Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 1, Methwold | Summary

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Summary

The chapter opens with a flashback to a peaceful time before the arrival of the British East India Company and the British colonization of India. In this peaceful time, Bombay was one of the Seven Isles, and the Kolis, fishermen, sailed in "Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun." The Portuguese were the first invaders until 1633 when an "East Indian Company Officer named Methwold" dreamed of a British Bombay. In 1660 Charles II of England (1630–85) was betrothed to Catherine of the Portuguese house of Braganza, whose dowry included Bombay. In 1668 the British East India Company "got its hands on the island," reclaiming land from the sea and uniting the seven islands and creating a fortified peninsula. Thereafter, the Koli were dispossessed and "squashed" into a tiny village on the peninsula, their culture diminished by colonialist influence.

On the cusp of the British departure from the peninsula in 1947, Ahmed Sinai bought a portion of the estate of William Methwold, heir to the 17th-century dreamer and early British resident of Bombay. Methwold had extracted a promise from all of his buyers that they buy the houses with everything in them, so that all the household furnishings and effects be retained by the new owners, and that no sale be completed until midnight on August 15. The result is that beyond their initial objections, the new owners, all Indians, adopted the everyday habits of the colonizer. And worse, they affected phony Oxford accents in imitation of the Brits who came by the accent naturally and of those who learned it to support their claims to a higher social class than was theirs. The new Indian owners slept beneath portraits of pink children and stopped work to dress and gather for cocktails at six each evening in the gardens.

When the Times of India promised a reward to the mother who gave birth at the moment of independence, Amina announced that the honor would be hers. She was aware that among her competition were two pregnant women in the estates.

Analysis

The dividing of Methwold's estate was a microcosm of partition and the ensuing developments including, sadly, continuity in recognition of the strife across India's diverse populations. Methwold made a pact with his Indian buyers, a joke that became a reiteration of the historical moment in the lives of individuals. "I'm transferring power, too," he noted. "Got a sort of itch to do it at the same time that the Raj does." A parody of cultural continuity persists as well when the residents of the Methwold Estates, who initially objected to Methwold's insistence on the continuity of British custom, themselves adapt to the colonialist lifestyle, including an aping of the Oxford drawl, the upper-class British accent that was their model.

The evocation of Bombay in its earliest manifestation as a small group of islands and the reclamation project that united them into a single peninsula is another example of unity imposed by human will rather than as natural occurrence. Thus the bitter situational ironies (in which what happens is the opposite of what is expected to happen) of the estate owners' adherence to British custom and the continuing competitions across diverse Indian populations mark the limits of unity even in independence—of which the man-made peninsula itself would seem to be a mockery.

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