Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 3, A Wedding | Summary

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Summary

Padma is shocked to learn that Saleem Sinai had been married to Parvati-the-witch and accuses him of lying to her. In his defense he enumerates the women who have affected his life. "Too much women" is Padma's response.

Saleem begins Parvati's story, recalling a lie that influenced her to use her magic and summon Saleem's dangerous alter ego, Shiva. On May 18, 1974, Saleem begins, at the very moment in which India launched her first nuclear test, Shiva arrived at the magicians' slum. Major Shiva, the most decorated of India's war heroes, had become famous in social circles and was known as an assiduous seducer of women. At the height of his philanderings, according to legend, there were 10,000 women in love with Shiva. Among them were many of the wives of India's magnates and millionaires.

Major Shiva loved his paramours until they became pregnant, at which point he left. Finally, embarrassed by the revenge of Roshanara Shetty, child wife of a steel magnate, who could not forgive his callousness, Shiva left the life of privilege and returned to the slum where he turned his attentions to Parvati. When she became pregnant, Shiva revived his interest in other women and sired street urchins in the slum as he once had produced bastards in the chandeliered homes of India's wealthiest.

At the same time India was troubled by riots. "Corruption inflation hunger illiteracy landlessness ruled the roost" in Bihar. Coalitions of students and workers formed; more riots ensued. All railed against prime minister Indira Gandhi's ruling party. Her key opponent, Morarji Desai (1896–1995), who would become prime minister in 1977, "went on a fast-unto-death to bring down the corrupt government." During Parvati's pregnancy an opposition party was born: "While Major Shiva reeled from whore to whore, the Indira Congress was reeling too."

Saleem spent his energies accompanying Picture Singh, doing political organizing in the tenements. When Parvati returned to the slum, pregnant with Shiva's child, Singh advised Saleem and Parvati to marry. It was Republic Day, and from that moment Saleem was convinced that destiny rather than choice ruled his life. Parvati carried the child whose nurturing father would not be his biological father and whose grandparents were, in fact, the child's true family. Saleem insisted on Parvati's conversion to Islam and gave her the name Laylah (Night). Like Saleem's mother, Mumtaz Aziz, who changed her name to Amina Sinai, Parvati "became a new person in order to have a child."

Parvati began her labor—which was to last 13 days—on the day that Indira Gandhi was found guilty of campaign malpractice. Gandhi's jeopardy increased during Parvati's long labor. On the ninth day Morarji Desai called on Indian president Ahmad (1905–77, also spelled Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed) to sack Mrs. Gandhi. Parallels between Parvati's birthing agonies and Indira Gandhi's troubles persisted until, at the moment of the child's birth, a state of Emergency was called. The result: suspension of civil rights; censorship of the press; armored units on special alert; and mass arrests of intellectuals, poets, trade unionists—in fact, anyone who had criticized the Indian National Congress and its leader Indira Gandhi. The birth of a new India resulted in a midnight of two years, the duration of the Emergency.

Aadam Sinai, perfect except for his two startlingly protruding ears, was born at midnight on June 25, 1975, at the precise "instant of India's arrival at Emergency." Aadam was, according to his stepfather Saleem, "handcuffed to history" by his birthdate, just as he himself had been.

With that recognition Saleem is drawn to yet another correspondence: his own sense of centrality comparable to that of the ambitious Indira Gandhi. He called her impulse for centrality "a lust for meaning" just as his own is. His correspondences grow increasingly strained as he recalls William Methwold's central role as the charm that seduced Saleem's mother, and similarly, Indira Gandhi's hair, also parted in the middle—one side black and the other white—is a key to her personality and her politics. The Emergency, Saleem declares in conclusion, had its white side (visible and public) and its dark side (macabre, secret, untold).

Finally, in reciting the popular phrase India is Indira; Indira is India, he finalizes his judgment of his and Indira's shared sense that they are both chained to India's history. Indira, it would seem, is his nemesis. At least that is his conviction expressed to Padma when he concludes: "Mother Indira really had it in for me."

Analysis

The central recognition in this chapter is Saleem's sense that women were the key influences in his life. At the head of his list in this chapter are the women who influenced him for better and for worse, each within the context of an emergency. For better, there is the example of Parvati, namesake of the Hindu goddess Parvati, and for worse, the Widow, nickname of Indira Gandhi. Parvati is an invention of Saleem's narrative, but Indira Gandhi is a major figure in Indian political history. For Saleem, handcuffed to history, a literary device and a historical figure occupy the same plane of the narrative.

Saleem marries Parvati to stave off the emergency of ruined reputations: hers as an unwed mother and his as a man who cannot become a father. Parvati's emergency is sustained in a long, difficult labor. Named for the Hindu goddess Parvati or Supreme Energy, Parvati (now called Laylah) survives and gives birth to Aadam Sinai, a perfectly formed infant with huge, flapping ears.

Aadam is the son of individuals named for Hindu gods: "Shiva-and-Parvati; he was elephant-headed Ganesh." Shiva, for Hindus, is both creator and destroyer, benevolent and violent. He is also an ascetic—and the behavior of lascivious Shiva in the novel is, thus, an ironic joke, and a representation of his uncaring violence. Ganesh or Ganesha is the god with the head of an elephant, the result of Shiva's violence. Parvati, wishing for a protector as loyal as Shiva has in Nandi, has created Ganesh out of the turmeric salve on her body. Not recognizing the boy who protects Parvati, Shiva decapitates Parvati's son. Needing redemption, Shiva rushes out and kills an elephant, providing a new head for Ganesh.

Saleem, despite his service in the Army of West Pakistan, has recovered his sense of himself as Indian. Born of Muslim stock, Saleem recognizes his roots in the diversity of Bombay's population. From the Hindu pantheon Saleem has gathered the influences for his story. Living in the magicians' slum in old Delhi, he has become a part of the political life of the times. As a member of the slum community, his sympathies, learned in his relationship with Picture Singh, are communist. His embrace of his diversity has resonance with the politics of Aadam Aziz, his Kashmiri adopted grandfather and head of the family in which Saleem was raised.

Indira Gandhi was behind the state of emergency in India (June 26, 1975, to March 21, 1976) and is the focus of Saleem's struggle in this episode. Described only as the Widow, Indira was the subject of the strange incantatory opening to the chapter, "At the Pioneer Café." In this current episode she is evoked, not as a nightmare in black and green, but in her role as prime minister of India and perpetrator of the Emergency. The effects of her policies, like her black and white hair, are both evil and good. Thus, Saleem raises the political ante in his narrative, equating his personal emergency to that of an era of internal violence in India.

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