Literature Study GuidesMidnights ChildrenBook 1 Mercurochrome Summary

Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 1, Mercurochrome | Summary

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Summary

Saleem Sinai continues his narrative in the presence of Padma, a maker of chutney who is also his loving companion. Padma is named for the lotus goddess whose common name among the village folk is "The One Who Possesses Dung." Saleem massages his mother's back as she comments on the story of Naseem Ghani and Aadam Aziz, her parents. Aziz fell in love with Naseem bit by bit, examining her over the course of her several complaints, through the hole in the sheet used to protect the young woman's privacy. In 1918, on the day that World War I (1914–18) ended, Naseem had a headache, and Aziz got to see Naseem's face for the first time. In that same year there were momentous changes in the lives of the young doctor, his friends and family. Tai gave up washing and changing his clothes; Aziz's father died; and Aziz's mother got to give up her diamond business because her son could finally support her. Ilse Lubin, Aadam's friend from his medical school days, visited from Germany and told Aziz of the death of her husband, Oskar. She took a boat ride with Tai and drowned in the waters of the lake. In the winter of 1918–19, Tai, refusing Western medical treatment, fell ill, and Aziz and Naseem married.

Much to Padma's irritated impatience, Saleem interrupts the linear form of the narrative to recall a moment in his six-year-old experience. He participated in a pageant at the home of his grandparents in which he played a ghost. An innocent youngster, he had found the old perforated sheet in an equally old doctor's bag and used the sheet as his costume. The moment he appeared in it on stage, his grandfather, noticeably angry, pulled the sheet from his grandson, "unghosted" him without a word. Saleem recalls how puzzled and mortified he was by his grandfather's unexplained anger.

To placate Padma, Saleem writes an ode to dung, recalling the usefulness of dung for fertilizing crops and for reinforcing the mud walls of buildings. Still, he recalls the nastiness of the smell of dung in Amritsar, the city Aziz and Naseem visit on their honeymoon. The date is April 6, 1919, and Aziz asks his bride to move "like a woman" when they are making love. Her hysterical response sets the tone for their marriage. She is also offended when he encourages her to leave purdah and dress like a modern woman. When she refuses, he burns her purdah veils in the hotel room's wastebasket.

On April 7, 1919, a day of mourning is called by Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) in protest of British rule. Businesses are closed, and a riot ensues. Aziz takes to the streets to minister to the wounded as a street protest turns violent. He returns to the hotel covered with mercurochrome (red-colored antiseptic), which Naseem takes for blood. He reassures her but insists on staying in Amritsar to help in case of more trouble. The real trouble occurs on April 13, when peaceful protestors gather at Jallianwala Bagh, an open area that can only be reached by a narrow alley between two buildings. British general R.E. Dyer (1864–1927) arrives at the opening of the alley with 50 British troops, whom he orders to fire 1,650 rounds into the crowd—1,615 find their mark.

Aziz, who has penetrated the crowd, recognizes the tickle of his enormous nose as a warning. A loud sneeze that forces him to his knees saves his life. He is buried by the fallen crowd, whose exit had been blocked by the soldiers. Aziz returns to Naseem, who now assumes the red stains on his clothing are mercurochrome until he tells her that this time, the stains are blood.

The narrative of the Amritsar massacre shakes Saleem even though he knows the story. He also recalls that Tai died as a result of India's fight for independence. In 1947 Tai learned that his beloved Kashmir was a disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. He marched to Chhamb to give the opposing forces a piece of his mind. He was shot and killed.

Saleem thus abandons his narrative and turns to bed and Padma's warm attentions.

Analysis

This chapter explores the conflict between tradition and modernization, the tensions impeding India's progress toward status in the community of free nations.

The allegory of India's progress proceeds as Aziz and Naseem take their honeymoon trip to Amritsar. Naseem has an innocent desire to remain an Old World woman, while her new husband seeks her transformation to the modern world. Britain's last stand against Indian independence, the maintenance of the colonialist's dream, has its complement in Naseem's native position, which includes the traditional practice of purdah, the sequestering of women inside the home. The doctor who supports the revolutionaries by placing his own body in the line of fire opposes both his bride's need to conceal her body and her rejection of sexual pleasure.

The story of Ilse Lubin's suicide, only seemingly ill placed in the narrative, provides an interesting contrast to Naseem Ghani's conservatism or rejection of modernization. Ilse, the enlightened Western woman, comes to India after the death of her husband and commits suicide. Until it was banned in the 19th century, sati, the death of a widow by immolation (sacrificial death by fire) on her husband's funeral pyre, was traditional practice. Here it is Ilse who rejects a single life after the death of her husband in a twist on banned convention.

The doctor's revolutionary zeal and potential for violent acts is expressed in his symbolic burning of Naseem's purdah veils. The fire in the hotel room forces her exposure to all sorts of men, the hotel workers who invade her privacy in order to put out the fire. Symbolically, then, a modern woman's exposure to the dangers of the male world includes encountering all sorts of men. It also involves being exposed to choice and to male desire—especially by those driven to put out her fire. Freedom from colonialism and the liberation of women are symptoms of modernism, the prospects of Indian independence, and Aziz's enlightened modernity.

Aziz's attitudes spell problems for the marriage, while modernization in India creates problems for adherents to ancient cultural practice. The cracks in Aziz's complexion predict fissures, or breaks, in the population between those who seek modernization and those who prefer ancient practice. For many, a painful ambivalence arises as British culture and economic advancement are admired. At the same time the greed and violence of colonial rule and the breaking of ancient tradition that modernization demands are rejected. For Aziz the tearing ambivalence is represented in the privileges of his European education, his modernization, against the insistence of his bride on traditional measures. For Aziz and his bride the fissure separating them grows over time. The story of the fissures, moreover, persists over generations. Saleem suffers from them as well.

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