© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Few books in world literature can approach the energy and audacity of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a book that in many ways embodies the magnitude, richness, and diversity of India, while remaining very strongly rooted in British culture as well. The novel opens with the story of Aadam Aziz, an Indian Muslim from Kashmir who (like Rushdie himself) has been educated in the West and has absorbed a great deal of Western culture. In many ways, in fact, Aadam feels that he has more in common with his medical-school classmates in Heidelberg than with his fellow Indians. He draws the line, however, when his fellow students espouse a belief that the European Vasco da Gama “discovered” India—as if it had not been there all along: “this was what finally separated Aadam Aziz from his friends, this belief of theirs that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors” (6). Aadam’s scientific Western education alienates him from his religion and from the culture of India, while his religious, racial, and cultural heritage—along with his refusal to accept the Orientalist view of India as a product of the West—makes it impossible for him fully to participate in the culture of Europe. The result is an unstable and fragmented sense of identity and a feeling that he has a “hole” at the center of his being.

In a similar way, Midnight’s Children is both an English and an Indian novel, though it cannot be simply categorized as either. Despite its rejection by many Indian critics, the book is often cited as a major achievement of recent Indian writing in English, sometimes in unfortunate and outlandish ways, as in the now-notorious claim in a New York Times review that the book is the embodiment of “a Continent finding its voice”—again, one might add, as if that voice had not been there all along. That Midnight’s Children has a great deal in common with the works of Western writers from Rabelais, to Laurence Sterne, to James Joyce, to Thomas Pynchon is obvious, as has been pointed out by numerous critics. That the book participates in a number of Western literary traditions, from Menippean satire[1] to postmodernism, is equally so. Yet, the book also relies in important ways on Indian literary traditions. For example, noting the similarity between the nonlinear narrative structure of Midnight’s Children and that of traditional Indian oral storytelling, Rushdie himself has stated in an interview that the similarity is intentional and that “everything about Laurence Sterne, García Márquez, and all that comes a long way behind” Indian oral narratives as an influence (“Midnight’s Children and Shame” 8).

At the same time, as the winner of the 1981 Booker Prize (and of a later special “Booker of Bookers” as the best novel in the twenty-five years since the Booker Prize was initiated in 1969), Midnight’s Children enjoys an unchallenged—and perhaps even unmatched—canonicity in contemporary “English” literature.[2] And the book is quite open and unapologetic in its dialogue with sources in the Western literary tradition, including a long line of predecessor texts in the British colonial literary tradition. It is clearly no coincidence, for example, that Rushdie’s Dr. Aziz is the namesake of the principal Indian character in A Passage to India.[3] And, as Timothy Brennan indicates, Rushdie’s book contains numerous echoes of the work of British novelist Paul Scott as well (82). Finally, Sara Suleri has noted that Rushdie’s work, like much Indian postcolonial fiction, “descends” from Kipling’s Kim in important ways that should not be ignored by critics overly eager to distinguish between colonial and postcolonial modes of writing (177-78).[4] Midnight’s Children thus caps off the tradition of British colonial fictions of India, while providing an important change of perspective that allows predecessor texts like those of Kipling, Forster, Orwell, and Scott to be viewed in new ways.

Rushdie himself is perfectly aware of the British literary background of his book[5], and one frankly suspects that his insistence on the primacy of the book’s Indian backgrounds is to some extent disingenuous. But, if Rushdie is now reluctant to acknowledge his book’s Western parentage, it is also the case that, if Midnight’s Children is the child of Kim, it is an illegitimate child not fully recognized by its father. Rushdie thematizes this situation in his book by making narrator Saleem Sinai (putative grandson of the Muslim Aadam Aziz) the illegitimate son of the Englishman William Methwold (namesake of the founder of Anglo-Indian Bombay) and an Indian (Hindu) mother. Indeed, Aadam Aziz and Saleem Sinai both serve as figures of the text in which they appear, while both characters—along with Midnight’s Children itself—can be read, in one way or another, as allegorical representations of Indian national identity, much in the way Kim and the other characters in British colonial fiction often play allegorical roles. But “Indian national identity” is itself a profoundly complex and contradictory concept, suggesting both a potential leaning toward notions of an Indian version of Oriental exceptionalism and a potentially transparent acceptance of the very Western notion of the nation as the only viable form of large-scale communal identity.

Few things are simple about Midnight’s Children, but one thing that is clear is that this is a book that must be read in context, even if its context is extremely complex and multiple. “Context” here can also mean completely different things: Midnight’s Children can be read within the context of Indian history (and British colonial history), but it can also be read within the context of a number of different literary traditions. I will outline a number of these traditions below, while maintaining an awareness of the historical context as well.

First, however, I should note that any appreciation of Midnight’s Children requires at least a basic familiarity with certain key events in Indian history. These include the following:

  1. British colonial rule: British power in India began to be solidified with the founding of the British East India Company in 1600. British control of India gradually spread from that time forward, until the Indian Rebellion of 1857 caused a major crisis that led to the establishment of the “British Raj,” direct colonial rule, in 1858.
  2. Indian independence. After a long legacy of anticolonial activism, India finally gained its independence from British rule on August 15, 1947. Anticolonial leader Jawaharlal Nehru, a protegé of Mahatma Gandhi, became the first prime minister of the new Indian nation, but was face with many extremely difficult problems, related to the complexities of India itself, as well as to what many saw as an overly sudden and hasty British departure, after decades of clinging to colonial control of India.
  3. The Partition. The divide-and-conquer strategy with which the British maintained power in India involved, among other things, the encouragement of animosity between India’s Hindu majority and its large Muslim minority. This animosity was such that the British felt that it would be impossible for the two groups to co-exist in postcolonial India. As a result, two portions of colonial India were carved off of the Western and Eastern wings of India and designated as Muslim-controlled areas, known as West and East Pakistan. This separation of India into separate Muslim- and Hindu-dominated postcolonial nations was known as The Partition of India. It led to massive migrations as Muslims from all over India attempted to remove to Pakistan, while Hindus within Pakistan attempted to migrate to India. A total of 10-12 million people migrated in a short period, leading to a major refugee crisis and also to widespread violence and the deaths of as many as 2 million people.
  4. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965: Tensions in Indian regions with large Muslim populations (such as Kashmir), which Pakistan hoped to annex, led to all-out war. Peace was re-established after seventeen days, thanks to diplomatic efforts by both the United States and the Soviet Union. However, tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir and other regions remain to this day.
  5. The founding of Bangladesh: In 1971, tensions between East and West Pakistan led to a war of independence. West Pakistani forces are known to have committed widespread atrocities and to have conducted mass executions of East Pakistani student and intellectuals, who were felt to be the instigators of unrest. Ultimately, India intervened on the side of East Pakistan, leading to its victory and to the founding of Bangladesh, leaving West Pakistan to become the current nation of Pakistan. This war plays a particularly important role in Midnight’s Children, in which Pakistan comes off particularly badly.
  6. The Emergency: A twenty-one month period from 1975 to 1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (the daughter of Nehru, depicted as the “Widow” in Midnight’s Children) assumed extraordinary powers. Policies pursued during the Emergency included radical efforts to curb India’s population growth, including mandatory sterilizations in some cases. Since the end of the Emergency, government sponsored population control programs have largely collapsed, and India’s population has more than doubled, causing serious social and economic problems. The Emergency was highly controversial and very problematic, though it is treated in Midnight’s Children as an instance of unmitigated evil, which is probably not a fair characterization. Mrs. Gandhi was re-elected Prime Minister in 1980, which might have spurred Rushdie’s negative treatment of her.
  7. The Cold War. At least part of Rushdie’s animosity toward Indira Gandhi seems to arise from a standard Cold War animosity toward communism and toward Gandhi’s efforts to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union. This effort was part of the project, begun by her father, to make India a leading nonaligned nation, refusing to take the side of either the Soviets or the West (led by the United States and Great Britain). Both the Soviets and Indian communists play important roles in Midnight’s Children.

Midnight’s Children as National Allegory

Probably the most commonly observed fact about Midnight’s Children is that the book, in narrating the personal history of Saleem Sinai, also narrates the national history of the postcolonial Indian state. Critics have approached the book’s resultant engagement with history in numerous ways. Unfortunately, most of this critical discussion does relatively little to clarify the actual points being made by Rushdie in his book, though much of it is of considerable anecdotal value, clarifying certain references for grateful Western readers, who tend to be woefully ignorant of Indian history. On the other hand, one of the most important and valuable of these anecdotal revelations has been David Lipscomb’s discovery that Rushdie, educated in Britain, might not know all that much about Indian history, either, having lifted most of his historical information directly out of a Western introductory textbook, Stanley Wolpert’s A New History of India (166). Rather than charge Rushdie with ignorance or laziness, though, Lipscomb is generous enough to suggest that his discovery implies that, in constructing his book in a textual form so different from that of Wolpert (a UCLA professor whose book was published by Oxford University Press, that ultimate voice of Western academic publishing authority), Rushdie challenges the authority of Western historians to represent the Indian past.

In a literary sense, the representation of Indian history in Midnight’s Children can probably be understood most usefully within the context of what the important American cultural critic and theorist Fredric Jameson has called “national allegory,” which he sees as a crucial mode of representation in “Third-World” texts. Writing at a time when the study of nonwestern literatures was still struggling to gain traction in the Western academy, Jameson argues that “Third-World” literature has certain resources that allow it to represent modes of experience that can no longer be found in most Western text. For Jameson, it is useful for Western readers to consider “Third-World” literature precisely because this literature is still informed by a strong sense of connection between the personal and the political, between private life and public life, that has now been lost to Western literature, after centuries of withering and unremitting pressure beneath the fragmenting tendencies of bourgeois ideology:

“One of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is the culture of the Western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power: in other words, Freud vs. Marx” (“Third-World” 86).

Jameson goes on to argue that, in Third-World texts, the public and the private remain connected, because these realms remain connected in Third-World societies. Thus, the experience of the individual character in a Third-World narrative is inevitably connected to larger social experience, even to the experience of his or her nation as a whole. “All third-world texts are necessarily,” Jameson wants to argue, “allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (86). In short, Third-World texts, Jameson concludes, “necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of a private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (86, Jameson’s emphasis).

Jameson makes it clear that he is perfectly aware of the pitfalls of this kind of sweeping analysis, and he himself pauses after initially delineating what he believes to be the most fundamental difference between First-World and Third-World texts by acknowledging that this emphasis on differentiation is in peril of falling into the habit of thinking that Said has described as “orientalism.” Indeed, Jameson here comes perilously close to the old Orientalist view of turning to the East for invigoration of an enervated West—or at least to the well-intentioned 1931 call by eminent Orientalist H. A. R. Gibb to study the literature of the Orient to “liberate ourselves from the narrow and oppressive conceptions which would limit all that is significant in literature, thought, and history, to our segment of the globe” (209). Jameson, however, concludes that the seemingly Orientalist points he is making are worth the risk and at least have the virtue of avoiding the opposite pitfall of

falling back into some general liberal and humanistic universalism: it seems to me that one of our basic political tasks lies precisely in the ceaseless effort to remind the American public of the radical difference of other national situations. (94)

The 1001 Children of Midnight, born at approximately the same moment as India’s independence from Britain, serve as allegorical representatives of the new state in a fairly transparent way, and Saleem plays a particularly obvious role as a stand-in for postcolonial Indian culture as a whole, as he himself points out multiple times. On the other hand, Saleem’s allegorical status may be a little too obvious; he is in many ways a postmodern parody of a national allegory, and Rushdie seems to use him to suggest that India is far too complex and multiple to be adequately represented by any one character. At the same time, Rushdie’s panoramic novel does effectively indicate the multiplicity of Indian culture, just as it engages in productive dialogues with a number of issues arising both from the colonial past and the postcolonial present.[6]

Rushdie emphasizes the allegorical nature of his text quite explicitly, particularly calling attention to Saleem’s allegorical role. Saleem’s very face, for example, appears to resemble a map of India, with his spectacularly huge nose (which also identifies him with the elephant-god Ganesh) representing the Deccan peninsula of southern India (277). Born exactly at the stroke of midnight on India’s day of independence, the infant Saleem receives a note from Nehru calling him the bearer of the “ancient face of India” and telling him that his life will be “in a sense, the mirror of our own” (143). On the other hand, that “in a sense” is a key qualifier the significance of which Saleem himself later ponders: “How, in what terms, may the career of a single individual be said to impinge on the fate of a nation?” (285). Indeed, much of Saleem’s narration represents an attempt to answer this question and thus to make sense of the apparently momentous relation between the history of India and his confused and fragmented personal biography. Thus Satya Brat Singh describes Rushdie’s “style of galloping through current newspapers and its headlines, sticking it on the caps of family friends and relatives so that the history of India reads like a family album” (155). Sinai himself continually reminds us that his story is also the story of India, that “my private existence was symbolically at one with history” (286). And he describes himself as the bearer of the burden of Indian history and as the culmination of that history, the “sum total of everything that went before me” (457).

Saleem’s status as a universal marker of Indian national identity is also indicated in his remarkable telepathic ability to share the thoughts and feelings of the others around him. Because of this power, he serves as a sort of human switchboard through which the other Children of Midnight can communicate. But his negative capability extends beyond the Midnight’s Children’s Conference, allowing him to empathize with members of all segments of India’s complex, multilayered society: “I leaped into the heads of film stars and cricketers—I learned the truth behind the Filmfare gossip about the dancer Vyjayantimala, and I was at the crease with Polly Umrigar at the Brabourne Stadium; I was Lata Mangeshkar the playback singer and Bubu the clown at the circus behind Civil Lanes” (206).

Thus, like Midnight’s Children itself, Saleem taps into a rich vein of images from popular culture. Both Rushdie’s text and its narrator also draw significantly upon social and political material. Saleem thus also “becomes” a range of figures that encompasses the great social and economic inequities of Indian society: he is a rich man ordering about serfs, a poor man starving in Orissa, a baby whose mother has run out of breast milk, a corrupt political campaigner, a Keralan peasant turning to communism. He even briefly occupies the minds of important government figures such as Prime Minister Nehru and State Chief Minister Morarji Desai.

Rushdie seems, from his comments elsewhere, to have been quite serious in his attempt to construct Midnight’s Children as a sort of national allegory. In a recent Time magazine article (part of the brief hoopla in the Western press surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence), Rushdie suggests that the “idea of India” has been quite central to his life and his writing. Moreover, he argues that, despite its vast complexity and multiplicity, the idea of India as a single entity remains viable, largely because “the country has taken the modern view of the self and enlarged it to encompass almost 1 billion souls. … It works because the individual sees his own nature writ large in the nature of the state” (“India at Five-0”). In short, for Rushdie, to think in terms of national allegory, and in particular in terms of direct parallels between the nature of the individual and the nature of the state, is central to the Indian sense of both national and individual identity, an idea he enacts quite directly in Midnight’s Children.

Midnight’s Children as Magical Realism

Jameson’s vision of national allegory essentially posits Third-World literature as the antithesis of Western postmodern literature, and this opposition has a great deal of value in helping us to understand both. On the other hand, at least one prominent mode of Third-World literature, “magical realism,” has also sometimes been identified as a key mode of postmodern literature. Magical realism, as the name implies, is a mode in which events are narrated as if they are perfectly natural and realistic but might include a strong dose of supernatural or fantastical elements. Characters in magical realist stories, meanwhile, typically react to fantastical events as if they are perfectly ordinary and only to be expected. Magical realism seems to have European roots and has been prominently practiced by European writers, most notably by the German Günter Grass, especially in The Tin Drum (1959), an important predecessor of Midnight’s Children. In particular, The Tim Drum employs the mode of magical realism to reflect the strange texture of reality in Germany in the years of Nazi rule and into the postwar years, just as Midnight’s Children suggests the strange and confusing nature of Indian reality during British colonial rule and its aftermath. In this sense, it is not surprising that magical realism has been used prominently all over the postcolonial world, where the intrusions of European conquerors mirrored the strange intrusions of fantastical elements in magical realism.

Magical realism has been especially prominent in Latin American literature, where it has had numerous important practitioners, the foremost of which is Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, whose novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1969) is perhaps the definitive magical realist novel. Midnight’s Children is less purely magical realist, because it includes so many diverse elements, but it can certainly be considered a magical realist novel. One could, in fact, argue that it joins One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Tin Drum as the three most important magical realist novels in world literature.

The most obvious “magical” element of Midnight’s Children involves the special midnight’s children themselves, who have a variety of superhuman powers, including Saleem’s own power to bring them all together in telepathic communication. There is, of course, no scientific explanation for these powers, except for the fact that the children were born roughly at the moment of Indian independence on August 15, 1947. Thus, these powers, while allegorical, are also presented as magical. Many other seemingly magical events also occur in the text, though magic is sometimes also used satirically, through the suggestion that some magic is real, while other magic is fake. For example, Saleem becomes involved with a group of communists whose figuration in the book as “magicians” not only runs counter to the materialist basis of Marxism but suggests that communists are charlatans whose political program is primarily composed, as it were, of smoke and mirrors. After a comic invocation of the rhetoric of anticommunism in which the magicians are announced as “reds! Insurrectionists, public menaces, the scum of the earth—a community of the godless (474)—Saleem, his true heritage of poverty having been revealed, discovers that he finds the communists a congenial group. He begins to work with them, impressed that they seem able to grip reality “so powerfully that they could bend it every which way in the service of their arts” (476). Picture Singh, the snake-charmer leader of the communist magicians, struggles against factional disputes, attempting to formulate a distinctly Indian form of socialism free of foreign influence, but, of course, fails to do so, despite his considerable skills as an illusionist. Meanwhile, Rushdie subtly suggests that Saleem’s attraction to the communists is misguided, as when he informs us that Picture Singh was “no lover of democracy,” a fact Saleem failed to appreciate because he was caught “in the grip of my fever-for revolution” (477). In short, revolutionary fervor is presented as a sort of sickness.

Tellingly, Picture Singh’s true ineffectuality comes to the fore soon afterward when he initially fails to oppose Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency, the single political event that comes in for Rushdie’s most sustained and virulent criticism. Appalled by Mrs. Gandhi’s move, Saleem turns to Picture Singh for leadership, but the latter does nothing, causing Saleem to wonder if he is, in fact, nothing but a snake charmer after all (508). By the time bulldozers and government troops, armed, significantly, with Russian-supplied weapons, move in to raze the slum long occupied by the magicians, it is too late: “What chance do Communist wizards have against socialist rifles?” (512). Picture Singh is driven into hiding, eventually becoming little more than a shadow of his former self, meanwhile forgetting what Mrs. Gandhi had done to him and the other magicians during the Emergency and therefore failing to mount any real opposition to her rule. In short, Rushdie seems to be suggesting, Picture Singh proceeds very much like Indian communism itself, of which he is clearly an allegorical representative.

Midnight’s Children and Postmodernism

Many aspects of Midnight’s Children seem more directly related to Western postmodernist literature than to postcolonial literature.[7] Rushdie’s playfully rambling, rambunctious narrative, filled with sudden shifts and drawing on a rich array of stylistic and cultural influences, is quite reminiscent of postmodern narratives such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). One aspect of Midnight’s Children that particularly resembles many postmodern texts is its emphasis on fragmentation, though in this case the many instances of fragmentation of the text also reflect historical reality, particularly the traumatic consequences of the partitioning of colonial India into postcolonial India and Pakistan upon independence. Saleem himself is a highly fragmented individual—even beyond his multicultural identity and heritage. Meanwhile, the fragmentation of the text includes generic, stylistic, and linguistic multiplicity, as well as the text’s highly nonlinear Shandean plot. Most vividly, however, it includes Saleem himself, who not only shares his grandfather’s sense of cultural division, but also (in one of the text’s many overt literalizations of allegory) begins to feel that he is beginning physically to crack and fall apart: “I am not speaking metaphorically … I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug—that my poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history … has started coming apart at the seams” (37).

Saleem’s fragmentation ultimately constitutes an important element of Rushdie’s subversive dialogue with the notion of national allegory. At the same time, this fragmentation itself contributes directly to an allegorization of Indian national identity. Saleem feels that, as a result of his physical fragmentation, he will eventually “crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious dust” (37). His total number of particles, in short, will equal the total population of India in the late 1970s, the present time of the book. Indeed, Saleem’s fragmentation is quite closely and directly tied to Indian history, especially to the traumas of the postindependence Partition of India and the subsequent bifurcation of Muslim Pakistan into East and West wings.

If Saleem’s fragmentation serves as an allegory of Indian cultural multiplicity, it also provides a vivid enactment of the schizophrenic sense of self that Jameson has identified as representative of postmodernist subjectivity in late consumer capitalism. Using Jacques Lacan to update Marx’s analysis of the alienation of workers under the capitalist division of labor, Jameson suggests that, like the schizophrenic patient, the postmodern self is highly unstable, lacking any firm sense of continuity over time:

“he or she does not have our experience of temporal continuity … but is condemned to live a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon… . The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time” (“Postmodernism” 119).

Certainly, the fragmentation of Saleem Sinai has implications in its Indian setting that go well beyond Jameson’s analysis of fragmented identity in postmodern societies. In particular, the disruptions in Indian history brought about by the British imperial intrusion fragment Indian identity in ways not comprehended by Jameson’s analysis of the capitalist West. But to a certain extent this important difference in cultural context makes the applicability of Jameson’s comments to Sinai’s situation all the more striking. For example, Sinai’s subjective (and physical) fragmentation derives largely from an inability to maintain a sense of connectedness over time. He suggests that his very project of writing the text that Midnight’s Children supposedly represents is motivated by his poor memory, which would otherwise lead to a complete loss of the events being narrated. And his fragmentation occurs specifically because he has lost “the awareness of oneself as a homogeneous entity in time, a blend of past and present, … the glue of personality, holding together our then and our now” (420). Sinai even specifically labels this feeling as a form of schizophrenia, and there are hints in the text that what Sinai sees as his literal fragmentation is merely a figment of his imagination, thus a symptom of his hyperalienated (postmodern) mental state.[8]

In the same way, the fragmentation of human bodies that constitutes an important motif in Midnight’s Children can be read as a double allegory with both Eastern and Western referents. Aadam Aziz is introduced to his eventual wife Naseem through the gradual revelation of various fragments of her body, and Aadam’s daughter Amina later tries to learn to love her husband Ahmed Sinai one fragment at a time. Both cases thus involve a reduction of human beings to a collection of physical parts, suggesting the objectification and commodification of human beings under capitalism. And the element of love involved in this process suggests the emotional and mystical lure of the commodity that Marx emphasizes in the first chapter of Capital. On the other hand, such stories of physical multiplicity have obvious parallels in the Hindu pantheon, while stories of physical fragmentation also suggest a link to the Egyptian (i.e. “Oriental,” at least in Said’s sense) myth of Isis and Osiris. In this myth the body of the male Osiris is fragmented and scattered across the countryside. The female Isis then comes to the rescue of the male Osiris by gathering and reassembling his fragmented body; however, at least according to one version of the myth, Isis is unable to recover one key part of that body, the phallus, whereupon she manufactures an artificial replacement in order to complete the process of reassembly. The suggested reversal of traditional masculine phallic dominance in this version of the myth is clear. Meanwhile, the only part of Ahmed that Amina is unable to learn to love (and thus to add to her assembled version of an adored husband) is his penis, which is perhaps a bit quick on the trigger, thus undermining both her sexual pleasure and his position of male power.

The textual fragmentation of Midnight’s Children can also be related to the Isis and Osiris myth. On the other hand, this fragmentation closely resembles, at least in a formal sense, Jameson’s description of the texts of Western postmodernism, a resemblance that should come as no surprise given the consistency with which critics have labeled Rushdie a “postmodernist” writer. But surely the implications of Rushdie’s postmodernism must be examined within the complexities of his postcolonial cultural context. For Jameson, the lack of a sense of temporal continuity in the schizophrenic subject of late capitalism signals an alienation from history itself and the loss of any sense of participation in the historical process. Meanwhile, the fragmented texts of Western postmodernist writers are in danger of complicity with this alienation, an analysis that certainly seems instructive for the reading of phenomena like the scattering of Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop as a result of his loss of a sense of “temporal bandwidth.” Rushdie’s Saleem, however, is anything but disconnected from history. He is first and foremost a participant in history, to which (as a result of his fatidic birth) he is “handcuffed” (3). His temporal fragmentation thus occurs not because he is divorced from history, but because he is so intensely embedded in the fragmented history of India, broken as it is by the legacy of British imperial intervention. In the same way, the fragmented text of Midnight’s Children, punctuated by Saleem’s desperate attempts to construct a coherent narrative from the unmanageable materials at hand, should surely be seen not as an attempt to escape from history but as a valiant effort to come to terms with it.

In Saleem, who is both individual and nation, the radical gap between the public and private spheres so symptomatic of Western capitalist societies has been thoroughly effaced, even as he would seem to experience the very alienated and fragmented subjectivity to which this gap crucially contributes. Similarly, Midnight’s Children, despite its ostentatious literary artifice, shows little sign of the separation of the political and poetic typical of the West. For Jameson, of course, it is precisely the bridging of the gaps between the public and the private and between the poetic and the political that permits what he sees as a consistent use of individual characters as markers of national identity in postcolonial texts. In short, Jameson seems to admire third-world texts because they necessarily, as a result of their own historical origins, effect a politicization of aesthetics of the kind called for by Benjamin as a response to the aestheticization of politics by the German Nazis. It is not clear, however, whether Rushdie is politicizing aesthetics or aestheticizing politics.

Midnight’s Children, Narrative, and History

One postmodern aspect of Midnight’s Children is the challenges it poses to conventional realist models of narrative—as well as conventional linear models of history. The novel has, in fact, been identified by Linda Hutcheon as a key example of what she refers to as “historiographic metafiction,” or fictions that call attention to their own narrative construction in ways that potentially call attention to the ways in which narratives of history are constructed as well. Hutcheon reads the novel within a specifically Western, poststructuralist context. It should also be noted that Hutcheon’s view of the subversive potential of historiographic metafiction is highly debateable—and flies in the face of the lack of effective critical engagement with history that Jameson, in his seminal study of postmodernism, sees as a key characteristic of postmodern fiction.[9] In any case, both fictional narrative conventions and historical narrative conventions are aligned with the historical phenomena of capitalism and colonialism, so that challenges to them potentially have a postcolonial resonance as well. Meanwhile, these two kinds of conventions are closely connected. As J. Hillis Miller points out, “[t]he notions of narrative, of character, and of formal unity in fiction are all congruent with the system of concepts making up the Western idea of history” (“Narrative” 461). In particular, Miller argues that the Hegelian model of rational history infects our view of fiction in a quite inclusive way:

“The assumptions about history which have been transferred to the traditional conception of the form of fiction … include the notions of origin and end (“archeology” and “teleology”); of unity and totality or “totalization”; of underlying “reason” or “ground” of selfhood, consciousness, or “human nature”; of the homogeneity, linearity, and continuity of time; of necessary progress; of “fate,” “destiny,” or “Providence”; of causality; of gradually emerging “meaning”; of representation and truth” (459-60).

Like many Western postmodernist texts, Midnight’s Children challenges virtually all of the literary conventions that Miller here cites. In Rushdie’s case, of course, this challenge can possibly be attributed partly to the influence of traditional Indian oral narrative forms, but the narrative structure of Midnight’s Children nevertheless seems almost intentionally designed to violate nineteenth-century notions of smooth temporal progressions. The general temporal movement of the text is forward through four generations, roughly beginning with the youth of Saleem’s putative grandfather Aadam Aziz and continuing beyond the birth of Saleem’s son Aadam Sinai. But much of the plot is driven by accident and coincidence, rather than logic and cause-and-effect. Numerous sudden twists and turns make the movement of the plot seem anything but logical and inevitable, and these changes in narrative direction often leave conflicts unresolved, plot strands hanging, and mysteries unsolved. Meanwhile, the general forward movement is disrupted by numerous ruptures, asides, and Shandean digressions. Saleem periodically postpones the forward movement of his narrative, going back to provide quick recaps of events previously narrated in the text. In addition, he not only employs frequent flashbacks to provide reminders of events that have come before, but also provides previews of events that are yet to come through numerous flashforwards. Finally, these flashforwards resonate with the motif of prophecy that frequently occurs in Midnight’s Children, a motif that combines with the strong thread of magical realism that runs through the text to provide a fundamental challenge to rationalist models of history.[10]

One of the characteristically postmodern aspects of Rushdie’s writing is his overt self-consciousness, as when he explicitly calls attention to Saleem’s status as a national allegory of India—to the point that the functioning of the allegory is potentially ironized and impeded. In the same way, Saleem’s intrusiveness as a narrator emphasizes the constructed nature of his narrative, destroying the illusion of transparent representation that underlies nineteenth-century realistic fiction. Further, Saleem’s self-conscious ruminations on his own narration clearly go beyond the realm of fiction to directly challenge conventional Western models of history. For example, Saleem at several points calls attention to the unreliability of his narrative, sometimes because his memory is poor or confused, sometimes because he intentionally falsifies events in order to further his narrative project. Late in the book Saleem describes the death of his nemesis and alter ego Shiva. He then immediately retracts this description, admitting that he fabricated the death out of wishful thinking arising from his terror of Shiva: “I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one’s memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred” (529).

There is, of course, more at stake here than Saleem’s personal eccentricities, and (by characterizing his falsification of the past as an occupational hazard of all autobiographies) Saleem suggests that the unreliability of his narrative makes it quite typical of the kinds of reconstructions of the past that are involved in all histories. Moreover, Rushdie’s treatment of this theme addresses a number of fundamental and important issues. For one thing, the suggestion of the possibility of multiple figurations of the past reinforces the text’s other images of multiplicity and indicates Saleem’s attempt to sort through these numerous possibilities in his quest for a stable personal identity amid the confusing multiplicity of modern India: “I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the whole lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me (4).

Saleem’s reminder of the insubstantiality of the past constitutes a potential challenge to Western modes of historicism, even as it—together with Saleem’s suggestions of a generally tenuous Indian relation to temporality—comes dangerously close to confirming Orientalist stereotypes of India as a timeless land outside of historical progression. At the same time, this theme of the impossibility of recovering fully reliable representations of the past is a common one in both first- and third-world literature of the twentieth century, again placing Rushdie amid both Eastern and Western literary traditions. Saleem, meanwhile, directly links his own manipulation of the facts to the Orwellian attempts of the post-independence Indian government (reproducing the literarization of reality that informed their predecessors, the British Raj while perhaps drawing on the Hindu concept of maya[11]) to manipulate perceptions of reality: “I have been only the humblest of jugglers-with-facts; … in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist” (389).

Saleem’s manipulation of historical facts thus also suggests the important element of power that resides in the process of writing history. Buffeted by the momentous events of modern Indian and Pakistani history, Saleem attempts to overcome his sense of helplessness by insisting that that history is a product of his life, rather than the other way around. And, faced with the chaos of modern Indian history (and of his life), Saleem attempts (not very successfully) to assert control by forcing events into an ordered narrative sequence. In this sense, he follows in the footsteps of his putative father Ahmed Sinai, who as a young man plans to rearrange the Quran in proper chronological sequence, the book presumably having been scrambled by accident after Muhammed’s death (93).[12] Saleem also provides the perfect metaphor for his writing of history. By profession the manager of a pickle factory, Saleem refers to his writing project as an attempt to explore “the feasibility of the chutnification of history; the grand hope of pickling time!” (548).

Saleem’s project, of course, is not the same as that of Rushdie, who not only undermines Saleem’s attempts to establish order at every turn but openly embraces disorder and unruliness. This attitude, again, can be taken as either postmodern or postcolonial, given that both postcolonial and postmodern texts are often designed to challenge the authority of the orderly worldview of the Enlightenment. How effective this challenge might be in Midnight’s Children is open to debate, but there is little question that, in a literary sense, the book is a major achievement that has exercised an important influence on the course of both British and Indian (at least Anglo-Indian) literature since its publication in 1981.


Bader, Rudolph. “Indian Tin Drum.” International Fiction Review 11 (1984): 75–83.

Booker, M. Keith. “Finnegans Wake and The Satanic Verses: Two Modern Myths of the Fall.” Critique 32 (Spring 1991): 190–207.

Booker, M. Keith. “Midnight’s Children, History, and Complexity: Reading Rushdie after the Cold War.” Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. Ed. M. Keith Booker. G. K. Hall, 1999. 283–313.

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. St. Martin’s, 1989.

Buchanan, Ian. “National Allegory Today: A Return to Jameson.” On Jameson: From Postmodernism to Globalism. Ed. Caren Irr and Ian Buchanan. State University of New York Press, 2006. 173–88.

Richard Cronin, “The Indian English Novel: Kim and Midnight’s Children,” Modern Fiction Studies 33.2 (1987): 201–213.

Huggan, Graham. “The Postcolonial Exotic: Salman Rushdie and the Booker of Bookers.” Transition 64 (1991): 22-29.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Pretexts 3.1–2 (1991): 82–104.

JanMohamed, Abdul. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.

Lipscomb, David. “Caught in a Strange Middle Ground: Contesting History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” Diaspora 1.2 (1991): 163-88.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Narrative and History.” ELH 41 (1974): 455-73.

Rushdie, Salman. “India at Five-0.” Time (August 11, 1997).

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. 1980. Penguin, 1991.

Rushdie, Salman. “Midnight’s Children and Shame: An Interview.” Kunapipi 7.1 (1985): 8.

Szeman, Imre. On Jameson: From Postmodernism to Globalism. “Who’s Afraid of National Allegory?: Jameson, Literary Criticism, Globalization.” Ed. Caren Irr and Ian Buchanan. State University of New York Press, 2006. 189–211.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. Oxford University Press, 1977.


[1] Menippean satire is an unstructured, unruly form—named for the third-century BC poet Menippus, none of whose writings survive, but who is remembered in the writings of his follower, the poet Lucian (125–180). This form of satire, which has received new critical attention in recent decades—largely due to its exploration by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) in his analysis of the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)—employs a wide range of styles and registers, ranging from the supernatural to the profane.

[2] On the problematic status bestowed by these awards, see Huggan.

[3]. On the other hand, that Aziz is educated in Germany may constitute a nod to Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, another important predecessor. On the parallels between Midnight’s Children and Grass’s The Tin Drum, see Bader.

[4]. On Kim and Midnight’s Children see also Cronin.

[5] Rushdie himself has an extensive British background. Born in Bombay in 1947, two months before Indian independence. He came to Britain at the age of fourteen to continue his education, which continued through his degree in history from Cambridge. Though he lived briefly with his family (which had moved to Pakistan in 1964) after graduation, he lived almost exclusively in England from 1961 to 2000, when he emigrated to the United States, where he remains to this day.

[6]. The concept of national allegory has received considerable recent critical attention in studies of postcolonial literature, much of it actuated by Jameson’s original essay. See, for example, the essays by Buchanan and by Szeman.

[7] See my own extensive discussion of why Midnight’s Children is more postmodern than postcolonial in “Midnight’s Children, History, and Complexity.”

[8]. A doctor who examines the fragmenting Saleem can find no physical cracks, in response to which Saleem declares the doctor a quack.

[9] Jameson’s Postmodernism (1991) remains, nearly thirty years after its publication, the most influential theorization of the phenomenon of postmodernism.

[10]. One might note here JanMohamed’s conclusion, after Ernst Cassirer, that the narrative logic of traditional oral third-world cultures tends to be more “magical,” while the logic of first-world cultures is “empirical” (300n.17). But, lest the magical elements of Rushdie’s writing be taken as a sign of the impact of Indian oral culture, one should recall that one of Rushdie’s most important influences in this respect is the German Grass.

[11] In Hinduism, “maya” can have a variety of meanings, but one of them  refers to a power that conceals the true nature of reality, so that what we see is seldom the true reality.

[12]. This challenge to the authority of the Quran as the revealed Word of God obviously anticipates the more extensive use of similar motifs in Rushdie’s later The Satanic Verses. See my “Finnegans Wake and The Satanic Verses.”