Whose history, which narrator?

Whose history, which narrator?

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Whose history, which narrator?

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children can be read, inter alia, as the unfolding of the twentieth-century India’s history. There is in the novel, virtually all of the twentieth century Indian history: the Jallianwalla Buch tragedy, Quit India movement, Cabinet Mission, freedom movement, Muslim League and its role, riots and bloodshed subsequent to the independence, Five Years Plans, reorganization of Indian states and language riots, Chinese aggression, the theft of the sacred relic from the Hazratbal mosque, Pakistan War, liberation of Bangladesh, the Emergency, the military coup in Pakistan in 1958, and various other historically important events. There are also typically Indian divisions and dissents, chaos and disillusion, communal tensions, religious fanaticism besides traditional values and modernizing efforts.

One aspect Rushdie places emphasis on, is the close link between the history of India and the history of Saleem’s family. In the end, the former can be read as a family album. Saleem’s uncle, Zulfikar, is a Pakistani general who helps General Ayub Khan to plan the military takeover of 1958; his aunt is a mistress of Homi Catrak, who is shot by the husband of Lila Sabarmati, another of his mistresses (Commander and Mrs. Nanavati in real life); his classmate Cyrus Dubash becomes the founder of a religious cult that seems to be an amalgam of Guru Maharaj and Hatha-yogi Lakshman Rao who claimed he could walk on water; Saleem himself triggers off one of the worst language riots in Bombay; his mother was first married to Shcikh Abdullah’s right-hand man; the disappearance of the Prophet’s Hair is linked to his grandfather. In addition, Saleem belongs to an extremely peculiar group of 1,001 children born within the very first hour of India’s independence, on the 15th of August 1947, and capable of performing paranormal phenomena. Saleem, thus becomes an authentic representative of India, he is India.

Rushdie is convinced that there is a connection between public affairs and private lives. They interpenetrate and that is how the writer needs to examine them, the one in the context of the other. In the light of this consideration we can read the passage in which Saleem declares:

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have 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.

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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. (p. 370)

If then, this is the way, to Rushdie’s view, the historical process should be conceived, what does he do with his narrative? Does he use history to serve any political purpose? If yes, which purpose? To start with, we do not hear in the novel only Saleem’s version of history, his interpretation of it. We indirectly hear some others too. Price in his dealing with the same questions offers a suggestive analysis. He reads the novel along with Nietzsche’s essay Untimely Meditation where three modes of history are specified: the antiquarian, the monumental and the critical. These modes are practiced by three characters in the novel. William Methwold employs a form of antiquarian history; the Widow is a proponent of monumental history; and Saleem Sinai is a critical historian. Nietzsche believes that each of the three modes of history belongs to a certain soil and only to that; in any other it grows into a devastating weed. In his novel, Rushdie depicts both the antiquarian and the monumental modes as devastating weeds. In India only the third mode, critical history, appears to have the potential to contribute to life. Midnight’s Children records Saleem’s struggle to present his critical history as a counter-narrative to, and a critical commentary on the "official" history of Indira Gandhi’s government and the nostalgic histories of apologists for British imperialism. William Methwold is an antiquarian historian as well as a representative of the white colonizer. He expresses the desire to preserve for those who shall come into existence after him the conditions under which he himself came into existence. He sells his estate to upper-class Indian families on condition "that the houses be bought complete with every last thing in them, that the entire contents be retained by the new owners; and that the actual transfer should not take place until midnight on August 15th." (p. 95) Meanwhile, Methwold has set out to "educate" his successors. His goal is clear and straightforward: to teach the rich Indians how to rule over a multitudinous Indian society, to preserve the very structure, ideology of an authoritarian society to which he himself belongs. And Rushdie does not fail to alarm us: "…so they have all failed to notice what is happening: the Estate, Methwold’s Estate, is changing them… and Methwold, supervising their transformation, is mumbling under his breath. Listen carefully: what’s he saying? Yes, that’s it. "Sabkuch ticktock hai", mumbles William Methwold. All is well." (p. 99) Methwold views the British as the quintessentially civilizing influence on the Indian subcontinent. He is unable to acknowledge the existence of any culture other than his own. Everything in the estate, architecture, the names of the buildings signal simultaneously a desire to superimpose historical European paradigms on the Indian landscape and consciousness.

Rushdie also strongly criticizes the Widow-Indira Gandhi, that is the monumental mode of history, and her Emergency policy in 1975, which led to brutal violations of human rights in India. Saleem’s narrative is one way of denying the official, politician’s version of truth. It expresses the "new myth of freedom", it is an action of resistance. At the same time it is the search for the validity of the Indo-British legacy in modern India, where, as in all developing countries which have emerged from their colonial past, economics, religion and culture are all consumed by the great maw of politics. The novel poses the problem of culture and identity in terms of politics and morality, leading Saleem to seek his identity in terms of connections and places outside the chronological framework of Indo-British history, in the primeval time of India’s villages.

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The first image is a painting by Major Edward Molyneaux The Banks of the Ganges at Benares, London, ca. 1890. The second image is a map of Bombay drawn in 1846. Both images are taken from the www.trill-home.com web site.
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