Hit-the-Spittoon, Under the Carpet
Saleem claims that his body—worn down by time, history, and fatigue—will soon break into hundreds of millions of pieces. He describes how he makes his living making chutney and other condiments and how Padma prepares his food and bed in the factory. Being impotent, Saleem can’t respond to Padma’s sexual advances.
Saleem returns to his family history, jumping ahead to the summer of 1942. Aadam and Naseem now live on Cornwallis Road, in Agra, and have five children: Alia, Mumtaz, Hanif, Mustapha, and Emerald. Naseem has become a formidable figure with age and is now generally referred to as Reverend Mother. She has also developed a verbal habit of referring to things as whatsitsname. Saleem recounts a story of how, in the early 1930s, Naseem became furious with Aadam for dismissing the children’s religion tutor, whom he felt was teaching the children to hate people of other faiths. Incensed, Naseem refuses to feed Aadam, waiting until he’s almost dead of hunger before she relents.
Back in 1942, Aadam has aligned himself with a charismatic man named Mian Abdullah, also known as the Hummingbird. Abdullah heads the Free Islam Convocation, which opposes the creation of a separate Muslim state. One day, during a visit to a university campus with his personal secretary, Nadir Khan, Mian Abdullah is attacked by a band of assassins. When the assassins begin to cut him with their knives, Abdullah starts to hum, the pitch growing increasingly higher. One of the killers’ eyes shatters and falls out of its socket; the surrounding windows shatter as well. Dogs throughout Bombay hear the Hummingbird and rush to the scene, injuring the assassins to such a degree that the murders are rendered unrecognizable. Mian Abdullah dies, but Nadir Khan manages to escape and, finding Rashid the rickshaw boy in the field surrounding Doctor Aziz’s house, pleads with Rashid to notify Aadam of the situation.
Summary: Under the Carpet
The period of optimism that Mian Abdullah inspired ends with his assassination. The Rani of Cooch Naheen, one of Abdullah’s allies, takes to her bed, while Aadam puts his energy into treating the poor. One day, while using the bathroom, Aadam is startled to find Nadir Khan hiding in the laundry bin. Aadam agrees to provide him sanctuary, despite his wife’s protests and concerns for their daughters’ purity. In retaliation, Naseem promises never to speak again, and silence descends upon the house.
Several suitors line up for the three Aziz daughters, including Major Zulfikar, an official in the Pakistani army; Nadir Khan, who lives hidden in the Aziz basement; and Ahmed Sinai. Mumtaz, Aadam’s favorite daughter and the darkest-skinned of all the children, tends to Nadir Khan. The two fall in love without ever exchanging a word, and Nadir asks Aadam for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The family arranges a secret marriage between the two. Afterward, Mumtaz happily moves into the basement, returning to the upper floors by day to preserve the secrecy of her husband’s concealment.
The Rani of Cooch Naheen dies, her skin having turned completely white, and bequeaths a silver spittoon to the Aziz family. Mumtaz falls ill, and, while giving her a check-up, Aadam discovers that after two years of marriage Mumtaz remains a virgin. Upon hearing the news, Naseem ends her three years of silence, releasing a torrent of abusive words at her husband. Saleem notes that this occurred on the same day that America dropped the atomic bomb on Japan: August 9, 1945. Emerald runs out of the house and tells her suitor, Major Zulfikar, that Nadir Khan is living in her basement. Nadir Khan flees, leaving a note for Mumtaz that reads, “I divorce you.”
Emerald goes on to marry Major Zulfikar. At Emerald’s wedding, Mumtaz and Ahmed Sinai—who had previously been courting Alia, the eldest daughter—have a conversation. They eventually marry, and Mumtaz changes her name to Amina Sinai.
In these chapters, the private life of Saleem Sinai once again coincides with the public life of India. Saleem claims that his body is falling apart and that he’s destined to crumble into approximately 630 million particles of “anonymous” dust. At the time of Midnight’s Children’s publication, India’s population stood at about 630 million. Born at the moment of India’s independence, Saleem symbolizes modern India and conceives of himself as a physical embodiment of India’s history. By claiming that he will crumble into 630 million pieces, Saleem suggests that when his body falls apart, he will release all of India. With the notion that, in his individual body, Saleem contains a physical representation of every single “anonymous” Indian citizen, Rushdie takes a symbolic metaphor—Saleem as modern India—and makes it concrete. Saleem’s bodily disintegration also reflects the literary fragmentation of the novel as it skips haphazardly through time. Because Saleem’s body seems doomed to collapse from the beginning, we might wonder whether the narrative is destined to fall apart as well. Saleem’s constant pleas for his story to be taken seriously cast further doubt on the truthfulness of his account—and make Saleem an increasingly unreliable narrator.
Once again, Padma urges the narrative forward, and we jump to 1942 and what Saleem refers to as “the optimistic epidemic.” The word epidemic suggests that the hope inspired by Mian Abdullah is contagious, out of the ordinary, and potentially dangerous. In the early 1940s, time has not only put a strain on Aadam and Naseem’s relationship but on the country as well. Religious strife is beginning to fill the air, and that tension takes violent shape in the form of the crescent knives that kill Mian Abdullah. The shape of the knives is particularly significant, since they recall the crescent moon and star, which together serve as a symbol of the Islamic faith. The knives silence Mian Abdullah’s optimistic hum and symbolically destroy any hope for a unified India, postindependence. The tension between religious pluralism and dogmatism can also be seen in Aadam’s relationship with his wife, whose new name testifies, in part, to her stubborn religious devotion. Reverend Mother remains dogmatic in her faith, so much so that she is ready to watch her husband die of starvation in order to defend her principles. And yet Saleem comments that his grandmother, despite her convictions, remains adrift in the universe. Her constant use of the word whatsitsname suggests that Reverend Mother has increasing difficulty pinning down names to objects or, by extension, meaning to reality.
At this point, members of Saleem’s extended family, including his parents, aunts, and uncles, have all entered the story. The silver spittoon of the Rani of Cooch Naheen, the impotence of Nadir Khan, and the steely determination of Reverend Mother each play an important role as the narrative progresses. That Reverend Mother breaks her silence on the same day the United States drops the atomic bomb on Japan not only repeats the continued theme of personal history intersecting with political history, but it also illustrates the significance of individual events in the history of a family.
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