Midnight’s Children, Booker Prize winner in 1981,was Rushdie’s first successful novel, after the less fortunate Grimus. Generally defined as an example of magical realism, it already features many of the recurring themes of Rushdie’s poetics: 20th century India, his detached view of Islam and religion in general, and most of all a sort of manicheism, an equilibrium between loosely identifiable good and evil, whose clash is personified by the main character and their opponent, or by two main characters (topical examples are Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses, or Umeed Merchant and Ormus Cama in The Ground Beneath Her Feet).
Balance between opposites
A mixture of fiction and history, verisimilar and imaginary, Midnight’s Children is narrated in the first person by Saleem Sinai, one of the 1000 children born right at or soon after midnight on 15th August 1947, India’s Independence Day from the British Empire. Each child holds some kind of supernatural, magical power.
The perfect balance, so typical in Rushdie’s works, is denoted even chronologically here, with the Indian Independence Day being the perfect centre of the novel’s timeline. While the present time of the story is set at the end of the 1970s – 32 years after Saleem’s birthday – the first events he tells are about his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, in 1915 – 32 years before. Its central position makes that eventful night even more important: everything revolves around it.
Throughout the whole novel, pairs of characters are presented more or less in direct opposition to each other. As Saleem’s story serves as an allegory of India’s history, as we will see further on, these clashes also assume a specific metaphorical meaning: tradition versus opposition (Tai the boatman and Aadam Aziz, Salem’s grandfather); Muslims and Hindus (Saleem and Shiva); different visions of Islam (Aziz again and his wife Naseem). In a way, contrast is most frequent relationship between characters and, where events in Saleem’s life reflect historical events of India, these frictions represent clashes in the country’s society – a never-ending flow of conflicts between different ethnic groups, faiths, or political parties.
Aadam and Tai
At the beginning of the story, Aadam Aziz has returned to Kashmir from Europe, where he studied medicine. He is first presented through his relationship with Tai, an elderly boatman. They knew each other before Aadam left India, but when he arrives back to Kashmir, their friendship ends, apparently for no real reason: Tai appears to be angry at Aadam because of his bag “made of a pig’s skin that makes one unclean just by looking at it” (Tai’s own words). Their condition as counterparts is explicitly expressed by Saleem:
“[Tai] was the living antithesis of Oskar-Ilse-Ingrid’s beliefs in the inevitability of change… a quirky, enduring familiar spirit of the valley. A watery Caliban, rather too fond of cheap Kashmiri brandy”.
Oskar, Ilse and Ingrid were anarchist friends of Aadam in Germany. The clash between Tai and Aadam can therefore be interpreted in two ways. Most of all, they are images of the old and the new: apart from their age, Tai knows everything about Indian stories and traditions, while Aadam brings new ways of thought. Tai stands for ancient India, trying to preserve old knowledge and life-styles from changing; Aadam – his “antithesis” – is the new, the young leaving traditions behind (at the very beginning of the story, he decides not to pray God again, after he injures his nose against the ground while praying). The narrator himself says:
“I have Tai-for-changelessness opposed to Aadam-for-progress”.
Although never explicitly stated, Tai’s feelings towards Aadam can also be seen as a clash between West and East. Such clash can be seen more clearly after Aadam and Naseem’s marriage, in which Naseem ideally carries on Tai’s fight against her husband’s Western ideas: they argue when he fires their children’s Muslim tutor and when, Aadam expects Naseem to “move like a woman” in bed.
Saleem and Shiva, counterparts and doubles
“…but two of us were born on the stroke of midnight. Saleem and Shiva, Shiva and Saleem, nose and knees and knees and nose…”.
Shiva is another Midnight’s son, born in the same hospital and at the same time as Saleem. He is the child Mary Pereira swaps Saleem with, so he becomes the son of Wee Willie Winkie, a Hindu singer. Years after, he will become a soldier and will help Indira Gandhi hunting the other Children.
The opposition between Saleem and Shiva is also explicitly expressed since the very beginning of their life – even before, actually – : they predict to Amina Sinai, Saleem’s (or Shiva’s?) mother, that she will have a son with two heads, even though she will see only one, and that “there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees”. They have the same parents in a specular way: Saleem’s upbringing mirrors Shiva’s blood, and viceversa.
The prophecy talks about both of them – the nose belongs to Saleem, while big knees are Shiva’s feature – as if they were a single person, even though they have “two heads”. On the other hand,
“to Shiva, the hour had given the gifts of war (of Rama, who could draw the undrawable bow; of Arjuna and Bhima; the ancient prowess of Kurus and Pandavas united, unstoppably, in him!)… and to me, the greatest talent of all – the ability to look into the hearts and minds of men”.
Shiva is all that Saleem is not: he is a Hindu; he uses physical power (his huge knees); he is amazingly prolific; and he has children with almost every woman he meets. On the contrary, Saleem is a Muslim; he uses his “psychic” skills (even after losing them, he will still be able to “smell” emotions); he can not have relationships with any woman, due to his sister, and he will even be sterilised by Indira Gandhi’s men. Clearly, Saleem and Shiva are perfectly complementary. Shiva is Saleem’s inversion also in a more abstract sense: Saleem tends to consider many people as his fathers or mothers. Therefore, Shiva is prolific “downwards”, while Saleem “upwards”.
Lastly, they share their offspring too: after Parvati’s death, Saleem “adopts” her and Shiva’s son. It is as if things had been put in place:
“He was the true great-grandson of his great-grandfather…”
In this sense, Shiva’s identity could generate many doubts: are they – Saleem and Shiva – two different characters? They were born the same day at the same time, they share ancestors and son, and most of all they were announced as a single person and they complement each other. This is why we can almost consider Shiva as another side of Saleem, not just as another character.
The first-level meaning of their opposition is obviously religious: Shiva represents Hindus, and Saleem the Muslims. More importantly, Shiva represents the violent factions, the extremists (of both religions), while Saleem is an image for the moderates. This is perhaps the most meaningful implication of being two facets of India.
There is an even deeper side in this duality. We know that without Mary’s deceitful switch, Saleem would have been Shiva (a Hindu) and Shiva would have been Saleem (a Muslim). Therefore, they are but the consequence of what others are and have done: why fight in the name of politics or religion, then? This is possibly the main criticism to the Indian situation, and perhaps to the human condition in general, through the whole novel.
“There will be two heads – but you shall see only one…”.
Saleem and India were born exactly in the same moment and sometimes, he even talks about the country referring to himself:
“…newspapers celebrated my arrival, politics ratified my authenticity”.
Saleem’s bond with his country is also anticipated by Prime Minister Nehru, in the letter he sends to all the Midnight Children:
“We shall be watching your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own”.
Many events in Indian history have an equivalent in Saleem’s life, and even his face looks like a map of India, as Zagallo, the Geography teacher, says:
“In the face of this ugly ape you don’t see the whole map of India? […] See here – the Deccan peninsula hanging down! […] These stains […] are Pakistan! These birthmark on the right ear is the East Wing; and these horrible stained left cheek, the West!”
Amina’s prophecy (“There will be two heads…”) might also refer to this duplicity. Saleem is a metaphor for India, and like changes in his life reflect changes in Indian history, so both their ancestors coincide: he was raised by a Muslim family; without Mary Pereira’s intervention, he would have been Wee Willie Winkie’s and Vanita’s Hindu son; but his real father is Methwold, a rich English. The role of Mary Pereira, a Catholic nurse, is particularly interesting:
“Of course I have forgiven Mary her crime; I need mothers as well as fathers, and a mother is beyond blame”.
Mary is Saleem’s mother not only because he says so, but because without her action, he would have never been the Sinais’ son: she made him who he is.
Summarising, he is culturally Muslim, he has Hindu and English blood, but he owes all that he is to the action of a Catholic woman.
Here lies Saleem’s multiple essence: being the son of several people, he is several people. The “two heads” in the prophecy are not literally two, but more widely “more than one”: multiple.
A homage to India
Paraphrasing Borges, Saleem is himself and his circumstances:
“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. […] To understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”
India is also the result of the actions of that multitude: like Saleem needs Aziz’s nose, his father’s “ginns”, Methwold’s centre-parting, Wee Willie Winkie’s songs and Mary Pereira’s crime, so India needs the Muslims, the Hindus, the colonisers and the Christians to be what it is. Then, like Saleem, India is also a “many-headed monster” and, beyond the fights and conflicts between different ethnic or religious groups, this can be seen as a celebration of India, its history, its culture; in a few words: the richness of its multiple sides.
Extra-textual doubles: Saleem and Rushdie
Finally, it is impossible not to mention the relationship between Rushdie himself and Saleem, who is a sort of the author’s alter ego (just one more extent of his multiplicity). Both were born in 1947, and both their families moved to Pakistan in 1964. In that year, their lives take different directions, as Rushdie moved to London. Another meaningful common element is the paternal figure: like Ahmed Sinai, a businessman who became an alcoholic after going bankrupt, Rushdie’s father also had a drinking problem and in fact, he stopped talking to his son after Midnight’s Children was published. Thus, Saleem’s multiplicity acquires one more dimension, transcending fiction.