Saleem Sinai is the protagonist and narrator of Midnight’s Children. He is born, along with one other child, at the exact moment of India’s independence. His identity, however, is switched at birth. As a result, he is raised by a prosperous family in Bombay, while his counterpart and future rival, Shiva, is raised in poverty. Saleem has the powers of telepathy and a preternaturally acute sense of smell, which allow him to find the other children of midnight and create the Midnight’s Children’s Conference. As he approaches his thirty-first birthday, he says he is nearing death. His body is literally falling apart, and it’s only a matter of time before he crumbles into dust. Driven by a desire to beat his biological clock, Saleem narrates his life story to his devoted and loving caretaker, Padma. His tale, which begins with his grandfather Aadam and is at times unreliable and contrived, represents not only his individual life story but also the entire history of postcolonial India. All the major events in his life correspond to important political events in Indian history, leading him to compare his narrative to religious texts. Given his fantastic birth and extraordinary powers, the prime minister of India, Indira Ghandi, seeks to destroy him along with the other midnight’s children.
Padma is Saleem’s loving companion and caretaker, and she will become his fiancée at the end of the novel. She is the audience for Saleem’s narrative. With strong, hairy forearms, a name associated with dung, and a cynical and often impatient ear, Padma represents the antithesis to Saleem’s magical, exuberant, freewheeling narration. She hurries the narrative along, imploring Saleem to get on with the plot rather than veering off into tangents, and often she expresses doubts as to the veracity of Saleem’s account. As a rhetorical device, Padma allows Rushdie the chance to acknowledge explicitly any doubts or frustrations the reader may feel in response to the novel. She is the practical voice of criticism. Because she is there to counteract its most extreme tendencies, she supports the novel’s more willfully excessive indulgences. Saleem’s frequent interruptions, digressions, and self-obsession are all, to some degree, made possible by Padma’s expressions of doubt and frustration: the two sides work together to create a holistic reading experience. By explicitly taking into account the difficulties of the narrative, Rushdie is able to move beyond them.
Born at the stroke of midnight and named after the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva is Saleem’s rival and counterpart. Switched at birth with Saleem, Shiva is robbed of his affluent birthright and raised in abject poverty. Blessed with a pair of enormous and powerful knees, Shiva is a gifted warrior and, therefore, a foil for the more mild-mannered Saleem. Shiva represents the alternate side of India: poor, Hindu, and as aggressive as Saleem is passive. As a young child, he is the leader of a street gang and possibly a murderer. He is driven by a determinedly individualist perspective and grows up unable to form any human attachments. Although he is a violent character, he is, nonetheless, a tragic figure, damaged and shaped by the forces of history and class. During the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, Shiva lives up to his name and becomes a war hero, eventually promoted to the rank of major. Along with his military reputation, Shiva also becomes a noted lover among the women of Indian high society, siring a number of illegitimate children. In the end, Shiva hunts Saleem down and turns him over to one the camps opened during Indira Gandhi’s state of Emergency, where Saleem, along with the other midnight’s children, is administered an operation that renders him sterile. In this way, Shiva manages to effectively destroy the children of midnight.
Indira Gandhi was the prime minister of India from 1966–1977, then again from 1980–1984, a term that ended with her assassination. Indira was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and the widow of Feroze Gandhi, an Indian journalist and politician. Though Mahatma Gandhi was a family friend and political ally, the two are not related.
In her first term, various political and economic reforms made Indira Gandhi highly popular, as did an Indian victory in the 1971 conflict with Pakistan over the creation of an independent Bangladeshi state. However, in 1971, Gandhi was also found guilty of election fraud. Rather than face charges, Gandhi declared a State of Emergency, tightening her hold over the government and ushering in a period of drastically reduced civil liberties, as well as a severe crackdown on political opposition. The emergency lasted nineteen months, after which Gandhi—misjudging the extent of the population’s resentment—held an open election and lost. She stepped down but was reelected to office in 1980. Four years later, after a disastrous series of events involving Sikh activists, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her and was also assassinated while in office, in 1991. The Gandhi family, however, continues to be a central force in Indian politics.
Long before Indira Gandhi enters Saleem’s story in a direct fashion, vague references to “the Widow” hint at her eventual role in the destruction of the midnight’s children. Her actual presence in the story is brief, but it is nonetheless of great significance. Throughout the novel, Saleem’s personal life constantly reflects India’s political turmoil. Finally, with the arrival of Indira Gandhi and the State of Emergency, Rushdie fuses the two narratives with a single crisis. The reforms of the emergency, which included a widespread campaign of forced sterilization, were widely seen as massive abuses of government power and human rights. The nation of India is metaphorically thrown into perpetual darkness just as Saleem’s wife, Parvati-the-witch, is killed and the magicians’ ghetto destroyed. By making Indira Gandhi’s campaign responsible for the destruction of the fictional midnight’s children, Rushdie holds her accountable for destroying the promise and hope of a new future for India.
Saleem’s younger sister, initially known as the Brass Monkey, is born into the world with little fanfare. She eventually grows up to become the most famous singer in Pakistan, adored throughout the country. As a child, Saleem notes that the Brass Monkey learned at an early age that if she wanted attention, she would have to make a lot of noise, which is precisely what she does. She becomes a mischievous child who garners attention by destroying things and remains unable to accept love throughout her adult life. The playful and impish nature of her youth is lost almost immediately upon her arrival in Pakistan. There, in a religiously devout country, she succumbs to the laws of devotion and patriotism, just as her brother becomes more invested in the profane elements of life. She goes through extraordinary lengths to keep herself veiled, and her voice is described as being “pure,” reflecting the ideals of a country that values wholesomeness in its women. Despite her devotion, Jamila Singer retains elements of her former self. She rebels against her dietary constraints by secretly eating leavened bread, baked by Catholic nuns, and she openly criticizes the Pakistani army when they abuse her brother.