Born at exactly midnight on the eve of India’s independence from British colonialism, Saleem Sinai is the first free native citizen born on Indian soil in nearly a hundred years. After a century of British rule, in addition to a century of unofficial imperialism before that, Saleem’s birth marks the end of a two-hundred-year British presence in India. Using their considerable power and influence, the British impose their Western culture and customs onto the Indian people, suppressing and erasing India’s own rich culture to such an extent that, even after their official exit, an undeniable Western presence remains. The postcolonial India of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children underscores the difficulties of navigating a cultural existence that has been largely erased and permanently altered by a foreign, dominant power. Through Saleem, Rushdie creates an entirely new India—one that is both Eastern and Western—in which he is able to find balance between two conflicting cultures.
When Saleem’s parents, Ahmed and Amina Sinai, buy William Methwold’s mansion, the strange purchase agreement is a small-scale representation of British colonialism. Methwold, a British colonizer who is leaving India after the planned independence on August 15, 1947, agrees to sell Ahmed and Amina one of the mansions on his sprawling estate; however, if they are to buy Methwold’s house, they must agree to buy and keep all of the home’s contents, and their transaction will not be complete until midnight on August 15. Despite the fact that it is technically Ahmed and Amina’s home, they must agree to live among Methwold’s belongings, which represent the trappings of Western civilization and culture—and Methwold himself won’t officially leave until he is forced to by India’s independence. Methwold even insists that Ahmed take a daily cocktail in the garden each evening. “Six o’clock every evening. Cocktail hour. Never varied in twenty years.” When Ahmed objects to Methwold’s level of involvement in his life, Methwold replies, “A whim, Mr. Sinai…you’ll permit a departing colonial his little game? We don’t have much left to do, we British, except play our games.” Of course, Ahmed’s life is not Methwold’s game to play, but he acquiesces because Methwold is willing to sell cheap.
As a result, Methwold imposes his own British customs on Ahmed even after he departs, which symbolically represents the residue of British colonialism left on India after independence. Ahmed and Amina buy Methwold Manner, and they do eventually replace his things with their own; however, Methwold’s presence remains in other ways. Saleem notes that many years later, cocktail hour in the garden is still observed, claiming it “a habit too powerful to be broken.” Technically, cocktail hour is Methwold’s habit, but it is Saleem and his family who are compelled to carry out this customary practice. Methwold has long since returned to Britain, yet he continues to influence how the Sinais live their lives, underscoring the long-term effects of colonialism.
British colonialism is also reflected in Rushdie’s representation of “the other” within Midnight’s Children. The other—generally accepted within the postcolonial milieu as the West’s tendency to view anyone or anything not white, Christian, or European as savage and uncivilized—is present in a myriad of ways throughout most of Rushdie’s novel. For example, Saleem’s mother, Amina, an Indian with a dark complexion, is described as “the blackie” whose own mother is never able to love her because she has “the skin of a South Indian fisherwoman.” Amina’s mother equates lighter skin—in other words, white skin—with purity and wholesomeness, and she finds it difficult to love her dark-skinned daughter, echoing the color divide and prejudices imposed on India during British colonialism. Furthermore, as Saleem begins communicating telepathically with the other children of midnight born on India’s independence, he soon finds that their association is rather weak when the “prejudices and world-views of adults begins to take over their minds.” Among other differences, Saleem notes that the “fair-skinned northerners revile Dravidian ‘blackies.’” Like Saleem’s grandmother, the other Midnight’s Children consider light-skinned Indians from the north superior to the dark-skinned Indians of the south, reflecting the widespread prejudices present during colonial times. Similarly, when Evie Burns, a young American girl, moves to Methwold’s estate, she immediately declares herself the leader of Saleem and the other children living there. Saleem falls in love with her and marvels at his vulnerability to Europeans, noting that even though Evie is American, it is the “same thing.” Evie is a violent bully, and she does not live on the estate for long—her father sends her home to the United States “to get a decent education away from these savages”—but she clearly believes that she is above Saleem and the other children of Methwold Manner. Like a looming colonial power, Evie is “civilized” despite her violent behavior simply because she is from the West, whereas she views the Indian children as “the other” and in dire need of her unsolicited leadership.
In light of this prevailing European influence, Saleem’s India is a hybrid mixture of both Eastern and Western cultures and values. For example, Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, travels to Germany to study medicine, and after returning to India, he attempts to “fuse the skills of Western and hakimi medicine.” Aadam marries modern, Western medicine with the “superstition, mumbo-jumbo and all things magical” of traditional Indian medicine, and manages to save Saleem’s life. When Saleem comes down with typhoid fever and Western medicine fails to cure him, Aadam injects him with cobra venom and Saleem makes a full recovery, suggesting that traditional Eastern medicine still has a place in modern practice—and in a modern India. Most importantly, however, Saleem himself is a hybrid. In a moment of anarchy, a hospital worker swaps Saleem just moments after his birth with another baby born to a servant of Methwold Manner. Instead of being the son of two Indian Muslims from Kashmir, Saleem is actually the illegitimate son of William Methwold and a Bombay woman. Like the new India that Saleem personifies, he is not, strictly speaking, entirely Indian; instead, an inescapable British presence is mixed with his eyes “as blue as Kashmiri sky” and his nose “comparable only to the trunk of the elephant-headed god Ganesh.” Saleem is at once British and Indian, and through this character Rushdie argues that the strength of this new and independent India lies in its diversity.
British Colonialism and Postcolonialism ThemeTracker
British Colonialism and Postcolonialism Quotes in Midnight’s Children
One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes has solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man.
“I started off as a Kashmiri and not much of a Muslim. Then I got a bruise on the chest that turned me into an Indian. I’m still not much of a Muslim, but I’m all for Abdullah. He’s fighting my fight.”
“See the whole world, come see everything!” The hyperbolic formula began, after a time, to prey upon his mind; more and more picture postcards went into his peepshow as he tried, desperately, to deliver what he promised, to put everything into his box. (I am suddenly reminded of Nadir Khan’s friend the painter: is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality? Worse: am I infected, too?)
The Estate, Methwold’s Estate, is changing them. Every evening at six they are out in their gardens, celebrating the cocktail hour, and when William Methwold comes to call they slip effortlessly in their imitation Oxford drawls; and they are learning, about ceiling fans and gas cookers and the correct diet for budgerigars, and Methwold, supervising their transformation, is mumbling under his breath. Listen carefully: what’s he saying? Yes, that’s it. “Sabkuch ticktock hai,” mumbles Methwold. All is well.
“Dear Baby Saleem, My belated congratulations on the happy accident of your moment of birth! You are the newest bearer of that ancient face of India, which is also eternally young. We shall be watching over your life with the closet attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.”
All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures […] the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, […] but I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity—because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake.
Women have always been the ones to change my life: Mary Pereira, Evie Burns, Jamila Singer, Parvati-the-witch must answer for who I am; and the Widow, who I’m keeping for the end; and after the end, Padma, my goddess of dung. Women have fixed me all right, but perhaps they were never central—perhaps the place which they should have filled, the hole in the center of me which was my inheritance from grandfather Aadam Aziz, was occupied for too long by my voices. Or perhaps—one must consider all possibilities—they always made me a little afraid.
“…Your life, which will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own,” the Prime Minister wrote, obliging me scientifically to face the question: In what sense? How, in what terms, may the career of a single individual be said to impinge on the fate of a nation? I must answer in adverbs and hyphens: I was linked to history both literally and metaphorically, both actively and passively, in what our (admirably modern) scientists might term “modes of connection” composed of “dualistically-combined configurations” of the two pairs of opposed adverbs given above. This is why hyphens are necessary: actively-literally, passively-metaphorically, actively-metaphorically and passively-literally, I was inextricably entwined with my world.
“Loose woman,” the demon within me whispered silently, “Perpetrator of the worst of maternal perfidies! We shall turn you into an awful example; through you we shall demonstrate the fate which awaits the lascivious. O unobservant adulteress! Did you see what sleeping around did to the illustrious Baroness Simki von der Heiden?—who was, not to put too fine a point upon it, a bitch, just like yourself.”
Saleem’s parents said, “We must all become new people”; in the land of the pure, purity became our ideal. But Saleem was forever tainted with Bombayness, his head full of all sorts of religions apart from Allah’s (like India’s first Muslims, the mercantile Moplas of Malabar, I had lived in a country whose population of deities rivalled the numbers of its people, so that, in unconscious revolt against the claustrophobic throng of deities, my family had espoused the ethics of business, not faith) […].
Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I,” every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.