Salman Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, published in 1981, has deservedly received worldwide acclaim. It is an extraordi nary blend of autobiography, history and fantasy. It presents three generations of the Sinai family over a period of sixty-three years from 1915 to 1978 against a socio-historical background depicting the for tunes of the three nations-India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Saleem Sinai, the protagonist-narrator, claims on the opening page of the book, “I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.” In support of his asssertion he refers to the euphoria on the night of his birth which synchronizes with that of the independent India. He says his birth is prophesied by a fortune-teller and a Sadhu, greeted by the press, and hailed by the Prime Minister Nehru who sends his parents a letter saying that he will become the mirror of the nation.
As he looks back on his past, he finds that he has been either in volved in, or responsible for, a series of events of both private and public significance. His history is seen as the mirror of the history of the independent India. As the infant nation has gone through many vicissitudes, so has Saleem. The history of India as seen by Saleem is one of progressive deterioration with cracks developing all over the body politic. And Saleem having become a victim to a pernicious skin disease finds cracks forming all over his body. Now at the age of thirty-one he sees no hope of survival for himself and his twin-in-birth, the Indian nation.
At the beginning of his narrative, Saleem says he hopes “to end up meaning… something…. I fear absurdity.” (9) Now at the end of his reconstruction of the Bildungsroman type of trials and tribulations, what sort of meaning does he discover? What does he make of his traumatic experience?
Saleem, it must be remembered, is a highly gifted individual. Taking his cue from his synchronistic birth which has been hailed by no less a person than the then Prime Minister, he envisages a central role for himself in the scheme of things. With his nose-given gift of telepathy, he keeps in touch with the rest of the midnight children who like him have miraculous powers having been born on the numinous night of August 15, 1947 in various parts of the country. Of the 1001 children born on that night, only 581 have survived by 1957. Swayed by an ambition to fulfill the promise of their birth, he convenes a conference of the midnight children in the Lok Sabha of his brain. These conferences are, however, doomed to failure. Saleem and Shiva, the most gifted of them all, become the arch-rivals for leadership. They form the nucleus of dissidence amidst contending ideologies like individualism, collectivism, capitalism, communism, etc. The midnight children’s conference turns a veritable Tower of the Babel which gradually crumbles under the weight of dissidence, personal ambition, mutual suspicion and recrimination and internecine feuds. The children are infected with the attitudes and prejudices of adults. The adult world infiltrates the children’s. Saleem says that “children are the vessels into which adults pour their poison, and it was the poison of grown-ups which did for us.” (256) in this sense, says Saleem, the midnight children’s conference became a mirror of the nation.
The collapse of the society of the midnight’s children is complete with the imposition of the emergency. Major Shiva hands over Saleem to his mistress, “the widow with the parti-coloured hair.” (432) Saleem is forced to undergo testectomy in the Widow’s Hostel. (Here is a reference to Indira Gandhi’s forced sterilization program mes.) Saleem ruefully says, “Teste and hysterectomized, the children of midnight were denied the possibility of reproducing themselves.” (439) Considering this calamity, this irreversible operation, from the viewpoint of the nation’s history, Saleem coins a word to sum up its frightful implications for the nation. He says, it is not just a case of sexual impotence. The whole race is castrated. It is symbolic of the loss of freedom and individuality suffered by the race. During his incarceration, Saleem is forced to divulge all about the rest of the midnight children. Filled with a sense of shame and guilt, he says “forced into treachery by the treason of another, I betrayed the children of midnight. I, the Founder of the conference, presided over its end.” (434-35) Saleem says that “the children of midnight were also the children of the time fathered… by history.” (118) His statement that he and his son are handcuffed to history is suggestive of a sense of helplessness and philosophical resignation. Now, he has learnt that the snatch from the comforting lullaby of Mary Pereira dinned into his childhood cars:
Anything you want to be, you can be: You can be just what all you want (127)
is a blatant lie. In the first phase of his life-the Indian phase Saleem sees predestination behind all happenings involving him and others. In the second phase in Pakistan and Bangladesh, he gives himself up to philosophical resignation and finally on his return to India, the land of his birth, he expresses his determination to save the nation. But his attempts are stifled in the Widow’s Hostel where he is reduced to impotence. Raising the question of choice and free will, he asks, “No choice?” and concludes “None, when was there ever?.. . No choice.” (422)
Viewing the tragedy of midnight’s children in a still broader perspective, Saleem philosophizes, “it is Kali-Yuga; the children of the hour of darkness were born, I’m afraid, in the midst of the age of darkness: so that although we found it easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being moral.” (200) People have lost their moorings in these spiritually barren and ethically eroded times.
There are many iterative images in the book which require to be explored the perforated sheet, the silver spittoon, the fisherman’s pointing finger, the washing-chest, etc. The fisherman’s finger reminds Saleem of one of his obsessions, his rage for meaning and purpose. Even as a child he felt drawn to the picture of the fisherman’s finger pointing to the horizon beyond the sea. Life, he says, must have a purpose and meaning.
Saleem’s grandfather, Dr. Aziz, is allowed look at the woman he has subsequently married, Naseem, through a perforated sheet. Aziz has loved her “in fragments.” (40) And the perforated sheet is figuratively present between Saleem’s father and mother. Amina loves her husband bit by bit. Saleem himself looks at life through the perforated sheet. He says it “condemned me to see my own life-its meanings, its structures-in fragments also so that by the time I understood it it was far too late.”(107)It seems to suggest that reality is multifaceted and one’s comprehension of it can only be gradual, There can be no objective reality that could be readily grasped and defined.
Midnight is the overarching symbol.Saleem who is born at mid night foresees himself meeting his end at the midnight hour on his thirty-first birthday. His has been a benighted existence. Again, his so-called son was born in the heart of midnight at the very moment of the proclamation of a State of Emergency which ushers in a period of unrelieved darkness. The period of Emergency is seen as one long murky night. Saleem’s alter ego Shiva, starting his career as a goonda, leading a philanderer’s life and rising to the status of a war hero is “midnight’s darkest child” (441) ultimately turning out to be “destroyer of the midnight children.” (440-41)
India’s midnight birth is a bloody one and as Saleem says, it looks as though it “would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood.” (112) II literacy, malnutrition, mushroom population, corruption, language riots, communal hatred, regional prejudices are what the infant India has had to struggle against. Still these evils have shown no signs of abatement. The country continues to face traumas and tensions.
Midnight’s children, of course, as Salman Rushdie himself pointed out in an interview, are a metaphor. They can be made to stand for many things and suggest many meanings. They are, in the ultimate analysis, symbolic of the hopes, aspirations and ideals of the community swallowed up in the greed, rapacity and violence of the times. “Who were we?” asks Saleem and immediately answers the question himself, “Broken promises, made to be broken.” (439) So the whole exercise of Saleem involving a retrospective estimate of his life and times, rather our times, can best be summed up in the term Saleem himself has coined. It culminates in a defeatist vision of the times.³ Saleem had earlier called optimism a dangerous virus and said that the optimistic epidemic has claimed the lives of people like Mian Abdullah who opposed partition. He now says he has managed to cure himself of the optimism virus at last. As he foresees the end to his benighted existence, he poignantly concludes:
it is the privilege and curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes and to be unable to live or die in peace. (463)
The individual when pitted against the tyranny of the times, the repressive and dehumanizing socio-political forces, is destined to gradually fade into anonymity and oblivion. The existential predica ment as experienced by the protagonist is an ineluctable fact of life which has been time and again stressed in the past by writers like Al dous Huxley and George Orwell.
Turning from the tale to its narrator, one might say that Saleem is a unique individual. You may call him brilliant, eccentric, paranoiac, schizophrenic. The paranoiac streak is evident when he insists on a central role for himself in the scheme of things. He claims he is responsible for the birth of a separate Maharashtra State, for the overthrow of the Pakistani Government and the ouster of Presi dent Iskander Mirza, and later for the captivity of Mujibur Rehman. He says he is indirectly responsible for the death of Nehru. And he claims that Indira has always regarded him as her arch-rival since Nehru’s letter to him calling him the mirror of the nation has prompted her to look upon him as an intriguing hurdle to the realiza tion of the national goal, namely Indira is India and India is Indira. (427) His lust for centrality is evident in the correspondences or parallels he seeks to establish between his own private life and the public events. He says:
Born amidst correspondence, I have found it continuing to hound me… while Indians headed blindly towards a military debacle, I, too, was nearing (and entirely without knowing it) a catastrophe of my own…. While Indians attacked under cover of artillery, Amina Sinai planned my downfall, protected by a lie. (300-1)
It may be pointed out that the correspondences he sees between his life and that of the nation raise the question of plausibility. Where the public and the private strands are seen to be synchronous, what their significance is we can never be quite sure. The episodes from the nation’s history serve as mere coincidences. We fail to see how they highlight the predicament of the protagonist. There is no in evitable interaction between the two worlds. The protagonist’s efforts (238) at evaluating in micro-macrocosmic terms what has happened to him or what he has seen happening around him leave us unimpressed.
Again, the way he brings in references to like Rama, Sita, Shiva and Parvati amounts to, if not sacrilege, a cer tain trivialization or even distortion of the Hindu mythology. For ex ample, he mentions Radha and Krishna, Rama and Sita in the same breath as Romeo and Juliet, and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hep burn. (259) The unscrupulous Major Shiva is described as possessing “the gifts of war (of Rama… of Arjuna and Bhima)” (200) and this betrayer and seducer of women is spoken of as performing the role of the mythological Shiva, fulfilling the function of Shiva-lingam of Shiva-the procreator. (441) Turning for the moment from the fic tional narrator to his creator, it may be pointed out such pronounce ments a hint of things to come from his later work Satanic Verses (1988)-are likely to offend the religious sensibility of those to whom these mythological figures are hallowed by age-old customs and beliefs. mythological figures
When all is said and done, Saleem Sinai is not to be faulted, after all. If this strange blend of autobiography, history, and fantasy has implausibilities, or defies logic, he just couldn’t have helped it. He says, “it happened that way because that’s how it happened.” (461) He says it all leaked out of him in the form in which we have it now. At several points, in the course of the narration, he talks of words pouring out of him, events tumbling from his lips, a vision which demands to be recorded, impressions leaking into him and so on. He gives us the impression of being under the sway of some inner voice speaking through him and this accounts for the schizophrenic split evident in Saleem’s referring to himself at one time in the first per son, at another in the third person and occasionally both in the first and the third persons in the same paragraph or sentence. Retrospecting the thirty-one years of his life so far, Saleem finds he is a store-house of memories, impressions, perceptions, images which could no longer be contained within himself but must perforce find an expression. Added to this is the fact that his body has developed cracks as a result of a severe skin disease. He says, “history pours out of my fissured body.” (38) He knows he will not survive his thirty-first birthday. In fact, the novel ends with the protagonist visualizing his agonizing end. He says, “And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumors, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane: I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the lot as well.” (9) The reader, of course, finds it hard to swallow the lot at one attempt. He has to like Padma, Saleem’s interlocutrix-contend with a sprawling structure that by turns delights, excites, irritates and baffles him.
In fact, Saleem chooses an average, unperceptive person as his interlocutrix. It is Padma, the dung-lotus, the woman with a flair for the story, for “What-happened-nextism.” (39) She serves as the counterpoint checking Saleem’s flights into fantasy and dreams and his constant movements backwards and forwards in space and time. Though Padma at times gets impatient or sounds sceptical as she lis tens to his narration, she finds herself irresistibly drawn towards him. And the narrator is aware of the hold he has over Padma. He says, “I know now that she is despite all her protestations hooked. No doubt about it, my story has her by the throat.” (38)
These could well be the words of Salman Rushdie himself suggesting that he is quite aware of his virtuosity as a story-teller. His extraordinary hold over language, his capacity to visualize and describe in a tone that is by turns earnest, passionate, ironic, parodistic, wryly witty, his flights of fantasy involving surrealist and symbolist perceptions and his occult-realistic image of India make Midnight’s Children a fascinating reading experience indeed.
1. Midnight’s Children (Picador, 1982), p. 10.
2. “Interview: Novelist Salman Rushdie” by Chinweizu in “Decol nising the Mind,” South: The Third World Magazine (January, 1983), p. 33.
3. Saleem is regarded as Rushdie’s fictional alter ego. However, Rushdie has this comment to make on his book: “I don’t think the message of the book can be despairing. Because what it is saying is that this particular line leads here, to this blind alley, but I’ve already shown you that there are 40 million stories, of which I happened to have selected this line.” “Interview,” p. 25.