The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007
Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
Reading with Literary Theory
Postcolonial Studies * Postmodernism * Ethnic Studies
Salman Rushdie's Midnight’s Children (1980), one of the most influential postcolonial novels, is a sprawling narrative told by saleem sinai. It begins with his grandfather in 1915, in the princely state of Kashmir, and proceeds through the major events of Indian history, beginning with the Amritsar massacre of 1919 then moving to Bombay and the creation of the Indian State (and the simultaneous partitioning of Pakistan), the Indo-Pakistan war, and the creation of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. From a Postcolonial Studies point of view, Rushdie's treatment of these historical events constitutes a revisionist critique of COLONIALIST and nationalist visions of India. Rushdie embraces the idea that “there are as many versions of India as Indians” (323). one version is offered up by Dr. Narlikar, who invents a concrete tetrapod to be used in land reclamation. (Bombay was erected on land reclaimed from the sea.) These lingam-like structures prompt him to meditate on the “old dark priapic forces of ancient, procreative India” (209). Dr. Narlikar is able to sustain in his imagination, simultaneously, a pre-colonial conception of India and a vision of a project that will help usher India into modernity. Rushdie operates in a similar fashion, appropriating a wide range of native cultural discourses (including Vedic texts, Bollywood films, the Arabian Nights, pop songs and magic shows, advertisements for wise men like Lord Khusro Khusrovani, and on and on) in creating his postcolonial fable, which links his novel to the story cycle of Scheherazade. In other ways, Rushdie appropriates narrative forms from Western traditions, including the multi-generational saga form favored by novelists, including D. H. Lawrence and John Forsythe, and the Bildungsroman. In Rushdie’s version, the narrative dynamics of the European Bildungsroman - a representation of the bourgeois SUBJECT'S harmonious self-formation - undergo a convulsive reorganization. Rather than occupy its own AUTONOMOUS narrative space, Saleem's Bildung unfolds within a dense historical and familial context. He is “buffeted by too much history” (37). Saleem is born at midnight, August 15, 1947, the very moment of India's independence. His ability to connect telepathically, via his hypersensitive nose, with the hundreds of other children born at midnight, all of whom also possess magical gifts, links his development to that of the
new Indian nation. The “children of midnight were also the children of the time,’’ writes Saleem. “[F]athered, you understand, by history” (137). His narrative is a “long-winded autobiography” (548).
Rushdie's Postmodernist critique of history takes the form of anonymous letters fashioned from newspaper cut-outs, which Saleem uses to gratify his desire for love and vengeance: “cutting up history to fit my nefarious purpose” (311). This instance of citation is joined by many others in which Saleem creates a network of INTERTEXTUAL references, or nodal points, which offer the reader alternative modes of constructing the narrative logic of the text. A good example is Aadam Aziz, Saleem's grandfather, who signals an intertextual relation with E. M. Forster’s Passage to india. Forster's protagonist, Aziz, is not only a doctor but a Muslim, and shares many of Aadam's attitudes. For example, Aadam IDEALIZES the “Kashmiri girl” (33), echoing Forster's Aziz who waxes eloquent on the independence of Indian women. This and other inter- textual connections to colonialist literature suggest to the reader a buried history of colonial and postcolonial India. Intertextuality also contributes to the METAFICTIONAL quality of Rushdie's text. Through ludic strategies of digression, repetition, summary, and prolepsis, the narrator draws the reader’s attention to the artifice of narrative, “laying bare” the devices by which the text is created as a work of art. Saleem himself refers to his “miracle-laden omniscience” (177), a phrase that captures well the quality of Rushdie's magic realism. In this regard, Midnight’s Children resembles Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, another novel with a strong Postmodern orientation towards magical, anti-realistic representation. Some postcolonial critics condemn Rushdie's use of Postmodernist techniques of representation, claiming they are signs of a commitment to European intellectual values. Others would claim that these same techniques make possible a strategy of “writing for resistance” that we find in many postcolonial texts. Saleem himself provides a wonderful conceit, in the Snakes and Ladders game, for a narrative PERFORMANCE that negotiates between magic realism and historical mimesis. “[I]mplicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent” (167). Snakes and Ladders vividly models the HYBRID nature of postcolonial life and offers a profoundly anti-narrative model for representing human experience: the interminable up-and-down of a Manichaean dualism and
the “sinuous” path of resistance to dualities of all kinds. In this case, Rushdie's postcolonial HISTORICISM - his “chutnification of history” - complements a Postmodern critique of history, for both are combating the influence of deterministic MASTER NARRATIVES.
Colonial and postcolonial SUBJECTS come of age in an environment in which identity is fractured along national, religious, and ethnic lines. Saleem is born on the hour of independence and lives to see his family claim Pakistan as its home. Can ethnic identities survive the breakdown of traditional geographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries? Can they survive the militancy of “language marchers” who use language as a litmus test for national autonomy? There is also the question of Saleem's patrimony. A disgruntled family retainer had switched Amina Sinai's baby for another. Saleem, it turns out, is the son of a low-cast Hindu woman and an Englishman. Due to the “accidents” of history, Saleem embodies the multiplicity of India, with its “infinity of alternative realities” (389). Negotiating a plurality of identities, some illusory, complicates self-formation, but it also suggests new modes of collectivity. One of the consequences of his Bildung-plot, entangled as it is with the history of the nation, is that his own racial and ethnic identity is HYBRIDIZED. Saleem's hybrid condition is dramatized by his ability to be a “receptor” for all of midnight's children: “I decided to form … a gang which was spread over the length and breadth of the country, and whose headquarters were behind my eyebrows” (247). These children are the outcasts of history; they represent the historical realities of migrancy and DIASPORA, the geopolitical consequences of COLONIALISM and DECOLONIZATION. Saleem ultimately cracks under the burden of multiplicity: “fission of Saleem, I am the bomb of Bombay, watch me explode, bones splitting breaking beneath the awful pressure of the crowd” (552). Rushdie challenges his readers to figure out how to respond to this image of an annihilated SUBJECTIVITY.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. New York: Penguin, 1991.