Following their 1947 independence from British rule, India begins to break up in a process known as partitioning. British India splits along religious lines, forming the Muslim nation of Pakistan and the secular, but mostly Hindu, nation of India. India continues to fracture even further, dividing itself based on language and class. Meanwhile, Saleem Sinai, the living embodiment of India, is also cracking—and dying. Saleem, born at the exact moment of independence, is inescapably linked to his country, and they are destined to the same fate. India’s partitioning plagues Saleem’s physical existence, and it is likewise reflected in his family life. Both Saleem’s grandfather and his mother attempt to love fragments of another, trying in vain to piece together their desired lives. Like Saleem’s country, these attempts at partitioning lead to destruction and despair. Throughout the novel, Rushdie juxtaposes the private partitioning of Saleem’s family against the public partitioning of the newly independent India to argue against the partitioning of India. Instead, Rushdie implies that all things—countries and people alike—must be appreciated as a whole.
Fragments and partitioning are first referenced when Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, falls in love with Naseem Ghani through a perforated sheet. Since Aadam falls in love with a fragment of Naseem—what he knows of her through the sheet, rather than her whole self—the relationship is doomed to fail. As a young doctor living in Kashmir, Aadam is summoned to the home of Mr. Ghani, a blind landowner, when his daughter, Naseem, falls ill. A devout Muslim, Ghani refuses to let Naseem be seen by Aadam, stating, “She does not flaunt her body under the noses of strange men.” Since Aadam is not “permitted to see her, no, not in any circumstances,” he is required to examine his patient through a seven inch hole in a perforated sheet, piecing together his diagnosis. Naseem soon begins to experience new ailments weekly, and her father summons Aadam with each complaint. Moving the sheet from body part to body part, Naseem is “glued together by [Aadam’s] imagination,” until the “phantasm of a partitioned woman begins to haunt him.” Although three years pass before Naseem complains of a headache and Aadam is able to see her face, he falls in love with each individual piece of her. Aadam and Naseem are eventually married, and they remain together for the rest of their lives; however, their relationship is difficult and strained. Naseem becomes known only as Reverend Mother, and she rules over her family like a tyrant. She imposes silence and fasting at will, and she becomes “prematurely old.” Aadam and Reverend Mother’s sex life is a disaster, and it is clear that they are not compatible. He “had made the mistake of loving her in fragments,” and as a whole, Aadam finds loving Reverend Mother exceedingly difficult.
Rushdie further argues against partitioning when Saleem’s mother, Mumtaz Aziz, resolves—and fails—to love her second husband, Ahmed Sinai, “bit by bit.” Mumtaz is forced to divorce her first husband, Nadir Khan, when it is discovered that he is impotent. Mumtaz and Nadir happily live with their secret for two years; however, when Reverend Mother finds out, Nadir leaves his beloved Mumtaz, formally declaring “I divorce three” three times, as dictated by Muslim custom. Mumtaz’s divorce leaves her broken, and she continues to love Nadir even in his absence. Mumtaz soon marries Ahmed Sinai and changes her name to Amina. While she is still in love with Nadir, Ahmed is able to give her what Nadir can’t. Amina’s culture dictates a traditional family, and Ahmed may be her only chance for children. Amina dreams of Nadir and wakes each morning “with an unspeakable name on her lips,” but she vows to try to love Ahmed. She selects “one fragment” of Ahmed each day, concentrating “her entire being upon it until it becomes wholly familiar.” In this way, Amina slowly begins to love Ahmed Sinai. However, despite her greatest effort, “there was one part of [Ahmed] which she never managed to love.” Because of her undying love for Nadir, Amina resents the one thing that Ahmed possesses “in full working order, which Nadir Khan certainly lacked.” Amina detests sex with Ahmed, and this causes considerable dissent in their marriage. Ultimately unhappy, she slowly turns Ahmed into a makeshift Nadir—feeding him until he gains weight and encouraging him to grow his hair differently so that he physically resembles him—yet she remains unable to fully love Ahmed. Amina “fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents,” and she is likewise unsuccessful in love.
Ultimately, the book’s private family tensions reflect national ones; just as partitioning doesn’t work in the characters’ individual lives, Rushdie argues that Partition won’t work for India. Following the initial split of India and Pakistan, India is “divided anew, into fourteen states and six centrally-administered territories.” Language, not geography, divides the states, and the aggressive protests of “language marchers” demanding partition means that “schools are often shut, because of the danger of violence on the bus-routes.” As this small-scale partitioning unfolds, Pakistan and India continue to dispute the boundaries drawn during their own partition, leading to extensive violence and large-scale wars. Even the Midnight Children’s Conference—Saleem and the other children born on India’s independence who are a metaphorical “mirror of the nation”—are divided by imaginary lines based on race, religion, gender, and class, and they are ultimately unable to overcome their differences. The subcontinent is “split like an amoeba,” and Saleem is “disintegrating” as his country divides itself. With Saleem’s impending death, Rushdie implies that a partitioned India cannot be peacefully sustained.
Fragments and Partitioning ThemeTracker
Fragments and Partitioning 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?)
“It was only a matter of time,” my father said, with every appearance of pleasure; but time has been an unsteady affair, in my experience, not a thing to be relied upon. It could even be partitioned: the clocks in Pakistan would run a half an hour ahead of their Indian counterparts…Mr. Kemal, who wanted nothing to do with Partition, was fond of saying, “Here’s proof of the folly of the scheme! Those Leaguers plan to abscond with a whole thirty minutes! Time without Partitions,” Mr. Kemal cried, “That’s the ticket!” And S. P. Butt said, “If they can change the time just like that, what’s real any more?” I ask you? What’s true?”
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 as blue as Methwold’s—and a nose as dramatic as a Kashmiri grandfather’s—which was also the nose of grandmother from France—she placed this name: Sinai.
Telepathy, then: the inner monologues of all the so-called teeming millions, of masses and classes alike, jostled for space within my head. In the beginning, when I was content to be an audience—before I began to act—there was a language problem. The voices babbled in everything Malayalam to Naga dialects, from the purity of Lucknow Urdu to the southern slurrings of Tamil. I understood only a fraction of the things being said within the wall of my skull. Only later, when I began to probe, did I learn that below the surface transmission—the front-of-mind stuff which is what I’d originally been picking up—language faded away, and was replaced by universally intelligible thought-forms which far transcended words.
Midnight has many children: the offspring of Independence were not all human. Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpots…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied than I—even I—had dreamed.