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Literature Study GuidesMidnights ChildrenBook 2 At The Pioneer Café Summary

Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 2, At the Pioneer Café | Summary



This chapter in its form is more disconnected than any preceding it. The chapter opens with a change in literary style: a prose poem of run-on lines that seem to be the haunting setting for Saleem Sinai's fevered nightmare: "No colors except green and black the walls are green the sky is black (there is no roof) the stars are green." All that is visible of "the Widow" in the dream is her murderous hand hunting small children. Saleem assures Padma that the fever was not brought on by her potion but by his memory of a fever he had on his 10th birthday. Saleem briefly wonders aloud why the green chutney he craves after his dream is more important than the election results. He does not, however, pursue the matter of the election but, instead, returns to the chutney and the chutney factory. Equally puzzling, there are opaque allusions to unexplained and unrelated elements—most notably, mention of Saleem's son and an ambulance waiting outside the chutney factory.

Saleem returns to his story, recalling his visit to Sonny Ibrahim to learn the secrets of Sonny's expertise: how to open locks without keys. From Sonny he learned to unlock the family car. Plotting to find out about Amina Sinai's secret shopping trips after she had received a wrong number telephone call, Saleem planned to hide in the trunk of the Rover in order to follow her.

Saleem, hidden in the trunk, found himself in a run-down neighborhood. Once Amina left the car, he followed her to the Pioneer Café, a seedy spot known incongruously as a storehouse of dreams. The café was, in fact, the place where casting crews from the major film studios began the hunt each morning for extras in the films of the burgeoning Bollywood industry. In the afternoon the film wannabes were gone, and the Pioneer Café became the haunt of more dreamers, members and advocates of the Communist Party. Gazing through the window of the café, Saleem watched his mother greet her first husband, the no longer paunchy poet Nadir Khan.

The poet had changed his name, and as Qasim Khan he was the local candidate of the Communist Party. Amina and Qasim flirted with hand play and under-the-table foot play. Just as the Indian cinema permits love scenes so long as there is no physical contact between lovers, the once separated lovers assumed their roles, playing out desire in gesture and approach, holding back at the last second, extending desire in the absence of consummation.

Saleem, unable to bear any more, returned to the Rover. Saleem concludes his story, avoiding his relation to Amina, describing her as his "Uncle Hanif's sister," who has brought "the eroticism of the indirect kiss into the green dinginess of the Pioneer Café."

Amina continued to canvass for Qasim the Red anytime he called. She also served the poor in the tenements, aiding the impoverished while collecting votes for the Communist Party. Saleem moved on to thinking about his birth mate, Shiva-of-the-knees, and his "nonchalant violence."

Saleem had contacted Shiva on one of his regular midnight messages to his group. He did not initially recognize Shiva, but his alter ego recognized Saleem as the "rich boy" in the estate. From their initial conversation it was clear they did not have matching goals, that their relationship was to be a competition.

The root of Shiva's violence lay in the story he told Saleem about Shiva's father's plan to cripple the boy and turn him into a beggar once the sources of their income failed. Shiva, whose power was in his knees, prevented his father from smashing him up with a hammer, and in the process, he broke his father's wrist.

Although the All-India Congress won the election, the Communist Party, with 12 million votes, became the largest single opposition party. Amina blushed with pleasure whenever the communist threat was mentioned at home. Later it was learned that Shiva and his cohort had some influence in the election, threatening voters and perhaps breaking into and stuffing ballot boxes so that Qasim the Red failed to win a seat in his district.

Since the election cycle ended in June, Saleem realizes that all of this happened before India's 10th anniversary, before his birthday. He is perplexed and worried that he has not correctly recognized his error.


The major themes come together in this chapter, in which Saleem's memory, much to his consternation, has failed him. He has made a crucial error about the timing of the election.

In the trunk of the Rover, listening to his mother's thoughts, Saleem considers how much he prefers a disorganized to an organized mind. This digression certifies the growing disorder of the text: the unpunctuated prose poem of the preceding chapter, the fever dream of this one. The sensory world, usually straightforward in its presentations, has become indistinct, illusory, operating through a set of unrelated dreamlike gestures and images. And an odd collection of discursive styles lends to an opacity that leaves the reader forced to rely on sensory memory to make good sense of the text. The impressionism of the black and green tone poem and the continuity of green as the color of danger is one example. Another is the cinematic description of the indirect kiss. Like indirect language, the unconsummated kiss embodies desire in a manner that simple representation, a frame with a full-on kiss, cannot manage. Sensation then is exploited as a means of representation, a means more deeply felt, perhaps, than a simple, straightforward narrative. Moreover, Saleem has noted his preference: when eavesdropping on his mother's disorganized thoughts, he recognizes that he prefers that mode of thinking to those thoughts of the more logically oriented, orderly mind.

At the same time, India's immediate problems are addressed in this chapter: poverty and exceptional population numbers, along with troubling, widespread illiteracy. The second Five Year Plan only began to address the complications of modernization for an underdeveloped nation and its critical mass of illiterate, impoverished people clinging to the past.

There is also the matter of a power struggle, the tension between good and evil, bound up with the future of the new state. To judge good and evil in their opposition is easy; the problem is the one raised early on. This text does not test binarisms but seeks a third term. Both acts of goodness and acts of violence are complicated here by station in life. Solutions need to develop out of the particular needs and divisions (more of those cracks and fissures) in the material practicalities of Indian life. Saleem, in his comfortable idealism, believes his connection to the new state has created the imperative for service, for initiating good acts. Like his sister who campaigns with kindness, it is less a rooted good out of which she operates than a need to serve her lover. Saleem has met his match in his alter ego in Shiva, the destroyer. Bent on survival and serving only himself, Shiva is not a figure of violence for violence's sake but of extreme anger rooted in his life experience: parental rejection and abuse, poverty, pain, and missed opportunity.

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