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Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

How Saleem Achieved Purity

Drainage and the Desert, Jamila Singer

Book Three: The Buddha, In the Sundarbans

Summary

Saleem recounts the events leading up to midnight, September 22, 1965, the moment he achieved purity. Saleem begins to have dreams about Kashmir and says that his dreams spilled over into the general population, becoming public property in 1965. In that year, India and Pakistan fought their second war, largely over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Reverend Mother and Saleem’s aunt Pia now run a petrol (gas) station. As Reverend Mother grows larger and hairier with age, Pia embarks on a series of romantic liaisons. Meanwhile, Alia’s bitterness begins to take effect, and she exacts her revenge through her cooking. In January, Amina becomes pregnant. Alia’s cooking causes her to have terrible nightmares, and she begins to shrivel and age rapidly. Ahmed, distraught over his wife’s condition and poisoned by Alia’s cooking, becomes listless at work, and the factory begins to fall apart.

In April 1965, Zafar, now a lieutenant in the army, is dispatched to help guard the Rann of Kutch, a disputed territory on the border between India and Pakistan. While waiting for replacement troops, he and his companions think they see a ghost army descending on them. Zafar and his troops lay down their weapons, only to discover that the ghost army is actually a band of smugglers working with General Zulfikar’s full permission. Zafar returns to his father’s house and slits the general’s throat with a curved smuggler’s knife. As a result, Emerald is given permission to emigrate to England, though the war prevents her from leaving the country.

On the first day of a short-lived peace between India and Pakistan, Ahmed suffers a stroke that leaves him partially paralyzed and nearly infantile. Saleem says he’s now convinced that the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 took place solely to eliminate his family. On the night of September 22, 1965, air-raid sirens ring throughout Pakistan. The first bomb that falls kills Reverend Mother and Pia; the second bomb hits the jail and releases Zafar; and the third destroys Emerald’s house. Of the three bombs that land in Karachi, one kills Major (Retired) Alauddin Latif and all of his daughters.

While the bombs fall, Saleem rides his Lambretta toward his home. Two final bombs fall from the sky. One destroys Saleem’s mother and father, his unborn sibling, and his aunt Alia. The other destroys the unfinished house Ahmed had been building for the family. As Saleem’s house crumbles, the silver spittoon that once belonged to his grandfather hits him in the head, erasing his memory entirely and thus purifying him.

Analysis

In this chapter, private and public histories become completely fused and thoroughly inextricable, as the narrative hurtles forward to a shocking, yet seemingly inevitable, catastrophe. Saleem claims that the war of 1965 occurred for two reasons: “because I dreamed Kashmir into the fantasies of our rules; furthermore, [because] I remained impure, and therefore the war was to separate me from my sins.” Once again, Saleem claims personal responsibility for large-scale, national events. Saleem begins dreaming about Kashmir—the beautiful, idyllic landscape that was his grandfather homelandand which remains to this day a symbol of great national pride for Indians and Pakistanis alike. In the first chapter of the novel, Kashmir was presented as an heir to the biblical Garden of Eden, with Aadam and Naseem playing the roles of Adam and Eve, the world’s first man and woman. In the Christian faith, Eden represents a vanished perfection to which humans aspire yet can never attain on the physical, earthly plane. Exhausted, Saleem yearns for a return to uncomplicated purity. As readers, we too may feel exhausted and worn-down by the endless complexities of Midnight’s Children and wish for a return to a less-convoluted narrative, such as that of the novel’s opening chapters.

However, just as Adam and Eve can never return to Eden, Saleem cannot return to Kashmir—at least, not to the Kashmir he remembers through Aadam. That Kashmir doesn’t exist anymore, a fact Saleem himself hints at when he first describes Aadam’s Kashmir and claims that “[i]n those days there was no army camp at the lakeside, no endless snakes of camouflaged trucks and jeeps clogged the narrow mountain roads, no soldiers hid behind the crests of the mountains past Baramulla and Gulmarg.” Even at the beginning of the novel, the beauty of Kashmir is tainted by hindsight. In 1915, the valley may have seemed “hardly changed since the Mughal Empire,” but by the time Saleem begins telling his story, Kashmir has transformed irrevocably. Whether or not we believe Saleem’s claim that he directly influenced the political situation, his dreams remain a concrete expression of the nostalgia and desire that fed India and Pakistan’s struggle over Kashmir. Saleem’s inability to recapture his lost Eden reflects the futility of the unyielding struggle between India and Pakistan for control of the region.

Saleem also claims to Padma that the India-Pakistan war of 1965 was a personal Jehad, or holy war, against him. Before Saleem’s family gets eradicated, bitterness and deception have already brought them to the breaking point. Since arriving in Pakistan, each of their lives has taken a drastic turn for the worse. Rushdie accelerates the narrative by packing Amina’s pregnancy, Ahmed’s rapid decline, Pia’s numerous affairs, Zulfikar’s murder, and Alia’s hateful revenge into the span of a single chapter. The family’s existence has become grotesque, and Saleem believes that Pakistan must be trying to drive out his wretched family, the way the human body rejects and expels hazardous material. Only by laying waste to the past and annihilating his memory can Saleem achieve blankness and thus cleanliness. Echoing the novel’s earlier claims that creation and destruction are intimately linked, Saleem achieves purity in the “Land of the Pure” through cataclysmic and utter devastation.

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