By Chet Yarbrough
Narration by: Lyndam Gregory
Midnight’s Children is about God and the snake. Written by Salman Rushdie, it is a story about religion and knowledge; nationalism and war. It raises issues about God, Allah, Shiva, Buddha and many fundamental religious beliefs and nationalist policies. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie uses a satiric pen to tell the story of India and Pakistan’s independence, their wars, and the role of religion in Indian/Pakistani society.
In 1989, the author’s writing led the British government to hide and protect Rushdie from Islamic radicalism and Khomeini’s inhumane fatwa, an order to murder the writer for blaspheme. The fatwa has never been removed but Rushdie lives life as an unrepentant humanist, albeit less hidden and less protected. Rushdie has been widely acclaimed for his wit, intelligence, and lyrical/creative writing—all qualities evident in Midnight’s Children.
Midnight’s Children is a “coming of age” saga about one child born at the strike-of-midnight August 15, 1947, the day India became an independent nation-state. Rushdie demythologizes religion and promotes humanism by telling a story of India and Pakistan’s history. He infers the prime mover of life is human nature; not God.
The hero of Midnight’s Children is Saleem Sinai. Saleem is a chosen one, a seer of all things that have happened and are happening; at least until an operation that changes his life. He and other children, born on that fateful midnight, have special powers. These special powers are not determined by social position or wealth but by time of birth.
Those children born nearer the precise second of midnight have extraordinary powers. Saleem becomes the leader of Midnight’s Children because he is born exactly at midnight. Saleem becomes their leader because he knows what other supernatural children of midnight are thinking; at least most of them. Midnight’s Children recognize Saleem knows what they are thinking; i.e. a knowledge that gives him superior power.
Saleem describes his great power as the ability to hear the voice of Allah, the thoughts of the general public, and most of Midnight’s children. Saleem chooses to keep his power secret from all but Midnight’s Children. A part of Saleem’s secretiveness is caused by a beating he receives from his father for saying he is tuned into and can hear Allah speaking. The beating from his father comes from belief in Islamic’ law which says there is only one messenger-of-God (Muhammad) and there will be no more.
An exception to Saleem’s power to hear the thoughts of Midnight’s Children is Shiva’s Midnight child, a bully of a boy who believes the only purpose of life is to dominate and rule. Shiva’s Midnight child is avaricious and uninhibited, believing power is all and might-makes-right. Shiva represents the dark powers of human nature; i.e. that part of human nature that makes decisions for others and denies human freedom of choice. Saleem resists Shiva’s nihilistic beliefs but is seduced by other human emotions; emotions like lust, revenge, and cowardice.
Rushdie uses the snake as a symbol of knowledge; knowledge that contains both good and evil. Rushdie writes that snake venom kills and heals; i.e. kills when there is too much; heals when used in correct proportion. Saleem, as a young boy, survives early death with administration of the right proportion of venom; i.e. the right amount of knowledge.
Saleem moves from India to Pakistan, returns to India, back to Pakistan, and finally to India. All his travels based on family history and national events. Midnight’s Children illustrates Rushdie’s creative genius by offering a vision of two countries and their conflicting religious and nationalist beliefs. The futility and fog of war stinks with the smell of corpses, corpses created by religious myths and nationalist’ propaganda. Rushdie’s story exposes the perfidy of both Pakistan and India in their respective policies that victimize the poor and deny freedom of choice.
Prominence of a nose is a recurrent symbol in Rusdie’s story. At times, Rushdie’s writing is laugh-out-loud funny, like when he describes the prominence of a big nose, born in suspicious paternity; used in a magical life. Though the telepathic quality of Saleem’s life is lost when his nose is operated on, the nose offers other extraordinary powers. A listener is inclined to believe, as Saleem matures, that a nose knows–particularly about the inherent human desire for freedom and nationalist power’s effort to deny its development.
Rushdie reviles Indira Gandhi’s policy of sterilization in the late 60s as an example of nationalist policy that denies freedom of choice; particularly for the poor and disenfranchised.
A leader presuming he/she knows best is like a mountain climber climbing a slippery slope. Rushdie infers autocratic decisions often slip into the might-makes-right mentality of Shiva’s midnight child. Rushdie suggests greatness comes from every level of society and those nationalist policies that discriminate against factions that are poor, racially mixed, or uniquely identifiable, destroys human and economic progress.