Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Themes


History and the Individual

Key to the sensory nature of the text is Saleem Sinai's dependence on correspondences to make sense of Indian history within the context of events in his personal life—or more accurately, within the context of his sensory impressions of such events and the emotions he associates with them.

Correspondences between Saleem's experience and politics demonstrate the interrelationships between individual lives and public affairs, the ways in which Saleem, whose body may be construed as an accident in time and place, is handcuffed to history. His experience is specifically Indian and particular to the period from Independence to the Emergency. These coincidences, embodied within his experience, confirm his sense that he has a volume of stories, intriguing and unique, to add to the history of India. His exceptionalism, and moreover, his inflated sense of the importance of his contribution to history, his fear of failure, and his need to complete his story before he dies are rooted in his infantile experience, which includes two doting parents and a letter from the prime minister.

One correspondence in Saleem's collection of experiences begins with Jamila Singer's (also known as the Brass Monkey) habit of setting leather shoes on fire, which is linked to the Suez Canal crisis. Egyptian president Gamal Nasser's (1918–70) plan to nationalize the Suez Canal was potentially an economic disaster for most of the world. In the year of the Brass Monkey's mischief, Israel, joined on the ground by Britain and France, invaded Egypt. The results were an ensuing conflict and the subsequent decline in British power in the previously colonized territories. The Brass Monkey later burns the shoes of General Zulfikar, the leader of a military coup in Pakistan. Each act by the Brass Monkey exudes the stench of war. The smell of burning leather evokes the terrorist attack on Ahmed Sinai's warehouse. Saleem's explanation for the Brass Monkey's behavior is her wish for and her refusal of love. Certainly, powerful ambivalence (contradictory feelings) operates when postcolonial rulers oppose the behavior of prior colonies. For the colonized, the economic power of the colonist is a source of admiration. Nasser's nationalist move rejects colonial economic success, while at the same time it attempts to copy it. Similarly, economic terrorism is the impulse for the burning of Ahmed's warehouse. Hindu terrorists are intent on extorting money from wealthy Muslim businessmen.

Saleem's bleeding finger, the result of bullying by his classmates, operates in tandem with the bloody riots of 1958. Riots with high numbers of dead and wounded were common in Indian public life after partition and often involved groups with competing ethnicities, languages, or religions. In 1958 preelection and postelection riots resulted in bloodshed in the streets. Red is also a political allusion in this text. The "Reds" had some success in the general election that year, including a communist mayor elected in Bombay. The question of Saleem's background is raised in the episode of his bleeding finger. The originating circumstance, a chase by his bullying classmates and the questions raised about Saleem's background, resonate with the fear of difference and the measure of social status that unified animosities and led to riots. These antagonisms within the community resonate with Saleem's predicament, which poses questions that threaten his primary identity, his emotional stability, and his material survival. The fissures in his skin, especially his face, are signs of the beating his identity has taken from the moment that his finger is cut and his blood tested.

Saleem and Empathy

In Midnight's Children the main male character, Saleem Sinai, is impotent, as is Nadir Khan, the poet-lover of Amina Sinai. Saleem cannot fulfill what is, in the eyes of his culture, his mature, masculine function. Yet he rejects Padma's wish to find a doctor to cure his impotence. His sterilization during the Emergency guarantees his inability to father a child. On the other hand, Saleem, in his impotence, understands that there are other ways of bonding; in his view, "Things—even people—have a way of leaking into each other ... Ilse Lubin's suicide ... leaked into old Aadam and sat there in a puddle until he saw God. Likewise ... the past has dripped into me." Deep feelings do not demand a physical exchange. They are shared empathetically. Alia Aziz's food, for example, leaks her anger into the lives of the Sinais when they stay with her. Saleem's early telepathic intelligence, a magical and wordless transfer of feelings, begins in sensation. He is struck deaf in one ear by his angry father. Hearing impaired, Saleem turns inward, prepared to organize the energies of the midnight children for the cause of the state. Telepathy, in this case, is a magical explanation for empathy.

Saleem believes women have been most influential in his life, and he operates in an almost amniotic world (watery world of the fetus), where things "leak" into each other: people, ideas, wishes, desires. His is not a fully autonomous body, and the text confirms that in his associations with the political life of his culture. He takes personal responsibility for the war with Pakistan, observing that his thoughts leave through open windows and affect the minds of the military. In a parallel account, India's boundaries were not secure. In 1947 the young nation did not hold a vote to confirm the Kashmiri border. Subsequently, India was not able to resolve internal conflicts by redrawing state lines, which left Kashmir open to claims by China and Pakistan. India, in dealing with internal strife, preferred containment of similar populations and language groups rather than topographical markers. Boundaries in flux in over 41 cases tended to sustain rather than prevent instability caused by communal interests.

Dualism and Dissent

In despair over the growing hesitancy among the members of the Midnight Children's Conference, Saleem makes a last-ditch plea that they fulfill the promise of their birth by rejecting "the endless duality of masses-and-classes, capital-and-labor, them-and-us," and being rather "a third principle ... the force which drives between the horns of the dilemma." Shiva, Saleem's birth mate and alter ego, calling Saleem "a rich boy," responds: "There is only money-and-poverty, have-and-lack, and right-and-left; there is only me-against-the-world!"

The fissure between "duality" and the "third principle" described by Saleem is demonstrated throughout the novel. Modernization is one pole and religious rivalries and communal identity the other. Modernization fails when Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's (1889–1964) Five Year Plans designed to address industry, agriculture, and education fail. Religion and communal identity are stifled by the abuses designed in the name of Emergency. Population control, curfews, and the abridgment of civil rights are all attempts to restrain the masses.

Saleem Sinai, under the auspices of a storied grandfather, a scientist, influenced by his studies in German and his native political instincts, inherits a curiosity that enables him to change, learn from his encounters, and model the "third principle." His treatment by the American brat, whom he briefly loves, isolate him. His sense of exceptionalism, heightened by his birthday, the congratulatory letter from the prime minister, and later his M.C.C. transmissions, makes him an outsider. Like many outsiders with keen observational powers, he develops a sense of what drives others. His telepathic gifts, his ability to sniff out problems, his incarceration and torture, and his connection with Picture Singh allow him to consider communism at a historical moment when the choice seems practical.

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