At the Pioneer Café, Alpha and Omega
Summary: At the Pioneer Café
Saleem describes a fever-induced dream in which someone he calls “the Widow” reaches out and destroys the children by ripping them all in two. Someone brings Saleem’s son to the pickle factory, although the boy will not say whom. Saleem says that he is telling this story for his son and that memory has its own special truth. He compares himself and his story to figures and stories from various world religions.
Saleem returns to the year he turned ten. Purshottam, the sadhu, has died from a fit of suicidal hiccups. Saleem restricts his communication with the other midnight’s children to a single hour a day, between the times of midnight and 1 a.m. One day, as his mother goes on a shopping trip, he hides himself in the car and uses his telepathy to follow, through his mother’s mind, the route they are taking. He watches as his mother enters a dirty restaurant called the Pioneer Café. In the morning, film studios pick up extras at the Pioneer Café, but in the afternoon it becomes the hangout of the Communist Party. Saleem watches as his mother sits across from Nadir Khan, now named Qasim Khan, and the two of them exchange meaningful looks and gestures.
Saleem describes how he brought the midnight’s children together, breaking through the barriers of language and eventually transmitting an image of himself into their brains. They each have a horrible sense of self-image. He introduces himself to Shiva, who recognizes him as the rich kid from the estate his father used to work on. Shiva suggests that the two of them should be the leaders of the gang. Shiva scorns and mocks Saleem’s attempts to create a meaningful purpose for the conference. Shiva, Saleem notes, is the god of destruction and the Hindu pantheon’s most potent deity. He tells how Shiva’s father tried to mutilate him in order to make him a better beggar and how, at the last moment, Shiva saved himself by gripping his father with his powerful knees.
Saleem describes the events of the 1957 election. The Communist Party makes a powerful showing, although the Communist candidate Qasim Khan lost his race, due, in part, to Shiva and his intimidating gang of thugs. Suddenly, however, Saleem realizes that he’s gotten the dates wrong and that the election of 1957 occurred before his tenth birthday.
Summary: Alpha and Omega
Saleem says he will describe the fall of Evie Burns, but, before doing so, he offers a list of alternative titles for the chapter, as well as a description of the events of that winter. Bombay is on the brink of partition. A severe drought occurs, and vandals sabotage the city’s water reserves. Several whores are found murdered, bearing strange bruises that look as if made by a pair of giant, powerful knees. As a result of the water shortage, stray cats in search of water overrun Methwold’s Estate. Evie promises, in exchange for payment, to rid the estate of the cats. Armed with her Daisy air-gun, Evie ends the plague of cats by shooting them. The Brass Monkey, who was rumored to have been able to speak to animals as a child, is outraged. She calls Evie outside, then pounces on her. The two have a terrible fight, and, a few weeks later, Evie’s father sends her away for good. Months later, Evie writes Saleem a letter confessing to have once stabbed an old woman who complained about her assault on the cats. Saleem suggests that perhaps his sister acted out love for him.
Saleem says that he never liked Shiva but nonetheless could not keep him out of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference. Saleem’s mental powers grow stronger, and he is eventually able to turn his mind into an open forum in which all the children can speak to each other. Saleem notes that the conference ignored the warnings of Soumitra, the time-traveler among them, who insisted, “all this is pointless—they’ll finish us before we start!”
At school, Saleem’s geography teacher rips out his hair. Shortly afterward, Saleem loses part of his finger during a school dance while attempting to impress a girl. Saleem is rushed to the hospital, where his parents are asked to donate blood. His parents’ blood types are A and O, but he is neither—thereby proving that they could not be Saleem’s biological parents. Ahmed assumes that his wife had an affair. Saleem, looking back on his ten-year-old self, endows him with the gift of hindsight and allows him to ruminate on the homogenous nature of the body and the profound consequences of his mutilated finger. He closes with the image of a ten-year old boy with a bandaged hand thinking about blood and the last look he saw on his father’s face.
Saleem’s fever-induced nightmare of the Widow, the introduction of his son, and the description of the chutney factory clarify certain elements of Saleem’s current situation. The Widow, whom Saleem has referenced several times as his destroyer, grows into an even more ominous figure during the dream Saleem recounts. As cryptic as Ramram’s prophesy, Saleem’s dream also foreshadows future events in the narrative. In addition, we learn that Saleem is a father and that he’s recording his history for his son. Saleem claims that “memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality.” This reinforces the idea, present since the beginning of the novel, that the truth of facts, figures, and chronologies represents only one kind of truth. When experiences filter through a person’s consciousness and are recomposed by that individual consciousness into a work of art, the resulting narrative produces a different, but equally legitimate, kind of reality. History is always a kind of storytelling, and Saleem argues that his version of events should be considered just as valid as any other.
As Saleem’s mother flirts with a figure from her past, now turned communist, India finds itself flirting with communism as well. Once again, we can see the influence of the cinema on Saleem’s narrative. Not only is the Pioneer Café the afternoon hangout for the Communist Party, it is also the recruiting spot for film extras. The communists, like the film extras, are looking for a role, however minor, to play in their nation’s political drama. And India’s political turmoil, with its widespread corruption, certainly seems dramatic enough to warrant a film treatment. Saleem’s mother and Qasim Khan, in restrained flirtation, mirror the gestures of a Bollywood film, and Saleem describes their scene in cinematic terms: their hands “enter the frame,” but Saleem “left the movie before the end.” Saleem’s ability to enter other people’s minds, and see through eyes that are not his own, mimics the power of a film camera to capture perspectives unavailable to normal human eyes.
These chapters also offer insights into the character of Shiva, Saleem’s main antagonist. Their debate about their purpose in the world, while slightly unbelievable, coming as it does out of the mouths of ten-year-olds, points to one of the fundamental differences between the two boys. Shiva is named after the god of destruction, whereas Saleem represents Brahma, the god of creation. The two boys represent destruction and creation, violence and restraint, respectively. The ambiguity that Saleem found lacking in his childhood board game of Snakes and Ladders is evident in his portrait of Shiva. Born into abject poverty and nearly mutilated by his father in order to make a living, Shiva is as tragic as he is violent. His anger and his attraction to destruction are inescapably related to his upbringing—an upbringing that the older, mature Saleem knows was meant for him.
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