Literary Analysis of Salman Rushdie’s Novel Midnight’s Children

Salmon Rushdie’s Booker prize winning novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), is a story of a post-colonial India struggling to reconcile with its fragmented cultural and national identity, a story told allegorically through the life of Saleem Sinai. Rushdie’s unique language and the allegories of Saleem and the Midnight’s children, reveal that in a post-colonial India struggling to reconcile with the lasting cultural fragmentation caused by British Imperialism, it is precisely the multiplicity and fragmentation of Indian society and culture that defines the unique national identity of this fledgling nation.

Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, pioneers a new wave of Indian English novels and he deliberately goes against the previously dominant Forsterian literary discourse. In an interview with BBC, Rushdie recounted that when reading such novels as E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India, he was struck by the realisation that this was not the India that he was familiar with. Rushdie told BBC that India wasn’t “cool and classicist”, it was “noisy and sensual”. The NY times reported that in Midnight’s Children, “the literary map of India is about to be redrawn”. Rushdie believes that India should be portrayed in the entirety of its multifaceted reality, not dimming the lights on the British and westernised elements of India, but also not merely writing about “village life and social ills”. Rushdie’s novel is of paramount importance in the post-colonial Indian discourse, due to its ability to truly represent the plurality and diversity of Indian culture in its entirety, pioneering a new wave of Indian English novels.

Midnight’s Children is an exploration of India's post-colonial national identity, after 'Partition', the division of British India into two separate states, India and Pakistan in 1947 and the resulting cultural fragmentation and chaos that caused events such as the language riots in Bombay between the Gujarat and Marathi speaking people in 1956. However, to understand the concept of national identity, the concept of ‘nation’ itself must first be explored. Many philosophers and scholars have attempted to assign a definition to this often elusive concept. Benedict Anderson, a renowned Irish political scientist and historian, defined the nation as “an imagined political community” and the philosopher, Michel Foucault, defined ‘nation’ as a “discursive formation”. Rushdie introduces his own concept of nation that is specifically applicable to the post-colonial situation of India, saying that “the nature of Indian tradition has always been multiplicity and plurality and mingling… the idea of a pure culture is something which in India is, let’s say, even politically important to resist”. Rushdie reveals that the Indian nation is a diverse discourse that exists in many different fashions and that is defined by its diversity. Rushdie recognises that no singular definition can be placed on such a vast concept and that ‘nation’ is not a term waiting for a proper definition, but it is the combination of the variegated cultural influences from across the broad Indian social landscape, that form a nation that is united through its chaos. Saleem states that “To understand just one life you have to swallow the world ... do you wonder, then, that I was a heavy child?”. This macrocosmic metaphor emphasises Rushdie’s portrayal of the nation as multiplicitious and dense, something that cannot be constrained to a singular definition. Instead of limiting the discourse of ‘nation’ to a singular reality, Rushdie explores the concepts of nation and national identity in post-colonial India, symbolically through the character of Saleem Sinai.

Rushdie presents Saleem’s life as an allegory for India’s post-colonial experience after Independence and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Saleem laments that “thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks, I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history”. Saleem receives a letter, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who writes “you are the newest bearer of that ancient face of India which is also eternally young” and this metaphor instantly links Saleem with the nation of India. Rushdie’s choice to explore the story of India’s post-colonial history symbolically, using Saleem, not only creates a more personal recount that inspires extraordinary empathy from his audience, but “the symbol creates the illusion that we have grasped an undefined term”. Rushdie succeeds in grounding in reality, an idea of nation that seemingly defies traditional rationality and this symbol allows him to exhibit India in the way that it deserves, in the full splendor of the multiplicity of humanity that it possesses.

Rushdie uses Saleem to unite the main three conflicting religious presences in India harmoniously under one roof, illustrating once again that “Midnight’s Children is a novel about the enabling power of hybridity”. Saleem’s birth mother is a Hindu woman who had an affair with his father, a British Christian named Methwold, an allusion to William Methwold, a British coloniser. However, Mary Pereira, a nurse, puts “on the ankle of a ten-chip whopper with eyes… as blue as Methwold’s… this name: Sinai”. Therein, Saleem is given by fate to Muslim parents and raised as their son, the nurse being the only person aware of these events. Rushdie utilises this literary cliché of a 'changeling' to present Saleem as the unification of India’s main religious sects, continuing the theme of Saleem as a symbol for the whole of the nation. In addition to the views of the Prime Minister referred to above, further on in the novel, Saleem’s half-mad geography teacher, Mr. Zagallo, embarrasses Saleem in front of the class by criticising his facial features, comparing them to a map of India: “‘Thees stains’ he cries, ‘are Pakistan! Thees birthmark on the right ear is the East Wing; these horrible stained cheek, the West!’”. Through this imagery, Rushdie successfully uses the character of Saleem to unite not only the religious elements of India, but the geographically disparate cultures too, including that of India and Pakistan. It is true that “we can regard the body allegory as the ‘official’ allegory of the nation” and Rushdie’s sophisticated use of symbolism serves to portray the vast multiplicity of Indian society, but also to reveal that despite cultural variegation, India’s unique identity as a nation lies in its hybridity.

Rushdie further develops his use of symbols to explore the unique national identity of India that defies restrictive and singular definitions, through his introduction of the Midnight’s Children Conference and use of magic realism. Saleem recounts that “Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence” and these 1001 children who were born at midnight were all gifted with unique and supernatural powers. Rushdie uses this magic realism and the allusion to the 1001 Arabian Nights, to link the midnight’s children with the ancient and superstitious Indian culture, but the time of their birth makes them children of the new India. Rushdie once again cleverly uses symbolism to unite the ‘old’ and ‘new’ India in the midnight’s children. Furthermore, the midnight’s children also “represented the variegated religions and culture prevalent in India.” Saleem describes them as a “many headed monster, speaking in myriad tongues of Babel”, but his gift of telepathy brings all these children together in a ‘conference’ of his mind, furthering the symbol of Saleem as the uniting force of India. However, this metaphor also has a dark side, as the disintegration of the so called “Midnight’s Children Conference”, represents the decline of India and the struggles it faced as a fledgling nation. This is most obvious when, after one year of existence, Saleem’s ‘imagined community’ “finally fell apart on the day the Chinese armies came down over the Himalayas to humiliate the Indian fauj”. Rushdie also again links fantasy with reality, when Saleem recounts the events of the mass sterilisation of the 581 Midnight’s Children who had survived up until that moment. This is a direct link to the 1975 ‘Emergency’ of India, initiated by Indira Ghandi, in which ‘sterilisation camps’ were present. Rushdie uses the Midnight’s Children to explore history in a very postmodern way, that is fragmented and plural, but completely unrepressed. Saleem describes the nation of India as a “miracle” and Rushdie certainly supports this statement, representing the nation symbolically as a “transcendental entity”, constantly adding multiple layers of meaning throughout the novel, to express the idea that whilst India is the very essence of multiplicity, it is a unique and wondrous formation, which is precisely what defines it as a nation.

Rushdie’s extensive use of magic realism can also be seen as a method of exploring the “sweep and chaos of contemporary reality and its resemblance to a dream or nightmare”. Rushdie uses this magic realism as a way of writing against traditional Western singular realities and instead writes “beyond the confines of the established and political social structures”. It is the magic realist form of the narrative, specifically regarding the gifts of the midnight’s children, that allows Rushdie to smuggle Saleem into every important political event of India’s first 30 years of independence, including the language riots in 1952, where Saleem claims he gave the “language marchers their battle-cry”. Rushdie’s extensive use of magic realism allows the characters to be transformed into symbols and metaphors and for their stories to be interpreted on many different levels. For example, an independence movement leader before Saleem’s birth, Mian Abdullah, is assassinated, although the novel recounts that “His body was hard and the long curved blades had trouble killing him”. Abdullah’s physical toughness defies reality and this allows it to be interpreted on a symbolic level, representing the difficulty of the British in suppressing the culture of an entire nation. Another example of Rushdie’s magic realism is the “fountains of confusion” released by a supposed “supernatural invasion” where “the past of India rose up to confound her present; the newborn secular state was being given an awesome reminder of it’s fabulous antiquity”. This example also serves to illustrate the confusion surrounding national identity and the conflict between the religions of Hinduism and Islam that dominated the society. Through magic realism, Rushdie expresses a “genuinely ‘third-world’ consciousness” to contrast the dominant Western discourse and to provide possible alternative hermeneutics of history, challenging the hegemonic power structures of British Imperialism.

Rushdie’s post-colonial exploration of national identity can be further seen in his use of language to repair power imbalances between the colonisers and the colonised. Language becomes one of the central issues in post-colonial studies, because colonisers use repression of traditional language and the imposition of their own language, to perpetuate and assert their own definitions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. Ever since the 17th century in India, “it has been impossible to deny that there was one language for the powerful and another for the powerless”. However, Rushdie approaches English in a new way, reforming the colonisers’ language as an act of resistance against the hegemonic discourse of British imperialism, redesigning a colonial language to reflect India’s post-colonial experience. Rushdie’s unique use of language “helps to establish a wider ethnocentric base for the English language creating an Indian blend of English”. Rushdie himself does not believe however, that English is, or should become, an alien language in India, instead pointing out that English has become an ‘Indian’ language and that the Indian-English is not the same as western English. Rushdie claims that “language, like much else in the newly independent societies, needs to be decolonized”, and his own unique language “can only be described as ‘Rushdiesque’”.

Rushdie believes that the multiplicity and mixed traditions of India are what give it its unique identity as a nation and instead of completely rejecting the Western influences brought to India by centuries of colonial occupation, he believes that these influences have in many cases, been reimagined and have become uniquely Indian. Rushdie’s unique language, his use of magic realism and the allegorical characters of Saleem and the midnight’s children, reveal that in post-colonial India, it is precisely the multiplicity and fragmentation of Indian society and culture that defines the unique national identity of this fledgling nation. 

09 March 2021
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