Self-proclaimed writer and pickle-factory manager Saleem Sinai is dying—cracking and crumbling under the stress of a mysterious illness—but before he does, he is determined to tell his story. With the “grand hope of the pickling of time,” Saleem feverishly pens his autobiography, preserving his stories like jars of chutney, searching for truth and meaning within them. Born at the precise moment of India’s independence and endowed with magical powers Saleem’s remarkable story begins long before his Bombay birth and spans much of the subcontinent of India. Over a period of sixty years, he highlights Indian voices and stories traditionally silenced under British rule; however, Midnight’s Children is first and foremost Saleem’s story—his own “authentic taste of truth” of postcolonial India. Through Saleem’s story, Rushdie argues the power of storytelling and the importance of the preservation of stories, ultimately suggesting that genuine truth is found within personal stories—not within history books.
The importance of Saleem’s story is made clear throughout Midnight’s Children, reflecting personal truths that are often neglected in objective history books. As the narrator, Saleem directly engages with the reader. He explicitly states his intention to tell his story, even beginning with the requisite “once upon a time,” and makes plain his sense of urgency. Saleem is cracking “like an old jug” while his bones turn to dust. As one of the children of midnight—children born between the hours of midnight and one in the morning on the eve of India’s 1947 independence—he has been “buffeted by too much history.” Because of his fateful birthday, Saleem is deeply connected to his country and it has taken its toll. According to Saleem, he must tell his story if he is “to end up meaning—yes, meaning—something.” Fearing absurdity above all else, Saleem desperately wants his life to reveal a deeper meaning, or truth, which he hopes to communicate through storytelling.
Although Saleem is the working manager of Braganza Pickles, he claims a rare “mastery of the multiple gifts of cookery and language.” He is at once a skilled cook and a talented writer, and he is equally dedicated to both. Saleem states, “My chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my nocturnal scribblings—by day amongst the pickle-vats, by night within these sheets, I spend my time at the great work of preserving.” Saleem preserves pickles and memories for posterity. As Saleem writes his story, he becomes increasingly sick and weak. Despite his failing health, he refuses to stop writing or even take a break. He claims, “My son will understand. As much as for any living being, I’m telling my story for him, so that afterwards, when I’ve lost my struggle against the cracks, he will know.” As the very first citizen born in a free India, Saleem leads an extraordinary life full of magic and tragedy—but he never verbalizes what his story actually means. For Saleem, the importance of his story is in the telling.
The importance of storytelling is not limited to Saleem but is central to other characters as well. When Saleem tells the story of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, and his Kashmiri boyhood, he speaks of Tai, the old boatman who makes his living ferrying people and goods across Dal Lake. As a personification of Old India—a time and place untouched by colonialism and Western influence—Tai is inexplicably old. His exact age is unknown, and nobody can remember him ever being young. Tai is a known storyteller, and young Aadam takes his ferry just to listen to his tales. Tai tells Aadam, “It is your history I am keeping my head. Once it was set down in old lost books.” He continues, “Even my memory is going now; but I know, although I can’t read.” When Tai tells his stories, they live on even when they fizzle from his own mind. In this vein, storytelling outlives the confines of memory, age, and even mortal life itself. Tai’s stories of Old India aren’t written in books and cannot be read—they are ancient oralities which hold great cultural significance. Tai’s stories are an integral part of his identity and cannot be forgotten, and these spoken stories are a means to preserve his identity—and to a larger extent, Kashmiri identity as a whole—and to preserve the cultural and historical fabric of India in the years before its independence.
Despite his dedication to storytelling, however, Saleem proves to be an unreliable narrator. Still, Saleem’s story is a reflection of his personal truth, and while it may be biased, it is nonetheless valuable. As one of the children of midnight, Saleem is endowed with the supernatural power of telepathy, and he is able to enter the thoughts of others at will. He first discovers his power around the time of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and he writes extensively about Gandhi in his story. Saleem realizes, however, that Gandhi’s death occurs on the wrong date in his story. Killed in 1948, Gandhi’s death was nearly ten years before Saleem discovers his magical gift, and this revelation leaves Saleem, and the reader, questioning the validity of his amazing story. However, Saleem’s story still captures the importance of Gandhi’s life and work despite these inconsistencies, suggesting that concrete dates are not important within the broader context of Gandhi’s contributions to Indian society.
Saleem soon discovers another chronological error in his storytelling. He writes about his tenth birthday occurring on Election Day in 1957 (a particularly important election that leads to the partition of the state of Bombay); however, like Gandhi’s death, Saleem realizes that the election actually took place before his birthday. No matter how he tries to remember correctly, his “memory refuses, stubbornly, to alter the sequence of events.” In Saleem’s story, the election of 1957 will forever occur on the wrong day because it coincides with the more memorable events of his birthday, again suggesting that concrete dates make little difference within storytelling. Because of these inaccuracies, Saleem questions if his errors “invalidate the entire fabric” of his story. He notes that inconsistencies are everywhere—even the Indian and Pakistani governments cannot agree on certain dates and events occurring during the Indo-Pakistan wars—and he is doubtful of official truth. He refuses to rewrite history just to make it fit his story, claiming “in my India” it happened precisely this way. Through Saleem, Rushdie argues that perception is reality, and with this insight he tells an authentic Indian story—one that is not censored by British colonialism, tainted by political corruption, or confined to the limitations of a history book. While his story is chronologically inaccurate and, at times, magical and completely unbelievable, it is nevertheless Saleem’s absolute truth.
Truth and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Truth and Storytelling Quotes in Midnight’s Children
“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 while chutney—the same chutney which, back in 1957, my ayah Mary Pereira has made so perfectly; the grasshopper-green chutney which is forever associated with those days—carried them back into the world of my past, while chutney mellowed them and made them receptive, I spoke to them, gently, persuasively, and by a mixture of condiment and oratory kept myself out of the hands of the pernicious green-medicine men. I said: “My son will understand. As much as for any living being, I’m telling my story for him, so that afterwards, when I’ve lost my struggle against the cracks, he will know. Morality, judgement, character…it all starts with memory…and I am keeping carbons.”
What my aunt Alia took pleasure in: cooking. What she had, during the lonely madness of the years, raised to the level of an art-form: the impregnation of food with emotions. To whom she remained second in her achievements in this field: my old ayah, Mary Pereira. By whom, today, both old cooks have been outdone: Saleem Sinai, pickler-in-chief at the Braganza pickle works…nevertheless, while we lived in her Guru Mandir mansion, she fed us the birianis of dissension and the nargisi koftas of discord; and little by little, even the harmonies of my parents’ autumnal love went out of tune.
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.