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Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

Book One: The Perforated Sheet, Mercurochrome

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Hit-the-Spittoon, Under the Carpet

Summary: The Perforated Sheet

Saleem Sinai opens the novel by explaining the exact date and time of his birth: August 15, 1947, at midnight. Saleem’s birth coincides precisely with the moment India officially gains its independence from Britain. Thus, as Saleem notes, his miraculously timed birth ties him to the fate of the country. He is thirty-one years old now and feels that time is running out for him. Saleem’s believes his life is ending and he must tell all of the stories trapped inside of him before he dies.

Saleem begins the story with his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, on an early spring morning in Kashmir. Saleem describes Kashmir as a place of incredible beauty and notes that, in 1915, Kashmir was still pristine, looking just as it had during the time of the Mughal Empire. At this point in the story, Kashmir is free of the soldiers, camouflaged trucks, and military jeeps that will come to characterize it in later years.

While praying, Aadam bumps his nose against the hard ground, and three drops of blood fall from his nose. As a result, he vows never again to bow before man or god, and consequently a “hole” opens up inside of him. Aadam has recently returned home from Germany, after five years of medical study. While Aadam was away, his father had a stroke, and his mother took over his duties in the family gem business. As Aadam stands on the edge of a lake, Tai, an old boatman, comes rowing toward him. Saleem describes Aadam’s features, particularly his prominent nose. Saleem also describes the enigmatic Tai and the local rumors that surround him.

Tai’s boat draws closer. He shouts out to Aadam that the daughter of Ghani the landowner has fallen ill. Here, Saleem interrupts his narrative to note that most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence, but he reassures us that he has the ability to see things he didn’t actually witness. In this way, he is able to describe Aadam taking care of his mother, attending to the landowner’s daughter, and being ferried across the lake by Tai, all at the same time.

At the landowner’s opulent house, Aadam realizes that the old man, Ghani, is blind. While waiting to see the patient, Aadam gets nervous and considers fleeing, but then he has a vision of his mother and decides to stay. Aadam is taken in to see the patient, who is flanked by two extremely muscular women holding a white bed sheet over her like a curtain. In the center of the sheet is a hole, approximately seven inches in diameter. Ghani tells Aadam that, for modesty’s sake, he can only examine his daughter through the seven-inch hole.

Summary: Mercurochrome

Saleem sits at his desk, writing. Padma, described as a great comfort despite her inability to read, cooks for Saleem and presses him to eat. Saleem returns to his story, saying that his grandfather’s premonition to run away was well founded, because, in the ensuing months and years, Aadam fell under the spell of the perforated cloth. The isolated parts of Naseem’s body that Aadam has seen begin to haunt him, and his mother notes that Ghani is using the illnesses as a ploy, to arrange a marriage between his daughter and Aadam. Saleem notes that his grandfather fell in love through a hole in a sheet and that this love filled in the hole left by Aadam’s renunciation of his faith.

Naseem experiences numerous ailments over the next few years, and, in each case, Aadam examines her by moving the sheet so that the hole exposes the affected area. However, as Naseem never develops pains in her head, Aadam never lays eyes upon her face. On the day World War I ends, Naseem finally complains of a headache, and the doctor receives permission to see her face, at which point he falls even further in love with her. In that same year, Doctor Aziz’s father dies, followed shortly by his mother. Ilse, Aadam’s anarchist friend from Germany, comes to visit him and deliver the news that their friend Oskar has died. Agra University offers Aadam a job, and he decides to leave Kashmir and proposes to Naseem. Ilse drowns herself in the lake that same day, in a spot where, as Tai once told the young Aadam, foreign women often come to drown themselves without their knowing why.

Padma, who has brought in Saleem’s dinner, interrupts the narrative and demands he read her what he has written. When Saleem returns to the story, it is August 6, 1919, and Aadam and Naseem are in the city of Amritsar. Mahatma Gandhi has issued a call for a day of mourning—Hartal—on August 7, to protest the British presence. On the day of Hartal, riots break out, and Aadam treats the wounded with Mercurochrome, which leaves bloodlike red stains on his clothing. Six days later, a peaceful protest erupts, in violation of the martial law regulations. The crowd moves into a compound, where Brigadier R. E. Dyer and his troops eventually surround them. Aadam’s nose begins to itch furiously. As the brigadier issues a command, Aadam sneezes violently, falling to the ground and thereby missing a bullet aimed in his direction. The troops continue to fire into the crowd. Of the 1,650 rounds fired, 1,516 find their mark.

Before concluding the chapter and going to bed, Saleem discovers a crack in his wrist. He then tells how Tai, the boatman, died in 1947, protesting India and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir. Tai walked to where the troops were stationed, intending to give them a piece of his mind, and was shot dead.

Analysis

Saleem’s account of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, resembles the story found in the biblical book of Genesis. Aadam’s name suggests the biblical Adam, the world’s first man. Adam and his consort, Eve, lived in the Garden of Eden, and Aadam’s hometown in Kashmir is similarly described as a lush, beautiful locale. The story of Adam, Eve, and their eventual expulsion from Eden provides Christians with an inaugural narrative, from which they can trace the development of the world. Similarly, the story of Aadam and Naseem in Kashmir provides Saleem with an original myth that helps shape and give meaning to the rest of his story. Rushdie’s use of the biblical tale demonstrates his willingness to incorporate and transform various literary traditions into his own narrative.

Aadam’s friend Tai plays an important role in the novel’s early development of certain symbols and themes. Although most of the local people attribute his seemingly nonsensical statements to delirium, insanity, or stupidity, Tai ultimately demonstrates great wisdom. Regarding Aadam’s prominent nose, Tai warns the boy to trust the nose’s feelings, as the nose will indicate when something is wrong. Here, Tai alludes to the important role noses will play not only in Aadam’s life but in future generations of his family. Tai’s comments also introduce the idea that sensory experience and instinctual behavior are linked entities. Most important, however, Tai’s warning suggests the ways in which personal and public concerns collide, a dominant theme of the novel.

ThroughoutMidnight’s Children, Indian and global politics resonate in the lives of the characters, often to an improbable degree. As Saleem’s grandparents fall in love, we witness the first occasion in which a great event in world history corresponds to a personal event in the lives of Saleem’s family: World War I ends on the same day that Aadam finally sees Naseem’s face. Rushdie links the two events to illustrate the ways in which humans rely on their individual experiences to make sense of huge, abstract historical events. Sometimes, public history and private history relate in parallel but apparently unconnected ways. Aadam doesn’t see Naseem’s face because the war has ended, but the two events seem linked, because each heralds a major transition. Sometimes, however, public and private histories intersect directly, as when Aadam participates in the proindependence riots and, miraculously, manages to avoid being shot. The proindependence riots are significant for the nation, but they gain an added significance for Saleem’s family, since Aadam’s experience there provides one more prominent example of the important role of noses play in Midnight’s Children.

From the very first passages of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie establishes the novel’s unique narrative voice. Saleem narrates in the first person, often addressing the audience directly and informally. He also writes in a prose style that feels spontaneous and improvised, as if he were writing his thoughts down as fast as he can, without stopping to revise or edit. Midnight’s Children doesn’t represent a cool, composed account of past events, nor does it resemble an objective voice recollecting events from a distant vantage point. Saleem rambles and veers off, rephrases and reworks, much as one does in coversation. This prose style is referred to as stream of consciousness, and, in its immediacy, it reflects Saleem’s desperate, urgent need to finish his tale before he dies.

The prose style also makes the novel resemble a session of oral storytelling, a feature highlighted by the presence of Padma, Saleem’s faithful listener and the reader’s stand-in within the pages of Midnight’s Children. At times, Padma plays the role of a passive audience member, while at other moments she actively interjects, making comments and suggestions and calling Saleem to task for some of his more excessive flights of fancy. In this way, acting on our behalf, Padma plays the role of skeptic and critic. Through Padma, Rushdie can anticipate and acknowledge the reader’s potential frustrations. By preemptively addressing any doubts and concerns we might have, Rushdie is then free to pursue the narrative as he sees fit.

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