Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 3, The Buddha | Summary

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Summary

The chapter opens with Padma weeping as Saleem describes the aftermath of the war, which includes his amnesia, the result of the head injury caused by the sailing spittoon in the explosion that killed his family and destroyed their home.

The chapter in its narrative is relatively straightforward. Saleem, who had lost his memory, was stationed at a military camp in Pakistan. He had been recruited for his enhanced sense of smell. Although his memory was lost, everything in his surroundings was present to him. He could smell out bombs and troop movements. He was credited with being able to walk through a minefield and detect the dangers.

CUTIA Unit 22, to which Saleem is assigned, spies on and arrests undesirables among the Pakistanis, according to the Defense of Pakistan regulations. Saleem has been assigned as the "man-dog" to a unit of three young soldiers who have heard rumors of his past. They find him sitting under a tree, chewing betel nuts and spitting the red juice into a jeweled spittoon.

The year is 1971. Saleem recalls that in that year he elected Pakistani citizenship. Just as Saleem proved himself an expert tracker, his resistance to sharing family information, his spare habits, and his vegetarian diet began to grate on the young soldiers he served. They had been tasked to root out undesirables, and they began to wonder if their man-dog, even with his obvious skills and his elegant speech, was in that category.

Saleem notes that the unease of his mates had to do with the "fear of schizophrenia." He refers to the division of Pakistan into halves on the eastern and western borders of India with a portion of India separating them. Shared religion was viewed as the eternal bond between East and West Pakistan and fractured when the East Wing—Bangladesh—declared itself independent.

On March 25, 1971, former Pakistani president Yahya Khan (1917–80) and prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928–79) had broken off talks with Bangladeshi president Sheikh Mujib (1920–75, also called Mujibur Rahman) and returned to the West Wing. Mujib declared independence for Bangladesh, and 66,000 crack troops flew to Dacca. Mujib was arrested that night, and Saleem claimed, as part of the CUTIA force, to have "sniffed him out."

As Saleem and his contingent headed for the airport with their captive, in his pajamas, they watched the chaos and destruction of the city. The Pakistani troops raped and pillaged, using flame throwers, machine guns, and hand grenades in the slums. Besides the physical torture and destruction, the burning and the shooting, Iskander Mirza worried about undesirables in their midst. The result was a rounding up of professors, journalists, and students. During 1971, 10 million refugees fled Bangladesh for India. In Dacca, Tiger Niazi (1915–2004, also called A.A.K. Niazi) ruled.

The tracker and his boys moved through the violence and stench of the streets rooting out and murdering the undesirables, Communist types, and minor Awami League officials, with villagers fleeing with their belongings on their heads. Saleem left the city and found a boat in which they moved south on the river Padma, a tributary of the Ganga (Ganges). Saleem's boys saved him from an encounter with an outraged peasant whose wife or daughter was fleeing Saleem. The little party returned to the boat and moved toward the "green wall" in their future, the jungle, "the Sundarbans: it swallows them up."

Analysis

At the sight of Padma's tears, Saleem resorts to comic relief, his mode of offering sympathy. He promises her more action even as she cries for his suffering younger self, lamenting the loss of his family and the loss of his memory. Relief arrives in the style of a movie trailer as Saleem attempts to distract Padma. He reasons that "the promise of exotic futures has always seemed ... the perfect antidote to the disappointments of the present." Thus he advertises for her the events to follow.

Daringly, he attempts a second movie style: "a Bombay-talkie-style close-up." This time he describes a series of camera shots unaccompanied by sound. The close-up is "a calendar ruffled by a breeze ... to denote the passing of the years." He describes individual frames of chaos, including riots in the streets and scenes of war. And he lists, between each intake of breath that Padma draws, the political ups and downs of the struggle between East and West Pakistan up to 1970.

Thus, it is clear that memory lost in 1965 returned at some point. Saleem is able to recall in his memoir his period of amnesia. In this section of the recitation, readers learn as much about Saleem as they do about history. He wishes to avoid Padma's sympathies. He has learned to find comic relief in his suffering. He is somehow separate from his own suffering and unable to embrace his caring listener. At this point in the story he lacks self-love as well as an ability to love another.

Given that this section is about the partition of East and West Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan and the similarities among people who cannot find common ground, cracks and fissures deface the political and geographical landscapes just as they deface Saleem's character and understanding.

The major action of the episode is the massacre and destruction of Dacca perpetrated by the army of Pakistan. Saleem fully engages, under the cover of amnesia, in despicable acts of murder and rape. His full participation and his unabashed recitation of it raise the matter of memory and ethics. Saleem, without memory, is without humanity.

Saleem as narrator, and with his typical aversion to the pious Muslim, recounts the horrors perpetrated by the army of Pakistan, these young men committed to martyrdom (death for a cause) in the name of faith. His disdain seems to indicate how justice stalks and perpetrates hypocrisy once memory is operative. Individual memory operates here in distinction to a community of "remembers," observant Muslims in this case who are as fully capable of terror as they are cognizant of the rewards of martyrdom.

The text moreover operates as a metanovel, drawing attention to the many styles of language in which Saleem is able to express himself. If correspondences between real historical actors and Saleem fulfill his reasoning on one level, this attempt to do film experience—visual experience in the familiar language of film—is yet another version of the cracks that constitute identity. Here the fissures exist as boundaries among diverse modes of artistic expression. Such unevenness in diction in the postmodern novel, a sort of crazy quilt of style, is an achievement of this novel. In Midnight's Children there is something reassuring about the stylistic variety, which in the largest possible sense imitates the clatter of languages of the crowded and chaotic subcontinent. The shifts in style also constitute a sort of attenuated history of the experimental literary styles of 20th-century modernism.

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