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Padma has stormed out on Saleem because he compares the writing of his narrative to the recording of the sacred Hindu text the Ramayana by the elephant god Ganesh.
Saleem continues the story in the summer of 1956 when his sister, the Brass Monkey, began burning shoes, perhaps to force people to notice her. Starved for attention, she is a mischievous child, prone to breaking windows, spreading lies, and lashing out at anyone who shows her affection.
By the time he reaches the age of nine, Saleem becomes acutely aware of the expectations surrounding him. In order to escape the fear of failure, he hides in his mother’s large white washing chest. He begins to attend school with his friends from the compound, Eyeslice, Hairoil, Sonny Ibrahim, and Cyrus-the-great. His early growth spurt has stopped, but his nose, full of snot, continues to grow. He seeks refuge from the insults and names in the washing chest, where his imagination is free to roam. Years later in Pakistan, just before a roof crushes his mother, Amina, she sees the washing chest one more time in a vision. Saleem says that a black fog of guilt began to surround his mother so that on some days it was impossible to see her from the neck up. Her own sense of guilt brings other people’s confessions out. Saleem says that the afternoon phone calls from her ex-husband, Nadir Khan, are the real reason for his mother’s guilt.
One afternoon, while Saleem seeks refuge in the washing chest, his mother receives another phone call. Unaware of Saleem, she goes to the bathroom and begins to sob, repeating the name of her ex-husband. She takes off her saris to use the bathroom, unwittingly exposing her naked rump to Saleem. His nose twitches, he sniffs, and his mother discovers him hiding in the washing chest. She punishes him to one day of silence. During that quiet day, Saleem begins to hear voices rattling in his head, which he compares to the divine voices heard by Mohammed and Moses. The next day, he tells the entire family that angels are speaking to him. Everyone grows angry with Saleem, and his father hits him so hard that Saleem permanently loses some hearing in his left ear. Later that evening, however, Amina remembers the words of Ramram, the prophet, who told her, “washing will hide him . . . .voices will guide him.” She asks Saleem about the voices again, but he claims it was all just a joke, and she dies, nine years later, without ever knowing the truth.
Padma’s continued absence haunts Saleem, making him uncertain about the accuracy of his narrative. He acknowledges that he made a mistake about the date of Gandhi’s death, but it no longer matters since his story will continue nonetheless. He lists the similarities between himself in the present and the Saleem of the past. He says the voices are gone now, but the heat remains.
During the summer of 1956, language marches fill the city streets, with protesters demanding that Bombay be partitioned along linguistic lines, dividing the Marathi speakers from the Gujrati speakers. At the same time, various languages and voices fill Saleem’s head. The voices are not angels, but telepathy. Beneath the teeming babble of different languages, Saleem says he could hear a purer, intelligible thought-form, greater than words. Saleem also hears the voice of the other midnight’s children—initially far-off and faint—stating simply, “I.” Still afraid of his father’s wrath, Saleem keeps these voices a secret. Saleem puts his power in a historical context, noting that at the time of his discovery, India was developing its Five-Year Plan. He also explains that instead of using his gift for the betterment of the country, he cheated in his classes, kept his gift a secret, and essentially frittered it away.
Saleem begins hiding in an old clocktower. There, he enters the thoughts of strangers all across India, from movie stars and politicians to cab drivers and tourists. Despite his belief that he can see and know everything, Saleem fails to see Dr. Narlikar’s murder by a crowd of language marchers, who hurl him into the sea, along with his concrete tetrapod. The doctor’s death ends his father’s plan to reclaim land from the ocean. A group of very competent female relations takes over the doctor’s businesses and possessions. Shortly after Dr. Narlikar’s death, Ahmed begins to grow paler and paler. Saleem traces the cause back to the Rani of Cooch Naheen, who may, he speculates, have been the first victim of a disease that turned India’s businessmen white. He closes the chapter by noting what lies ahead—including his alter ego, Shiva, and Evelyn Lilith Burns—and by saying, as an afterthought, that Wee Willie Winkie, “in all probability,” met his death at the end of 1956.
By burying himself in a laundry bin of dirty clothes, Saleem is able to take the first step toward realizing that important destiny he has so desperately longed for. That Saleem can only find comfort in the company of dirty clothes indiactes something about his self-perception: mocked and ridiculed by his classmates, Saleem inevitably sees himself as soiled. He finds comfort in the washing chest not only because it provides isolation but also because he sees a reflection of himself in the stained clothes. He describes his birth as crime-ridden and his face as stained, which make him a perfect match for his hiding place. At the same time, there is a direct causal link between Saleem’s hiding in a basket of dirty clothes and the discovery of what he initially believes to be his god-given powers. In Midnight’s Children, the sacred and the profane are inextricably linked. Therefore, it seems appropriate that Saleem would hear what he believes to be angels while watching his mother naked and relieving herself.
Saleem demonstrates his exalted sense of purpose, as well as his wide-ranging cultural inspiration, by comparing himself to the Hindu Ganesh, the Muslim Mohammed, and the Judeo-Christian Moses within a single chapter. This contrasts with Saleem’s other perception of himself as dirtyand also illustrates the multiplicity of religions that have played a role in India’s development. India is primarily Hindu, whereas Saleem’s family is Muslim and his ayah, Mary, is Catholic. The narrative incorporates them because all three are a part of India. The narrative, in many ways, becomes a sacred kind of text in its own right.
Undermining Saleem’s perception of his narrative as a sacred book, however, are the historical inconsistencies that he freely acknowledges. Saleem has made a mistake in his account of Gandhi’s death, an obviously seminal moment in the history of India. Yet, rather than dwell on it for too long, he insists on the primacy of his story and moves on. Narratives make their own truth and are inevitably fictitious, whether they are novels or religious texts. Saleem has created his version of reality and is determined to uphold it.
Saleem’s dedication to multiplicity finds a contrast in the language marches beginning to parade throughout India. Like the religious divisions that led to the Partition of India and Pakistan, the language marchers are concerned only with their singular, shared identity and seek to exclude others who are dissimilar. Saleem has moved from the washing chest to the clocktower, which, given the narrative’s insistence on the importance of time, is perhaps a more fitting symbol. While crowds gather in defense of a single tongue, Saleem finds inside of his head a purer form of communication that transcends the barriers of language. Given the essential nature of communication that Saleem has discovered, the differences between any one language and another are petty, since a universal thread unites us all, despite any surface differences. The babble of voices in Saleem’s head makes an argument for plurality in a country that is struggling to remain united. The citizens of India constitute an enormous range of humanity, and Saleem illustrates that wide range by traveling from the mind of a cab driver directly into the thoughts of the prime minister.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Midnight’s Children!