Literature Study GuidesMidnights ChildrenBook 2 Accident In A Washing Chest Summary

Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 2, Accident in a Washing-chest | Summary

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Summary

Padma has disappeared, and the storyteller has lost his audience. Although there is a substitute chutney stirrer on the premises, she does not suffice. Saleem Sinai is confused and angry. He is also a model of ambivalence: a Muslim who lauds himself for being steeped in Hindu legend, he employs a geometric metaphor to describe the reigning ambivalence he has lost. He is the uppermost point of an isosceles triangle: supported by two deities, the "wild god of memory" and the "lotus-goddess of the present." He has become a hybrid, a third term, an invention out of conflict.

Saleem cites the summer of 1956 when Egyptian president Gamal Nasser (1918–70) "sank ships at Suez" and Jamila Singer, inexplicably, began to set fire to shoes—anyone and everyone's shoes in the Methwold Estates. He recalls in his sister's strange habit on an earlier occasion in which another monkey had been implicated in the smell of burning leather, the fire at the godown that changed the course of the Sinai family's history.

Saleem takes up the history of his sister's emotions, a girl, as he describes her, hungry for love yet governed by a fear of getting what she wanted: abnormally worried that anyone loving her was playing a trick.

Saleem also has recognized his own particular reaction to his place in the family. Living in a world of exceptionally high expectations, he grew up in terror of not meaning, of not succeeding. And he was aware of how accidents defined him. After light-hearted advice to his critically ill grandmother, he was credited with genius, with saving her life. As a result, he came to define greatness not as intention or wanting or learning how but as a gift from God. He saw as his "only hope" the mantle of greatness miraculously falling on his shoulders.

Saleem used the washing chest in Amina's bathroom as refuge from the pressure of family expectations. Hiding among her soiled linens, he came to know his mother's secret. Amina had been receiving telephone calls to which she listened intently and then declared them wrong numbers. Saleem witnessed Amina's deception, when, hidden in his refuge in the laundry chest, he observed Amina in the privacy of her bathroom. The calls were from her long-lost husband, Nadir Khan. Behind the locked door of the bathroom, Amina wept and caressed herself and called his name. When Saleem was discovered, he was punished with silence, in which he discovered his true purpose in life: he found he could receive messages, voices in his head that he initially imagined were from an archangel. He believed that revealing his gift would bring approval from his parents and reinstate his primacy, or importance, in the family. Instead, he was punished, sentenced to silence.

When Amina found sympathy for her punished child, he was past reveling in his disclosure and never told her about his gift. Amina, on the night in which Saleem is discovered in the washing chest, dreamed of Ramram Seth and the no longer puzzling prophesy of Saleem's birth: "Washing will hide him ... voices will guide him!"

Analysis

The comic scene that opens Book 2 is as much about writing and storytelling, memory and interpretation, as it is about the Sinai family history and the history of India. The commentaries about language begin at the level of the word. For example, it is difficult to imagine how to add up the parallels of monkey and leather and burning that connect the Brass Monkey's bad habit, her need to burn shoes, to the scene that initiates her father's change of fortune: the allusion to the stone-pitching monkeys of the Old Fort who discard the bribe money and initiate the cause for the warehouse burning.

It is the diction rather than a bringing together of ideas that establishes the parallels. That is, it is difficult to compare the Brass Monkey's motives with those of the terrorists who burn the warehouse, but readers do see repetition in the individual words. It is only the smell of burning leather that joins the two scenes. Thus, readers have a statement about sensory experience that initiates memory and stokes the imagination. This is the formula for the novel: childhood experience, sensation rather than intellect, initiations in which the observer must make up everything he or she doesn't know. This is Saleem's method, a making sense from sensation, from childhood observation in tandem with India's coming-of-age practices and choices. As to the Brass Monkey and her acts of terrorism, it seems a stretch to link her to religious warfare—unless that comes later.

If some writers' talents lie in authenticity and others for the enchantments of narrative, part of the charm of this text is the way in which it pushes at the reader's imagination. From early on, Midnight's Children was seen as the first postcolonial novel, a work that introduced the Western reader to the effects of colonialism from the point of view of the colonized. Part of the excitement and variety of this text in the odd constellations of images, representing the play of the imagination and the work of time and place on the individual imagination, is that it operates from the point of view of the colonized rather than from positions and voices of power. To the uninitiated Western reader as well as to the citizen of India whose life changed with partition, this text operates where cracks or fissures in logic and ordinary language demonstrate the exciting range of the individual imagination. The reader—like the author and like the not-so-innocent 31-year-old Saleem at age nine—recovers the fully playful imagination of childlike enchantment with the world and the need to make up everything he doesn't know or hasn't yet formally learned.

Embodied sensation is everything, and understanding begins in the interpretation of sensation. This is a text of cracks, fissures, holes, oozing snot noses, aromatic chutneys, soiled sheets, and bodily fluids, the world of the infant making sense through sensation. The smell of leather burning, to return to the first example here, is part of the sensory world of the text, part of memory that demands the interpretation of the novice.

The demand for silence as punishment for Saleem's transgression, then, is entirely appropriate. As Saleem well knows, one justifies one's existence, one means something so long as one keeps talking, inventing and reinventing the self. He has, however, witnessed the unspeakable, his mother's nakedness and her sexuality. And not surprisingly, what he has seen has initiated his sexuality. The scene of his departure from the laundry chest, given the diction of the scene, is a moment of birth. The pajama cord has been lodged in his nose and separated as he tumbles out, complete with cord and caul. He has left the security of the washing chest, what he called a "hole in the world," a place where the cares of the world are absent. That he cannot return (to the womb) makes a boisterous joke about the Freudian diagnosis of an unresolved Oedipal complex in which an attraction to the maternal body would explain his impotence. It is the sensory level of the text, expressed word by word, the sensational reading in this chapter examining the birth of sensation.

The continuing story of the rebirth, actually the coming of age of the Indian nation, coincides with Saleem's rebirth: allusions to the strains and achievements of the Indian nation's coming of age in this chapter are noted in a few words: "Nasser sank ships at Suez" and the "country's Five Year Plan." The former was the instance in which Jawaharlal Nehru stepped onto the world stage when his leadership played an important role in the Suez crisis. In calling on a collaboration of nations, Nehru birthed a new political entity, a coalition of unaffiliated nations. In the latter case, Nehru's attempt in generating two Five Year Plans to codify and invent a material future in practical concerns for India was an important beginning: in the first primarily an agricultural plan, and in the second a matter of schools and industrial development. Word by word, he issued the proposals, the building blocks of a new nation.

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