From the moment Saleem Sinai is born on the eve of India’s independence from Great Britain, he becomes the living embodiment of his country. Saleem is India, and his identity metaphorically represents the identity of an entire nation; however, Saleem’s identity is complicated and conflicted. A nation, generally understood as the same people living in the same place, only loosely applies to India’s diverse population. Instead, multiple religions, languages, and political beliefs divide postcolonial India into a nation of very different people living in the same place, making one unifying national identity virtually impossible. Saleem—and by proxy, the country he represents—is one of many characters within Midnight’s Children struggling with a conflicted identity, through which Rushdie ultimately argues against the creation of a single unifying national identity for the newly independent India.
In Midnight’s Children, several of Rushdie’s characters undergo a crisis of identity, suggesting that personal identity—and, on a larger scale, national identity—is multifaceted and can’t be neatly shelved as one thing. For example, early in the novel, before Saleem is born and India is free, Mahatma Gandhi declares a hartal, an official moment of silence to mourn the continued presence of the British in India. Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, a Kashmiri Muslim living in Amristar, “is not sure if the hartal […] is his fight, even though he is in occupied territory.” Aadam believes “Kashmiris are different,” despite also being Indian. Because of this, Aadam feels out of place mourning with his fellow Indians. Similarly, when Saleem’s mother, Mumtaz Aziz, must divorce her first husband because he is unable to father children, she marries Ahmed Sinai and changes her name. Ahmed says, “Time for a fresh start. Throw Mumtaz and her Nadir Khan out of the window, I’ll choose your new name. Amina. Amina Sinai: you’d like that?” Mumtaz accepts her new identity as Amina, but she is never able to stop loving Nadir, and her new name never reflects her true identity. Additionally, Saleem’s sister, the Brass Monkey, transitions through several identities. She begins simply as Saleem’s feisty little sister, a precocious young girl known to start things on fire. The Monkey, just like her Catholic ayah, or nanny, has a penchant for scripture and leavened bread; however, after her family moves to Pakistan, she changes her name to Jamila Singer, and wearing a white silk chadar “heavily embroidered in gold brocade-work and religious calligraphy,” she sings to a Muslim nation and becomes “Pakistan’s Angel.” Her identity as Jamila is short-lived, however, and in the chaos of the Indo-Pakistan War, she sneaks off and joins a convent, dedicating the remainder of her life to Christianity. Despite changing her identity, the Brass Monkey cannot resist the pull of her true calling.
Saleem likewise goes through a series of identity crises, which is reflective of his own complex identity. After a minor accident leaves a ten-year-old Saleem hospitalized, blood tests reveal that he is not actually his parents’ biological son. Saleem learns that his ayah, Mary Pereira, in “her own private revolutionary act,” switched infant Saleem with infant Shiva, another baby born on independence eve at the same time as Saleem to a poor couple working near the Sinais’ home. Saleem’s identity is further complicated when Shiva’s own father turns out not to be Wee Willie Winkie, a poor accordionist, but William Methwold, the British colonizer who owns the estate where the Sinais live. Willie’s wife, Vanita, has a secret affair with Methwold, and when she dies shortly after giving birth, she takes their secret with her. Ultimately, Saleem’s parents accept him as their son and it “makes no difference” to any of them; however, as a one of Midnight’s Children, Saleem must reconcile being the “mirror of India” with the reality of his half-British parentage. Lastly, when Saleem is living in Pakistan with his family, he is hit in the head in an air-raid (which subsequently kills most of his family) during the Indo-Pakistan war. Saleem “suffers a merely partial erasure” and forgets his name—and his moral compass. Fighting against India on behalf of the Pakistanis, Saleem is essentially fighting himself, and he makes this treason possible by hiding behind his amnesia. Saleem does eventually regain his memory and his true identity, but Rushdie makes a powerful point in the process. The very people who are so violently fighting each other because of their differences were, not terribly long ago, considered one and the same.
Saleem’s identity is multifaceted, and he cannot claim one part of it over the other. He states, “Despite my Muslim background, I’m enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories, and actually I’m very fond of the image of trunk-nosed, flap-eared Ganesh.” Rushdie’s comparison of identity to nationality is perhaps best represented in the character of Aadam Aziz, who, after hitting his nose on the ground during his morning prayers, resolves “never again to kiss earth for any god or man.” Instead of religion, Aadam equates his identity with his Kashmiri homeland, the northern-most part of the subcontinent of India. In a reflection of Aadam’s own ambivalence, Kashmir, a territory with a largely Muslim population, is led by Hari Singh, a devout Hindu, and it remains disputed territory under the partitioning of India. Like Saleem, and much of his family, Kashmir does not fit neatly into either India or Pakistan. With these conflicts in identity, Rushdie implies that the single most unifying aspect of Indian identity is their differences, and because of this, traditional concepts of national identity do not apply. Instead, Rushdie advocates for Indians to find common ground in the very thing that divides them.
Identity and Nationality ThemeTracker
Identity and Nationality 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.”
“Change your name,” Ahmed Sinai said. “Time for a fresh start. Throw Mumtaz and her Nadir Khan out of the window, I’ll choose you a new name. Amina. Amina Sinai: you’d like that?”
“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.
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.
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.
What leaked into me from Aadam Aziz: a certain vulnerability to women, but also its cause, the hole at the center of himself caused by his (which is also my) failure to believe or disbelieve in God. And something else as well—something which, at the age of eleven, I saw before anyone else noticed. My grandfather has begun to crack.
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) […].
So, apologizing for the melodrama, I must doggedly insist that I, he, had begun again; that after years of yearning for importance, he (or I) had been cleansed of the whole business; that after my vengeful abandonment by Jamila Singer, who wormed me into the Army to get me out of her sight, I (or he) accepted the fate which was my repayment for love, and sat uncomplaining under a chinar tree; that, emptied of history, the buddha learned the arts of submission, and did only what was required of him. To sum up: I became a citizen of Pakistan.
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.
[T]he Emergency had a black part as well as a white, and here is the secret which has lain concealed for too long beneath the mask of those stifled days: the truest, deepest motive behind the declaration of a State of Emergency was the smashing, the pulverizing, the irreversible discombobulation of the children of midnight. (Whose Conference had, of course, been disbanded years before; but the mere possibility of our reunification was enough to trigger off the red alert.)
I understood once again that Aadam was a member of a second generation of magical children who would grow up far tougher than the first, not looking for their fate in prophecy or stars, but forging it in the implacable furnaces of their wills.