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Mainstream, VOL LX No 33, 34 New Delhi, August 6, August 13, 2022 [Independence Day Special]

Excerpts from the 1981 novel ’Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie

Saturday 13 August 2022


EXCERPTS FROM Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) which delves into the end of British colonial rule in India, Independence, and the tragic partition of 1947

I was bom in the city of Bombay... once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more... On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but Ms accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate-at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.

[ . . . ]

’Oh yes.’ my father said as Methwold cocked a grave unsmiling head, ’many old families possessed such curses. In our line, it is handed down from eldest son to eldest son-in writing only, because merely to speak it is to unleash its power, you know.’ Now Methwold: ’Amazing! And you know the words?’ My father nods, lip jutting, toe still as he taps his forehead for emphasis. ’All in here; all memorized. Hasn’t been used since an ancestor quarrelled with the Emperor Babar and put the curse on his son Humayun. . . terrible story, that-every schoolboy knows.’

And the time would come when my father, in the throes of his utter retreat from reality, would lock himself in a blue room and try to remember a curse which he had dreamed up one evening in the gardens of his house while he stood tapping his temple beside the descendant of William Methwold.

Saddled now with flypaper-dreams and imaginary ancestors, I am still over a day away from being born... but now the remorseless ticktock reasserts itself: twenty-nine hours to go, twenty-eight, twenty-seven...

What other dreams were dreamed on that last night? Was it then-yes, why not-that Dr Narlikar, ignorant of the drama that was about to unfold at his Nursing Home, first dreamed of tetrapods? Was it on that last night-while Pakistan was being bom to the north and west of Bombay-that my uncle Hanif, who had come (like his sister) to Bombay, and who had fallen in love with an actress, the divine Pia (’Her face is her fortune!’ the Illustrated Weekly once said), first imagined the cinematic device which would soon give him the first of his three hit pictures? ... It seems likely; myths, nightmares, fantasies were in the air. This much is certain: on that last night, my grandfather Aadam Aziz, alone now in the big old house in Cornwallis Road-except for a wife whose strength of will seemed to increase as Aziz was ground down by age, and for a daughter, Alia, whose embittered virginity would last until a bomb split her in two over eighteen years later-was suddenly imprisoned by great metal hoops of nostalgia, and lay awake as they pressed down upon his chest; until finally, at five o’clock in the morning of August I4th-nineteen hours to go-he was pushed out of bed by an invisible force and drawn towards an old tin trunk. Opening it, he found: old copies of German magazines; Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?; a folded prayer-mat; and at last the thing which he had felt an irresistible urge to see once more -white and folded and glowing faintly in the dawn-my grandfather drew out, from the tin trunk of his past, a stained and perforated sheet, and discovered that the hole had grown; that there were other, smaller holes in the surrounding fabric; and in the grip of a wild nostalgic rage he shook his wife awake and astounded her by yelling, as he waved her history under her nose:

’Moth-eaten! Look, Begum: moth-eaten! You forgot to put in any naphthalene balk!’

But now the countdown will not be denied... eighteen hours; seventeen; sixteen... and already, at Dr Narlikar’s Nursing Home, it is possible to hear the shrieks of a woman in labour. Wee Willie Winkie is here; and his wife Vanita; she has been in a protracted, unproductive labour for eight hours now. The first pangs hit her just as, hundreds of miles away, M. A. Jinnah announced the midnight birth of a Muslim nation... but still she writhes on a bed in the Narlikar Home’s ’charity ward’ (reserved for the babies of the poor). . . her eyes are standing halfway out of her head; her body glistens with sweat, but the baby shows no signs of coming, nor is its father present; it is eight o’clock in the morning, but there is still the possibility that, given the circumstances, the baby could be waiting for midnight.

Rumours in the city: The statue galloped last night!’... ’And the stars are unfavourable!’... But despite these signs of ill-omen, the city was poised, with a new myth glinting in the corners of its eyes. August in Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna’s birthday and Coconut Day; and this year-fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve-there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will-except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood. India, the new myth-a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.

I have been, in my time, the living proof of the fabulous nature of this collective dream; but for the moment, I shall turn away from these generalized, macrocosmic notions to concentrate upon a more private ritual; I shall not describe the mass blood-letting in progress on the frontiers of the divided Punjab (where the partitioned nations are washing themselves in one another’s blood, and a certain punchinello-faced Major Zulfikar is buying refugee property at absurdly low prices, laying the foundations of a fortune that will rival the Nizam of Hyderabad’s); I shall avert my eyes from the violence in Bengal and the long pacifying walk of Mahatma Gandhi. Selfish? Narrow-minded? Well, perhaps; but excusably so, in my opinion. After all, one is not born every day.

Twelve hours to go. Amina Sinai, having awakened from her flypaper nightmare, will not sleep again until after. . . Ramram Seth is filling her head, she is adrift in a turbulent sea jn which waves of excitement alternate with deep, giddying, dark, watery hollows of fear. But something else is in operation, too, Watch her hands-as, without any conscious instructions, they press down, hard, upon her womb; watch her lips, muttering without her knowledge: ’Come on, slowpoke, you don’t want to be late for the newspapers!’

Eight hours to go... at four o’clock that afternoon, William Methwold drives up the two-storey hillock in his black 1946 Rover. He parks in the circus-ring between the four noble villas; but today he visits neither goldfish-pond nor cactus-garden; he does not greet Lila Sabarmati with his customary, ’How goes the pianola? Everything ticketyboo?’-nor does he salute old man Ibrahim who sits in the shade of a ground-floor verandah, rocking in a rocking-chair and musing about sisal; looking neither towards Catrack nor Sinai, he takes up his position in the exact centre of the circus-ring. Rose in lapel, cream hat held stiffly against his chest, centre -parting glinting in afternoon light, William Methwold stares straight ahead, past clock-tower and Warden Road, beyond Breach Candy’s map-shaped pool, across the golden four o’clock waves, and salutes; while out there, above the horizon, the sun begins its long dive towards the sea.

Six hours to go. The cocktail hour. The successors of William Methwold are in their gardens-except that Amina sits in her tower-room, avoiding the mildly competitive glances being flung in her direction by Nussie-next-door, who is also, perhaps, urging her Sonny down and out between her legs; curiously they watch the Englishman, who stands as still and stiff as the ramrod to which we have previously compared his centre-parting; until they are distracted by a new arrival. A long, stringy man, wearing three rows of beads around his neck, and a belt of chicken-bones around his waist; his dark skin stained with ashes, his hair loose and long-naked except for beads and ashes, the sadhu strides up amongst the red-tiled mansions. Musa, the old bearer, descends upon him to shoo him away; but hangs back, not knowing how to command a holy man. Cleaving through the veils of Musa’s indecision, the sadhu enters the garden of Buckingham Villa; walks straight past my astonished father; seats himself, cross-legged, beneath the dripping garden tap.

’What do you want here, sadhuji?’-Musa, unable to avoid deference; to which the sadhu, calm as a lake: ’I have come to await the coming of the One. The Mubarak-He who is Blessed. It will happen very soon.’

Believe it or not: I was prophesied twice! And on that day on which everything was so
remarkably well-timed, my mother’s sense of timing did not fail her; no sooner had the sadhu’s last word left his lips than there issued, from a first-floor tower-room with glass tulips dancing in the windows, a piercing yell, a cocktail containing equal proportions of panic, excitement and triumph. . . ’Arre Ahmed!’ Amina Sinai yelled, ’Janum, the baby! It’s coming-bang on time!’

Ripples of electricity through Methwold’s Estate... and here comes Homi Catrack, at a brisk emaciated sunken-eyed trot, offering: ’My Studebaker is at your disposal, Sinai Sahib; take it now-go at once!’... and when there are still five hours and thirty minutes left, the Sinais, husband and wife, drive away down the two-storey hillock in the borrowed car; there is my father’s big toe pressing down on the accelerator; there are my mother’s hands pressing down on her moon-belly; and they are out of sight now, around the bend, past Band Box Laundry and Reader’s Paradise, past Fatbhoy jewels and Chimalker toys, past One Yard of Chocolates and Breach Candy gates, driving towards Dr Narlikar’s Nursing Home where, in a charity ward, Wee Willie’s Vanita still heaves and strains, spine curving, eyes popping, and a midwife called Mary Pereira is waiting for her time, too... so that neither Ahmed of the jutting lip and squashy belly and fictional ancestors, nor dark-skinned prophecy-ridden Amina were present when the sun finally set over Methwold’s Estate, and at the precise instant of its last disappearance-five hours and two minutes to go- William Methwold raised a long white arm above his head. White hand dangled above brilliantined black hair; long tapering white fingers twitched towards centre -parting, and the second and final secret was revealed, because fingers curled, and seized hair; drawing away from his head, they failed to release their prey; and in the moment after the disappearance of the sun Mr Methwold stood in the afterglow of his Estate with his hairpiece in his hand.

’A baldie!’ Padma exclaims. ’That slicked-up hair of his... I knew it; too good to be true!’

Bald, bald; shiny -pated! Revealed: the deception which had tricked an accordionist’s wife. Samson-like, William Methwold’s power had resided in his hair; but now, bald patch glowing in the dusk, he flings his thatch through the window of his motor-car; distributes, with what looks like carelessness, the signed title-deeds to his palaces; and drives away. Nobody at Methwold’s Estate ever saw him again; but I, who never saw him once, find him impossible to forget.

Suddenly everything is saffron and green. Amina Sinai in a room with saffron walls and green woodwork. In a neighbouring room, Wee Willie Winkie’s Vanita, green-skinned, the whites of her eyes shot with saffron, the baby finally beginning its descent through inner passages that are also, no doubt, similarly colourful. Saffron minutes and green seconds tick away on the clocks on the walls. Outside Dr Narlikar’s Nursing Home, there are fireworks and crowds, also conforming to the colours of the night-saffron rockets, green sparkling rain; the men in shirts of zafaran hue, the women in saris of lime. On a saffron-and-green carpet, Dr Narlikar talks to Ahmed Sinai. ’I shall see to your Begum personally,’ he says, in gentle tones the colour of the evening, ’Nothing to worry about. You wait here; plenty of room to pace.’ Dr Narlikar, who dislikes babies, is nevertheless an expert gynaecologist. In his spare time he lectures writes pamphlets berates the nation on the subject of contraception. ’Birth Control,’ he says, ’is Public Priority Number One. The day will come when I get that through people’s thick heads, and then I’ll be out of a job.’ Ahmed Sinai smiles, awkward, nervous. ’Just for tonight,’ my father says, ’forget lectures-deliver my child.’

It is twenty-nine minutes to midnight. Dr Narlikar’s Nursing Home is running on a skeleton staff; there are many absentees, many employees who have preferred to celebrate the imminent birth of the nation, and will not assist tonight at the births of children. Saffron-shirted, green-skirted, they throng in the illuminated streets, beneath the infinite balconies of the city on which little dia-lamps of earthenware have been filled with mysterious oik; wicks float in the lamps which line every balcony and rooftop, and these wicks, too, conform to our two-tone colour scheme: half the lamps bum saffron, the others flame with green.

Threading its way through the many-headed monster of the crowd is a police car, the yellow and blue of its occupants’ uniforms transformed by the unearthly lamplight into saffron and green. (We are on Colaba Causeway now, just for a moment, to reveal that at twenty-seven minutes to midnight, the police are hunting for a dangerous criminal. His name: Joseph D’Costa. The orderly is absent, has been absent for several days, from his work at the Nursing Home, from his room near the slaughterhouse, and from the life of a distraught virginal Mary.)

Twenty minutes pass, with aaahs from Amina Sinai, coming harder and faster by the minute, and weak tiring aaahs from Vanita in the next room. The monster in the streets has already begun to celebrate; the new myth courses through its veins, replacing its blood with corpuscles of saffron and green. And in Delhi, a wiry serious man sits in the Assembly Hall and prepares to make a speech. At Methwold’s Estate goldfish hang stilly in ponds while the residents go from house to house bearing pistachio sweetmeats, embracing and kissing one another-green pistachio is eaten, and saffron laddoo-balls. Two children move down secret passages while in Agra an ageing doctor sits with his wife, who has two moles on her face like witchnipples, and in the midst of sleeping geese and moth-eaten memories they are somehow struck silent, and can find nothing to say. And in all the cities all the towns all the villages the little dia-lamps burn on window-sills porches verandahs, while trains burn in the Punjab, with the green flames of blistering paint and the glaring saffron of fired fuel, like the biggest dias in the world.

And the city of Lahore, too, is burning.

The wiry serious man is getting to his feet. Anointed with holy water from the Tanjore River, he rises; his forehead smeared with sanctified ash, he clears his throat. Without written speech in hand, without having memorized any prepared words, Jawaharlal Nehru begins:’... Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge-not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. . .’

It is two minutes to twelve. At Dr Narlikar’s Nursing Home, the dark glowing doctor, accompanied by a midwife called Flory, a thin kind lady of no importance, encourages Amina Sinai: ’Push! Harder!... I can see the head!...’ while in the neighbouring room one Dr Bose-with Miss Mary Pereira by his side-presides over the terminal stages of Vanita’s twenty-four-hour labour. . . ’Yes; now; just one last try, come on; at last, and then it will be over! . . .’ Women wail and shriek while in another room men are silent. Wee Willie Winkie-incapable of song-squats in a corner, rocking back and forth, back and forth... and Ahmed Sinai is looking for a chair. But there are no chairs in this room; it is a room designated for pacing; so Ahmed Sinai opens a door, finds a chair at a deserted receptionist’s desk, lifts it, carries it back into the pacing room, where Wee Willie Winkie rocks, rocks, his eyes as empty as a blind man’s... will she live? won’t she?... and. now, at last, it is midnight.

The monster in the streets has begun to roar, while in Delhi a wiry man is saying,’... At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India awakens to life and freedom...’ And beneath the roar of the monster there are two more yells, cries, bellows, the howls of children arriving in the world, their unavailing protests mingling with the din of independence which hangs saffron-and-green in the night sky-’A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new; when an age ends; and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance...’ while in a room with saffron-and-green carpet Ahmed Sinai is still clutching a hair when Dr Narlikar enters to inform him: ’On the stroke of midnight, Sinai brother, your Begum Sahiba gave birth to a large, healthy child: a son!’ Now my father began to think about me (not knowing...); with the image of my face filling his thoughts he forgot about the chair; possessed by the love of me (even though. . .), filled with it from top of head to fingertips, he let the chair fall.

Yes, it was my fault (despite everything)... it was the power of my face, mine and nobody
else’s, which caused Ahmed Sinai’s hands to release the chair; which caused the chair to drop, accelerating at thirty-two feet per second, and as Jawaharlal Nehru told the Assembly Hall, ’We end today a period of ill-fortune,’ as conch-sheik blared out the news of freedom, it was on my account that my father cried out too, because the falling chair shattered his toe.

And now we come to it: the noise brought everyone running; my father and his injury grabbed a brief moment of limelight from the two aching mothers, the two, synchronous midnight births-because Vanita had finally been delivered of a baby of remarkable size: ’You wouldn’t have believed it,’ Dr Bose said, ’It just kept on coming, more and more of the boy forcing its way out, it’s a real ten-chip whopper all right!’ And Narlikar, washing himself: ’Mine, too.’ But that was a little later-just now Narlikar and Bose were tending to Ahmed Sinai’s toe; midwives had been instructed to wash and swaddle the new-born pair; and now Miss Mary Pereira made her contribution.

’Go, go,’ she said to poor Flory, ’see if you can help. I can do all right here.’

And when she was alone-two babies in her hands-two lives in her power-she did it for Joseph, her own private revolutionary act, thinking He will certainly love me for this, as she changed name-tags on the two huge infants, giving the poor baby a life of privilege and condemning the rich-born child to accordions and poverty... ’Love me, Joseph!’ was in Mary Pereira’s mind, and then it was done. On the ankle of a ten-chip whopper with eyes as blue as Kashmiri sky-which were also eyes as blue as Methwold’s-and a nose as dramatic as a Kashmiri grandfather’s-which was also the nose of a grandmother from France-she placed this name: Sinai.

Saffron swaddled me as, thanks to the crime of Mary Pereira, I became the chosen child of midnight, whose parents were not his parents, whose son would not be his own. . . Mary took the child of my mother’s womb, who was not to be her son, another ten-chip pomfret, but with eyes which were already turning brown, and knees as knobbly as Ahmed Sinai’s, wrapped it in green, and brought it to Wee Willie Winkie-who was staring at her blind-eyed, who hardly saw his new son, who never knew about centre-partings... Wee Willie Winkie, who had just learned that Vanita had not managed to survive her childbearing. At three minutes past midnight, while doctors fussed over broken toe, Vanita had haemorrhaged and died.

So I was brought to my mother; and she never doubted my authenticity for an instant. Ahmed Sinai, toe in splint, sat on her bed as she said: ’Look, janum, the poor fellow, he’s got his grandfather’s nose.’ He watched mystified as she made sure there was only one head; and then she relaxed completely, understanding that even fortune-tellers have only limited gifts.

’Janum,’ my mother said excitedly, ’you must call the papers. Call them at the Times of India. What did I tell you? I won.’

’. . . This is no time for petty or destructive criticism,’ Jawaharlal Nehru told the Assembly. ’No time for ill-will. We have to build the noble mansion of free India, where all her children may dwell.’ A flag unfurls: it is saffron, white and green.

’An Anglo?’ Padma exclaims in horror. ’What are you telling me? You are an Anglo-Indian? Y our name is not your own?’

’I am Saleem Sinai,’ I told her, ’Snotnose, Stainface, Sniffer, Baldy, Piece-of-the-Moon. Whatever do you mean-not my own?’

’All the time,’ Padma wails angrily, ’you tricked me. Your mother, you called her; your father, your grandfather, your aunts. What thing are you that you don’t even care to tell the truth about who your parents were? Y ou don’t care that your mother died giving you life? That your father is maybe still alive somewhere, penniless, poor? You are a monster or what?’

No: I’m no monster. Nor have I been guilty of trickery. I provided clues... but there’s something more important than that. It’s this: when we eventually discovered the crime of Mary Pereira, we all found that it made no difference!. I was still their son: they remained my parents. In a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts... if you had asked my father (even him, despite all that happened!) who his son was, nothing on earth would have induced him to point in the direction of the accordionist’s knock-kneed, unwashed boy. Even though he would grow up, this Shiva, to be something of a hero.

So: there were knees and a nose, a nose and knees. In fact, all over the new India, the dream we all shared, children were being born who were only partially the offspring of their parents-the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.

’Enough,’ Padma sulks. ’I don’t want to listen.’ Expecting one type of two-headed child, she is peeved at being offered another. Nevertheless, whether she is listening or not, I have tilings to record.

Three days after my birth, Mary Pereira was consumed by remorse. Joseph D’Costa, on the run from the searching police cars, had clearly abandoned her sister Alice as well as Mary; and the little plump woman-unable, in her fright, to confess her crime-realized that she had been a fool. ’Donkey from somewhere!’ she cursed herself; but she kept her secret. She decided, however, to make amends of a kind. She gave up her job at the Nursing Home and approached Amina Sinai with, ’Madam, I saw your baby just one time and fell in love. Are you needing an ayah?’ And Amina, her eyes shining with motherhood, ’Yes.’ Mary Pereira (’You might as well call her your mother,’ Padma interjects, proving she is still interested, ’She made you, you know’), from that moment on, devoted her life to bringing me up, thus binding the rest of her days to the memory of her crime.

On August 20th, Nussie Ibrahim followed my mother into the Pedder Road clinic, and little Sonny followed me into the world-but he was reluctant to emerge; forceps were obliged to reach in and extract him; Dr Bose, in the heat of the moment, pressed a little too hard, and Sonny arrived with little dents beside each of his temples, shallow forcep-hollows which would make him as irresistibly attractive as the hairpiece of William Methwold had made the Englishman. Girls (Evie, the Brass Monkey, others) reached out to stroke his little valleys... it would lead to difficulties between us.

But I’ve saved the most interesting snippet for the last. So let me reveal now that, on the day after I was born, my mother and I were visited in a saffron and green bedroom by two persons from the Times of India (Bombay edition). I lay in a green crib, swaddled in saffron, and looked up at them. There was a reporter, who spent his time interviewing my mother; and a tall, aquiline photographer who devoted his attentions to me. The next day, words, as well as pictures, appeared in newsprint. [ . . . ]

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