What is history? Where does it start? Who writes it? Are there any super-human forces behind annals? Are they divine inspirations? What should one do when facing the possibility of death? How can one leave a trace of his or her existence? Can a nation’s history be represented by a single image? Can a character – fictional or not – be represented by a nation’s history? What is the nature of the nation? What is the nature of history? What is the taste of history?
History is not something to be only read. In fact, it is impossible for a person to be only a history-reader. That is, we are history ourselves: every second we die and we are born again, until the final moment. The only difference between human beings is whether they are able to make history or not.
By making history I mean describing events, but also giving them a personal identity, either depicting them from one’s own point of view, or creating a new history for whatever reason. Writing your name in the Human Civilization Chronicles (each with its respective name) can be done through action, but only. The act of writing them itself is a way to make sure your thoughts and life will not be forgotten.
The novel, published in 1981, is magical realist epic, depicting India’s decolonization with the waning influence of British rule. It was very well received in the literary world (and beyond) and it was rewarded with various literary distinctions on the mainland. Since then, Midnight’s Children has been one of Rushdie’s main reference names and a long-lasting bestseller, along with Rushdie’s other famous and/or basic works. The story involves several space-time frames, revolving around the central character and his country (India).
The story is centred around the India’s partition in 1947, which followed it’s newly granted independence, narrated by a parapsychologically developed individual with an unusually grown nose, Saleem Sinai. Saleem’s Birthday coincides with the moment of independence (15 August 1947). Thirty years later, fearing his imminent death and subsequent urgency of leaving a legacy of his existence in this world, he is compelled to tell his story – mainly – to Padma. We are taken back during World War I to the time when his grandparents met and married, and then, slowly we begin to see Saleem closer and closer until we are back at the time of the narration.
Due to his birth date, Saleem is burdened by a constant amount of socially-inflicted pressure. He then discovers he has telepathic abilities and can read people’s minds, a fact he soon discovers to be quite spread amongst other children of his generation. Apparently, everybody who was born in that particular time frame has some sort of special powers. He finds out that, after being switched at birth with another baby, Shiva, he is not the only one with over-developed parts of the body. Shiva himself has overgrown and super-strong knees. When Saleem found out about this fact, he decided to create a link between all these special children through the “Midnight Children’s Conference.” In any case, this is not the only story thread in the book: we are also acquainted with a parallel development of the plot, namely his family’s difficulties and peregrinations to survive plagues, wars and his own mental issues (amnesia, cured in the Sundarban jungle). After this, Saleem chooses a politicially active path, fighting against Indira Gandhi’s policies, especially measures against the midnight’s children, the children born along with the Indian Independence. Subsequent to Gandhi’s political fall, the prisoners are set free. He meets Padma and, from here we are back to the point where the novel started, namely Saleem’s turning 30. Exactly a year later, on his birthday, he marries Padma and predicts his death on the same day.
In the end of his life, Saleem decides to turn his eyes to history, his own and his nation’s, he writes a Chronicle dedicated to his son. The main taste of the history he describes could be described as bittersweet: chained, but also supernatural. The comparison of Indian history with pickles is not – by any chance – an inside joke or irrelevant: the pickles could be described as bringing both pleasure, and a sore taste in the mouth. That is, Salmaan’s story as an integral part of Indian heritage (if not its personification itself), is not unilateral: it has sunlight, but, at the same time it is imbued with darkness. In other words, history (his-story) is filled with happy – sometimes even glorious – moments, accomplishments and/or relationships, bringing with it a sense of pride (of being oneself, of belonging to something greater, of having a story and an audience to tell it to) and assurance of one’s (divine) gifts. On the other hand, along with this bright image, there is also a dark side. For India this could be not only the centuries of British subjugation, but also internal malice (issues of social, political, religious or philosophical nature).
As he himself admits, in his future Chronicle, Salem does not only plan to use words, he announces that he will be writing in pickles as well:
What I hope to immortalize in pickles as well as words: that condition of the spirit in which the consequences of acceptance could not be denied, in which an overdose of reality gave birth to a miasmic longing for flight into the safety of dreams… But the jungle, like all refuges, was entirely other-was both less and more-than he had expected. ‘I am glad,’ my Padma says, ‘I am happy you ran away.’ But I insist: not I. He. He, the buddha. Who, until the snake, would remain not-Saleem; who, in spite of running-from, was still separated from his past; although he clutched, in his limpet fist, a certain silver spittoon. (211)
Saleem himself feels the weight of this darkness until the point of personal crisis. He faces this dark side (death) by making sure he will not be forgotten by the future generations. He leaves a history, his history, his family’s history, his country’s history with all its implications, be they positive or negative and that is why the “pickle” metaphor is so important in this context. As we would eat a pickle along with something else to make it taste better or easier to digest, also aware of the fact that their taste is not exactly sweet (read good), but at the same time not bad either, but a complementary taste-maker (like salt, for example) that gives sense to the particular food we are eating. In the same way history gives sense to our lives teaching us lessons, telling us of past successes, spicing out our existence and adding flavour to our identity. That is why Saleem’s only solution is writing history, not fighting death.
1. Wikipedia contributors. Midnight’s Children. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 13 Jan. 2010. 5 Feb. 2010.
2. SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on Midnight’s Children. SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 18 Jan. 2010.
3. Collective. Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children. Fu Jen University. 5 Feb. 2010. 1 Feb. 2001
4. Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Penguin Books. 2008.
1. Referring to the Anglo-Saxon-influenced world.
2. In other words, he reached a point in his life when he can look back into his past (and not only) and analyze the present situation through the scope of history. Nevertheless, the situation does not appear to be positive for him – at least not at the present moment (that is 15 August 1977) and Saleem feels his body gradually degrading. Therefore, the only – final – outcome seems to be death.
3. His companion and future wife, who patiently listened to him, but she was also sceptical and down-to-earth, Saleem’s opposite in character and attitude towards life.
4. Namely sterilization of the “magical” seen as threatening by the prime minister. All the midnight’s children are gathered in a sterilization-camp during the remainder of Indira Gandhi’s mandate.
5. For more information see Midnight’s Children, Wikipedia Article; Sparknotes.com information on Midnight’s Children; Fu Jen University project-page on Midnight’s Children;