Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Single and the Many
Born at the dawn of Indian independence and destined, upon his death, to break into as many pieces as there are citizens of India, Saleem Sinai manages to represent the entirety of India within his individual self. The notion that a single person could possibly embody a teeming, diverse, multitudinous nation like India encapsulates one of the novel’s fundamental concerns: the tension between the single and the many. The dynamic relationship between Saleem’s individual life and the collective life of the nation suggests that public and private will always influence one another, but it remains unclear whether they can be completely equated with one another. Throughout the novel, Saleem struggles to contain all of India within himself—to cram his personal story with the themes and stories of his country—only to disintegrate and collapse at the end of his attempt.
Politically speaking, the tension between the single and the many also marks the nation of India itself. One of the fastest growing nations in the world, India has always been an incredibly diverse. Its constitution recognizes twenty-two official languages, and the population practices religions as varied as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism, among many others. Indian culture is similarly hybrid, having been influenced by countless other cultures over the millennia of its development. At the same time, however, maintaining India’s sprawling diversity in a peaceful fashion has often proved difficult: India’s division into the Islamic nation of Pakistan and the secular, but mostly Hindu nation of India—a process known as Partition—remains the most striking example of the desire to contain and reduce India’s plurality. In Midnight’s Children, the child Saleem watches as protestors attempt to do divide the city of Bombay along linguistic lines, another attempt to categorize and cordon off multiplicity.
Saleem, a character who contains a multitude of experiences and sensitivities, stands in stark contrast to the protestors who demand their own language-based region, the strict monotheism of Pakistan, and Indira Gandhi’s repression of contradictory dissension. His powers of telepathy allow him to transcend the barriers of language, while he himself—with his English blood, poor background, wealthy upbringing, and eclectic religious influeces—reflects India’s diversity and range. The Midnight Children’s Conference that he convenes is, in its initial phase, a model for pluralism and a testimony to the potential power inherent within coexisting diversity, which is a natural and definitive element of Indian culture. In Midnight’s Children, the desire for singularity or purity—whether of religion or culture—breeds not only intolerance but also violence and repression.
The Unreliability of Memory and Narrative
Factual errors and dubious claims are essential aspects of Saleem’s fantastic narrative. He willfully acknowledges that he misplaced Gandhi’s death, an obviously seminal moment in India’s history, as well as willfully misremembers the date of an election. He frets over the accuracy of his story and worries about future errors he might make. Yet, at the same time, after acknowledging his error, Saleem decides to maintain his version of events, since that’s how they appeared to occur to him and now there can be no going back. Despite its potential historical inaccuracies, Saleem sees his story as being of equal importance as the world’s most important religious texts. This is not only his story but also the story of India. The errors in his story, in addition to casting a shadow of doubt over some of what he claims, point to one of the novel’s essential claims: that truth is not just a matter of verifiable facts. Genuine historical truth depends on perspective—and a willingness to believe. Saleem notes that memory creates its own truth, and so do narratives. Religious texts and history books alike stake their claim in truth not only because they are supported by facts but also because they have been codified and accepted upon, whether by time or faith. The version of history Saleem offers comes filtered through his perspective, just as every other version of history comes filtered through some alternate perspective. For Saleem, his version is as true as anything else that could be written, not just because this is the way he has arranged it, but because this is the version he believes.
Destruction vs. Creation
The battle between Saleem and Shiva reflects the ancient, mythological battle between the creative and destructive forces in the world. The enmity and tension between the two begin at the moment of their simultaneous births. The reference to Shiva, the Hindu god of both destruction and procreation, reflects not only the tension between destruction and creation but also the inextricably bound nature of these two forces. Saleem, as the narrator of Midnight’s Children, is responsible for creating the world we, as readers, are engaged in. He represents Brahma, the god of creation. What Saleem creates, however, is not life, but a story. By delivering Saleem into the hands of the Widow, Shiva is responsible for the destruction of the midnight’s children, and yet, by fathering Aadam and hundreds of other children, he ensures the continuation of their legacy.
Beginning with the snake venom that saves Saleem’s young life, snakes play an ambiguous and complicated role in the novel. Saleem often refers to his favorite childhood board game, Snakes and Ladders. In the game’s simple formula of good and evil, Saleem learns an important lesson: for every up, there is a down, and for every down, there is an up. Missing from the board game, however, is the ambiguity between good and evil that he later detects as a natural part of life. Generally considered to represent evil, snakes are, in fact, much more complicated than that simple generalization might imply. While venom has the power to kill, it also has the ability to bring life, and it does so not once but twice in the novel. Snake venom represents the power of Shiva, who is both destroyer and procreator in the Hindu pantheon. In Midnight’s Children, snakes are also associated with Picture Singh, Saleem’s closest friend, whose career is both dependent upon and destroyed by snakes.
Throughout the novel, the past finds ways to mysteriously insinuate itself into the present, just as Saleem’s personal compulsions and concerns find themselves inexplicably replicated in national, political events. Perhaps inspired by his own constantly running nose, Saleem uses the term leaking to describe this phenomenon. The lines separating past, present, and future—as well as the lines separating the personal and the political, the individual and the state—are incredibly porous. When Saleem begins having dreams about Kashmir, for example, the stirring images of his dreams seems to seep into the national consciousness, and India and Pakistan begin to battle over possession of the beautiful region. In Midnight’s Children, the interplay between personal and public, past and present, remains fluid and dynamic, like leaking liquid.
Saleem claims that, much like his narrative, he is physically falling apart. His body is riddled with cracks, and, as a result, the past is spilling out of him. His story, spread out over sixty-three years, is a fragmented narrative, oscillating back and forth between past and present and frequently broken up further by Saleem’s interjections. In addition to the narrative and physical fragmentation, India itself is fragmented. Torn apart by Partition, it is divided into two separate countries, with the east and west sections of Pakistan on either side of India. This division is taken even further when East and West Pakistan are reclassified as two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Within India, language marchers agitate for further partitions based upon linguistic lines. New nationalities are created, and with them come new forms of cultural identity that reflect the constant divisions.
The Silver Spittoon
The silver spittoon given to Amina as part of her dowry by the Rani of Cooch Naheen is responsible for Saleem’s loss of memory. Even when he has amnesia, however, Saleem continues to cherish the spittoon as if he still understands its historical value. Following the destruction of his family, the silver spittoon is the only tangible remnant of Saleem’s former life, and yet it too is eventually destroyed when Saleem’s house in the ghetto is torn down. Spittoons, once used as part of a cherished game for both old and young, gradually fell out of use: the old men no longer spit their betel juice into the street as they tell stories, nor do the children dart in between the streams as they listen. The spittoon is the symbol of a vanishing era, which, in retrospect, seemed simpler and easier. And so, although Saleem may not be able to recall the specific association between the spittoon and his family, the spittoon maintains its symbolic quality as both a container of memory and source of amnesia.
The Perforated Sheet
The perforated sheet through which Aadam Aziz falls in love with his future wife performs several different symbolic functions throughout the novel. Unable to see his future wife as a whole, Aadam falls in love with her in pieces. As a result, their love never has a cohesive unity that holds them together. Their love is fragmented, just as their daughter Amina’s attempts to fall in love with her husband are also fragmented. Haunted by the memory of her previous husband, Amina embarks on a campaign to fall in love with her new husband in sections, just as her father once fell in love with her mother. Despite her best attempts, Amina and Ahmed’s love also lacks the completion and unity necessary for genuine love to thrive. The hole of the perforated sheet represents a portal for vision but also a void that goes unfilled. The perforated sheet makes one final appearance with Jamila Singer: in an attempt to preserve her purity, she shrouds herself completely, except for a single hole for her lips. The perforated sheet, in addition to preserving her purity, also reduces to her to nothing more than a voice. The sheet becomes a veil that separates her from the rest of the world and reflects her inability to accept affection.
Knees and Nose
The seer, Ramram, predicts the birth of “knees and nose,” which represent Shiva and Saleem, respectively. In addition to symbolizing each boy’s special power, knees and nose also play another role. When Aadam Aziz first kneels down to pray, his knees touch the floor and his nose hits the ground. Knees and nose, in this instance, represent an act of prayer, as well as the submission and humility necessary faith. After hitting his nose on the ground, however, Aadam rejects that submission, and a hole opens up inside of him. Knees and nose also become significant with Farooq’s death via a sniper bullet. Shot, Farooq first drops to his knees, then hits his nose on the ground. Just as Aadam bowed before god, Farooq bows before death. Shiva is suspected of killing a string of prostitutes with his powerful knees, while Saleem uses his nose to discover the most decrepit prostitute in the city. Knees and nose—just like Shiva and Saleem, destruction and creation, faith and humility—are inextricably related.
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