Kashmir. Saleem speculates that perhaps Padma, with her muscles, might be able to reverse the cracks and looming death he faces. She proposes getting married on his thirty-first birthday, but Saleem says that death is waiting for him that day.
Saleem returns to the story, and his discovery of Aadam and Picture Singh. Aadam’s tuberculosis has disappeared. According to Picture Singh, he was cured by the breast milk of a woman named Durga, whom Picture Singh has fallen in love with. While walking past a mirror, Saleem sees himself for the first time in months. He notices how rapidly he has aged, as well as the expression of profound relief on his own face. Meanwhile, his son, who still won’t speak, demands constant attention. After Aadam voluntarily weans himself from Durga’s breasts, Picture Singh hears of a man in Bombay who claims to be the greatest snake charmer in the world. Determined to challenge the man, Picture Singh sets off for Bombay with Saleem and Aadam.
When they arrive in Bombay, Saleem discovers that Bombay has changed completely. The three go to the Midnite-Confidential Club, a secret, underground club that caters to the cream of Bombay’s society. A blind woman leads them to a room where they wait for the other charmer. A light comes on, and Picture Singh’s opponent, the Maharaja of Cooch Naheen, comes out. The two duel for a long time, their snakes coiling and dancing, until the younger man begins to falter, and one of Picture Singh’s snakes wraps itself around his neck. Picture Singh collapses after his victory and is carried out. In a back room, they are given food to eat. Saleem takes a bite of chutney and instantly recognizes the flavor. He finds out that the Braganze Pickle factory, located in the north of town, makes this particular chutney. Locating the factory, Saleem walks up to the gate and meets Padma for the first time. He asks to see the manager and hears his name called out. He looks up and sees Mary Pereira, the only family he has left.
Saleem recounts what had happened to Mary. She now lives at the top of the old hill, in the mansion built by the Narlikar women. Her room occupies the same space Saleem’s room used to occupy. Mary owes the entire business to her sister, who convinced the Narlikar women to invest in Mary’s chutney. Finally, Saleem’s son, Aadam, begins to say his first word: abracadabra.
Saleem describes the pickle jars. He screws the lid on the last one, and titles it “Abracadabra.” Saleem decides that he will now write the future, and he describes his death. On the day of his wedding, his body breaks and falls apart, reducing him to 600 million specks of dust.
In order for Saleem to reach Bombay and discover Mary, one final battle for supremacy must take place. Picture Singh, who claims to be world’s greatest snake charmer, takes his meager savings and travels to Bombay to assert his title. There can only be one greatest, according to Picture Singh, and he is willing to sacrifice everything to prove it. He succeeds in proving his skills, but only after he literally descends into a world of darkness, and nearly destroys himself in the process. Picture Singh’s victory is ultimately a defeat, or a ladder that becomes a snake. Even in its final moments, life proves to be ambiguous and full of ironies.
“Abracadabra” proves a fitting title for the novel’s final chapter, since the chapter is as much about the continued presence of magic as anything else. As Aadam Sinai’s first word, it suggests that, despite everything that has happened-the wars, the tragic deaths, and the chaotic political turmoil-the next generation of midnight’s children retain the magic of potential, and the ability to change the world. In Aadam’s mouth, it becomes a word of defiance, accumulated over the months of silent listening that marked the first three years of his life. A sense of cautious hope pervades the last chapter. Saleem is set to marry Padma, and in her strong body, he sees a flicker of hope that his own, cracked body might somehow be preserved. Perhaps, armed with Padma and with love, he won’t disintegrate and be consumed after all.
Despite all the changes and exiles he has undergone, Saleem ends up almost exactly where he began: at a house on Methwold’s Estate, his son in the care of Mary Pereira, just as he was once in her care himself. Saleem has succeeded in telling his story, thereby preserving it for his son, just as fruit gets preserved for chutney. That initial optimism is tempered, however, by Saleem’s final prophecy, which spills out in a stream of consciousness. Imagining his future, Saleem sees himself falling apart on his birthday and crumbling into millions of specks of dust, just as his grandfather Aadam crumbled into dust in his time. Saleem’s birthday is, of course, the anniversary of his nation’s independence. Crumbling into dust becomes a symbolic act of both exhaustion and unity. Having given everything he has within him-not only through his life, but through the telling of his story as well-Saleem can surrender himself, dissolving into a metaphor for his nation, as he crumbles into as many pieces of dust as there are people in India.
1. What role does religious imagery play in the novel?
Answer for Study Question 1 >>
India, given its long and complicated history, has been influenced by almost every major religion, from Buddhism and Islam to Catholicism and Hinduism. Throughout the novel, Rushdie incorporates elements from each religion, often borrowing images and names from specific religious narratives. His characters themselves represent a wide range of religious faiths. Saleem grows up in a Muslim family, while Shiva is Hindu. Saleem’s ayah, Mary, is a devout Catholic. In addition to religious allusions, Saleem frequently compares himself and his narrative to religious texts. At times, he compares himself to Mohammed, Moses, Ganesh, and the Buddha. His magical birth recalls the prophesized birth of Jesus Christ, and two of his parental figures, Mary Pereira and Joseph D’Costa, share names with Jesus’ parents. Through his frequent religious comparisons, Saleem makes an argument on behalf of his story. He is asking the reader to have faith in his version of history, despite its flaws, shortcomings, and inaccuracies.
In addition to exalting his narrative, Saleem’s frequent references to religious imagery also become an argument for religious tolerance and acceptance. There are a number of religions in India, none better or worse than any other. By making every religion a part of his narrative, Rushdie declares that India, like Saleem, is a composite of all these faiths. Each one has played a distinct role in shaping the country, just as each has shaped Saleem. They are intertwined and inextricable from one another.
2. What is the significance of Saleem’s adoption of Parvati-the-witch’s son?
Answer for Study Question 2 >>
Aadam Sinai will be raised by someone who is not his biological father, just as Saleem was. Despite the absence of a biological connection, links remain between past and present. Saleem has the nose and eyes of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, and Saleem’s son, with his enormous ears, will bear the name of his great-grandfather. History will come full circle, and the family legacy and name will continue into the next generation.
After revealing the truth of his birth, Saleem says he remained his parent’s son, and nothing could change that. Legitimacy, in other words, is not a matter of biological fact, but of belief. Saleem, despite the missing biological connection, could not be any more, or less, his parents’ son. Aadam Aziz is his grandfather, and that is where his story begins, because that is the history he has inherited. The same will of course be true for his son. Aadam Sinai, like Saleem before him, will inherit a past and a name that will belong to him because time and history have sanctified it. Truth, like the family itself, is created. Each is determined as much by faith as by fact.
In addition, the tension between knees and nose, destruction and creation, is brought to a symbolic conclusion by Saleem’s decision to raise the son of his enemy. Saleem’s adoption of Shiva’s son is an act of unity and love, one that has the ability to unmake all of the damage of the past and create a new future. Aadam isn’t blessed with enormous knees or an enormous nose, but something utterly new, ears, thereby further signaling the conclusion of the rivalry and tension between knees and nose.
3. How does Rushdie’s narrative style reflect the novel’s intentions?
Answer for Study Question 3 >>
Rushdie employs a number of different literary techniques and styles in the telling of Saleem’s story. The novel is at once funny, dark, ironic, allegorical, and historical. The language ranges from colloquial slang to the eloquently lyrical. Sentences stretch for over a page, while one word after another is linked by a hyphen. Saleem even employs a whole new set of literary terms that he has invented to help explain his novel. He stretches and breaks grammatical rules in the creation of a new type of sentence. In addition, there is an obvious relationship between Rushdie’s prose and the cinema, an important part of Bombay culture. Saleem often describes his life in cinematic terms, and on more than one occasion, his perspective mirrors that of a camera hovering above the landscape.
By employing so many different techniques and style, Rushdie attempts to write a novel as large and grand as its subject matter, India. The old literary techniques and styles are insufficient and incapable of capturing the newly independent country with its massive population, enormous landscape, multiple religions and various languages, not to mention a history that stretches back to the very dawn of civilization. It is also only fitting that a postcolonial novel written in English attempts to forge a new literary tradition and voice that is uniquely Indian, and that in its very character, espouses the plurality of voices that make up the country.
European interest in India as a source for materials and labor goes back to the 1490s, when Portugal won exclusive rights to the lucrative markets and continued through control gained by the Dutch East India Company, which broke the Portuguese monopoly in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The East India Company, an unofficial arm of the British government, impinged on the Dutch, fighting a series of battles for control of different areas of India, eventually consolidating control in the 1750s. The country was under British control for the next two centuries.
After the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, protests against British rule became increasingly common. Nationalistic parties were distracted, however, by the rise of ethnic and religious groups within the country, such as the Muslim League, formed in 1906. In-fighting between Muslims and Hindus diverted attention from the general protest against the British.
After World War I, Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), an Indian nationalist and spiritual leader who preached non-violent protest, launched a movement to resist Britain, based on noncooperation and the refusal to buy British goods. The British jailed Gandhi from 1922 to 1924, but he went on to revive the independence movement, successfully leading the people of India in civil disobedience. He convinced Indians to refuse to pay British taxes, particularly the tax on salt, and, to call attention to the plight of his people, he fasted to near starvation.
Weakened by World War II, Britain determined that it could no longer fight to control India and agreed to give up control. The British government arranged to relinquish all command over the area at midnight on August 15, 1947: the very moment that the narrator of Midnight’s Children was born. At that time, the territory was partitioned between India to the west and a new country, Pakistan, to the east, with the region of Kashmir left open for dispute. Also freed from British rule at that time were Burma (later called Myanmar) and Ceylon (later called Sri Lanka).
The partition of India and Pakistan was followed by massive riots in both countries, resulting in millions of deaths. The exact details concerning the countries defined by the British upon their departure were considered matters of dispute. On October 20, 1962, India was attacked along its long border with China in the Himalayas, losing the border territory in a battle that lasted roughly a month (the border territory remained in dispute into the early 2000s). Pakistani military leaders took this defeat as a sign that India was weak. They also believed that there was massive dissatisfaction in the Kashmir territory against Indian rule. On August 5, 1965, Pakistan sent an estimated 30,000 troops into Kashmir, encouraging the Kashmiri people to rise up for independence from India. Indian forces of equal strength entered Kashmir August 15. In September, when Pakistani forces attacked the town of Ackhnur, India attacked directly against Pakistan, beginning a quick and bloody conflict, though no formal declaration of war was ever issued. By September 22, the United Nations arranged a cease-fire, which both sides signed.
Six years later, in 1971, the two countries were at war again. The conflict came about because Pakistan had been created in two distinct territories: East Pakistan, which was mixed ethnically and included Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans, Balochis, Mohajirs, and more, and West Pakistan, which was mostly Bengali. In 1970, in the first general elections since Independence, a Bengali leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, led his party to victory in national elections; rather than give in to democratic rule the country leaders declared a state of emergency and jailed the sheikh. Months of bloody riots led to a plan to give the Bengalis a separate land in East Pakistan. Eight to ten million refugees fled over the border into India. Realizing a crisis, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917-84) declared war in December 1971.
Though the Pakistani military counted on a conflict with India ending in a stalemate as the 1965 conflict had, they were quickly and decisively defeated. The Indian Army chief, General Sam Maneckshaw, drove into Pakistan and secured the country in a matter of weeks. Sheikh Mujibar was established as prime minister of the new country, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.
Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), the prime minister of India while this novel was being written in the 1970s, was not, as Rushdie mentions, related to the freedom leader Mohandas K. Gandhi. She was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been a disciple of Gandhi and became the first prime minister when India gained its independence. She grew up in a household surrounded by the most powerful figures in Indian politics and married Feroze Gandhi, a politician who died in 1960. In 1964, Indira Gandhi was elected to Parliament, and in 1966, when the prime minister died suddenly of a heart attack, she was nominated as a candidate whom the power brokers could easily control. After her election, she became fiercely independent, ruling the country from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 to 1984.
Compare & Contrast
* 1950s: Newly freed from colonial rule, India has a poor but promising economy. Indian businessmen, taking control of their own country, pattern their methods after those of the Europeans.
1980s: After decades of misgovernment, India’s economy is considered weak, making a country of 683 million people one of the world’s poorest nations.
Today: The Indian economy is growing at an impressive rate, as globalization makes it possible for jobs from anywhere in the world to be outsourced to workers in India.
* 1950s: Tensions are high between the Hindu majority of India and the Muslim majority of Pakistan, leading to a succession of treaties that finally gives way to all-out war in 1965.
1980s: Having tested a nuclear device in 1974, India is a member of the small group of global nuclear powers. Pakistan proposes a non-nuclear treaty with India but is later found to be conducting research into building nuclear bombs.
Today: As recently as 2002, India and Pakistan have come to the verge of nuclear war.
* 1950s: The Indian film industry, in business since the turn of the century, gains international attention as prestigious directors such as Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak present their works at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
1980s: Concentrated in Bombay, the film industry, nicknamed “Bollywood,” becomes a commercial powerhouse.
Today: Bollywood films are viewed worldwide. India produces more films than any other country.
* 1950s: Begging in the streets of a large city like Bombay or New Delhi is a full-time profession for thousands if not millions.
1980s: The hoards of beggars that descend on tourists in India are legendary and are a standard part of travel books.
Today: Laws are enacted to curtail begging in the streets.
Gandhi was immensely popular with the Indian people immediately following the 1971 victory over Pakistan, but social conditions soon changed that. By 1973 there were demonstrations across the country against India’s terrible economic situation. In June 1975 India’s high court found Gandhi guilty of campaign irregularities and ordered her to resign her position. Instead, Gandhi declared a state of emergency: the constitution was suspended, the press was suppressed, and political opponents were jailed. Confident that she had successfully suppressed the opposition, she called for elections in 1977, but her party ended up losing badly. In 1980, though, she was reelected. She was assassinated in 1984 by her bodyguards, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi (1944-91), was sworn in as the new prime minister.