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«Saleem Sinai – Number one of the 1001 Midnight’s Children The display of inner and outer dimensions of understanding and not understanding within ...»

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2012

Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2012

ISSN 2068 – 0317


Saleem Sinai – Number one of the 1001 Midnight’s Children

The display of inner and outer dimensions of understanding and not

understanding within one of Salman Rushdie’s most read books

Alina Petra Marinescu1

Abstract Written as a statement against the tremble that wry modernization has brought to the Indian people’s lives, Salman Rushdie’s novel, “Midnight Children” (1981), depicts the inner conflicts and the outside-bounded fight of the man struggling to stick to his primary identity in times of political, economic and cultural re-identification. In order to psychically and physically outlive his times, Saleem Sinai is obliged to cope with his own process of cognitive dissonance and to deal with his lack of understanding by means of myths and fictional representations up to creating a parallel existence. Being part of a family that overcame the people’s general poverty, Saleem is born at the exact moment when India gains its Independence. Finding out that he is one of the 1001said-to-be-gifted midnight children, the boy identifies with his country’s fight and tries to understand all the events by transposing them into his own history 2.

Keywords India, Independence, identity, modernization, family Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest, Romania, petra.marinescu@gmail.com This article has been supported by the research project “Sociological imagination and disciplinary orientation in applied social research” (http://igel.ro), taking place in the The Research Center in Human Resources, Management and Marketing of the Department of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest, with the financial support of UEFISCDI with grant no. PN-II-RU-TE-2011-3-0143, contract 14/28.10.2011.

Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2012 “Midnight Children” is divided into three books that unfold into 30 chapters, resembling an uninterrupted chain of Russian nested Matryoshka dolls, uncovering the past in order to stage the entrance of the omniscient main-character who is to be covered, immediately after, in multiple mystical layers that give the shape of the nowadays storyteller recollecting his own personal history for his wife-to-be, Padma.

Starting with a “Perforated Sheet” that shows the skin but cunningly hides the soul, leading the path to a cruel destiny, continuing with a “Fisherman’s Pointed Finger” towards a newly born little boy meant to change the face of the World in a nihilistic manner and looking, up to the end of the story through the cold eyes of a wise, amnesic, inner-emptied “Buddha” regaining his lost memory in the mythological-looking jungle of Sundarban, having his consciousness shaken only by taking part in another “Midnight” miracle, the books and chapters mark, by staggering metaphors, the border stones of a surrealistic existence belonging to the tragic main character, Saleem Sinai. He is one of the 1001 babies said to had been born the night between the 14th and the 15th of August 1947, when the “hands of time became one to show respect (…) exactly the second that India gained its Independence” (Rushdie, 2007). And it was exactly when India ceased to be an English colony that Saleem’s destiny and his new-born country’s history “got cuffed down in a mysterious way” (Rushdie, 2007).

More than that, the story says that all the babies “of the Independence” were born with exceptional powers and Saleem wasn’t an exception, being telepathic. But as the novel is the stage for “sheets” that cover truths, the little boy gets switched at birth with another special baby, son of a wealthy Muslim family, Shiva, who had been gifted with a pair of “killing knees” and who develops into the perfect alter-ego for Rushdie’s main hero. So do the two switch their lives, identities and destinies and so does the author underline his position regarding the hard-tried Hindu people. Here starts the rising and fall of Saleem Sinai within a not so perfect family, with a father taken in by the mirage of money, an unfaithful mother (Amina Sinai) taken in by the mirage of a decadent poet - once her husband - at the “Pioneer Cafe”, a “brass Monkey” as a roughsoul little sister, born on the night when her father’s assets were frozen by the state and who was taken in by the mirage of fame that would turn her into Jamila-The (muppet) Singer of the Pakistani rulers; also having a harsh “Reverend Mother” wearing two witch nipples as his grandmother, easy-going aunts and cold-hearted uncles, dubious neighbors and cold-hearted childhood friends.

Saleem’s faith is also modeled by all sorts of mystical, symbolic-like characters, as Tai, the old boatman who inspires his grandfathers’ existence by his predictions about the future or another “Midnight child” called “Parvati - the witch”, who would become Saleem’s wife towards the end of the novel. His fantastic, merely tragic life story knits together with real existing persons’ destinies who had put a stamp on the Indian history during the last hundred years as Mian Abdullah – The Humming Bird (pro-Indian Muslim political figure), Jawaharlal Nehru (Indian President), Krisna Menon (Ministry of Defence) or Indira Gandhi (Indian Prime-Minister depicted as a bitter hearted and almost vicious “Widow”).

Marinescu / The display of inner and outer dimensions

The book depicts Saleem’s family’s migrations around India and newly emerged Pakistan, but also its inner conflicts and social evolution while going with the flow of the Indian history, in a merry-go-round allegoric manner.

In the same spirit, happenings in Saleem’s life go by, symmetrically, at the same pace as the Indian history does, starting with the year 1915 and the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar when Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather hits his nose while praying and is shaken by the cognitive dissonance between the traditional and the modern society he came in contact with during his British studies, further on - the optimism disease stirred up by Mian Abdullah in 1942 takes place while Amina Sinai cheats on her husband; the times of British imperialism mark the family moving in Bombay whilst in the night when India gains its Independence in 1947 Saleem’s is born;

the war between China and India in 1962 mirrors Saleeem’s childhood conflicts while during the Indo-Pakistani War in 1965 Shiva, Saleem’s alter-ego, barges into the young boy’s life; the symmetry goes up to the recent history of the year 1975 marked by Indira Gandhi's Emergency Rule when Saleem’s son, Adaam, is born, rounding up the evolution circle of the character while the elections in ’77 happen simultaneously with Saleem’s “ectomy”: “the children of midnight were denied the possibility of reproducing themselves… but that was only a side-effect, because they were truly extraordinary doctors, and they drained us of more than that: hope, too” (Rushdie, 2007).

„Midnight’s Children” - Conflicting dimensions of understanding and not understanding Traditional versus modern. Saleem Sinai’s methods of coping with an agitated history and his re-identification process Salman Rushdie depicts a deeply traditionalist people, whose history is proven to have begun no less than 2500 years ago and that is now submitted to the changes brought by a forced and quite rapid modernization process determined by the definitive British colonization process that started around the year 1850.

His writing is deeply brutal, in total contradiction with the most important Indian spiritual leader’s policy in the times of the Independence – Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) the man who brought his indisputable contribution to the birth of the Republic and who was paradoxically killed because of his pacifism.

At the same time, the author doesn’t hesitate to set straight the register regarding his political opinions by presenting the Indian Prime Minister (1966-1974 and 1980-1984), Indira Gandhi - daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of Independent India - otherwise a quite appreciated political figure, as the Widow, a cruel and power-thirsty leaders and as having one of the worst influence on the recently liberated Republic.

More than that, the author pictures a country torn up by conflicts driven by ethnical, religious and territory issues that had kept the Indians in a continuous tension and that finally led to the splitting of their country and of the people on religious grounds Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2012 (1947). But the conflicts also led to a severe spiritual stagnation and to a deep confusion at a consciousness level.

Hegel used to say that: “The Oriental peoples don’t know that the spirit, meaning the individual himself, is free. The Greeks and the Romans knew that some of them were free but only with Christianity did they reach the conclusion that the individual is free by himself” (2005). In the author’s view, the polytheistic approach of the Orientals deterred them from embracing the premises of the Enlightenment, “the man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity (...)” (Kant, 1784) and, as a consequence, from being prepared for the modernization of the society, process primarily drew for an individual who is not afraid to use his own understanding and free-will.

“…it is difficult for any individual man to work himself out of the immaturity that has all but become his nature. He has even become fond of his state and for the time being is actually incapable of using his own understanding, for no one has never allowed him to attempt it” (Kant, 1807).

As a consequence, the individual finds himself caught in a process of reidentification that he has to endure by finding methods to cope with. And he begins by creating his own reference system based on a different sequence of common meanings that legitimate his actions as they “are the basis of a community (…) Only with common meanings does the common reference world contain significant common actions, celebrations and feelings” (Taylor, 1971). This is the case for most of “Midnight’s Children” characters, but in the heart of the action stays Saleem Sinai whom Rushdie transforms into an omniscient Panopticon (Bentham, 1787). He refuses to be caught off guard by the times and so he becomes the reference system itself, he fights against modernity by emphasising its primary feature – his understanding that is magical. He conquers modernization with the traditional tool of sorcery. Not only does he possess “the key to any door of the consciousness” but he is also able to communicate telepathically with the other 1000 Midnight’s Children, becoming their leader. The entire Indian world becomes a marionette in Saleem’s hands or, better said, nose – his all mighty secret weapon. And so “irrational action is made sense of, as we understand why it was engaged in. We make sense of action when there is a coherence between the actions of the agent and the meaning of the situation for him. We find his action puzzling until we find such a coherence” (Taylor, 1971).

Saleem copes with the new emerging world by using one of the oldest, mystical, “weapons” of the traditional societies: constant fear of the unknown. By choosing this approach, Rushdie shapes both his main character’s destiny and the others’ faiths by taking the uncanny up to the point that it meets the precepts of sorcery. During the whole story, reality and fiction go hand in hand, borderless, one melting into the other, keeping the reader in a permanent awkward layer in between the two. “The subject of uncanny belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror (…)” Usually, “in fairy-tales the world of reality is left behind from the very start and the animistic system of beliefs is frankly adopted. Wish fulfilments, secret powers, omnipotence of thoughts, animation of lifeless objects can exert no uncanny influence;

that feeling can not arise unless there is a conflict of judgement whether things which

Marinescu / The display of inner and outer dimensions

have been surmounted and are regarded as incredible are not, after all, possible;

and this problem is excluded from the beginning by setting of the story” (Freud, 1919).

Saleem sees himself as the unique saviour of the Indian people suppressed by the hegemony of capitalism, technology and individualism brought by modernization. But, as a metaphor of the fact that internal issues have shaken India maybe even more than the exterior interferences have, Saleem has to face his dark-side, his alter-ego, Shiva, the symbol of the Hindu mythology, a very contradictory character, even by his name meaning destruction and being, at the same time, a positive force of the universe. The Hindu believe that destruction is the natural consequence of the creation process. So Saleem has to cope with the fact that change is a sine qua non stage in the evolution process and that there is no such thing as supreme good or supreme evil, as he would be inclined to believe and deny Shiva’s existence.

At the same time, Rushdie faces Saleem and Shiva in order to depict the two possible alternatives of a life in a capitalist society: the one of the winner and the one of the loser. Modernity forces the individual to take his faith into his own hands and place himself in one or another tribe. But here we are also facing the spiritual issue: what are the boundaries one may cross in order to enter “the winners’ row” and, in this respect, Rushdie depicts a corrupt society guided merely by personal interests and financial purposes that might have come as consequences for a sudden modernization or for the application of an unfit pattern to a different type of society. This issue had been developed by Kant 80 years before India became a colony: “Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass” (Kant, 1784).

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