Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: Depictions of History, Hinduism & Islam

Salman Rushdie

“What is the relationship between society and the individual, between the macrocosm and the microcosm? To put it another way: do we make history, or does it make (or unmake) us? Are we the masters or victims of our times? Saleem Sinai makes an unusual assertion in reply: he believes that everything that happens, happens because of him. That history is his fault. This belief is absurd, of course, and so his insistence on it feels comic at first…

“Perhaps we are all, to use Saleem’s phrase, ‘handcuffed to history’. And if so, then yes, history is our fault. Many people—Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, H. L. Mencken—are credited with some variation of the notion that ‘people get the government they deserve’, but maybe it’s possible to make an even broader assertion and say that people get the history they deserve. History is not written in stone. It isn’t inevitable or inexorable. It doesn’t run on tramlines. History is the fluid, mutable, metamorphic consequence of our choices, and so the responsibility for it, even the moral responsibility, is ours. After all: if it’s not ours, then whose is it? There is nobody else here. It’s just us.” 

~ These lines are from Salman Rushdie’s introduction to the 40th edition of Midnight’s Children

The novel’s protagonist and narrator Saleem Sinai, born at the moment when India became independent, believed that everything that happened in the past was related to his life. He believed that history was never limited to the past; it played a role in the present. Midnight’s Children is in no way anti-Islamic. Like every book by Rushdie, this book is rooted in Islamic culture, history, and religion. In fact, Hinduism (and to some extent Christianity) are presented in a negative light throughout most of the novel; only Islamic culture gets a favorable treatment. This is obvious from the characterizations of Saleem and Shiva who lead each other's potential lives. 

Saleem was of the “nose” and Shiva was of the “knees,” according to the prophecy given at the time when Amina (Saleem’s mother) was pregnant. A seer predicts: “There will be two heads—but you shall see only one—there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees.” Amina feared that she would give birth to a monster, a two-headed child. But the seer was predicting the intertwining of two lives: Saleem and Shiva. Shiva was born at the exact moment when Saleem was born—the moment of India’s independence. He was the biological son of Dr. Aziz and Amina but was switched at birth with Saleem, by nanny Mary Pereira. Saleem grew up in a rich and cultured household, while Shiva was raised in a slum by Wee Willie Winkie, a poor accordionist.

The leading characters in the novel are Muslim. Just three of the important characters are Hindu (all three are named after Hindu Gods and Goddesses): Shiva "of the Knees,” “Parvati-the-witch,” and Padma Mangroli. The characterization of Shiva, Parvati, and Padma is negative—they are not outrightly villainous and boorish, but they are not cultured. Saleem married Parvati, but despite being a real witch, she failed to make him fall in love with her. So she started an affair with Shiva. After separating from Parvati, Saleem began a relationship with Padma, whose name is derived from the River Ganges and Goddess Laxmi, and who serves as the audience for his narrative.

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