The Internal Other: Transculturation and Postcolonial Magical Realism in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children chronicles India’s struggle for cultural unification after independence through the personal events of Saleem Sinai’s life, beginning with his birth at the exact moment of India’s partition from Pakistan in 1947.  As England leaves the crown jewel of its colonial empire, India strives to somehow meld its spiritual ancient past with the realities of postcolonial modernity, an enigmatic feat further made laborious by the sheer cultural diversity present in India.  Decolonized nations, as they attempt to redefine themselves, partake in the melding of cultures to create a collective identity in a process known as transculturation or acculturation. Wendy B. Faris outlines the particulars of this process as a trait of magical realism, of which Midnight’s Children is a prominent example.

In a country that founded four major religions, Rushdie’s extensive use of religious motifs is a necessity in acknowledging India’s inherent spirituality.  Rushdie harnesses this religious saturation to provide a narrative and thematic framework with which to familiarize the reader to the story.  Saleem’s repeated allusions and linkages to Christ, Buddha, Mohammad, and Ganesh provide the narrative a feel similar to a sacred text.  The melding of these differing religions, moreover, both through the character of Saleem himself and the plot in general, forces religious similarities, rather than differences, to prominence.  Through this promotion of religious equality and understanding, Rushdie thereby cleverly undermines religious importance. He achieves this both through characters formally denouncing beliefs and by magical instances, initially attributed to God, but which are explained through rational means.

In addition to religious diversity, India has thousands of spoken languages and over twenty official languages.  For India, such a wide range means another potentially divisive element in the creation of its national identity.  However, Rushdie’s use of English mixed with several phonetic re-creations of Indian words ensures a kind of linguistic objectivity.  Since “the language of the colonizers is willfully assumed and transformed” by the author, it acts to “[subvert] the imperial gaze” (Faris 158).  As a highly politically-motivated novel, the story also addresses the authoritative tradition which suggests “that the price to pay for a comforting univocality may be terror” and therefore the aggregate of personal histories counteracts violence (Faris 145). Through his magical abilities, Saleem opposes authority, an integral trait of transculturation, and is presented as a “modern Shaman who journeys through sacred space and time but disengages it from its beautifully contrived scaffolding of orderly time and orderly space bound to great authorities, church and state” (Faris 154).  Through the establishment of the Midnight’s Children Conference, Saleem creates his individual history through the perspectives of many, making it all of India’s history.  This magic is not so much a replacement history but rather a re-imagining of history based on personal witnesses.  The fluidity of a personal history also universalizes the conflict—the citizens of India may be on opposite sides, but they share the same history.

The establishment of the anti-self is an integral part of the melding of cultures between colonizer and the colonized.  The anti-self is created when two individuals find their “alter-egos” that have “qualities and powers different from and complimentary to his own” (Faris 155).  Through this imagining of powers, each individual is able “to act from his appropriation of the powers” the other individual possesses (Faris 155).  This cyclical “hallucination” acts as both a mediator and helper between the two individuals, increasing their powers as appropriation continues.  The proper participants in such a showdown would clearly be a native and a colonizer. Midnight’s Children deviates from this tradition, however, for in this context Saleem and his anti-self, Shiva, are both natives.

Rushdie’s manipulation of roles regarding the anti-self marks his fundamental divergence from the rest of magical realism. While transculturation is evident and continuing throughout the novel, it is never truly implemented and completed.  A prominent aspect of Faris’s extensive discussion of transculturation focuses on the idea that the process in “magical realism is a two-way cultural bridge” (Faris 157), which enables “a cultural conversation that heals” (Faris 155).  This healing occurs through the convergence, and ultimate merging, of the colonizer’s empirical reality with the native culture’s ancient spiritualism, creating a collective national identity.  In this novel, Rushdie leverages many of the techniques typical of transculturation in an effort to show the overriding similarities of differing cultures. As Faris notes, Rushdie’s “erosion of individual identities [relates] to his desire for greater pluralism in society, applying this idea specifically to Islamic religion” (Faris 168).  Rushdie’s desire for transculturation is similarly evident in his use of language.  His break from the traditional creation of the anti-self, however, proposes an alternative to the process of transculturation in magical realist texts as outlined by Faris.  That Shiva is Saleem’s anti-self, the person from whom he realizes and gains power, suggests it is not only the colonizer that India must overcome to achieve unification, but also its own discursive cultural identities. As India gains its independence, it becomes more like its colonizers, a transformation that is made quite apparent in the estate of Methwold, as the Indians become “infected by cocktail-hours, budgerigars, pianolas and English accents” (Rushdie     110).  Therefore, using various religious motifs, the re-imagining of personal history, and the establishment of the anti-self, Rushdie presents a possible collective means that seemingly should result in the transculturation process.  However, severe cultural distinctions that cause violence hinder the success of this process, as the newly formed government in India comes to resemble another oppressive colonizer rather than an independent hybrid-culture.  This ultimate failure to acculturate condemns India to continue its cyclical journey toward unification indefinitely.

The process of unification advances when a nation finds cultural commonalities to build a foundation, which often occurs through religious similarity.  Early in the novel, the nose of Saleem’s grandfather Aadam begins to bleed after he hits it while praying on the ground; he instantly “resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man” which “made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history” (Rushdie 4).  For Aadam, “in order to pursue knowledge, it seems to him, he must reject the authority of his faith,” leaving in its place an empty chasm (Cronin 12).  While it is certainly correct that the hole signifies Aadam’s lack of faith, to take the event only at this surface value is to miss one of the most important thematic catalysts in the novel.  Religion does much more for people than provide a system of rules and traditions; it provides answers to believers.  Subjects people cannot understand or know through empirical evidence, such as death, the existence of an afterlife and the pure root of ethical behavior, can be answered by the structure of beliefs that religion establishes.  The answers that religion teaches ultimately provide people with a goal, a meaning for their existence on earth.  When nations share similar religious beliefs, they therefore also possess a common goal for their lives which, because they are all striving for relatively the same thing in similar ways, makes transculturation a much smoother and achievable process.  However, Aadam’s religious belief, and therefore his meaning in life, has been replaced by a deep chasm.  This hole eventually manifests itself temporarily in, and is filled up by, various objects and people.  It is through the perforated sheet, for example, with its circular hole in the center, that he falls in love with his future wife, leading Aadam to “think of the perforated sheet as something sacred and magical” (Rushdie 23).  Momentarily, Aadam’s newfound love allows him to see “the things which had filled up the hole inside him” (Rushdie 23).  Any meaning Aadam finds in life, however, is short-lived, and the hole inside him always returns to haunt him.

Aadam’s grandson, Saleem, inherits the same empty cavity of faith.  He explains that “the hole in the center of me which was my inheritance from my grandfather” leads him on a similar journey for desperate self-meaning (Rushdie 220).  Because of Saleem’s intertwined relationship with the whole of India, Saleem’s search is India’s search. Therefore, the first logical place to find meaning is through religion.  Saleem, in one way or the other, practices all four of the major religions of India, presented by Rushdie through numerous religious motifs and allusions.  Although differences in religion ultimately contribute to India’s inability to acculturate, Saleem’s emphasis on the similarities in the religions attempts to provide common cultural ground in the country’s heritage.  The religious motifs and allusions also act as a narrative framework for the novel, providing the reader a foundation by which to glean understanding from the complex and nonlinear structure of Saleem’s tale. Through this process, he also compares himself and his activities with gods and prophets, creating a narrative framework that resembles sacred texts, such as the Bible, the Quran and the Hindu Ramayana.  By these religious allusions and resemblance to other holy books, the story of his life that Saleem narrates becomes itself a kind of sacred text, describing Saleem’s, and by extension India’s, search for meaning with Saleem as the savior.

From the moment of his birth, Saleem is presented as a Christ figure through an event that literally determines the motivations that shape his life’s trajectory.  Soon after his birth, his future pseudo-mother, Mary Pereira, switches baby Saleem with the wealthier Sinai family’s baby, Shiva.  Mary performs this switch after being inspired by the words of the man she loves, Joseph D’Costa.  With Mary as his pseudo-mother and Joseph as her significant other, Saleem becomes the Christ child in this metaphorical holy family.  Saleem’s representation as a Christ figure continues through his childhood and is particularly evident in the similarity between Jesus’ first public miracle and Saleem’s first moment of magic.  Jesus performs his first miracle in the Gospel of John when, at the urging of his mother, he turns containers of water into wine for a wedding feast in Cana.  Likewise, the first magical occurrence in the novel for which Saleem claims responsibility is also for the benefit of his mother.  Attempting to receive income, Amina successfully goes to the racetrack to gamble as Baby Saleem “appears to be watching some distant event, to be guiding it from a distance” (Rushdie 160).  Even Jesus’ reason for death as a martyr is reflected in the life of Saleem.  To save humanity, Jesus assumes all the sins of humanity and dies on the crucifix as penance.  As the prophesied savior of India, Saleem also takes responsibility for all negative occurrences in the adolescence of India.  Even as an infant, Saleem describes himself as lying “in my crib and listen[ing]; and everything that happened, happened because of me…” (Rushdie 151).  By placing himself simultaneously as a Christ figure and as the savior of India, Saleem legitimizes his quest for cultural unification to one major religious denomination in India.

In much the same way, Saleem’s presentation of himself as the Hindu god Ganesh provides the largest religious denomination of India an understanding of his mission.  This association extends beyond the similarities between Saleem’s large “cucumber-nose” and the elephant-headed Ganesh’s trunk, however (Rushdie 193).  The Hindu god is traditionally associated with wisdom and the overcoming of obstacles, qualities Saleem attempts to assure his readers he also possesses.  The most significant association with Ganesh occurs when Saleem compares himself to the elephant god’s writing of the Ramayana.  In a feverish haze upon Padma’s return, Saleem declares himself to be “mammoth-trunked, Ganesh-nosed” and ultimately “something more” than “merely mortal” (Rushdie 224).  As “one of the two great Sanskirt Epics,” the Ramayana is of the upmost importance to followers of the Hindu religion and therefore Ganesh, as its writer, also holds a place of prominence (Ramayana).  By associating himself with a god who is believed to be wise and the writer of a scared text, Saleem brings legitimacy to his own religious text, the history of India’s independence.  His allusions to Hindu religion present a similarity between Christianity and Hinduism as well in that Jesus, Ganesh and Saleem all sacrificed in order for their message to be heard.

Closely linked with allusions about Christianity is Saleem’s presentation of Islam, his own religion by birth.  The allusion is made particularly noticeable when, within a single paragraph, Saleem likens his telepathic ability of communicating with other Midnight’s Children to Moses and the prophet Mohammad when they “heard disembodied commandments” on the side of mountains (Rushdie 185).  While atop the Cathedral, Saleem claims, “like Musa or Moses, like Mohammad the Penultimate, I heard voices on a hill” (Rushdie 185).  These prophets, of course, were receiving messages directly from the voice of God–Moses copied the Ten Commandments and Mohammad heard what would become the Quran.  Therefore, because of this repeated comparison, Saleem is claiming a kind of religious authority over India as the basis of his quest to culturally unite the country.  These religious comparisons, however, do not enable transculturation; as Saleem discovers, they actually come to prevent it.  It is during his time in the Pakistan Army, after his memory has been erased, that Saleem realizes the great dangers of religion.

Religious violence and persecution are often associated with differing religious denominations; however, while in the Pakistan Army, Saleem experiences atrocities with Muslims fighting on either side against each other.  This is not to say that the soldiers expected such an outcome.  While preparing for battle in what he assumes will be against India, one of the members of Saleem’s unit, Ayooba, excitedly boasts: “Just let us at those Hindus–see what we don’t do!” (Rushdie 400).  As mentioned before, however, they “were not in India; vegetarians were not [their] targets” (Rushdie 408).  Instead, they had traversed the landmass of India and reached the East Wing of Pakistan to quell the revolutions occurring there against West Pakistan.  Although the two Wings were separated by a subcontinent, “religion was the glue of Pakistan” (Rushdie 404).  The ensuing fight between the two Wings enlightened Saleem to the violent nature of religion in general, whether it be from different religions or from the same denomination.  He blindly follows orders as “students and lecturers […] were greeted by bullets,” women were raped, and “roadside ditches fill[ed] up with people who were not merely asleep” (Rushdie 410).  For Saleem, witnessing the brutality marked his realization that no amount of similarities of religion could ever fill up the hole inside him.

The atrocities brought forth by religion force “Saleem, with his desperation for meaning, for worthy purpose,” to search elsewhere (Rushdie 409).  It is no coincidence that “all this wonder at the ‘miracle’ of the ‘mixing and blending of cultures’ appears at once religious and strangely utilitarian” (Faris 135).  The very nature of magical realism conflates the magical and realist realms together, creating a hybrid reality within the narrative world.  With the existence of such extensive magic present in these texts, there certainly is an unexplainable miracle-like quality to them that closely resembles religion.  With this in mind, once Saleem has abandoned religion as a means for transculturation, it is only appropriate that he turns to the very phenomenon that has guided his entire life: magical ability and a sense of greater purpose.  With the help of Pavarti-the-witch’s magical “basket of invisibility” (Rushdie 437), he escapes the P.O.W. Camps of Bangladesh, arrives in India, and “ha[s] already decided to save the country” (Rushdie 444).  Saleem is able to oppose resistance to transculturation because his “narrative position [is] outside the dominant power structures and cultural centres” (Bowers 48).  His position, along with his magical entanglement with the whole of India, ignites the hope for a unified India devoid of religiocentrism.

A lack of religious tolerance presents a formidable obstacle to transculturation but it can be alleviated through internal means.  Transculturation does not merely entail merging all the native cultures, however; the new cultural discourse must also confront the Western legacy the colonizers left behind. The external approach to history by the West, for example, is shackled to realism and compromises the creation of a hybrid reality.  The partition of Pakistan and India reflects this Western view of the East as inherently fragmented; therefore, Saleem’s recording of an alternate history for India creates “a counter-discourse that questions the dominance of realism, which is based largely in concrete reality, and thereby encourages the emergence of new literary voices” (Faris 76).  Demonstrably, Saleem is one of these emerging voices, but only one of the collective many.  This is not Saleem’s individual story; ultimately it is the story of India–recorded by a self-proclaimed servant of the future unified state by using the collective cultural experience of India.

The re-imagining of this personal history serves as an essential means for transculturation by reconciling the Western view of history with Saleem’s personal history. Western realism regards history as authentic and categorically factual, which clashes with Saleem’s alternative historical record that includes spirituality and which seeks to undermine colonial dominance.  Through viewing history as undistorted and inherently objective, the West elevates its narrative of the past as not merely correct, but indisputable, creating a univocality out of historical discourse.  This is why religious texts are generally not taken to be established accurate records by most Westerners; rather, they are meant to be metaphorical, not historical.  Although religion and history do overlap and help shape each other, they ultimately constitute separate aspects in the creation of Western culture.  Conversely, in a postcolonial country like India, separating the past and religion is an impossibility in the creation of a new cultural identity.  For Indians, religious denomination is their identity and has remained so for thousands of years.  The omission of religious effects in a history of India renders a nugatory perspective on the recent past.  While it is true that religious wars plagued Europe for many centuries, religion does not cause violence in Europe the way it does in Saleem’s India.  Therefore religion constitutes a minimal aspect in the West’s cultural identity, while religion is at the forefront of India’s identity.  Failing to acknowledge the effect of ancient traditions on modern culture in India inhibits one’s ability to understand its creation.  However, through their colonization of India, Western ideals of history seeped into the cultural basis of India itself, as evidenced through the nature of Ahmed’s ultimate dream in life.  Saleem reveals that his father “smelled faintly of future failure” because he never “had the strength to pursue his original ambition, the rearrangement of the Quran in accurately chronological order” (Rushdie 90).  Partially this shows Ahmed’s heritage as an Islamic Indian, fulfilling his religious duties through careful examination and contemplation of the holy book.  His original ambition, however, also illustrates the effect of Western thought on Indian culture.  Ahmed is placing a historical requirement, namely the desire for a chronological order, on a religious text. Rather than allowing the metaphorical lessons of the Quran to guide his way of thought, Ahmed is excessively concerned with strict order, which the West has taught him inherently means accuracy.  Not only do his concerns portray the fallacy of the Western belief that order and accuracy inherently result in truth; it likewise shows the adverse effects of a flawed Western ideal inappropriately being applied by an Indian.  Ahmed may have attempted to solidify Western culture with his ancient legacy, but by placing too much of an emphasis on religion, he creates a combination that cannot be sustained, by himself or by India.

Saleem, however, does not subscribe to the same Western dominated ideals of truth as his father.  The very concept of history ever being, within any context, somehow unfeigned is systematically a failure of logic.  Whatever is known about the past, loosely known as “history,” is based upon the perspective of individuals.  These individuals’ experiences constitute an informational bridge between an event and the rest of the world.  Therefore, as perspective changes from one individual to another during the same event, what is “known” likewise shifts with every differing perspective.  Through this lens, the construction and very nature of history

differ vastly from the empirically-based Western tradition.  Far from being an undisputed univocality, historical discourse is a story of differing perspectives that result in a polyvocal collective understanding.  Saleem seeks such an understanding of history, which is evident in his creation of the sacred text aimed at transculturation.  He realizes, or somehow inherently knows, that “writing has become an attempt to intervene in the construction of culture and knowledge, and, for intellectuals who come from postcolonial societies, to write their way back into a history others have written” (Culler 130-1).  While labeling Saleem as an “intellectual” is perhaps an overzealous distinction, the attempt to intervene is the same.  On one hand, his historical narrative is based upon himself as an individual perspective.  Conversely, it is also based on the melding of a wide array of Indian perspectives, the chief example being the Midnight’s Children Conference, which is perhaps the most significant and valiant attempt at transculturation present in the narrative.

The members of the Midnight’s Children Conference constitute the other voices that emerge to create the counter-discourse, questioning Western realism.  Admittedly, before being written down, this alternative history is sieved, and therefore inherently distorted to some extent, through Saleem.  Saleem does, however, have a pseudo fact-checker in his wife Padma, who often interjects at the times the story becomes particularly fantastic or unbelievable.  Saleem himself acknowledges the important role she plays in the creation of a true alternate history, declaring her his “necessary ear” (Rushdie 170).  He also, during her long absence from his side, states that “her ignorance and superstition [are] necessary counterweights to my miracle-laden omniscience” and it is only “her paradoxical earthiness of spirit which keeps—kept!—my feet on the ground” (Rushdie 170).  Saleem understands the ambiguity of historical records and the fact that history, and the way it portrays reality, is problematic to substantiate and even more difficult to assign meaning.  Ultimately, history is a social construction, and the societal landscape of the West concerning India is largely based on discrimination, ignorance, and prejudices. The key to Saleem’s alternate history lies in its perspective.  The reader is not given simply the experience of Saleem during the narrative; the experiences of many people with varying cultures and languages and religions from around India are provided. This diversity creates a narrative that is as narrowly focused on the aftermath of India’s independence as it is inclusive to all the Midnight’s Children, regardless of creed.  Despite differences such as language, they are all able to hear and understand each other in a microcosm of transculturation.  The choice to write the novel in English is inherently objective because it neither shows disrespect nor favors any particular language.  Even if the most widely spoken language were used, the vast number of spoken languages would cause an instant division, thereby nullifying the alternative history.

The polyvocal narrative serves more than simply undermining Western historical discourse, however; it also acts as a means to confront past atrocities, thereby enabling movement beyond them.  Through this technique “the writer pretends to play with major issues only to encourage the reader to face them” even if it is achieved through humor or by downplaying the severity of an occurrence (Durix 127).  It is not simply enough to bring cultures together; in order for transculturation to achieve desired results, the memories of the past must first be tended to.  In this way, the alternative history is not an attempt to erase history, but rather take India’s perception of the past and “seek to change it, by addressing historical issues critically and thereby attempting to heal historical wounds” (Faris 138).  An example of a historical wound for Saleem is his participation in the aforementioned massacre in Dacca at the University.  Immediately following the visions of death and destruction perpetrated by the Pakistani Army, Saleem (still referring to himself as “the buddha”), leads his troops away from the Army and into the Sundarbans.  Suffering from what Saleem calls “an overdose of reality,” they march in the Sundarbans, “longing for flight into the safety of dreams” (Rushdie 414).  This choice, to flee into a dream world, is often cited by critics as the fundamental problem with magical realism.  As Brenda Cooper states, rather than “capturing this reality” of post-colonialism, magical realism provides “precisely the exotic escape from reality desired by some of their Western readership” (32).  Such an assertion assumes their escape into dreams ultimately allows them to circumvent danger and the war.  This does not occur, however, and the four soldiers emerge from the jungle only to find the war continuing to rage.  In fact, all three of Saleem’s soldiers end up dying in the war after they emerge, suggesting the detour was not an escape but rather a death warrant.

Despite this intricate creation of an alternate history, as Saleem writes it down he ultimately “laments that independence has not healed India’s cultural wounds, even for a generation that was born into it” (Faris 83).  The fact that the wounds remain largely explains Saleem’s reasoning for creating this narrative; unable to heal them in his own life, he passes on the experience for a future generation, namely his son.  As the sacred text of India, Saleem’s narrative seeks to equip those who read it with the means to succeed where he continued to fail–in the unification and acculturation of India.  This lofty goal harkens back to the binary of the Western historical discourse focused completely on empirical information, as opposed to Saleem’s alternate history that is a collective narrative of various perspectives involving magic.  There are clear historical inaccuracies in the narrative, inaccuracies Saleem admits to, but to focus only on these inaccuracies is to miss the intention of the narrative altogether.  Saleem is not writing a strictly historical text; he is, in many ways, operating under the assumption that sometimes there is more truth in fiction.  The same way that the Bible uses parables to explain a lesson, Saleem places major events for India to coincide with major events in his own life.  Placing events within a time context provides them meaning and ultimately a lesson.  People use metaphors and hypothetical examples to help explain complex concepts.  Saleem’s narrative does the same to spread the incredibly complicated concept of how to achieve transculturation.  This is not to say that Saleem’s narrative is “wrong” or “untrue” but merely that it is the story of his experience, and the exact accuracy of particular dates is ultimately irrelevant to the overarching meaning of the novel.  It is no more true or false than any other perspective on the same events; what matters is what can be gleaned from his account.

Perhaps the most important component in the success of transculturation is the cultural discourse involved in the creation of the anti-self.  As a colonized nation faces the realities of independence, their colonizers become the reason for hardship, the cause of instability, and the motivation for success.  The oppressive nation is defined by everything the freed country is not, thereby gaining power in their very ‘otherness.’ Unlike the aforementioned discursive elements, namely religion, language and perspective, that are involved in cultural identification and which innately differentiate people from one another, the creation of the anti-self is an intrinsically inclusive process because all of the freed nation was colonized by the same oppressive power.  In their self-identification as anything but their colonizers, they are able to find a unity in their collective demonization of the colonial power.  In this way, both colonizer and colonized “gets power to act from his appropriation of the powers contained in his image of the other” (Faris 155).  Through time, the appropriation increases, which in turn allows colonizer and colonized to become more powerful.  Because their power derives from their perception of the other, both perceptions reflect off each other, and both colonizer and colonized become the image their anti-self perpetuates.  Therefore, the colonizers’ view that the marginalized people are savage pagans enacts the colonized to embrace their paganism, looking to the magical abilities of the shaman to increase their power against the colonizers.  The acceptance of such appropriations is evident in Amina’s response to Lifafa Das’s invitation to be told her prophecy.  She accepts the offer “despite her memories of her father’s scepticism,” while she is “caught up in the illogical wonderment of her brand-new motherhood of which she had only just become certain” (Rushdie 85).  Although her rational self suspects the seer to be “a huckster, a two-chip palmist, a giver of cute forecasts to silly women,” she nonetheless seeks the prophecy of this modern shaman (Rushdie 95).  Whether the prophecy is real or not is really inconsequential because through hearing it, both Amina and then Saleem make it so.  Their mere awareness of the prophecy leads to its self-fulfillment, which suggests the power such appropriations can create in their images of the other.

It is in keeping with colonial traditions of appropriation that Amina embraces the Seer because colonizers most often associate their appropriations of natives as savage and pagan with the shamanistic magic present in numerous ancient cultures.  This tendency for colonizers to marginalize native beliefs stems from the tradition that a “higher race in contact with a lower one has a tendency to credit the members of the latter with mysterious demoniacal powers,” often perpetrated by shaman or medicine men (Malinowski 199).  The colonizers feared these magical occurrences because they had no way in which to explain them since they “belonged to a nation whose education had […] advanced far enough to destroy the belief in magic” (Taussig 216).  Once again, the Western necessity on empirical reality confines their understanding, just as it conversely expands the colonized ability to confront inexplicable occurrences, ultimately leading to a unifying commonality on which a cultural identity may be built.

However, as stated before, India never achieves the unification of transculturation in Midnight’s Children. Although the creation of the anti-self is often the defining element in the success of transculturation, in this instance it is partly to blame for India’s failure of unification.  This is because while the anti-self of a colonized nation is supposed to be its colonizer, Saleem’s anti-self is another member of the colonized: Shiva.  Although this created anti-self does not follow the colonial traditions that result in transculturation, there is little doubt that Shiva and Saleem are binary opposites.  In many ways Saleem is an outsider, or at least an anomaly, in the India of that time.  He is Muslim, fairly wealthy, mostly timid, and his magical ability is intellectual in that he can speak with the other Midnight’s Children from across India and is able to see the histories of his relatives.  Shiva, on the other hand, as his namesake the Hindu god of destruction would imply, is violent, aggressive, Hindu and poor and has superhuman skills in warfare with his magical legs. They are, in almost every sense, complete foils of each other and ultimately each other’s anti-self.

The fact that Saleem and Shiva were switched at birth further complicates their relationship, and appropriation, with each other.  Because Ahmed and Amina are, in fact, Shiva’s biological parents, the prophecy with which Saleem lives his entire life is never really applicable to him.  If the prophecy was never intended for Saleem, then none of the lofty titles and duties he was given at birth were true.  The Hindu holy man sadhu, for example, announced he was “await[ing] the coming of the One.  The Mubarak–He who is Blessed” (Rushdie 126).  This was a reference to Shiva, however, as proven by Amina going into labor immediately after the sadhu’s words.  Likewise, Prime Minister Nehru’s letter describing the baby’s life as “the mirror of our own” was not directed to Saleem, but to Shiva (Rushdie 139).  This means it is not Saleem who is “handcuffed to history” or representative of the whole of India, but rather the real prophesied Mubarak, Shiva (Rushdie 3).  This reversal of roles, upon reflection, does indeed make much more sense and possibly explains Saleem’s failure.  This time in India’s history is not peaceful or timid or intellectual like Saleem; rather it is violent, aggressive and primitive, much like Shiva.  The baby switch at birth only comes to reinforce Saleem and Shiva’s reflection of India.  Saleem is the possibility, an ideal, a dream of what India could be—Shiva is the reality, the pragmatic actuality, the genuine representation of what India is.  As true anti-selves of each other, Saleem and Shiva gain power through their appropriation on the other; unfortunately this power further divides India rather than unites it.  The anti-self is supposed to be a rallying point behind which a culture can align itself and create a cultural self-identity and achieve transculturation.  When both sides are natives, however, it instead widens the divisions.

Yet, when analyzing the difficulties facing India at this time, it is only appropriate that Saleem’s anti-self be another Indian rather than a European.  For it is not the Europeans themselves who are most to blame for India’s instability following independence, but the adoption of Western ideals and discourses in replacement of ancient ones.  A small example of this “Westernization” of Indians is present in the estate of Methwold, which continues to bear the name of the former owner, William Methwold, long after he has left India.  The residents of Methwold find themselves in a literalized metaphor for the rest of India—the struggle to create self-identity against the familiar face of colonization.  It is interesting that amidst the affluent families that live in Methwold, none of them notice, or care to change, their gradual abandonment of Indian culture and subsequent embrace of the West.  It is only Wee Willie Winkie, the homeless street performer who frequents Methwold, who is able to notice and speak of the transformation, saying, “Ladies, gentlemen, how can you feel comfortable here, in the middle of Mr. Methwold Sahib’s long past?  I tell you: it must be strange; not real; but now it is a new place here, ladies, ladahs, and no new place is real until it has seen a birth.  The first birth will make you feel at home” (Rushdie 113).  This statement by Winkie is both incredibly observant and absolutely tragic.  Observant because he is speaking of the birth of India, and by extension Methwold, allowing the residents to rename the estate and make it their own (although they opt not to).  However, it is tragic in that he is also speaking of the two impending births in the area: the child of Amina and Ahmed, as well as Winkie’s wife Vanita’s pregnancy about which he assumes himself to be the father. It is later revealed, however, that the child’s biological father is William Methwold.

A far more important example of India’s adoption of Western ideals is the government of India.  After being freed from an oppressive, authoritative colonizing power, the independence of India carried with it the dream of a democracy in which the multitudes of Indians would have a voice in their government.  Although there were elections in India that resembled a kind of democracy, as criticism mounted against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she declared a state of emergency and assumed authoritative control over the country.  In many ways, India was back to being colonized, as thousands of Indians were arrested, killed, or sterilized, which Saleem claims was an effort to silence the midnight’s children.  Such a claim reiterates the tendency for magical realist texts to “implicitly [criticize] totalitarian discourses of all kinds,” whether they be the work of the West or of a native government (Faris 142).  This critique of authoritative rule suggests a need for greater plurality in India’s government system, and in India as whole.  The need for plurality is also evident in Saleem, who goes to great lengths to present himself as the heroic liberator of India.  From Christ to Mohammad and Ganesh to Scheherazade, Saleem makes allusions to numerous ancient heroes or prophets, creating the expectation that Saleem is likewise a heroic figure in the same tradition.  Of course, the difficulty in declaring Saleem a hero is that he ultimately fails.  He tells the epic of his quest to unify India but he dies with India as fragmented as ever.  Along the same lines as the demand for plurality, his failure, together with the critique of Indira Gandhi, implies that change will not come from an individual but rather the masses.

Midnight’s Children presents the possibility for a unified country by re-imagining a history all of India shares within a context of mutual cultural tolerance.  Through highlighting the various aspects of culture that Indians experience together, Rushdie emphasizes the necessity for a more pluralistic culture.  By deviating from the traditional roles of colonizer and colonized in the creation of the anti-self, this novel portrays the individualistic approach to transculturation as futile.  Saleem’s appropriation of a fellow native as his anti-self is reflexive of the internal turmoil that perpetrated the failure of transculturation.  Rather than unifying together against the oppressive legacy of colonialism, India further divided itself through cultural intolerance.  The greatest obstacle in emerging as a truly successful country with a hybrid culture is not the wounds England left behind, but rather India’s own self-inflicted wounds.  By the end of the novel, it is quite evident that India is a nation of individuals rather than a tolerant conglomerate intent upon change.  Indira Gandhi’s slogan, “India is Indira and Indira is India,” further emphasizes her individualistic approach to government (Rushdie 483).  In what is supposed to be a democracy, Indira rules the country with a univocality that is representative only of herself, and she assumes absolute control when she is threatened.  Even Saleem, although he makes great strides towards unification and tolerance, is ultimately just another individual unable to unify the country.  He attempts to place the burden of India all upon himself and eventually his body cracks under the pressure.  It is only fitting that Saleem dies “alone in the vastness of the numbers” as all 600 million citizens of India march over him, “reducing [him] to specks of voiceless dust” (Rushdie 532-3).  The uncooperative masses trample over the individual and the dust that once sought unification is forever fragmented into pieces, never to be whole again.


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Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006. Print.

Taussig, Michael T. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print.

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