Literature Study GuidesMidnights ChildrenBook 1 The Perforated Sheet Summary

Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 1, The Perforated Sheet | Summary

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Summary

Saleem Sinai describes the historical impact of the date and time of his birth: midnight on August 15, 1947, the moment of India's arrival at independence. He also names the city of his birth, Bombay, and the specific place, Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home. He claims to need to tell his story as a means of avoiding the absurd, a need to have his life mean something. He reflects on the key element of his memory: an old, stained sheet with a seven-inch hole at the center. This business of telling he calls "remaking" his life. His story begins in his grandparent's generation. Saleem's grandfather, Aadam Aziz, a doctor trained in Germany, returned in the spring of 1915 to Kashmir in northern India to open a medical practice. Aadam hit his nose on a frozen tussock of earth while offering himself in prayer. As a result, he gave up allegiance to God or man, leaving, as his grandson described it, a hole in a vital inner chamber, which rendered him "vulnerable to women and history." In Saleem's words, "Travel and tussocks and army tanks messed everything up." In his years in Germany, Aadam's vision had changed, and he found himself, in rejecting the religion of his youth, to be living "between belief and disbelief."

Aadam returned from his medical studies in Germany to find his mother no longer in purdah—the seclusion at home of Indian women—in order to support the family. It was as though she and her husband had changed places. His mother had become a jewel merchant, while his father, after suffering a stroke, had retreated from life and spent his days in a darkened room, making bird noises.

Tai, the ancient ferry boatman, became a regular contributor to Dr. Aziz's fate, calling him to new cases and delivering the doctor to his patients. It is Tai who ferried the doctor across the lake to care for Naseem Ghani, the daughter of a wealthy landowner.

Analysis

Saleem is linked to history on the very first page, a reminder of a universal fact: all people are marked by the time and place of their births as well as by their genealogies. A compulsive storyteller, Saleem raises the history of Scheherazade, a storyteller who saved her own life by telling a new story each night for 1,001 nights. To remain alive, she had to keep talking. Saleem expresses a need to "remake" his life, in which a sheet with a hole in it is his "talisman," his "open-sesame." Two holes are noted at the opening of Aziz's story: first, the hole in the sheet becomes a hole in a "vital inner chamber," and second, the disfigurement, a hole in his being, arises from his crisis in belief, the tension between believing and not believing.

Tai's major influences concern the holes in Aziz's existence. First Tai explains the importance of the doctor's enormous nose, "the place where the outside world meets the world inside you." An itching nose is the doctor's major symptom and guide, warning him of danger. Tai brings the doctor to the Ghani house, where he is permitted to examine Ghani's daughter only as, for modesty's sake, she exposes her body parts through a hole in a sheet. The sheet also functions as an element in the seduction of Aziz. The doctor comes to know and desire his patient bit by bit.

With his first summons to the Ghani household, Aziz chucks his prayer rug rolled like a cigar onto a tall shelf that holds political pamphlets from his life in Germany. Thus abandoning his Eastern religion and his Western politics, he heads for his future bride, Naseem Ghani. Tai, in this chapter, reviles the doctor's Western education, complaining of the doctor's bag of tricks, his stethoscope and its place in a bag made from the leather of dead pig, a meat forbidden by his Muslim origins. At the same time Aziz's mother describes her Westernization by necessity. She has had to give up purdah and "show her ankles" in order to engage in commerce to support the family. She is a diamond merchant, and her work, her husband's profession, is described as the frozen bits of his life fluids. The drops of blood become rubies and tears become diamonds, shed and frozen in the Kashmiri winter. For her the family sacrifice continues. She suffers the nervous ailments of the Western capitalist, a liberated business woman with chronic boils, rashes, and headaches. Thus from the beginning Saleem's story is told as history, as fable, and as biography. In its most fanciful episodes, the allegory of an individual history as the history of India is activated by magic realism, magical events—such as tears turned to diamonds, drops of blood to rubies—described as natural while creating symbolism in the narrative. Major themes raised here are about the conflicts of modernization with respect to a diverse and resisting culture; moreover, a culture that includes conflicting traditional views as well. Both Aziz and his mother represent flexibility and a willingness to change: Aziz's mother out of necessity and Aziz out of conviction; he is a man who follows his nose.

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