Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Context


The Bildungsroman

Midnight's Children is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, that takes the form of a fictional biography as the main character, Saleem Sinai, tries to make sense of his life, his convictions, and his contributions to Indian history. The main character's attempt at ordering his life is typical of the bildungsroman. These novels consist of an innocent who, during his travels and many adventures, learns something, or self-deceivingly believes he has learned something, each time he has a new encounter. The narrator may be an accurate guide to life's mysteries—or he may be an unreliable amateur, whose sense of what he sees or learns teaches readers something about the character and his world that he can't quite grasp himself.

Saleem, of Midnight's Children, is an unreliable narrator. His unreliability lies is his ignorance regarding his birth and his earnest dedication to his work as a writer. As the novel progresses, his writing, intended to preserve his personal story in the face of "too much history," seems increasingly strained or difficult to process. Nonetheless, Saleem makes sense of his experience and exposes the hysteria and high costs of war. Saleem, in the end, is a hybrid character. He lives in both Pakistan and India, the countries created by the Partition of India in 1947 as India gained independence from the British Empire after decades of conflict. When he returns to Bombay (India), he is able to recognize that his cultural hybridity has given him advantages; he is able to recognize and accept contradictions in people and politics.

Saleem's physical disintegration throughout the novel represents a warning and a wish for the countries of the Indian subcontinent. He barely attains adulthood at the moment during which the subcontinent is at a midpoint in the development of its nations. The novel ends with an invitation to adulthood for the nations of the subcontinent, a respect for boundaries, and a reliance on the best of human instincts.

With this novel, Rushdie makes two great contributions to the bildungsroman genre. On one hand, he writes a narrative that pairs public affairs with the main character's private life. On the other, he brilliantly employs the world of the senses to show how his characters experience the world. Sensory phenomena actively propel the narrative. For example, a bump on the nose causes the character Aadam Aziz to reject religion, while a warning tickle in his nose saves his life during a massacre.

Partition and Histories of Violence

Midnight's Children begins in 1919 with the Amritsar Massacre. This event sets up the bloodshed and violence that come to dominate Indian history. The Amritsar Massacre (also called the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre) was a British attack on an unarmed, protesting crowd on April 13, 1919.

However, it is the birth of modern India and the birth of a singular Indian, Saleem Sinai, on August 15, 1947, that are at the center of the novel. This is the date on which India won its independence from British rule and was partitioned or divided into two countries along religious lines: India, made up primarily of Hindus; and Pakistan, made up primarily of Muslims. India is the birthplace of Hinduism, which involves the worship of various deities and a belief in reincarnation. The rise of Islam in India around the 12th century also created a substantial Muslim population. Muslims follow the prophet Muhammad (570–632), who received revelations from Allah (the Arabic word for God) when he was around 40. The revelations were collected in the Quran, which states the practices that Muslims must follow to obey the will of Allah.

By 1947 Britain, its resources depleted by World War II (1939–45), was losing military and political control of India. Their hasty departure from the former empire meant that the Indian-Pakistani border created by the partition was not well planned. For instance, two of India's biggest provinces (or states), Punjab and Bengal, were divided. A lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe (1899–1997), created the plan in just five weeks and had few resources for determining the border.

The partition triggered mass riots, with the post-partition death toll estimated at 200,000 to 2,000,000—although not all the deaths were caused by the riots. Contagious diseases took a toll as well. Still, communal violence was common. In the cities people fought in the streets at the slightest provocation. In the countryside at least 10 million people were on the move, with Muslims migrating toward Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs (practitioners of Sikhism, a Punjabi religion related to Hinduism) toward India. Violence en route erupted when communities intent on preserving their ways of life attacked refugees. Territory, in fact, rather than religious identity, was often the source of the violence during this period of shifting populations and resettlement. Both countries faced immigration crises after partition, especially during the 1947–48 war over the disputed territories of Jammu (region of northern India, bordered by Pakistan on the west) and Kashmir (region of northwest India, bordered by Pakistan on the west). Thus, the business of partition and resettlement had barely begun when India and Pakistan had their first confrontation.

The secession of Bangladesh in 1971 further fragmented the Indian subcontinent. In an attempt to diminish political and population inequalities among the varying regions of Pakistan, Pakistan had been divided into East Pakistan (formerly East Bengal) and West Pakistan. However, a shared religion was not enough to hold the two regions together. Pakistan fractured when the East wing—Bangladesh—declared itself independent.

Struggles continued in India during the period known as the Emergency, from 1975–77. During this 21-month period, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad (1905–77; also spelled Ahmed) declared a state of emergency in order to stem protests against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917–84). The declaration gave Mrs. Gandhi the power to rule by decree, removing citizens' civil liberties, banning various religious and political parties, and jailing thousands of dissidents.

The tumult and pain of these divisions affected every citizen, as represented by the character Saleem Sinai. Rushdie defines the narrative's central issue as "the way in which public affairs and private lives intermingle and penetrate each other." He goes on to say, "So much about what goes to make an individual is either history or events ... over which he has no control." To have a character "handcuffed to history," born with the state, is to provide, not a stereotype or caricature, but a sensitive and acutely suffering human being. The story of Saleem's coming of age amid localized civic violence begins in the corresponding vulnerability of the infant body and the political body of a young nation. The markers for Saleem's developmental story and for India's, similarly, occur in tandem (together) on the dates of civil disruptions and territorial disputes.

Diction and Trauma

Midnight's Children is a history told in sensory terms. The author's diction, or word choice, captures the physical effects of trauma, hostility, and threats to the body. For example, bodies "crumble"; "blood plop[s]"; mountains "snarl" like "angry jaws"; a valley is circled "by giant teeth"; and a story does not end but is "put out of its misery." The births of a nation and of a suffering boy are histories of catastrophic danger told with graphic attention to physical detail.

Indian history from the period of Independence through the Emergency parallels Saleem Sinai's life from his birth through late adolescence. During this time, Saleem begins as a frail infant and matures without becoming fully adult. He is repeatedly exposed to violence and can only react to it. Similarly, the history of violence in the years of India's infancy is one of responses to threats and attacks.

Up to Saleem's organization of the Midnight Children's Conference, things happen to him; he is rarely the initiator. Similarly, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi advertises her official post-Emergency defenses for quelling violence as means of control and regulation or retaliation and defense.

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