Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865
Midnight’s Children is Saleem’s memoir, written during his thirtieth year. The shattered, impotent, prematurely aged resident manager of a Bombay pickling factory, he writes with his plump, illiterate mistress Padma as his only audience. Born precisely at midnight on August 15,1947, the moment of the creation of the independent countries of India and Pakistan, Saleem is dubbed “The Child of Midnight” by an exuberant press. His fortunes and those of one thousand other midnight children are mystically linked with the fate of India during the following thirty years. Saleem is a strange child: His huge, perpetually snotty nose resembles the Indian subcontinent, while his birthmark-stained ear and opposite cheek suggest East and West Pakistan. His complex family history also mirrors the troubled history of the area. Early in the century, the family patriarch, Dr. Aziz, who hails from Muslim Kashmir, the disputed region between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, moves to India, where his granddaughter marries a well-to-do Muhammadan businessman, Ahmed Sinai. Saleem’s birth in Bombay is preceded by an unintelligible prophecy:
There will be a son . . . who will never be older than his motherland—neither older nor younger.... There will be two heads—but you shall see only one—there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees.... Newspaper praises him, two mothers raise him! . . . Spittoons will brain him . . . wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will try him—tyrants will fry him.... He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old! And he will die. . . before he is dead.
All these predictions come true. The narrator is not, in fact, the child of the Muslim Sinais, but rather of a Hindu street singer’s wife. The infants are switched in the maternity home by a nurse, Mary Pereira, who gives a knobby-kneed beggar child to the rich Muslim family and the well-born child to the Hindu street entertainer, who names him Shiva.
As the years pass, Saleem learns that his great, antenna-like nose intercepts the thoughts of others. More important, his mind acts as a telepathic clearinghouse for the children of midnight, who are gifted in strange, magical ways. As they ponder their meaning for India’s future, Saleem founds the Midnight Children’s Conference. Shiva, now a homeless, violent street urchin who does not know of the baby switch, mentally contests Saleem’s leadership and is excluded from the conference. When surgery unblocks Saleem’s nose at age fifteen, his “political career” comes to a halt. Deprived of its telepathic powers, his nose now becomes supernaturally acute, permitting the hero to smell out a person’s past and even to sense good and evil.
Saleem’s secret psychic activities take place against a rich tapestry of family life which occupies most of the narrative. In addition to the numerous domestic dramas that beset the large and colorful family, they, as part of the Muslim minority in Hindu India, experience a number of upheavals. As anti-Muslim pressures mount, the Sinais decide to start a new life in Pakistan. All goes well until 1965, when, in the brief war over Kashmir, nearly everyone in the family is killed by Indian bombs. Saleem himself suffers a severe concussion (after being brained by a bejeweled spittoon, as it was prophesied) that leaves him physically able but mentally semicomatose. Some years later, thanks to his phenomenal nasal sensitivity, Saleem is enlisted as a man-dog in the dreaded Canine Unit for Tracking and Intelligence Activities during the secessionist conflict between western and eastern Pakistan (later Bangladesh). India intervenes, and fellow midnight child Parvati-the-witch, who has been brought to Bangladesh to entertain the victorious Indian troops, smuggles Saleem to Delhi.
Under the ministrations of Parvati and her friends in the Delhi street magicians’ ghetto, Saleem gradually regains his sense of self and dreams anew of how the children of midnight can save their homeland. Shiva, now an Indian military hero (and as violent as ever), is lured by Parvati’s magic into the ghetto, where he impregnates and abandons her to Saleem, who marries her. The child, Aadam, is born at midnight on the very day that Indira Gandhi declares an official state of emergency, suspending civil and political rights. Saleem senses that the government has learned of the Midnight Children’s Conference and is planning countermeasures. His forebodings are realized when soldiers led by the dreaded Major Shiva come to raze the magicians’ slum. Taken to prison for interrogation, Saleem betrays his ideals, divulging the names of the surviving children of midnight, who are arrested, sterilized, and eventually released.
Overwhelmed by guilt and physically shattered, Saleem finds the orphaned Aadam, whom he realizes to be “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. . . but forging it in the implacable furnaces of their wills.” With his “son,” Saleem makes his way back to Bombay, where he chances to taste a pickle which evokes childhood memories. His former nanny, Mary Pereira, is now the owner of a pickling factory, where Saleem becomes manager. There he writes the story of his and his country’s failed life.