Religion is at the forefront of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and it drives most of the narrative throughout the entire novel. Saleem Sinai, the narrator-protagonist, is born Muslim but lives most of his life in the Hindu-steeped culture of Bombay. His lifelong ayah, Mary Pereira, is a devout Catholic, and his sister, the Brass Monkey, ultimately joins a nunnery. In the religiously pluralistic backdrop of postcolonial India, Rushdie references several religions—including Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism—but he focuses mainly on Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. Despite being surrounded by religion, Saleem is not a practicing Muslim, and he never visits a mosque or worships in any other way; however, Saleem is never able to fully escape religion, and as his story unfolds, it is a major cause of the civil unrest following India’s independence. Suppressed under British rule, freedom of religion is a fundamental right under India’s new constitution, and it has saturated society. Midnight’s Children is centered on the dichotomy of the religious and secular within Indian society, as well as the tension between majority and minority religions present within the subcontinent as a whole. With Saleem’s story, Rushdie argues that religion affects all lives, devout practitioner and staunch atheist alike, and if left unchecked, it can become very dangerous.
Midnight’s Children begins as Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, abandons his Muslim faith. Aadam “hits his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray.” Three drops of blood fall from his nose and he vows “never again to kiss earth for any god or man.” Aadam’s character, despite turning his back on his religion, carries heavy religious connotations. His name is a nod to creationism and references Adam and Eve of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament (or Adam and Hawwa in the Quran), and his bloody nose serves the same purpose—according to the Quran, man was created from clots of blood. Aadam repeatedly states throughout the novel that he is “not much of a Muslim,” despite marrying the deeply religious Reverend Mother. Aadam does not equate religion with morality as his wife does, and because of this, their marriage is quite difficult. Reverend Mother insists on religious education for their children, but Aadam goes behind her back and fires the tutor, claiming, “He was teaching them to hate, wife. He tells them to hate Hindus and Buddhists and Jains and Sikhs and who knows what other vegetarians. Will you have hateful children, woman?” Aadam views the religious teachings as intolerant and dangerous for his children. After India’s independence and the creation of Pakistan, Aadam refuses to move to the new Muslim country despite his wife’s insistence, “because that was a country built especially for God.” Aadam avoids religion to the best of his ability for his entire life, but when he grows old and senile, he “disgraces” himself “by stumbling into mosques and temples with his old man’s stick, mouthing imprecations and lashing out at any worshipper or holy man within range.” Aadam is resentful of religion and the violence it has brought into his life, and in his religious avoidance, he personifies the newly independent and (supposedly) secular India.
Religion is painted in a negative light throughout most of the novel. Saleem’s ayah, Mary, serves as the personification of Catholicism, and she pines for Joseph D’Costa, a wanted fugitive and communist anarchist. Their names, of course, carry biblical connotations, and Mary relies heavily on her faith; however, her love for Joseph drives her to switch Baby Saleem with Baby Shiva on the night of India’s independence (a private revolutionary act, switching rich for poor) and she avoids church and confession for the rest of her life on account of her guilt and sin. Despite Mary’s pious and giving nature, her crime taints her character—and by proxy, her religion. Similarly, when Saleem’s father, Ahmed Sinai, enters into a new business with Suresh Narlikar, a Bombay gynecologist and businessman, and the business fails, Narlikar blames religion. Ahmed is left broke with his assets frozen by the Indian government. Narlikar claims, “These are bad times, Sinai bhai—freeze a Muslim’s assets, the say, and you make him run to Pakistan, leaving all his wealth behind him. Catch the lizard’s tail and he’ll snap it off! This so-called secular state gets some damn clever ideas.” Narlikar and Ahmed believe that their business failed because they are Muslim—and the Indian government would prefer that they moved to Pakistan where they belong. Furthermore, when Saleem and his family do move to Pakistan, they find that the Pakistanis feel similarly about India. Saleem’s uncle and high-ranking member of the Pakistani military, General Zulfikar, frequently yells to his family, “Let’s get organized!” as a way of rallying them like troops. He states, “Let’s give those Hindus something to worry! We’ll blow their invaders into so many pieces, there’ll be no damn thing left to reincarnate.” General Zulfikar is not tolerant of the Hindu religion and he does not want any of them in Pakistan. He even mocks their beliefs when he claims there will be nothing left to reincarnate after he blows them up.
Saleem’s story underscores the duality of the secular and religious within postcolonial Indian society. Even though it is technically a secular state, religion has infiltrated society to a considerable extent, and reasonably so. After all, Saleem claims to live “in a country whose population of deities rivals the numbers of its people.” Like his grandfather, Saleem “fails to either believe or disbelieve in God,” yet his “head is full of all sorts of religions.” He even thinks that the voices he hears (which are actually his telepathic powers and his direct line to the other children born during the midnight hour on independence eve) are the voices of Archangels. Of course, his parents think he is insane, and he is punished when Mary accuses him of blasphemy, but religion is, in some way, always a major part of Saleem’s life. Midnight’s Children is Rushdie’s attempt to balance the secular and the religious in postcolonial India, and while Saleem’s story does not inspire much optimism regarding religious peace, Rushdie does offer some hope. Knowledge is essential to religious tolerance, and Midnight’s Children is certainly an education.
Religion 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.”
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.
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) […].
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.
Parvati’s formal conversion to Islam (which irritated Picture Singh, but on which I found myself insisting, in another throwback to an earlier life) was performed by a red-bearded Haji who looked ill-at-ease in the presence of so many teasing, provocative members of the ungodly; under the shifting gaze of this fellow who resembled a large and bearded onion she intoned her belief there was no God but God and that Muhammed was his prophet; she took a name which I chose for her out of the repository of my dreams, becoming Laylah, so that she too was caught up in the repetitive cycles of my history, becoming an echo of all the other people who have been obliged to change their names…like my own mother Amina Sinai, Parvati-the-witch became a new person to have a child.