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Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 2, Commander Sabarmati's Baton | Summary



When Mary Pereira returned from exile, her dreams of Joseph D'Costa's ghost resumed. She was shocked to see that the ghost was in a state of decay, having lost part of an ear, some teeth, and several toes. He also had a hole in his stomach. She learned that Joe-as-ghost was destined to carry her guilt on his shoulders until she confessed. Saleem Sinai, at his return, found that his sister Jamila Singer's place in the family had changed. She had taken Saleem's place as favorite child. In an attempt to regain her former status as second child, the Brass Monkey flirted with Christianity, becoming more and more insistently devout in order to resist her parents' preference for her. Saleem was unabashed by the transfer of family affections and mostly concerned with changes in his own pubescent body. The midnight children were changing as well and resisting Saleem's leadership while he found himself resisting change. The disintegration of the Midnight Children's Conference occurred on the day China invaded India as a result of the dispute over Kashmir. To Saleem's disappointment, many of the children adopted the attitudes of their parents, making choices based on racial prejudice and class rivalries.

It was Shiva who dismissed Saleem's entreaties to abandon the binarisms of race and class divisions and find a third, conciliatory term, a new beginning. Shiva called Saleem a rich boy who, in his idealism, failed to grasp the problems of the masses. In retreat Saleem had taken to visiting the rooms of Dr. Schaapsteker, the scientist who, earlier, had saved Saleem's life with a dose of cobra venom.

Saleem, using his telepathic powers, learned that Lila Sabarmati, mother of Eyeslice and Hairoil, was having an affair with Homi Catrack. Still suffering from his mother's perfidy, Saleem chose to expose the lovers. He managed to get a note to Commander Sabarmati, who encountered the lovers in their lair and shot them. Although the jurors agreed the poor man was not guilty, the judge reversed the ruling. Appeals up to the Supreme Court upheld a guilty verdict.

According to Saleem, his revenge had far-reaching consequences. "For Sale" signs, shaped like flowers and painted red, sprouted all over Methwold Estate. And all of the neighbors of Saleem's youth, the living and the dead, abandoned the estate. The property was purchased by the Narlikar women, the muscular and independent crew who had been accomplices of Dr. Narlikar in his fight for birth control and women's rights.

Saleem's world was changing, and the boundaries of nations had changed as well. The chapter closes with a symbolic action representing that change. Saleem, in 1958, carried outside a world globe that had separated at the equator. Saleem taped the small world back together and repurposed it as a football. The Brass Monkey, perturbed by the commotion her brother made clanking the tin around the estate, jumped on the offending globe and flattened it.


Saleem credits himself with his first attempt at "rearranging history." The humor and balance of the narrative, often found in linguistic jokes, demonstrates Saleem's notion that his experiences are parallel to, and influence, history. He demonstrates the first principle of his effect on history as he presents to Padma his responsibility in ending Lila and Homi's affair. The parallel he draws between his activity and the historical result begins in his construction of an anonymous note for the commander. Using specific newspaper accounts of current affairs, Saleem cuts up and pieces together newsprint to construct the damning note. Saleem invests time and several paragraphs recording the news sources that supplied the letters in the revelation. He mounts the newsprint letters "rearranged" and glued to a plain sheet. Once he has delivered the note, he credits himself for rearranging history. The notion is based on a pun: letters from current events or current affairs in the newspaper are reconstituted to make an anonymous letter, and a love affair is disrupted, as is a narrative of current affairs in the news.

The encounter between the lovers and the wronged husband, written as farce, creates a focus on Saleem as narrator: calling attention, as the novel in its entirety does, to Saleem as self-created, self-determined memoirist and Saleem as unreliable narrator. As Saleem recounts the aftermath of the shooting, Commander Sabarmati leaves the scene of the crime and once outdoors accosts the first policeman he sees. Still waving his revolver in nervous anticipation, he confesses. The utterly unexpected ensues. The policeman, who had been directing traffic in a busy roundabout, races away from the madman waving a gun. Sabarmati, a military man of duty, remains on the traffic island, directing heavy traffic, still waving his long-nosed revolver, until he can be relieved and arrested. Here are bumbling police rather than star-crossed lovers, melodrama, or human tragedy, a comedy made from tragic circumstances. Saleem, taking full responsibility for the tragedy, claims his leading role in a moment of history.

When Sabarmati goes on trial, public opinion shifts, so that at first the commander is considered the innocent and appropriately avenging husband, and later, his guilt is paramount. There are not-guilty and guilty verdicts and appeals. As a result of tie-ups in the court, Saleem claims a role in Indian jurisprudence, wondering, as all wait for the final resolution of a presidential pardon, if justice will be served and what form it will take. Saleem wonders if the state will choose modern justice or whether the recourse is to ancient legend and the primacy of the solitary hero who rights all wrongs while living outside the rule of law.

Saleem learns that his mother had ended her affair when he overhears Amina's last phone call with Nadir Khan (now known as Qasim Khan). Finally, Saleem, rather than allowing for his mother's good sense, takes credit for Amina's rejection of her reclusive lover.

One might wonder if the literary term unreliable narrator is, in fact, in question in this postmodern novel. If it can be assumed that all people start life as self-serving survivors, it may be the case that their life narratives are equally self-serving. For Saleem, a child well loved not just by his parents but by a nation, at least according to the evidence celebrating his auspicious birth date, he was born at the center of the universe, or at the very least, the subcontinent. Moreover, he was unparented by his ayah in the early years of his development. Thus, he becomes the most earnest and impassioned seeker after identity or maker of his own identity. This character then is true to himself, and his "unreliability" is utterly familiar to anyone who is dedicated to authenticity and personal truth. Such narratives fulfill Saleem's quest for "remaking" himself and are, one might argue, necessary for survival.

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