Literature Study GuidesMidnights ChildrenBook 2 How Saleem Achieved Purity Summary

Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 2, How Saleem Achieved Purity | Summary

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Summary

In the opening frame Saleem Sinai, who from early on had announced that he was dying, notes how tired he is and how he can imagine that one simply runs out of steam, and there is only one solution. He imagines the same is true for individuals, for nations, and for fictional characters. The end, he reveals, came on September 22, 1965, at midnight.

The narrative shifts to an earlier time. In mid-1964 Naseem Ghani and Pia Aziz moved to Pakistan and bought a franchise for a gas station. They achieved success because the station was well located and because each woman had her compelling appeal. They took turns holding court in a glass booth that overlooked the gas pumps. People came to admire Pia, the film star, and to tell their troubles to the ever-sympathetic Naseem.

Saleem finds himself dreaming of Kashmir. His dream, he notes, became the "common property of the nation." His usual binarist reasoning pits his impurity against his sister's purity. His impure thoughts that began in the Land of the Pure contrast with Jamila's success in Pakistan, her song reflecting her purity.

At the same time Alia Aziz, an accomplished cook who could season her food with her emotions, is poisoning family relations with dissension and discord. She is especially bitter about her sister, Amina Sinai. The result of a diet managed by Alia, the Sinais fell on hard times. Saleem blushed "like a beetroot" every time he saw Jamila, and the siblings began to avoid each other. Amina, pregnant at 40, was sick much of the time, and Ahmed Sinai's towel business was failing. Amina and Ahmed's relationship began to fall apart, and Ahmed retreated to his old, bad habits. "Confusion and ruin seeped out through the windows" and affected the hearts and minds of the population.

Saleem continues with his list of correspondences in which political discord at the highest circles matches family discord. President Mohammad Ayub Khan's (1907–74) "reputation was in decline," and rumors about the fixing of the 1964 election circulated. Ayub's son, Gauhar Ayub Khan (b. 1937, also spelled Gohar), associated with Gandhara Industries, made millions overnight. India's first sons, Sanjay Gandhi (1946–80) and Kanti Lal Desai, were both reputedly corrupt. Saleem's cousin, Zafar Zulfikar, became "the archetype of all the many disappointing sons in the land."

Zafar, a lieutenant in the Indian army, was sent to disputed territory in Kashmir. Always unable to control his urine, he was humiliated by the troops. When he returned to Pakistan in July 1965, Zafar learned that his father, General Zulfikar, had been behind his trials on duty. Once home Zafar walked into his sleeping father's room and slit his father's throat.

Although, initially, the newspaper accounts were focused on the patricide, there were accounts that hinted at the general's crimes. Not only did he abuse his son, but he was also engaged in smuggling and bribes to the border guards to ensure his success. General Zulfikar died, Zafar went to prison, and a larger fire broke out at the Rann of Kutch, the fire in which Saleem achieved his elusive purity. The larger fire is the invasion of Indian Kashmir by the Pakistani army.

On the same day that a cease fire, a "false peace," was declared in Kashmir, Ahmed Sinai suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and childlike. Restored to the "dribbles and giggles" of his earliest years, Ahmed spoke in nonsense words, mostly comprising the toilet language of very young children.

The correspondences recklessly continue. In August 1965 the Sinais benefitted from the bombing patterns, in which was their purification. Pakistan soldiers in street dress crossed the boundary and attacked, while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928–79), Pakistan's foreign minister, denied that assault.

Saleem notes that the boundary dispute and political turmoil in Pakistan could account for the war, yet he has a better explanation. The war started when Saleem dreamed Kashmir into the consciousness of the Pakistanis, and because of his impurity, the motive for the war was to separate Saleem, at 18, from his sins.

During the war, which had crossed the borders from Kashmir, Saleem, unable to cope with the disintegration of his family and his two countries, roamed the city "looking for death."

Propaganda from both sides created uncertainty about the number of bombs dropped or the destruction that ensued. Saleem listed the effects of three bombs that account for the annihilation of crucial family members and others in his life.

Ahmed Sinai raised a blacked-out window, and as Saleem, on his way home, notes, the bright lights attracted a bomb, and the house and its occupants were gone. Part of the fallout of the explosion was the eruption from an old trunk of the silver spittoon encrusted with lapis lazuli. The spittoon, part of the debris of the bombing, falls from the sky and hits Saleem squarely on his head. His memory expunged, he is all new; he has lost track of the impurities that marked his behavior for his first 18 years. His purity is restored.

Analysis

This chapter, the last in Book 2, accomplishes two important tasks: first, it is a commentary on the task of the Bildungsroman, a story of the development of a youth. Typically, in such a work, as is the case in Midnight's Children, the narrative is episodic: the protagonist learns life lessons chapter by chapter. Saleem's preference for explanation through correspondences tests reality. As his correspondences grow increasingly bizarre, the notion of reliability is tested for both memoirist and historian. Saleem's reliability is the basis of the novel's historiographical function. In other words, Saleem's incompatible correspondences test the notions of how people understand history and raises questions about the potential for truth telling in the writing of history. For Saleem the oddness of his comparisons from which he derives understanding—and, ultimately, judgment of his situation and others'—is clearly not so much a matter of finding historical truth but of demonstrating authenticity. Saleem is a vulnerable, rationalizing individual looking for love and not quite knowing how to find it. His systems of correspondences enable him to navigate a difficult world.

Not only does Saleem summarize the history of his formative years in the first two books, but Rushdie, in a blazing display of writing in the aftermath of the bombing and subsequent fire, summarizes many of the techniques of writers who have come before him, writers of poetry and fiction who have depicted "real life" or the truths about humanity in language least like life's own. The sustained performance at the close of this chapter is Saleem's unpunctuated, nearly two-page soliloquy, which is very much like the soliloquy of Molly Bloom in Irish author James Joyce's (1882–1941) epic of Dublin life, Ulysses (1922). To draw parallels beyond the brilliance in each case of the unpunctuated, long speech is instructive. Molly Bloom is rehashing her past in the light of failed romance and subsequent trauma. She affirms her staying power in a series of "yeses." Saleem's experience has been leading him in a positive direction as well.

He is positive, however, only in deeply personal terms. Saleem's reliability as the narrator of his story raises suspicions early on. And throughout, Padma, his careful listener, gives voice to her doubts. In this chapter Saleem offers an observation that clarifies questions of reliability and makes distinctions between personal and historical narratives. Matters of life and death are undeniably personal. "Let me state this quite unequivocally," he begins: the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 "was nothing more nor less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth." He restores history by explaining that, by the study of the bombing pattern during the war, one may understand "the recent history of our times." Although propaganda makes it impossible to assess the damages inflicted on both sides, Saleem's version of not being able to see any further than personal trauma is conclusive.

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