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Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 1, Hit-the-Spittoon | Summary



At the opening of this chapter Saleem Sinai claims to be falling apart. His body is "coming apart at the seams." And his life work is to preserve what remains: at night he explores memory's record by writing the history of his body and of his country. During the day the task is far simpler: he is occupied making chutney, preserving the singular habits of Indians in preserving fruits, in making the condiment that is a diet staple for Indians and one enthusiastically adopted by the British.

Saleem's impotence is explored in the metaphor of "hitting the spittoon," a game in which participants compete at spitting betel juice (from chewing the leaves and nuts of a pepper plant) into a strategically placed brass bucket. Saleem is unable to "hit" Padma's spittoon. Still, he notes, optimistically, all is not lost; things have a way of leaking into each other. Padma listens to Saleem's narrative, or one might say, it leaks into her. In return she allows Saleem to live in the pickle factory and prepares his food while she makes chutney. She sustains him so that he can tell his story.

Saleem continues the tale of his grandparents' era. The year was 1942, and a drought has caused fissures in the earth. Still optimism prevailed. Aadam Aziz whistled as he went on his rounds. He celebrated a man called the "Hummingbird," Mian Abdullah, chairman of the Free Islam Convocation. The beautiful Naseem Ghani, in her outrage and traditional ways, has become an old woman, and, notably fierce in her beliefs, she acquired a nickname: Reverend Mother. When Aziz threw out the children's religious tutor, accusing him of teaching racial hatred to the children, Naseem rebelled, refusing Aziz any food. The battle intensified as Aziz refused to eat outside the house. His fast ended when the wise daughter of the family advised her mother to plead illness so she didn't have to publicly back down. Thus, Aziz's kitchen privileges were reinstated.

Although Padma is fascinated by Saleem's autobiography, she is also impatient as his narrative moves back and forth in time. The chapter ends with a story taking the form of a legend describing the near assassination of two men by members of the Muslim League, the political group pushing partition as a means of keeping peace among rival religious groups in India. There are hints that one of the men, Nadir Khan, lieutenant to Mian Abdullah, was saved by Rashid, a rickshaw boy who was able to save the aide to the political revolutionary by hiding him in the Aziz household. Rashid had been on the way home from the cinema where he had enjoyed a Western film made in India. The tone of the text changes as Rashid's meeting with Nadir is recorded in a melodramatic, cinematic style adopted by "eastern Westerns" to make heroes of movie stars.


Politics that demonstrate divisions between Muslims and Hindus and other smaller sects dominate this chapter. India's fissures are religious and political and cut in all directions.

The chapter's title names a game played by old men whose habits include chewing betel nuts and spitting the juices at a strategically placed spittoon. To make your mark is to win. Saleem's inability to hit his mark, his sexual impotence, is represented by the spittoon game as metaphor: he cannot hit Padma's spittoon. The chapter is also framed by Padma's making of chutney and Saleem's writing his memoir—both evasions of time passing; "memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks."

The trope of leaking as it relates to sexuality, to language and culture, and to writing is exploited in this chapter. Pencils and penises are linked in procreation. Saleem remakes himself in his stories, while jokes of his impotence persist. Culture leaks: chutney, Padma's art, has leaked into Western tradition as a staple of the British diet, brought home by the retreating members of the raj. Language leaks: history pours out of the fissures in Saleem's body, and Padma, figure of traditional practice, pours, with her "down-to earthery, and her paradoxical superstition, her contradictory love of the fabulous."

Against Aziz's attempts to modernize her, Naseem has lived in protest of her lack of veils, her forced abandonment of purdah, and has managed the household's kitchen and pantry with an iron hand. She adopted "whatsitsname," a term she repetitively employs. It is as though naming has escaped her, as if her present eludes her. The times do not make sense to her.

"In any war, the field of battle suffers worse devastation than either army," Aziz declares. His body is the battlefield of the marriage and of modernization, and the war begins on the grounds for partition developing in the battle of Indian versus Indian, based in differences in belief by Hindu and Muslim. The marriage battle occurs in 1932 and ends in 1942 with the movement toward partition.

"Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts," Saleem observes as he continues to justify to Padma—a girl who values a traditional, linear narrative—the nontraditional forms his memoir takes. Padma is curious about Saleem's father, and Saleem digressively describes the fate of the leader of the Free Islam Convention, thus continuing to join his personal history to the history of his country. The chapter closes with a wild tale of the assassination of Mian Abdullah and the escape of Nadir Khan. Saleem employs two distinct genres to tell his story: initially he tells the story of Abdullah's death as legend, and second, an "eastern Western," a Bollywood cowboy movie. This emphasis on style as well as narrative is part of the strategy of a text about diversity, strife, and revolution.

Opposed to Naseem's overgeneralized, made-up word whatsitsname, the fiction's invention in this story of revolution consists of evoking a history of forms in which to tell the tale. In this chapter Saleem moves from legend to film, evoking formally the tension between the old world and the new and demonstrating that each has merit in conveying the matters at hand. Pastiche is the term for the formalist shuffling in a postmodern text, a paste-up of historically distinct and conventionally incompatible forms. Padma in her need for a linear narrative represents tradition, and Saleem's choices demonstrate an acceptance of diverse forms, historically distinct and reimagined in the present. In that sense the diversity of forms in Saleem's autobiography as history gives new form to India's history as a land of diversity rooted in the past and at the same time headed for the future as a socialist democracy. Similarly, the fissures and cracks in Saleem's body are beyond repair. They represent the fracturing of styles, the variety of languages spoken in India, the complicated diversity of religions and religious practices, the break between the traditional and the modern. If Aziz represents the turn of his family as well as the turn of his country toward modernization, it is a turn that honors the past as the true route to a modernized present—not a rejection of the past but a process of change through the collection of stories.

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