Category Archives: Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children: Unit Overview

The centerpiece of the second half of our course is Salman Rushdie’s sprawling 1980 novel, Midnight’s Children. Over the course of three weeks, you will prepare a 5-7 minute micro-presentation to deliver in class. That presentation will be paired with a post on the course blog that combines the close reading skills you’ve practiced in previous blog posts with an additional layer of informal, multimedia research.

The conversation you begin will be extended by comments on the blog. Everyone will contribute one comment that critically evaluates the close reading presented in the original post and recommends additional resources (web or print) that relate to the post and related presentation. You can add your comment at any point during the three-week unit.

The perforated sheet- history repeats in the family

The perforated sheet is used as a symbol throughout Midnight’s Children. Along with acting as a symbol, it describes how when lessons are not learned, history repeats itself within a family. Initially, Aadam Aziz meets his wife, Naseem, through the perforated sheet. The sheet was meant to protect her honor as he examined her ailing body parts. Aadam ended up falling in love with Naseem’s individual body parts because that’s all that he was able to see and appreciate at a given time. “Glued together by his imagination, she accompanied him on all his rounds, she moved into the front room of his mind, so the waking and sleeping he could feel in his fingertips the softness of her ticklish skin or the perfect tiny wrists or the beauty of the ankles; he could smell her scent of lavender and chabeli; he could hear her voice and her helpless laughter of a little girl; but she was headless, because he had never seen her face.” (22). This infatuation that developed did not make him truly love the whole being; only the individual parts. As a result, the couple’s love is never stable and complete. Not learning from her parents’ own mistakes, Amina attempts to fall in love with her husband by focusing on his individual body parts and characteristics. “Each day she selected one fragment of Ahmed Sinai, and concentrated her entire being upon it until it became wholly familiar until she felt fondness rising up within her and becoming affection and, finally, love.” (73). This also failed because Amina and Ahmed lacked the complete love that they needed to have.

 

Swallow the World

“I no longer want to be anything except what who I am. Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine, I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, every one of the now-six-hundred-million plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world”. (441).

This statement I feel encompasses aspects magical realism. Although it’s been discussed multiple times, a basic definition of magical realism is “where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment”. I see magical realism in this statement because it exaggerates the intensity of how dependent our lives are upon everyone and everything that came before us, I immediately a giant web of all the people in the world, mapping connections between each individual.

Many people agree that every action in our lives can have a consequence or an effect even on the most distant people and parts of the world. However, this statement is extreme. By saying “I am the sum total . . . of everything done-to-me”, Saleem is suggesting that without the rest of the world, he would not exist. On the other hand, he says “I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world”. This suggests that without his presence, the world would not be the same. So, an individuals existence is dependent on the rest of the world while the rest of the world is dependent on that individual. (This relationship makes me think of the childish question “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”).

As a Midnight’s Children, Saleem’s life is parallel to the occurrences in India. However, Saleem’s statement is not only true for the people born at the same time as him, but for every individual – regardless of their powers. This statement also exemplifies Saleem’s narrative – he jumps from story to story in attempt to tell every necessary detail needed to understand him and “swallow the world”

Lord Khusro: An Tragic Delusion

“KNOW, O UNBLEIVERS, THAT in the dark Midnights of CELESTIAL SPACE in a time before Time lay the sphere of Blessed KHUSROVAND!!! Even MODERN SCIENTISTS now affirm that for generations they have LIED to conceal from the People whose right it is to know of the Unquestionabel TRUE existance of this HOLY HOME OF TRUTH!!! Leading intellectuals the World Over, also in America, speak of the ANTI-RELIGIOUS CONSPIRACY of reds, JEWS, etc., to hide these VITAL NEWS! The Veil lifts now. Blessed LORD KHUSRO comes with Irrefutable Proofs. Read and Believe!” p. 306

Lord Khusro, formally known to Saleem as Cyrus-the-great, is a striking example of Rushdie’s ability to create an overblown, tragic story of delusion and lost friendship. This opening passage in Revelations gives us an immediate lens into the uncontrolled, oratorical and prophetical personality and lavish reputation of Khusro. Because Cyrus’s mother dealt with the loss of her husband through “erasing” his image from her son, this “meteoric rise” to celebrity status was not just something of legend, this was a reality for Saleem and for India.

It is important how Khusro’s opening fanfare in the chapter contains so many misspelled words and unnecessary capitalizations. This image is tangible to the reader. This overblown, emphatic, passage gives us a comical display of this alter ego created by Cyrus’s mother that, not to mention, originates from a Superman comic that Saleem gives to Cyrus. Saleem is fully aware that this personality, and the claims that come with it, are absolutely false; Kushro is only the “ghost of the boy who had been” Cyrus, Saleem’s friend. If Saleem had only stated the invalidity of Kushro’s claims up front, this passage would not have had the same effect. As readers, we would lose touch with Saleem’s true perception of this event that he experienced. Khusro’s posters and advertisements relish in the “dark midnights of CELESTIAL SPACE,” and falsely reveal that all “MODERN SCIENTISTS…for generations have LIED” to the world about the “HOLY HOME OF TRUTH!!!” Khusro is so absurdly concerned with the “ANTI-RELIGIOUS CONSPIRACY” pitted against him that he is willing to go against all credible and respected knowledge in the world to share the “VITAL NEWS!”

What is tragic on Saleem’s side is that he feels responsible for this. Because of the story he had given Cyrus in order to hear his lecture on anatomy, he allowed his “true innermost nature” to be “purloined.” This is very sobering because Saleem has a revelation, realizing how much of a responsibility he has in being “the magic child.” He cannot simply give his most prized comic book away, so to speak, he must always carefully search within himself, and always act in a way that is not just right, but sensible.

Perspective From A Basket

Shrouded in darkness, fleeing an untenable situation, is a situation that by its very definition is fraught with chaos and uncertainty. In Midnight’s Children, this scene is further thrown into confusion by the unreliable nature of the narrator. Though Saleem does escape, the method by which he does so is certainly worthy of no small amount of speculation.

“Saleem, shrouded in wickerwork darkness, was reminded of years-ago midnights, of childhood wrestling bouts with purpose and meaning; overwhelmed by nostalgia, I still did not understand what that something was. Then Parvati whispered some other words, and, inside the basket of invisibility, I, Saleem Sinai, complete with my loose anonymous garment, vanished instantly into thin air” (Rushdie 438).

Midnight’s Children is, in many ways, a surrealist book. This is due to the seeming ineptitude of the memory of the narrator; Saleem constantly cannot remember his facts with any kind of accuracy. This seems to be one of those times, as he could not have literally vanished inside of the basket due to some sorcery from a witch-woman. This passage highlights the volatility of the narrator and also his surroundings. Rushdie’s use of incongruity is a constant reminder to the reader that perspective is everything.  Throughout the novel, Saleem’s narrative is shown to be erratic. He consistently misremembers dates, or facts, but is unwavering in his version of events because, to him, that is how he has lived his life. Who are we, as the reader, to say otherwise?

History is written by the winners. We have all heard that statement before, and it is true. Saleem, however, brings a new view of history in the pages of Midnight’s Children. It may not be a story that is accepted, but to the character, it is real, and that is all that matters in the narrative. It is the version of events that is ingrained in Saleem, and through his eyes we see the world. It is for the reader to determine whether or not to join him in his (admittedly flawed) memories.

snakes and memory

“”‘I am glad,’ my Padma says, “I am happy your ran away.’ But I insist: not I. He. He, the Buddha. Who, until the snake, would remain not-Saleem; who in spite of running-from, was still separated from his past; although he clutched, in his limpet fist, a certain silver spittoon” (415).

Throughout Midnight’s Children, there are many references to both snakes and memory. Snakes come into play as part of Saleem’s favorite board game from his childhood. Saleem explains, “The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snakes and Ladders. O perfect balance of rewards and penalties!” (160). In the game, ladders are positive while snakes are negative, representing the ups and downs of life; however, Saleem explains further that in life, snakes are not always negative. Rushdi writes, “I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity–because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake” (161). Saleem believes that downs can lead to ups and vice versa. The symbol of the snake is used again when Saleem gets sick and snake venom is used to cure him. Snakes are supposed to be negative in the game, yet in life the snake venom literally heals Saleem, demonstrating the ambiguity of life.

Just as snakes saved Saleem when he was a baby, they saved him again when he lost his memory. Saleem cannot recall his past until the snake bites his heel. He believes that he is “Buddha” and the venom from the snake brings back his memory. The snake should represent a down, but instead, it helps Saleem. Life is ambiguous and there are no clear ups and downs because life is constantly changing.

This passage also brings up the theme of memory. Throughout the novel, Saleem has trouble remembering facts accurately, thus implying the importance of perspective in a story. Saleem’s trouble with memory allows the readers to see that the perspective of the person telling the story greatly influences the details of the story.  In this instance, Saleem cannot remember anything. When he cannot remember his past, he is unable to feel any emotions or to function as a normal human. In this respect, Rushdi is demonstrating the importance of memory to being a human. Even if memory is not always accurate, it is a big part of human nature. Humans think and act based on previous experiences and, without those experiences, life becomes nearly impossible to live. Therefore, along with the importance of memory, one’s past is equally as important. The necessity of memory demonstrates the importance of one’s past and also the importance of perspective.

In this passage, memory is highlighted by the symbol of the silver spittoon. Saleem does not remember his past and therefore does not remember the importance of the spittoon, yet he clings to it. The spittoon is an important tool in pointing out that importance of memory because the reader sees that Saleem is clinging to an object that is worthless without remembering the meaning.

Additionally, the snake and the spittoon are both symbols from games. Do games themselves have a meaning separate from the meaning that memory and snakes have in the story?

Saleem’s Death-Like Experience

 

Near-death experiences are a common occurrence in literature. Less common, however are death-like experiences. This is because, in reality, it is impossible to imagine what death, or being dead, is like. Midnight’s Children, however, is full of events and actions that blur the line between reality and fiction (as we have observed). One of these events is Saleem’s death-like experience.

“Memories of invisibility: in the basket, I learned what it was like, will be like, to be dead. I had acquired the characteristics of ghosts! Present, but insubstantial; actual, but without being or weight . . . I discovered, in the basket, how ghosts see the world. Dimly hazily faintly . . . it was around me, but only just; I hung in a sphere of absence at whose fringes, like faint reflections, could be seen the specters of wickerwork. The dead die, and are gradually forgotten; time does its healing, and they fade — but in Parvati’s basket I learned that the reverse is also true; that ghosts, too, begin to forget; that the dead lose their memories of the living, and at last, when they are detached from their lives, fade away — that dying, in short, continues for a long time after death.” (Rushdie 439).

In this excerpt, Saleem describes the death-like feelings that he experienced when he was magically made to disappear by the illusionist witch, Parvati. I am particularly fascinated by this excerpt, not because of the specific details that Saleem includes, but rather, because of the nature of death-like experiences. Since it is impossible (I think) for humans to have truly death-like experiences, and therefore, to have fact-based beliefs about death, the conclusions that Saleem draws from this experience are absolutely unique and magical. All people yearn to know what it is like to experience death; is there an afterlife? Is it just nothingness? Saleem is lucky enough that he is now able to answer those questions.

Consider The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan, the protagonist, finally experiences death, and as it happens, he describes the sense of enlightenment he experiences. He sees an overwhelming, yet comforting white light, which gradually blurs the mortal world until it is out of sight. This description is very similar to Saleem’s death-like experience. Saleem even acknowledges the carefree joy that he experiences: “I felt my hold on the world slip away — and how easy, how peaceful not to never to return.” (439).

Saleem carries his knowledge of death throughout the rest of his life, which is knowledge that nobody in the real world can definitely have. This contributes further to the magical nature of his character, placing him on a spiritual level that is unmatchable by any person in the real world.

 

Part of a Whole

“And do, bringing her gift of assiduity to bear, she began to train herself to love him. To do this she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioral, compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes…in short, she fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents, because she resolved to fall in love with her husband bit by bit” (73)

Amina begins to fall in love with Ahmed just like how her parents fell in love. Although there isn’t a physical sheet with a whole there, Amina imagines one and falls in love with Ahmed in parts. each day, she would pick a part to concentrate on until she loved it and them move on to another part. As each day passed, Ahmed began to transform into Nadir, the man Amina loved. She teaches herself to love Ahmed the way she loved Nadir, and eventually Ahmed transforms bit by bit into Nadir-look alike. Rushdie uses the part of the whole effect again here. When Aadam and Naseem fell in love with parts of each other, they didn’t love each other as a whole. They became distant and disagreed on numerous things, especially religious education. Now, with Amina following in her parents footsteps, it is a foreshadowing of the potential disagreements and hardships to come for the couple. By just falling in love with a part of the Ahmed, Amina is not taking into account of all the parts she doesn’t like, creating an illusion of love for Ahmed.

The part of a whole situation can also be related to India leading up to their independence. Rushdie uses a lot of historical patterns throughout the novel. Relating to Amina and how she only focuses to love parts of Ahmed and does not look at the whole, People also divide India into parts. The Muslim League in India is calling for a Muslim nation separate from India. The religious tensions between Muslims and Hindus causes people to only focus on parts of India, where to divide and what places has the majority of the Hindu or Muslim population. People only focus on the good parts of partitioning India rather than seeing the good in not partitioning it. However, it might show the down side of not partitioning India, where like Aadam and Naseem’s marriage, the whole was worse than the parts.

The Duality of Snakes

“Snakes can lead to triumph, just as ladders can be descended: my grandfather, knowing I would die anyway, administered the cobra poison. The family stood and watched while the poison spread through the child’s body… and six hours later, my temperature had returned to normal. After that, my growth-rate lost its phenomenal aspects; but something was given in exchange for what was lost; life, and an early awareness of the ambiguity of snakes” (169).

This event is a significant moment in Saleem’s life in two major ways. The first being that had the doctor not given him the poison, he would not have survived. Secondly, this event gives Saleem a unique perspective on good and bad and, in conjunction with his fascination with Snakes and Ladders, chance.

The game is based purely on chance and not at all on skill. Because ladders lead a player closer to victory and snakes take them farther away, it could be looked at simply as a game of good and bad with the ladders representing good and snakes representing bad. His life experience showed him that these things usually happen in pairs and that good and bad often balance out. After hearing of the assassination of Gandhi, his family lived in fear of an outbreak of conflict, the snake. “But for every snake there is a ladder,” and they discover that the assassin was not Muslim.

However, Saleem’s experience with the snake venom showed him that snakes can be a savior. Even though snakes are traditionally a sign of evil, he owes his life to their existence. Without snakes, there would be no venom, and without venom there would have been no cure for his typhoid. So in this situation, the snake is ironically the ladder. But as in all situations, there is also a metaphorical “snake” which in this case is the loss of his rapid growth-rate.

Midnight’s Children – Memory

“I told you the truth,” I say yet again, “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent versions of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.” (pg 242)

This is a part when Saleem decides to stop telling his story and reinforce to Padma that his being accurate in his descriptions of history and his past. Throughout the book until now, we hear Saleem tell these extravagant stories based on experiences he has had, but at the same time, I find myself constantly questioning what he is talking about and wondering if the history facts he communicates are accurate.

In this chapter, “At the Pioneer Cafe,” Saleem experiences a fever-induced dream about a person called “The Widow.” The role of this person is to destroy children by tearing them in half. After speaking about the dream is when he decides he needs to tell Padma that he is speaking the truth, but “memory’s truth.” What I believe he is trying to convey is that he is telling his stories based on his memory, but that memory has changed because of other actions throughout his life since then. As crazy as the stories he tells are, he believes them to be true more than anyone else can. But how can anyone else believe the things he says?