Methwold, Tick, Tock
Saleem describes the estate that once belonged to an Englishman, William Methwold.
The estate is comprised of four identical houses, each bearing the name of a different European palace. Saleem’s parents buy one of the houses, agreeing to the conditions that they purchase everything inside the house and that the legal transfer of property will not occur until midnight, August 15. Methwold says that his reasons for the conditions are allegorical, as he equates the sale of his estate with the national transfer of sovereign power.
Saleem lists the other inhabitants of Methwold’s Estate: Mr. Homi Catrack, a film magnate who lives with his idiot daughter; old man Ibrahim, his sons, Ismail and Ishaq, and his wife, Nussie; the Dubashes, who become parents of Cyrus, Saleem’s first mentor; Doctor Narlikar; and finally, Commander Sabarmati, his wife, Lila, and their two sons, who will grow up to be nicknamed Eyeslice and Hairoil. As the transfer of power draws closer, the inhabitants of Methwold’s Estate complain incessantly of having to live among Methwold’s things. As the inhabitants settle in, they remain unaware of the fact that they have begun to imitate Methwold’s habits, from the cocktail hour he keeps to the accent with which he speaks.
The Times of India announces a prize for any child born at the exact moment of independence. Still recalling the prophet’s words, Amina declares that her son will win. The summer rains begin, and Amina grows so heavy she can scarcely move. After the rains end, Wee Willie Winkie, a poor clown, returns to the estate to perform for Methwold and the new families. Willie Winkie tells the crowd that his wife is expecting a child soon as well. Saleem tells us that the child actually belongs to Methwold, who seduced Winkie’s wife with his perfectly parted hair. Saleem’s narrative then jumps to a church, where a midwife named Mary Pereira sits in a confessional booth, telling the young priest about her relationship with an orderly named Joseph D’ Costa, who has taken to committing acts of violence against the British. Saleem says that on the night of his birth, this woman made the most important decision in the history of twentieth-century India. Back at Methwold’s Estate, Musa is still “ticking like a time-bomb” as the hour approaches midnight.
Summary: Tick, Tock
On August 13, 1947, Bombay comes alive as the city prepares for India’s imminent independence from the British. At midnight, the nation of Pakistan will officially be created, a full day before India will be declared independent. Violence breaks out on the borders of Punjab and in Bengal.
A series of events occurs all at once, and Saleem’s narrative skips between them. At Methwold’s Estate, Ahmed and William Methwold drink cocktails in the courtyard. Meanwhile, at the old house on Cornwallis Road, in Agra, Aadam Aziz rises from his bed and nostalgically pulls out the perforated sheet, only to discover that moths have eaten it. Back at Methwold’s Estate, Wee Willie Winkie’s wife, Vanita, goes into labor. William Methwold walks into the courtyard of his former compound, stands in the exact center, and salutes the landscape. Shortly afterward, a sadhuji, or holy man, enters the compound and sits under a dripping water tap. He proclaims that he awaits the birth of the One, the Mubarak. As soon as he says this, Amina goes into labor. Once the sun has set, Methwold ends his salute and pulls off his hairpiece. Amina and Vanita lie in adjacent rooms at the nursing home, and two boys are born at midnight. Upon hearing the news, Ahmed drops a chair on his toes. In the ensuing confusion, Mary Pereira switches the babies’ nametags in memory of her revolutionary Joseph, giving Saleem, biologically the son of Willie Winkie and Vanita, to Ahmed and Amina.
Padma interrupts the story to call Saleem a liar. He responds by saying that even after his parents discovered what Mary Pereira had done, they could not go back and erase the past, so he remained their son. Saleem mentions a letter the prime minister sent when he was born, which he buried in a cactus garden along with a newspaper article titled “Midnight’s Child.” He tells us that the newspapermen who came to take pictures of him gave his mother a pathetic sum of one hundred rupees.
The small-scale property transfer at Methwold’s Estate clearly corresponds to the larger political situation, as Great Britain prepares itself to transfer sovereign power over India to the independent governments of India and Pakistan. Neither transfer is complete or uncomplicated. Just as independent India must now deal with the cultural legacy of British colonialism, which remains active long after the British vacate the country, so too will the inhabitants of Methwold’s Estate have to live with physical reminders of the estate’s former owner. The British continue to exert a powerful influence over independent India, as symbolized by the unconscious ways the Methwold residents begin conforming to Methwold’s customs. Methwold’s nostalgia for his estate, in turn, echoes the wide-scale nostalgia felt by the British upon leaving the former crown of their colonial empire.
As the moment of Saleem’s birth approaches—ostensibly the most significant event of the novel thus far—the narrative seems to swell to the point of breaking. Saleem wants to take into account everything he can, because everything, he believes, has been working in tandem to arrive at this exact moment. In order to understand the significance of his birth, Saleem reminds the reader of everything that came before it and all the family history that went into making Saleem who he is. However, after accumulating all this momentum, it becomes clear that the history is actually someone else’s history—it belongs to Shiva, the boy with whom Saleem gets switched at birth. Thus the narrator isn’t actually related at all to the people whose stories he has been detailing so meticulously. Significantly, in this same chapter, Aadam discovers that the sacred perforated sheet has been gnawed full of moth holes. As one of the central symbols of Saleem’s story, the partial damage of the perforated sheet seems to bode poorly for the truthfulness of the narrative as a whole.
However, Saleem remains the narrator of this tale, and the story still fundamentally belongs to him. That Saleem has told this family’s history as if it were his own highlights one of the narrative’s central themes: that truth is created and shaped, not fixed and static. Regardless of whether he is Ahmed and Amina’s biological son, they raise him up in their family, and he enjoys all the privileges and problems that birthright entails. Saleem can rightfully claim the history he has told as his own, because he believes it to be so. The truth of the situation, therefore, seems relative.
At the same time, the fact that William Methwold, an Englishman, is revealed to be Saleem’s biological father proves appropriate, given that Saleem sees himself as the perfect embodiment of modern India. The legacy of British colonialism has undoubtedly shaped the newly independent India, just as William Methwold has undeniably shaped Saleem. It is also important to note that by switching the nametags, Mary Pereira makes a distinct political decision. Alhough her primary motivation remains a romantic one, Mary nonetheless attempts to redress the vast social divide that separates rich from poor. The child of a poor woman who dies in labor and an English father who has returned to England, Saleem turns out to be an extraordinarily apt representative of the new Indian nation.
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