Political (w)holes: post-colonial identity, contingency of meaning and history in Salman Rushdie's midnight's children.
Rushdie set a trend of being a migrant writer of the postcolonial condition and has argued for such a condition as a legitimate place for bringing a different kind of experience into the world of writers. In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie delineates the position of a postcolonial "migrant" writer in the West:
It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge-which gives rise to profound uncertainties-that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. (6)
Rushdie's conception of "homeland" becomes a "space" that could be carried over to geographic places of migration/emigration. While the past becomes an imaginary place in the mind, it is a place nonetheless to "look back" to and find inspiration from, a place to identify with. The notions of "place" and "space" continually interchange for those who are a product of the post-colonized world, migrants and diasporics created by economic globalization, war and political strife. Therefore, as Ashcroft writes, for post-colonial writers, "'place' is much more than the land. The theory of place does not purpose a simple separation between the "'place' named and described in language, and some 'real' place inaccessible to it, but rather indicates that in some sense place is language, something in constant flux, a discourse in process." (7) Contrary to the understanding of place as just a geographical space, for the migrants or the displaced, "place is just as much constructed as identity itself." (8) "Place can thus be a constant trope of difference in postcolonial writing, a continual reminder of colonial ambivalence, of the separation, yet continual mixing, of the colonizer and colonized." (9) This fluid understanding of place does not render the "real place" nonexistent; rather, it exists doubly, in memory as it existed in the past and in actuality as it exists in present.
As Rushdie articulates it, migrants cannot totally disconnect themselves from the idea of a "real place" or "homeland" since the foundation of a "migrant identity" is the history of "discontinuity" from that place called homeland, which also makes the condition of e/migration possible. (10) Without the idea of home and homeland, there wouldn't be a diaspora. (11) Rushdie's view on identity, on one hand, takes the everyday reality of the postcolonial situation of diaspora, migrancy and cultural hybridity. On the other hand, this identity is based on the longing for a "home" of the past that is unchanging in the mind and carried around the globe, even though that place may no longer exist in the same way it once did. Furthermore, the relationship with home is not always a longing and love for a proper, secure home; it could very well include dread, trauma and disdain. Homi Bhabha delineates such dread for home as "unhomeliness." (12) "The unhomely is the shock of recognition of the world-in-the-home, the home-in-the-world ... The unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence."13 If one is a writer, this ambivalence could emerge in his/her writing. Moreover, one would write from this place of ambivalence as a therapeutic process of coming to terms with what has been lost or gained. This experience of belonging and not belonging to places, collectivities, cultures and modes of being is the fate of the postcolonial migrant writer. At the same time it is also a privilege that enables the call for a "common humanity," or a kind of humanism that is "provisional, historically contingent, and antiessentialist (in other words, postmodern)." (14) As Rushdie says in Imaginary Homelands,
It may be argued that past is a country from which we have all immigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being "elsewhere." This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal. (15) (my emphasis)
For Rushdie, the loss is not trivial. Yet this experience provides the postcolonial migrant writer with an epistemic authority that makes him/her "capable of writing from a kind of double perspective." (16) Rushdie's claim of the post-colonial migrant writers' unique vision turns the loss into an opportunity, a gift that lends a more inclusive perspective, "a special, 'stereoscopic,' inside/outside vision that allows them to work the mainstream from the margins." (17)
Linda Hutcheon states, "postmodern fiction is an 'uneasy mix' of parody, history, metafiction, and politics," while postmodernist writing challenges "the classic realist system of representation [and has] also come to contest the modernist ideology of artist autonomy, individual expression, and the deliberate separation of art from mass culture and everyday life." (18) Rushdie's writings do share the narrative styles of postmodern textuality, yet the "postcolonial" in him disallows total absurdity or meaninglessness: "To pickle is to give immortality, after all: fish, vegetables, fruit hang embalmed in spice-and-vinegar; a certain alteration, a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art is to change the flavor in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and a jar) to give it shape and form-that is to say, meaning. (I have mentioned my fear of absurdity)." (19) Although his method is deconstruction (20), it is not destructive of postcolonial politics: of the decolonization of mind, of contending modernist narratives of wholeness and progress, of binaries and exclusions. Reflecting on The Satanic Verses, which was criticized and censored in the Muslim world, Rushdie imparts the pain of fracture and exclusion: 'The Satanic Verses is the story of two painfully divided selves. In the case of one, Saladin Chamcha, the division is secular and societal: he is torn, to put it plainly, between Bombay and London, between East and West. For the other, Gibreel Faristha, the division is spiritual, a rift in the soul. He has lost his faith and is strung out between his immense need to believe and his new inability to do so. The novel is 'about' their quest for wholeless." (21) Likened to the play of Atman (self/part) and Brahman (absolute reality/whole) in Hindu philosophy, the quest for wholeness is mocked at best in Midnight's Children and in The Satanic Verses. Nonetheless, Rushdie's writing revolves around this issue. In a way, Gibreel and Saladin Chamcha combined reflect the situation that Aadam Aziz faces in Midnight's Children, where he is torn apart between modernity and tradition; between Kashmir, India and Pakistan; and between Muslim-Hindu spiritualism and Western secularism.
Postcolonial Perspective on History, Reality and Representation
Unlike the metanarrative of history, Midnight's Children is a perspective on cultural, political and geographic history seen through the eyes of a child born in the midnight of India's independence from more than two hundred years of British colonization. This narrative perspective establishes a relationship of meaning with the subject of experience, who is Saleem Senai, an Anglo-Indian by birth, constructed as a Hindu, then fated to take another child's place to grow up in an upper-class Muslim household. In one of his frequent conversations with Padma, his reliable listener, the unreliable narrator Saleem imparts his argument and metaphors, which also define Rushdie's position-political, moral, ethical or otherwise-as a writer as well as the product of the nascent nation-state India:
Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real. A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before; and there were a thousand and one dead ends. Midnight's children can be made to represent many things ... they can be seen as the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our mythridden nation, whose defeat was entirely desirable in the context of a modernizing, twentieth-century economy; or a true hope of freedom, which is now forever extinguished; but what they must not become is the bizarre creation of a rambling, diseased mind. No: illness is neither here nor there. (22)
Behind the mask of post-modern playfulness (which is South Asian in manner), Rushdie reveals forms and patterns with the literal use of historical events in the form of parody, pastiche and allegory. For Rushdie, identity is considered through fragments, reality is hard to get to without spatial distance, and "perspective is impossible" when one is too close to happenings, something he illustrates with the metaphor of a cinema screen and the viewer's position. He questions the "freshness" of the present-day reality by stating:
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems-but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible...the illusion dissolves-or rather, it becomes clear that illusion itself is reality.... (23)
For Rushdie, the concept called reality is imbued with the play of memory, time, and distance. Reflection alone, as in the sense of mirroring, may not be adequate to understand reality. Who holds the mirror? Who holds the telescope? Who invents these scopic devices to see through the past, beyond our vision and into the future? Is the universe with its multiple galaxies less real because we can't see it with our naked eyes? These are all pertinent questions for those seeking to know reality, and the realities of the past, which is called History.
Allegorical fictions likes Rushdie's allow a broader vision and reflexive look at history. Telling history metaphorically does not make it less real, as the pickling of a vegetable does not destroy it but gives it a longer, and more flavorful, life. Simply speaking, if we put aside philosophical discourses, we turn to the archives to know history. Here history is a compendium of textual material written by or translated and prepared for those who have access to discourse making and textualization (only recently are oral cultures considered part of history). As Rushdie has been critiqued for taking liberty with serious matters in history, it is apt to cite what Gayatri Spivak pointed out in her reading of Mahasweta Devi's Breast Giver: "one must rethink the notion that fiction derives from truth as its negation," that the claim that "history deals with real events and literature with imagined ones may now be seen as a difference in degree rather than in kind." (24) What Spivak offers as a way to transcend a culturalist reading of a text in the cross-cultural context of Western academia also applies to dispelling the myth of history and historians as the true mediators of reality.
In the case of Midnight's Children, it is the metaphor of pickling, a local and traditional method of preserving fruits and vegetables in South Asia, that lets Rushdie construct an autobiography of an independent India alongside his own birth.
My special blends: I've been saving them up. Symbolic value of the pickling process: all six hundred million eggs which gave birth to the population of India could fit inside a single, standard-sized pickle-jar; ... Every pickle-jar ... contains, therefore the most exalted of possibilities: the feasibility of the chutnification of history; the grand hope of the pickling of time! I, however, have pickled chapters. Tonight, ... I reach the end of my long-winded autobiography; in words and pickles, I have immortalized my memories.... (25)
As Rushdie stirs up the historical with the 'personal,' he is aware his treatment of history will be labeled "chutneyfication." (26) While the unreliable narrator, Saleem, self-consciously admits to playing with events and dates of history, critics question Rushdie's performance as an omniscient writer/historiographer/reader who "precludes any criticism 'from outside' with his 'always-already' formula of any representation as already a misrepresentation." (27) As Banerjee claims, Rushdie's "obsessive theorization of the nature of mediation" between reality and representation is a symptom that postcolonial writers exhibit in their engagement with post-modernist historiography, which "takes the notion of historical intelligibility ... [as] always-already illusory." (28) Banerjee follows the usual pattern of criticism against what is thought of as the postmodern style of writing; yet, it is not normally texts like Midnight's Children that construct historical reality and paradigms of power. For example, in the novel's beginning, Aadam Aziz is informed by his German friends that his native India is a land "discovered" by Vasco de Gama. The narrator writes: "... this was what finally separated Aadam Aziz from his friends, this belief that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors." (29) Here, German people's truth is not Aadam's truth, rather it is his discovery, his knowledge. Yet, the European perspective may still hold it as truth, and there is nothing you can do about it. No "maze of textualizations," pickled or not, may dismantle this grand-narrative, a universalized truth claim.
Unlike the defense of a bland history, Sara Suleri through her reading of the novel Shame critiques Rushdie for employing an inbuilt idea of censorship in most of his writings. Suleri argues Rushdie operates with inbuilt ideas of "censorship," "authorship," and "readership" only to repress and censor the ambivalence that comes with the knowledge of self-conscious representation of the Other.9 In an attempt to subvert the imposed colonial identity, the post-colonial narrative constantly critiques, questions and demystifies notions of truth, reality and history and does violence to itself, argues Suleri. (31) Moreover, the critical awareness of the post-colonial writer makes her/him see "always-already" outside the text, hence the already infused idea of "censorship," according to Suleri. (32) Suleri's ideas are insightful in the context of doing away with arguments for "irreducible difference" while apprehending the colonial or imperial power structure as it will only end up creating endless cycles of "otherness as a universal trope" and foreclose meaningful cultural understanding. (33) Deconstructing the rigid notions of difference or otherness is exactly what Rushdie has been doing in his writing, especially in Midnight's Children, with an expansive, inclusive, and emotional plea to understand India's diversity, religious syncretism and cultural hybridity. Indeed, Rushdie, who sees himself as part of a "decolonization" project, is a metropolitan subject, a migrant, and an exile. To dismiss his work as "narcissistic blabbing" about postmodernist subjectivity, chutneyfication of history, or, as Graham Huggan states, the "postcolonial exotic" does not do justice to a text as deep and rich as Midnight's Children. (34)
In fact, as Roger Clark in Stranger God outlines a historical timeline paralleling Rushdie's writings, he argues, "Rushdie's novels are steeped in the culture and history of the Indian subcontinent," some of them reaching as far back as 2500 BC. (35) Among the scholars who have studied Midnight's Children, (36) Patrick Colm Hogan's reading is insightful in terms of contextualizing Rushdian politics with specific attention to Kashmiri history and politics of identity. Hogan rightly questions critics who assert the absence of Gandhi in the novel. In fact, early on in the novel, the narrative deals with Gandhi's peaceful refusal to compromise with British policies through Hartal, which the British administration reciprocated with a massacre of innocent people in Amritsar. (37) As Hogan speculates, Gandhi's apparent absence is a conscious decision on the part of Rushdie, who saw that Gandhi represented hope for a more decentralized, self-sufficient India through engendering the "third principle." However, despite the efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, who championed liberal democracy and secularism, Gandhian values would die a fast death after Nehru's time. The Indira Gandhi administration's heavy-handedness during the emergency and its treatment of the so-called underclass, which Rushdie is not shy to criticize, are two examples of the ways power was abused by the government. At the regional level, the "Buddha" chapter gives glimpses of the role India played during the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a narrowly construed identity politics-where people group themselves according to rigid definitions of religion, caste, class or ethnicity-became a tool to politicize people for electoral propaganda, factionalism and communalism were bound to rise. This, however, is not to say that identity politics is always separatist and cannot be used to aid the disempowered. Yet, excessive focus on difference, as Suleri cautions us and Rushdie explicates through the Midnight's Children's Conference, may lead to total chaos, a complete lack of empathy, and a state of incommensurability, which is not what Rushdie advocates.
For Rushdie, the process of decolonization can work only through deconstruction of the self/other duality and oppressor/oppressed dialectic, and through dismantling the rigid cultural, political and ideological borders and boundaries. Thus, rather than siding with either the nationalist block or the imperial army, it is the "third principle" that Saleem advocates in Midnight's Children, a very apt perspective in the era of Cold War politics during which the book was written. "'Brothers, sisters!' ... 'Do not let this happen! Do not permit the endless duality of masses-and-classes, capital-and-labour, them-and-us to come between us! We,' I cried passionately, 'must be the third principle, we must be the force which drives between the horns of the dilemma; for only by being the other, by being new, can we fulfill the promise of our birth.'" (38)
Though Rushdie abstains from aligning with specific ideological moorings (capitalism or communism), to imagine an egalitarian and non-violent nation-state is to remind the world that these models may not be ideal to decolonize the minds of a newly emerging nation-state. In this case, Rushdie hints at the lack of Gandhian views in realizing the freedom and development hoped for in swa-raj (self-rule, also known as home-rule). 39 Rather, the road to independence and progress was headed by the business community, and the fight for things led to a fight for place: "The businessmen of India were turning white."40
Further conversation between Shiva and Saleem at the Midnight's Children's Conference illustrates Rushdie's views on humanity and the importance of Gandhi's vision as the "third principle."
Things and their makers rule the world; look at Birla, and Tata, and all the powerful: they make things. For things, the country is run. Not for people. For things, America and Russia send aid; but five hundred million stay hungry. When you have things, then there is time to dream; when you don't, you fight' ... And now I: 'But people are not things; if we come together, if we love each other, if we show that this, just this, this people-together, this Conference, this children-sticking-together-though-thick-and thin, can be the third way ...' But Shiva, snorting: "Little rich boy, that's all just wind. All that importance-of-the-individual. All that possibility-of-humanity. Today, what people are is just another kind of thing.... (41)
The contrast between Shiva and Saleem is not an argument for or against capitalism or communism, for Saleem does not represent either of them. What Rushdie finds bizarre in the imagination of the children at the conference is the absence of the voice and vision of Gandhi-a vision that advocated non-violence, village centered sustainable development, and decentralization of power. For Gandhi, every village was a self-sufficient, independent microcosm of the nation. But here, midnight's children had no time to reflect on the vision of Gandhi and his politics. Rather, they were busy contrasting "Gandhi and Marxlenin, power and potency." (42) Gandhi had not only been killed physically, but was also erased from the imaginations of the future nation builders; thus the lament from Rushdie: "in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at a wrong time." (43)
Even if Rushdie relishes language that implodes/explodes the binaries of center/margin, East/West, and secular/religious and questions the group politics of communalism and nationalism, he is not in favor of relativist positions, nor is he there to totally undo history. Instead, Rushdie plays with the idea of wholeness as a mythical, idealist concept, especially impossible in the age of "contact," which started not only with the British Empire, but with many other empires that have come and gone.
Metaphor of (W)holes as a Politics of Dissent
While the narrator Saleem in his conversation with Padma throws at us, the readers, his ironic taunts about our longing for form and meaning, our desire to know it all, he is not outside the networks and ideologies of desire to give up all forms and meanings associated with them. If anything, Saleem's desire is to tease out multiple stories synchronically as well as diachronically to produce a network of forms intersecting each other, which is also a desire of the post-colonial writer Rushdie to represent his own identity as fractured, dislocated, and in-between mixed with the anxiety of inhabiting several spaces of identity at once. In Midnight's Children Rushdie pleads to be listened to: "Don't make the mistake of dismissing what I've unveiled as mere delirium; or even as the insanely exaggerated fantasies of a lonely, ugly child. I have stated before that I am not speaking metaphorically; what I have just written (and read aloud to stunned Padma) is nothing less than the literal, by-the-hairs-of-my-mother's-head truth." (44) Though the concepts of "meaning/wholeness" and "fracture/hole" parallel each other in the beginning of the story, they are used in juxtaposition.
In the chapter "The Perforated Sheet," Saleem Senai tells the story of his grandfather Aadam Aziz, aptly called Aadam as he is the precursor of modern/Western sensibilities that would influence and intervene in the traditional and local Kashmiri sensibilities of Aadam's household. The seven-inch diameter hole in the sheet through which Aadam Aziz examined his future wife's bodily contours becomes a metaphor throughout the novel. Whether it is the holes and cracks in the narrator's disintegrating body that he often refers to or the holes his grandfather bears all his life or the holes the partition brings to many people's lives, holes are everywhere. Full of irony and sarcasm, Rushdie plays with the idea of reaching the "whole" through the "hole," as Aadam does with Naseem. However, the end result is every "whole" is a cracked "w/hole," and the desire to find something "whole" might not be possible or even a good idea after all.
Once Aadam finds Naseem in her wholeness, which ultimately transforms into the figure of the Reverend Mother, nostalgia for the "hole" instead of the "whole" haunts him. Although Rushdie uses the metaphor of the hole to convey pain, loss and change, the fracture, discontinuity and incompleteness that the hole represents allow contesting the idea of the "whole," the grand truths about life, love, and happiness. Saleem's mother Mumtaz, turned Amina Senai after her marriage with Ahmed Senai, learns to love him in parts, in fragments, like her father once did her mother Naseem, as her love for her former husband Nadir Khan will never permit her to love him wholly. (45) Just because the nature of love is elusive or contingent upon circumstances, we cannot say love is unworthy or meaningless. Rushdie does not defy meaning; he only shows the forms it takes in different lives. If anything, Midnight's Children is an attempt to give meaning to particular historical experiences and the effects of these "histories" on the bigger story of history.
Most importantly, the conflict between Aadam Aziz's wife and his ideas in their later life is a clash over the ways in which meaning is engendered. For his wife, who is unspoiled by modern intervention, meaning is already laid out in the traditions of the Kashmiri sky and the holy Quran. But for Aziz, who has been affected by the outside world, his world is no longer simple and whole; for him meaning is not what is already there but what one makes in the process of life. After Aziz returns from Germany as a doctor, he is no longer able to just admire the beauty of the Kashmiri valley. Instead of being at home, he feels "enclosed" by the "narrowness" of the horizon. He is no longer able to concentrate on his daily prayers as the calm waters are rippled by the experience of five years in Germany.
One day, Aziz gives up on praying and vows never "to kiss earth for any god or man. This decision, however, made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history," says the narrator. (46) The narrator Saleem describes this as a state of inbetweenness where the outside experience, Western modernity, comes as a disturbing force and shakes the foundations of his identity-tradition, faith and religion: "And My grandfather, lurching upright, made a resolve. Stood. Rolled cheroot. Stared across the lake. And was knocked forever into that middle place, unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve. Permanent alteration: hole." (47) It was the beginning of questioning the old system, and Aadam Aziz started it. So, in this sense, Aadam is a symbolic hole in the calm waters of the Kashmiri lakes who shook the "Tai" like mountains of the Kashmiri horizon.
Michael Gorra sees Midnight's Children as an emblem of the writer's ideological assumptions. For the writers of our time, the literary work has become the "site of a consciously articulated struggle between different cultural, political, or religious beliefs." (48) In Rushdie's case, this cannot be more true. As Gorra explicates, "... in Rushdie we never lose our awareness of the protagonist's emblematic value, for Saleem stands himself as the site of that struggle; he is always and explicitly as much the embodiment of the 'polyglot frenzy' ... [and] the flooding multitudes inside him as he is an individual." (49) Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "heteroglossia" as a novel form, Gorra argues the use of different languages and styles of English at the Midnight's Children's Conference is an example of staging nonuniformity and a lack of wholeness as none of the members of the MCC can represent India as a whole. (50) As Gorra observes, Midnight's Children is an allegory of the political history of post-colonial India in which "... Rushdie embodies both India's extraordinary diversity and the concomitant centrifugal force of its national form in the very structure of Saleem's narrative itself." (51) The possible incoherence in the narrative technique of Saleem lies in the reality of Saleem's being, his continually disintegrating body that resists form and works as a "metonymy" of the "national collage as a whole," which, though it looks whole on the map, is full of fissures, cracks and perpetual disintegration. (52)
Rushdie's parody of form and wholeness is especially evident in his narration of the Midnight's Children's Conference and the politics of Indira Gandhi, the Widow, as he calls her, in the 70s during her
term as a prime minister of India. One of the most important aspects of this book is his critical commentary on the rule of Indira Gandhi, who gave up the values of secularism espoused by her father Nehru and the Congress Party to gain Hindu votes. For Rushdie, the political leadership was responsible for the downfall of midnight's children, who represented innocence, diversity and hope for a new India. While imbued with political satire, the Midnight's Children's Conference is another way of speaking about the heterogeneity that India represented for Rushdie, apart from his disgust for the ideal of purity, either Hindu or Islamic.
MCC was a vision of Saleem, who had the power of telepathy and could enter the heads of all 1,001 children born on the night of August 15, 1947, the day of India's independence and the formation of Pakistan (the "pure place") for Muslims. Among others in the conference is Shiva, the alter ego of Saleem, whose rightful place Saleem took through the weird circumstances of history. Shiva, son of the Muslim Senai couple, was switched by Mary, the Christian nurse, into street life, whereas Saleem, a Hindu child of the street, ended up taking Shiva's place, where a silver spittoon wrought with lapis lazuli shined as a mark of class. Even though Shiva symbolizes the ultimate degeneration of character, the narrator Saleem tries to give an account of the circumstances that made him the terrible aspect of Shiva, not the benevolent Shiva who is ready to bestow gifts to his worshipers. Shiva and Saleem represent the conflict of ideology at its best or worst. Or rather, Shiva seems to function with no ideology at all but only with action and force as time and privilege gave him no opportunity to cultivate such faculties.
The conflict between Shiva and Saleem comes not only from their desperate situations of class, caste and religion, but underlying these differences are the political games of the more powerful, under whose spell war is created in the name of form, purity and wholeness. Shiva being the Widow's right hand is one of many examples of how pressed those in power are that they make use of "Shiva of the knees," for whom survival comes before anything. Thus, with presences like Shiva and Saleem, "the knees" and "the nose," the MCC shows diversity that defies any kind of uniformity of form, class, language or religion that could represent the whole of India. The MCC is divided not only by virtue of difference in class, geographic location, religion and gender but by the gifts of power that are unequally bestowed on the night of independence.
Rushdie sums up what happened after independence with his allegorical characterization through the character of Shiva of the violence in Gujarat and Bombay, India's war with Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, and the politics of Indira Gandhi during her tenure in the 70s as prime minister. Most important is the administration of Indira Gandhi, which forced sterilization on slum dwellers and conjured a state-of-emergency to consolidate power against increasingly popular communist factions. (53) Through magical realism, Rushdie paints a vision of the degenerating state of India, where a unified form becomes more important than (w)holeness made of heterogeneity, which is India's reality. Now India's wholeness comes to exist only in the image of the body of Aadam Aziz's wife Naseem in his courting days. Saleem narrates his grandfather's premonition of India's fate: "Doctor Aziz came to have a picture of Naseem in his mind, a badly-fitting collage of her severally inspected parts. This phantasm of a partitioned woman began to haunt him, and not only in his dreams. Glued together by his imagination, she accompanied him in all his rounds ... but she was headless, as he had never seen her face." (54)
However, once he sees her face, the phantasm of putting together the fragments remains phantasm at its best as "Naseem Aziz, whom he had made the mistake of loving in fragments ... was unified and transmuted into the formidable figure ... [of the] Reverend Mother" later in her life. (55) While Rushdie uses the metaphor of the particular or the familial juxtaposed with national and political allegory, the figure of the Reverend Mother in many ways corresponds with the "Widow" image of Indira Gandhi, albeit in different proportions. While Reverend Mother reigns in the house, Indira Gandhi takes the place of the Bharat Mata (Mother India) in the newly emerged nation. While Gandhi desired to take the place of Bharat Mata, the embodiment of the benevolent mothergoddess, she failed to act in all the aspects of the goddess, which are manifold. Instead, she only embodied the terrible aspect of the goddess energy and failed to live the electoral politics that popularized her as Bharat Mata: "India is Indira and Indira is India." (56) Metaphorically speaking, she became Kali (the consort of Shiva), the goddess of destruction and death. With both of their powers combined, the destruction was inevitable. If Reverend Mother represents the "old form" of tradition clashing with the modernity that Aziz represents, Mother India, which Gandhi represents, cashes in on the clash. But Rushdie is not without hope; he brings out the hybrid child of Hindu, Muslim and Christian culture and religion, Aadam Senai, who, unlike his grandfather Aadam Aziz, might be the precursor of a new world.
Nostalgia for the "fragmented (w)holeness," an oxymoron, is how Rushdie writes about the Indian subcontinent and its politics. Perhaps this is where he differs from other postcolonial authors who write about the subcontinent. If one aspect of Midnight's Children deals with political decadence in independent India, it is also written from the perspective of a responsible citizen whose fate is associated with the newly born nation-state of India. Even as the narrator speaks to Padma, Rushdie has an audience in mind to which he speaks about the reality and truths of history, which he takes as his responsibility to impart for the sake of posterity. Things unwritten shall be forgotten: "My son will understand. As much as for any living being, I'm telling my story for him, so that afterwards, when I've lost my struggle against cracks, he will know. Morality, judgement, character ... it all starts with memory ... and I am keeping carbons." (57) Aadam Senai, a cultural hybrid, needs to know the history that is particular to his being, in contrast to the bigger history he is told as truth, which erases Aadam Aziz, Amina Senai, Hummingbird, Padma, Mary and Nadir Khan. The future needs to know about them, about difference, in order to learn there were people who did not fight for "purity" but were torn apart by the partition and betrayed by their own kind.
However, even as Rushdie imparts to us the tangents of history, he is wary of fingers pointing at him for creating a metanarrative out of nostalgia. Thus, he continues, "'I told you the truth' ... Memory's truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than their own." (58) While he censors himself again and again, as Sara Suleri opines, he gives that power to every subject of history. In fact, he wants his reader to be suspicious, which leaves room for criticism of the very censorship he projects in his work. To Padma, his listener, he says: "if you're a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too." (59) Rushdie espouses humility as a virtue and an open perspective to history, yet he does not falter from claiming truths in his version: "One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise in eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth ... that they are, despite everything, acts of love." (60)
Midnight's Children is an allegory, a meta-fiction that utilizes personal experiences to tell a political history surrounding India's independence. While Rushdie deconstruct myths of purity, invariable truth, authority of history, and uninterrupted cultures, he also presents his own political perspective that encompasses the need for freedom of expression, local cultural hybridity as an enabling concept, and secularism instead of communalism and fundamentalism. Contemporary India is not devoid of political and religious strife; religious fundamentalism is growing stronger despite a greater GDP due to globalization and the free market. Rushdie's Shiva has multiplied into the militia group Shiva Sena of the present day Neo-Hinduttva movement in South Asia. Since the British left, India has taken on the role of "big brother" in the South Asian region. Though apolitical in appearance with a deconstructive writing style, Rushdie's aim is not apolitical, which a close reading of Midnight's Children reveals. As Suheila Nastha points out, "Rushdie's self consciously chosen location as a diasporic Asian writer, joined both to East and West-as immigrant and migrant, exile and emigre-has acted as a central metaphor both in his fiction and in his critical essays, where the trope of migrancy has become renowned for representing a particular way of seeing ... of 'partially comprehending the world'." (61) Nastha rightly notes that if Rushdie's success in Midnight's Children was marked by his "attempt to write about India as an 'insider' counteracting the orientalism of Western versions of the 'East,'" his other writings, especially The Satanic Verses, were written "from the perspective of being part of the 'amazing phenomenon' of Indian diaspora." (62) Regarding the Satanic Verses Rushdie has been vocal about his intentions: "I have managed to write a book from the whole of myself. It is written from my entire sense of being in the world."63 If one does not speak or write from one's experience of being in the world, where would one start?
(1) Not all scholars use postmodern and postcolonial interchangeably, nor do they agree upon the applications and connotations of the terms. In his essay "Is the 'post-' in the 'postcolonial the 'post-' in 'postmodern'?," Kwame Anthony Appiah elucidates that while the terms share similar theoretical outlooks, postcoloniality is not an "ally for Western postmodernism but an agonist: from which postmodernism may have something to learn." For Appiah, postcolonial literature may be "postrealist" or "transnational." It challenges the "earlier legitimating narratives ... in the name of the ethical universal; in the name of humanism." Yet, Appiah's "humanism can be provisional, historically contingent, and antiessentialsit (in other words, postmodern) and still be demanding." Although critics have faulted Rushdie for his postmodern writing, they seldom recognize his call for "postcolonial humanism." "Is the 'Post' in 'postcolonial' the 'Post-' in 'postmodern'?" in Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, & Postcolonial Perspectives. Eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, & Ella Shohat (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1997), p. 438.
(2) Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta Books. 1991), p.394.
(3) There is plenty of critical work, both favorable and unfavorable, on Rushdie's poetics and politics of writing as well as his location/position as a writer. Midnight's Children, recipient of the Booker Prize almost three decades ago, is one of the most critically acclaimed and criticized of Rushdie's novels. As Patrick Colm Hogan illustrates in his essay on Midnight's Children, different critical or ideological trends influence the scholars studying Rushdie's work. Notably, in the West, Timothy Brennan (1989), M. Keith Booker (1999), and Graham Huggan (1994), among others, liken Rushdie to a bourgeois metropolitan subject without a political stance, while scholars like Kumkum Sagari (1987), Samir Dayal (1992), and Patrick Colm Hogan see a different kind of politics in Midnight's Children, one of openness, hope, and possibility.
(4) Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (New York: Penguin Books. 1991), p. 3-4.
(5) Ibid., p. 6.
(6) Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta Books. 1991), p. 10.
(7) Bill Achcroft, Post-Colonial Transformation (New York: Routledge. 2001), p. 155.
(8) Ibid., p. 155.
(9) Ibid., p. 154.
(10) Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 12.
(11) The notion of diaspora requires some form of common history, movement, displacement, and collective memory of struggle. It cannot be imagined without community, relationality, and interconnectedness to something beyond oneself. It is an identity category to express one's spatial and temporal location and position in history as well as a psychological state of mind. Even in times of deterritorialization, it is a longing for connection, a search for identification with something more than one's immediate location and existence.
(12) Homi Bhabha, "The World and the Home," in Dangerous Liaisons, p. 445-456.
(13) Ibid., p. 445 & 448.
(14) Anthony Appiah, "Is the 'Post' in 'postcolonial' the 'Post-' in 'postmodern'?" in Dangerous Liaisons, p. 438.
(15) Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 12.
(16) Ibid., p. 19.
(17) Sabrina Hassumani-Carter, Salman Rushdie: Postmodern Reading of his Major Works (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 2002), p. 27.
(18) Ibid., p. 14.
(19) Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p. 549-550.
(20) As Nicholas Royle cites Derrida, the 'de-' of deconstruction signifies not the demolition of what is constructing itself, but rather what remains to be thought beyond the onstructivist or deconstructivist scheme." Royle also argues that deconstruction is neither Adeath" nor incommensurability by emphasizing that "deconstruction has to do with identity and experience" and not only with language, discourse and texts, as the critics of deconstruction limit it, as if these are outside of reality and experience. Deconstructions: A Users Guide, Nicholas Royle, ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), p. 6-7.
(21) Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p.397.
(22) Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p.240.
(23) Ibid., p. 197.
(24) Gayatri C. Spivak, "A Literary Representation of The Subaltern: A Woman's Text From the Third World," in In Other Worlds (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 243.
(25) Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p. 548.
(26) Ibid. p. 548.
(27) Mita Banerjee, The Chutneyfication of History: Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondatjee, Bharati Mukherjee and the Postcolonial Debate (Heidelberg, 2002), p. 184.
(28) Ibid., p. 184.
(29) Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p. 6.
(30) Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1992). p.174-205 .
(31) Ibid., p.174.
(32) Ibid., p.175.
(33) Ibid., p. 12-13.
(34) Graham Huggan, "Postcolonial Exotic," Transitions, n. 64, p. 22-29.
(35) Roger Clark, Stranger Gods: Salman Rushdie's Other Worlds (Montreal: McGill-Queens University. 2001), p. ix.
(36) See especially, Samir Dayal, "'Talking Dirty': Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in College English, v. 54, n. 4, p. 431-445; O. P. Mathur, "A Metaphor of Reality: A Study of the Protagonist of Midnight's Children" in Image of India in the Indian Novelin English 1960-1985, eds. Sudhakar Pandey and R. Raj Rao (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1993); and Kumkum Sagari, "The Politics of the Possible," Cultural Critique (Fall 1987), p. 157-86.
(37) Patrick Colm Hogan, "'Midnight's Children': Kasmir and the Politics of Identity" in Twentieth Century Literature, v. 47, n. 4, p. 32-33.
(38) Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p. 306.
(39) For Gandhi, swa-raj or self-rule meant much more than the rule of India by natives. It meant the decolonization of the mind at different levels and breaking down dichotomic otions of oppression/oppressor. In caste ridden India, where the upper castes were the oppressors to the lower castes, Gandhi would have them look more deeply inside their own oppressor mentality. Source: (http://www.swaraj.org/whatisswaraj.htm).
(40) Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p. 212.
(41) Ibid., p. 307.
(42) Ibid., p. 307.
(43) Ibid., p. 198.
(44) Ibid., p. 240.
(45) Ibid., p. 73.
(46) Ibid., p. 4.
(47) Ibid., p. 6.
(48) Michael Gorra, After Empire: Scott, Naipaul and Rushdie (Chicago: The University of Chicago. 1997), p. 120.
(49) Ibid., p. 120.
(50) Ibid., p. 121.
(51) Ibid., p. 117.
(52) Ibid., p. 111.
(53) Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p. 483-527.
(54) Ibid., p. 23.
(55) Ibid., p. 40.
(56) Ibid., p. 483.
(57) Ibid., p. 241.
(58) Ibid., p. 253.
(59) Ibid., p. 243.
(60) Ibid., p. 549.
(61) Susheila Nastha, Home Truths: Fictions of South Asian Diaspora in Britain (New York: Palgrave, 2002), p. 136.
(62) Ibid., p. 156.
(63) Cited in Nastha, Home Truths, p. 156.
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|Publication:||Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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