Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Plot Summary

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Summary

Book 1

In the novel's frame tale, Saleem Sinai, the narrator, lives and works in a pickle factory supervised by Padma, an admiring yet critical witness to his story. Saleem is in a rush to get his story recorded, asserting that his "crumbling, overused body" is giving out. He knows he will die soon. He attributes this physical vulnerability to history: in particular, the turbulent history of India in the period from Independence in 1947 through the Emergency, which ended in 1977. Saleem, born in Bombay at midnight on August 15, 1947, believes he is "mysteriously handcuffed to history," his destiny "chained to those of [his] country."

For Saleem the cracks or fissures in his own body are caused by personal upheavals that occur in tandem with conflicts across the subcontinent. His personal difficulties include questions of legitimacy with respect to his birth, physical problems, conflicts with schoolmates and neighbors, difficulties with intimacy, divided loyalties, and, in general, a life lived as an outsider. The cracks or fissures in the subcontinental body have been created by shifting and redrawn national borders. Pakistan was separated from India in 1947—and peculiarly divided at that, with noncontiguous (not adjoining) borders constituting East and West Pakistan. Bangladesh (East Pakistan) became an independent state in 1971, while the borders of Kashmir (region of northwest India, bordered by Pakistan on the west) were disputed. Saleem's story proceeds in episodes that highlight correspondences between trauma in his life and historical upheaval. The latter include the invasion of India by China, the Indian invasion of Pakistan, the abuses of the Emergency in India, and decades of fighting over Kashmir. The situation is compounded by decades of resistance to modernization.

Saleem's family history begins in 1915 in Kashmir. Saleem's grandfather, Aadam Aziz, returns from Germany, where he studied medicine for the purpose of beginning a medical practice at home. He has given up his faith and vowed never to prostrate himself for "any god or man." This pledge, according to Saleem, "made a hole in him," leaving him "vulnerable to women and history." Dr. Aziz's vulnerabilities are documented in his marriage to Naseem Ghani, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Dr. Aziz's seduction is orchestrated by Naseem's father, who exposes Naseem to the young doctor bit by bit. During each medical call, the ailing girl is presented but curtained by a perforated sheet. The doctor examines her through a small hole in the sheet as she exposes only her afflicted body part. Dr. Aziz finally sees her face in 1918 on the date of the World War I (1914–18) armistice (end of warfare). This date foreshadows the terrible conflicts of the 20th century that follow the promises of the armistice. This historical allusion also foreshadows personal troubles for the Aziz family and its succeeding generations.

The Aziz marriage is not a peaceful one; nor is world peace to be a feature of 20th-century life. In India, conflict persisted internally and among the new nation-states and their neighbors. Agitation for independence from the British reached a pitch early in the 20th century. Aadam Aziz and Naseem (fictional characters) travel to Amritsar for their honeymoon, and on April 13, 1919, Dr. Aziz witnesses the massacre of Indians by the British at Jallianwala Bagh. The site of the massacre was a closed compound where thousands were pinned, when British general R.E. Dyer (1864–1927), martial law commander of Amritsar, and 50 of his soldiers blocked the entrance and fired upon the crowd. That day, 1,516 Indians died, and Aadam Aziz, who is saved by a sneeze and subsequent tumble, remains to treat the wounded in the crowd.

Naseem is horrified by her husband's bloody appearance when he returns to their hotel and is further disturbed when he encourages her to enjoy her sexuality. Aadam burns Naseem's purdah scarves (used to conceal women from public observation) when she rejects modern dress and behavior. The burning scarves bring firemen rushing into the privacy of her room. This intrusion marks the beginning of Naseem's resistance and dedication to domestic warfare.

By 1942, just as Aadam Aziz is infected by optimism with respect to Indian independence, Naseem, old before her time, retreats into "traditions and certainties." She becomes known as Reverend Mother, a pious woman divorced from the possibilities of change. Optimism for Aziz grows as resistance to the raj (British rule) increases. Aziz, who has kept his pledge to avoid religious practice, allies himself with Mian Abdullah (known as the Hummingbird), chairman of the Free Islam Convocation, a Muslim group that resists partition. Aziz explains his support by noting his own trajectory, first as a Kashmiri who is only nominally Muslim, then as a modern man who vows not to adhere to any religion, and finally a man who vows to be simply "an Indian." Aziz's developmental progression foreshadows Saleem's.

Aziz, the grandfather who is Saleem's model, and Reverend Mother have five children: three daughters, Alia, Emerald, and Mumtaz; and two sons, Mustapha and Hanif. The alliance between Mumtaz and Ahmed Sinai begins during a figurative dance of changing partners. Alia, the eldest, is engaged to Ahmed Sinai; Emerald, the youngest, to Major (later General) Zulfikar—a name that will figure prominently in the history of Pakistan; and Mumtaz to Nadir Khan, a young poet and lieutenant of Mian Abdullah, who takes refuge in the Aziz household after the assassination of his leader. Mumtaz and the poet, who has to remain in hiding, marry and live happily in the Aziz basement until Mumtaz catches the flu. When her father examines her, he finds that after two years, the marriage has not been consummated. Nadir Khan is sent away in disgrace. Alia's beau Ahmed Sinai finds that he prefers Mumtaz to Alia; the two marry, and Mumtaz changes her name to Amina. Alia vows never to marry.

Amina and Ahmed move first to Delhi, where she receives a puzzling prophecy from a fortune-teller named Ramram Seth: something about two heads, knees, and a nose. He also reveals, mysteriously, that the son she is carrying will never be younger or older than India. After a fire set by terrorists in Ahmed's warehouse, the couple moves to Bombay and buys a home from William Methwold, a British descendant of one of the earliest Brits to visit India. Methwold owns an estate of large homes built for British tenants, all of whom are preparing to leave as the raj ends. The sales contracts for Indian buyers stipulate that each new family retain the characteristics of the British lifestyle: household furnishings and habits such as joining the other tenants for cocktails at the proper hour each day. Among those gathered at the Methwold Estate are Wee Willie Winkie, who sings popular songs for the entertainment of the British. In addition to the sales contract with its strange requirement, Methwold leaves a part of himself in India. Winkie's wife, Vanita, is pregnant with Methwold's child, which is due around the same time as the Sinai baby.

The two women give birth at the stroke of midnight on Independence Day, and Amina's son, born first, is celebrated as the child of Independence. His photo is featured in the newspaper, and he receives a note of welcome from the prime minister. The mother of the second boy, Vanita, dies in childbirth. On the night of the births, Mary Pereira, the midwife at the Narlikar Nursing Home, sentimentally recalls her relation to a radical socialist named Joseph D'Costa. Full of political zeal and heartfelt purpose, Mary decides to make socialist amends. (Socialism is a political philosophy that advocates government ownership of the means of production and the resulting goods with no private property.) She switches the two babies, deciding to give the child born with little means an opportunity to enjoy the amenities of a rich family life. The child born to riches goes to the impoverished Wee Willie Winkie, who never learns about Vanita's adultery or the switch.

Equally unsuspecting, the Sinais take their son home. The boy has a huge nose shaped like a cucumber and eyes the color of the Kashmiri sky; in both features, he resembles the man who is presumed to be his grandfather, Aadam Aziz. The Sinais also have a second child, a daughter Jamila, nicknamed the Brass Monkey. In Saleem's telling, the key developmental moments in his life begin to operate in parallel with the history of the subcontinent when he turns 10. He also discovers he is telepathic—able to hear voices in his head and to know what others are thinking. The voices turn out to be the survivors of the 1,001 children born on Independence Day, a decade ago. He learns that the remaining 581 of his birth mates have magical powers, only varying in intensity by the proximity of their births to midnight.

Book 2

Saleem's coming of age parallels his growing awareness of the competition among India's diverse populations as well as their resistance to modernization and to Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's (1889–1964) Five Year Plans (national economic programs). Saleem comes to see himself as someone who can perform on a larger stage, solving national problems.

Saleem's adolescence is marked by key events in India. In 1956, while Jamila disturbs the peace by setting fire to the family's shoes, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser (1918–70) nationalizes the Suez Canal and incites the rage of a coalition of powers who retaliate with bombing raids. Nehru establishes himself as a force on the world stage as he brings together a coalition of unaffiliated nations as mediators in the conflict. In 1958 bloody riots and warring factions dominate in postelection India. Saleem follows his mother on one of her frequent outings and finds that she is secretly meeting her first husband at the Pioneer Café. Calling himself Qasim Khan, the poet has become an organizer for the Communist Party. The party has some success on the local level in the elections in 1957, the year that Amina Sinai discovers her lost love and her interest in politics.

The family moves to Bombay, where Saleem becomes the victim of pranks by bullying classmates. His sister, Jamila, nicknamed the Brass Monkey, is his best ally. Briefly, he enjoys the protection of Jamila's British girlfriends, but finally, under attack by cruel schoolmates, he loses the tip of his finger while defending himself. At the hospital, in need of a blood transfusion, Saleem learns that his blood type is not shared by either of his parents. Saleem is exiled to the home of his Uncle Hanif, a movie producer, and his Aunt Pia, an actress. His exile ends when Amina arrives with a gift, a pair of long trousers. His lifelong nasal congestion ends when Amina and Ahmed take him to a clinic where his nose is drained. Able to delight in the fragrances of all things, his telepathic abilities cease. He cannot contact the Midnight Children's Conference any longer. After Saleem returns home, Mary Pereira confesses her sin of switching the boys at birth.

Amina, unhappy with Ahmed's drinking and associated bad habits, moves to Pakistan with Saleem and Jamila. General Zulfikar, Emerald's husband, is part of a successful military coup in 1958. Saleem's political awareness grows, and he begins to think of himself as capable of influencing Indian history. He becomes aware of the eruption of riots, the growing influence of the Communist Party, and the emergence of women as political players.

Saleem's sense of smell becomes highly developed, and it informs his knowledge. The family moves to Amina's house in Karachi. Amina, Karachi, and Islam are identified by their objectionable odors: acquiescence and conformity; intelligence and stupidity; sadness and joy. Meanwhile, Saleem and Jamila, his sister, seem to possess complementary talents: he sniffs out ugliness and despair, while her songs produce poignancy and beauty.

In Karachi during the bombing of Pakistan by India, Saleem loses his family. Caught outside in a bombing raid, Saleem sees the family home destroyed. The treasured jeweled spittoon, the last artifact of the union between Amina and her poet, flies out of the open window of the exploding structure and hits Saleem in the head.

Book 3

Saleem becomes a tracker for the Pakistani army. Having suffered a head wound from the silver spittoon, he has amnesia. His name is unknown, and his habits of self-denial earn him the nickname the buddha. The only remnants of his past that he possesses are the silver spittoon and the abilities of his uncanny nose. The army of West Pakistan is doing a clean-up operation in Dacca (capital of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan), identifying and rounding up those who are suspected of designing or supporting partition. In flight from the atrocities committed by the army, Saleem and three soldiers commandeer a small boat and float south toward the Sundarbans, a dense jungle. There, beset by nightmares and the hardship of survival in the jungle, the memories of the three soldiers, who have been functioning in denial of their pasts, are restored.

Only the buddha is left without memory—until he is bitten on his heel by a blind serpent. He recovers and is able to recount his past. Only his name eludes him. A tidal wave sweeps the men out of the jungle and onto dry land, where one of the soldiers is killed by a sniper. Somewhere outside of Dacca, the survivors are distracted by a field of rotting corpses. They learn that the Indian soldiers have not been killed by guns but by an avenging soldier who murders by crushing his victims with his knees. In the field the buddha finds a pyramid of dying men, easily recognized by characteristics from which their nicknames have been made: Hairoil, Eyeslice, and Cyrus—Saleem's old crew from the Methwold Estate days.

In Dacca, the second of the buddha's group is hit by a hand grenade while the buddha is inside a shop purchasing civilian clothes. The little group plans to pass as civilians while completing their desertion. On Independence Day in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, Parvati-the-witch appears as part of a parade in celebration of secession. She recognizes Saleem and calls him by name. She also convinces him to flee in her magic basket. He disappears inside and is reborn in India.

Saleem leaves Parvati in the magicians' ghetto where she lives. He walks to Delhi (city in India) and spends 461 days mourning all members of his family in the home of Mustapha Aziz, his uncle and an official of the new government. Saleem returns to Parvati, who begs him to marry her. When he refuses, she takes up with Shiva, with whom she becomes pregnant. When Shiva deserts her as he does all his impregnated conquests, Saleem agrees to the marriage. Aadam Sinai is born after a long and difficult delivery. In the meantime, the city erupts in riots, and Parvati dies. Saleem continues his work of communist organizing with Picture Singh, Parvati's close friend who has become Saleem's chief means of support.

The rioting is finally put to an end when Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (1917–84), whose power has been lost and restored in a matter of weeks, declares an Emergency. The Emergency measures include a roundup of dissidents, clearing of the slums, involuntary sterilization, and regulations to address the issues of a burgeoning population, including strictly enforced curfews and other limits on civil liberties. Saleem is picked up and taken to the Widows' Hostel, a maharaja's (Hindu prince's) decaying palace commissioned as a home for widows and used during the Emergency as a place of detention for troublemakers. Saleem is tortured; included in the abuse is a vasectomy (surgery to produce sterilization). Saleem, under threat, gives up the names of the midnight children. Upon his release he returns to Delhi and finds the magicians' ghetto has been destroyed. He locates his old friend and snake charmer, Picture Singh, "the Most Charming Man In The World." He and Saleem travel to Bombay as a result of a challenge from a young snake charmer. When Picture Singh wins the competition, he and Saleem are treated to dinner. The condiment on the table is one Saleem recognizes. It is a Braganza pickle, the specialty of Mary Pereira. Saleem wanders through his old haunts in Bombay, marveling at the modernization of his city.

There he meets Padma, who is employed by Mary Pereira, the manager of the pickle factory. Thus events come full circle: Saleem and Padma are married on Independence Day. They become separated in the streets filled with celebrating crowds. Saleem, caught by the crushing crowd, falls. Handcuffed to history, he dies. He leaves behind an heir to Aadam Aziz's name and to his father's convictions: a boy, Aadam Sinai, who will endure the chaos and carry the family's convictions into succeeding generations.

Midnight's Children Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Saleem Sinai is born on Independence Day.

Rising Action

2 Saleem and Shiva are switched at birth.

3 Saleem watches Amina Sinai from the laundry.

4 The midnight children speak to Saleem.

5 Mary Pereira confesses to switching the infants.

6 Saleem loses his memory.

7 Saleem participates in the Dacca massacre.

8 Saleem recovers his memory.

9 Parvati-the-witch calls Saleem by name.

10 Saleem returns to India in Parvati's basket.

Climax

11 The magicians' ghetto is destroyed, and Parvati dies.

Falling Action

12 Saleem is captured and sterilized.

13 Having returned to Bombay, he meets Padma.

14 Saleem and Padma marry.

Resolution

15 Saleem dies in the crowd on Independence Day.

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