Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 1, Tick, Tock | Summary

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Summary

Saleem Sinai recounts the elements of his world beginning with the lives of his grandparents, which he described throughout Book 1, and continuing with the history of India, from the lives of the Koli fishermen up to the present. "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world," he insists. His narrative of his present continues. The date is August 13, 1947. Partition is a day away, and Independence Day is to follow.

On this nearly fortunate day Amina Sinai slept, the Earl of Mountbatten fretted, and Pakistan's first president M.A. Jinnah (c. 1876–1948) rested secure in the knowledge that "his Pakistan will be born in just eleven hours." Thus, Saleem thinks about the individual lives and describes the "mass fantasy" of Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat soon to resolve divisive differences in an independent nation. He tries to avoid thoughts of the mass bloodletting of civil strife in a divided Punjab (geographical area in northwest India, on the border of Pakistan) or of his uncle, Major Zulfikar's self-enrichment at the expense of those fleeing partition.

In preparation for the birth of freedom, two mothers and their babies in the Methwold Estates vied for the birth date closest to the moment of Independence. The scene has a cinematic quality: a tracking shot of Bombay colored with the saffron, white, and green of the Indian flag. Saleem notes, "Suddenly everything is saffron and green": the woodwork in Amina's room; the skin of Vanita, Amina's neighbor also about to give birth; the fireworks outside Dr. Narlikar's Nursing Home and the carpet within; men in saffron-colored shirts and the women in lime green saris. The balconies and rooftops blaze with the green and gold flames of earthenware lamps. Even the yellow and blue of the policemen's uniforms are transformed by the glow of the lamps to green and gold, and the residents of Methwold Estates share green pistachio sweetmeats.

While Jawaharlal Nehru announced "no time for ill-will. We have to build the noble mansion of free India, where all her children may dwell," and a saffron, white, and green flag was unfurled, two babies, both boys born at midnight, were switched by Mary Pereira, the nurse in attendance. Vanita, the mother of one of the boys, had hemorrhaged and died. It later transpired that the father of Vanita's boy was not her husband but the wealthy William Methwold, originator of the estate. No matter: Amina proclaimed her triumph. The Sinais comfortably welcomed and recognized as their son the large infant with Kashmiri blue eyes and a nose that echoed that of his forebears.

Back in the narrative present, Padma is appalled and attacks Saleem for the false family history he has presented. He is insistent, however, that one's history confers authenticity. Moreover, he argues that all over the new India children were born that midnight who were only "partially the offspring of their parents." These were children, he insisted, "fathered ... by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream."

Three days later Mary Pereira left her job at the nursing home and offered herself to Amina Sinai as ayah (nursemaid) to the infant. The third pregnancy at Methwold Estates was resolved when Sonny Ibrahim was delivered. His forehead was marked by the forceps needed to complete the delivery, and the marks on his temples made him "irresistibly attractive" to women later in his life—at least according to Saleem.

An interview with Amina was published in the Times of India with the headline: MIDNIGHT'S CHILD.

Saleem expresses his disappointment to Padma that more was not made of his birth. Amina, however, did get her 100 rupees award, and Padma chastises Saleem for his vanity.

Analysis

The situational ironies (in which what happens is the opposite of what is expected to happen) of the lasting elements of competing cultures persist. As Congress prepared for the historical changes of partition and independence, astrologers frantically objected to the chosen date: "discontent in the heavens." Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter are crossed and moving into the "most ill-favored house of all." Ancient practice and modern politics were entirely out of sync.

Mary Pereira, influenced by the ideology of Joseph D'Costa, her socialist lover, had chosen to reward the infant born to poverty by elevating his station in the exchange of babies. Offering herself as the ayah for the infant sent to the wealthy household focuses on the effect of economics, of social class, which produces the cracks or fissures of individual identity. Mary's consciousness is divided. She is a socialist by association and a traditional woman by birth.

Moreover, Saleem's contention that the midnight children were fathered by history suggests that nationality trumps genealogy. The situational irony of the infant Saleem's cucumber nose and blue eyes as the confirming aspects of family identity creates doubt or at least ambivalence about Saleem's conclusion. For while the prominent nose may be a matter of genes, the blue Kashmiri eyes, at least as they are appreciated in Saleem's account, would seem to count for place, for a population that shares the characteristic associated with the blue skies and pure air of the mountainous region. Moreover, Saleem Sinai's nose has a relation only in scale to that of his grandfather's, for he is not biologically a descendent of Aadam Aziz. The text thus plays with matters of inheritance and identity, of nature and nurture almost as though all are random matters. The stories people tell are merely that: stories in which they remake themselves, reconfigure their identities by association as they live and grow.

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