“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will wake to life and freedom.”
1947 was a year of inconceivable chaos and shock for the Indian people. As Lord Mountbatten carved up the sub-continent in his haste to secure a position of political indifference for the British towards the impending civil war, hundreds of thousands of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were being subjected to the most macabre of tortures and death. Still more were left with no idea of whether their homes now fell into Indian or Pakistani territory. At the time, this was of no consequence compared to the constant threat of savage revenge attacks from opposing religious factions. The terror and deep suspicion which permeated the bloody birth of India and Pakistan were to become the new nations’ recurring nightmare.
The trauma of Partition threw into question whether Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of a ‘New’ India could possibly survive. The apportioning of blame and bitter anger at what had been allowed to happen was directed with full force by the media at key political figures which now assumed responsibility for the implementation of peace and progress. The next three decades did nothing to assuage fears of further bloodshed, and incredulity towards the grand promises of the future became a complete loss of faith.
In 1981, a novel as grand in scope and substance as those promises was published. Midnight’s Children, written by Salman Rushdie, exquisitely allegorised the legacy of Partition to create a commentary addressing its reality. By accident of birth, the story’s protagonist, Saleem, is born at midnight on August 15th 1947 – the moment of India’s Independence, and so he is “handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.” The novel’s conceptualisation of Saleem as India itself is the book’s central premise, and Rushdie’s most forceful accusation regarding the cause of the country’s continual political victimisation. As soon as he is borne from his mother’s womb (a metaphor for the relative comfort of British rule), Saleem is under immense pressure to ‘end up meaning…something.’ His subsequent authorial quest for such meaning leads him to the construction of a self-centred past in which he alone assumes responsibility for key events in national history. This can be interpreted as Rushdie’s critique of India’s idea of itself as central to its failure.
The importance of nationalism in India’s struggle to gain independence from the British was paramount because it united the masses in common purpose. Through strengthened self-definition, it became easier to project the idea of ‘other’ onto their rulers. For the Indian people, however, a unified identity was hard to conceive because of the country’s inherent multitude of varying languages, cultures and religions. Much of the coloniser’s hegemonic success relied upon the internalisation of its definition of ‘Indian’ by those it sought to dominate. In so doing the population of India began to categorise itself according to the simplified British view of Indians – through religion. The Indian Nationalist Movement saw its greatest weapon against Empire as the fore-grounding of religious identity. This required new interpretations of ancient texts and of historical events, many of which had not been recorded in writing, but passed down orally through the generations. As religious identity became more clearly defined, a growing chasm appeared between not only the Indian and the British, but between Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus themselves.
Rushdie’s scepticism towards nationalism and the ultimate (un)reality of nation itself as little more than myth is a fundamental theme in Midnight’s Children. Just as India attempted to define itself as a united nation which incorporated all its constituent diversities, Saleem tried to unify “the so-called teeming millions, of masses and classes alike [which] jostled for space within my head.” By right of birth, he had inherited the magical ability “to look into the hearts and minds of men.”
Saleem’s self-conscious reconstruction of his past is Rushdie’s theory of how ‘nation’ is formed as an ideological tool. As noted by Abdulrazak Gurnah in his Themes and Structures in Midnight’s Children, Saleem is absent from his own history for one hundred and sixteen pages of the novel; it actually begins with the story of his grandfather. According to Timothy Brennan in his seminal work Salman Rushdie and the Third World, the marking of a distant “point of origin” plays a key role in the formation of national identity:
“This zero point or starting point is what allows ritual repetition, the ritualisation of memory, celebration, commemoration – in short, all those forms of magical behaviour signifying defeat of the irreversibility of time.”
Throughout the narrative, Saleem makes repeated references to the legacy left to him by his forefathers, including his extraordinary olfactory powers and the “superb silver spittoon, inlaid with lapis lazuli” By also ‘filling in the gaps’ of a history in which he is ultimately found to be uninvolved, Saleem situates himself in a present which is firmly rooted in the past. The representation of time in the novel emphasises the creative and therefore artificial nature of history. As highlighted by Brennan, the narrative is constantly interrupted:
“We are…always being shown ‘the hands holding the strings’ (MC, p.72), are having the metaphors cut short by on-the-spot explanation, are being directed to the future or the past, the beginning or end of the book, instead of being ushered on to ‘what-happened-next.’”
This constant, non-linear shifting of time is important for two reasons. The first is that it illuminates the selectiveness of writing; the juxtaposition of events from different time periods puts them in an altogether different context than when presented chronologically, thus revealing much about the author’s intentions. In Saleem’s case, his purpose is to place himself as a central character in his story with strong genealogical heritage. The second is that it shows the reliance of the historian upon the inaccuracy of memory, despite the distortion it must inevitably undergo if the memory is not first hand.
Rushdie deliberately presents Saleem as an unreliable narrator in order to show the fragility of ‘nation’ as a concept; that although it has the power to ‘…rouse unlike peoples in dramatically unlike conditions in an impassioned chorus of voluntary co-operation and sacrifice,” it is fundamentally a construct.
The myth of nationhood is further exposed through the Children of Midnight themselves, of whom Saleem and his nemesis Shiva are both members. The Conference signifies the five hundred and eighty one men and women who were to become members of the new Indian parliament. That they all possess some form of supernatural power according to their proximity of birth to the hour of midnight emphasises the impossible promise they carry for the realisation of national fulfilment. But as Gurnah points out, that promise was inevitably broken:
…corruption and cynicism could not allow [them] to survive. Nehru’s great ambition for post-independence India begins to disintegrate almost as soon as India is founded, in the partition violence and in the language marches.
After three Five Year Plans, the end of the Nehru era and India’s conflicts with Pakistan and China, the most frightening moments of the country’s fledgling history arrived. Under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, her father’s vision of a free and democratic India was forgotten. After her party and the people realised the transparency of her image of democracy, they saw the emergence of her true “inclination and conviction [as] a dictator.” Having been found guilty on two out fifty two charges of campaign malpractice during previous elections, the Prime Minister declared that India was in a state of emergency. This period was to last almost two years, during which time Gandhi proved her true nature. Depending on whose reports were to be believed, anywhere from “a few thousand [to] fifty thousand” strike leaders and protesters were imprisoned, the press was meticulously censored and opposition parties were banned. Perhaps the most shocking violation of human rights imposed by her were the wholesale demolition of slum areas and the enforced sterilisation of “men with two children or more, especially in crowded…towns”
Rushdie’s scathing representation of Indira Gandhi in Midnight’s Children belies an anger felt by the masses at the time:
…green and black the Widow’s hair and clutching hand and children mmff and little balls and one-by-one and torn-in-half and little balls go flying green black her hand is green her nails are black as black.
Saleem is unable to describe her as anything other than the monster of nightmares, and the absolute failure of the legacy of Partition is made clear. He and the majority of the other Children of Midnight are rounded up and forcibly subjected to sterilisation; the parliamentary members they signify are rendered impotent, unable to wield their governmental powers. Despite the hopelessness of Rushdie’s representation of the Emergency, he still has faith in yet another positive vision of India. Saleem’s wife at the time, Parvati the witch, is pregnant, and her long, agonising labour lasts thirteen days, the amount of time between Gandhi’s indictment and her announcement of the Emergency. Aadam Sinai is borne from the coupling of two the most powerful of Midnight’s Children, Parvati the Witch and Shiva. He is offered as India’s new promise, as are all the other children whom Shiva has fathered:
We, the children of Independence, rushed wildly and too fast into our future; he Emergency-born, will be is already more cautious, biding his time; but when he acts, he will be impossible to resist.
Although Midnight’s Children consistently exposes the idea of nationalism and nation as myth, Rushdie implies that hope is to be found in the new generation of Indian people who, with the benefit of hindsight and caution, will be able to generate a counter-myth of their country. Acknowledgement is made of the defensive power of nationalism, as long as careful consideration of its contrived nature is taken into account. Yet the novel ultimately displays a distinct cynicism towards the possibility of a new vision based on collective ‘imagi-nation’ which can realise a free and tolerant human reality. Despite the meticulous and exquisitely skilful creation of a narrative which continually sheds new light upon a myriad of contemporary issues, Rushdie failed to make any mention whatsoever of Gandhi’s National Movement and “rushes from Amritsar in 1919 to Agra in 1942.” In so doing, he poignantly makes his clearest statement regarding the detrimental consequences of nationalism.
Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Great Britain: Jonathon Cape Ltd., 1981.
Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1989.
Gurnah, Abdulrazak. The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India, 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
 Ibid., p11.
1 thought on “Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ and the legacy of Partition”
Pingback: WTF, Ukraine: Kin Selection and the Death of Nations | The Antisocial Darwinist