Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” as a Gothic Democratic Narrative

January 1st, 2003 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

Jason Yeo
LAA-57 Final Paper
Due May 17, 2006

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as a Gothic Democratic Narrative

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, 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 and down, good and evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosity of the serpent; in the opposition of staircases and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all possible opposition […] …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…  (Rushdie 161)

Towards the end of the semester, we were presented with the argument that there is a strong link between aesthetics and democracy.  One strand of this argument came from Bonnie Honig’s 2001 work Democracy and the Foreigner[1] in which she argues that the “foreigner” (as one who possesses “foreignness”) is in fact a recurring character and (potentially corrupting threat) in the founder-myths of many modern societies.  Honig thus theorizes that the literary form of the foreigner signals some of the intrinsic needs and desires of healthy modern democracies.  This is in sharp contrast to the traditional view that foreigners only mark the fearful entry of a contaminating, destabilizing element into society.  To support her thesis, Honig provides a reading of multiple literary works, including Rousseau’s Social Contract as well as the Biblical Book of Ruth, using the lens of foreignness to reveal the previously ignored work that the “foreign” characters are made to do for the societies they revitalize or help to found.  In a much later section, Honig offers the related idea of “genre” as applicable to reading the narratives of modern democracies in order to better understand the ambiguous, hero-or-villain nature of a society’s potential savior, which may also be their downfall.  But can we ourselves find in a suitable work of our own choosing what Honig has found so readily and widely elsewhere?

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children[2] (1991) presents the story of its narrator, Saleem Sinai, as an explicit and self-conscious allegory of the modern democracy of India.  By testing the various claims that Honig makes against the richness of Rushdie’s narrative, I will examine the extent to which Rushdie’s work does in fact offer textual support for Honig’s belief that foreignness can be an important proxy for the (hidden, unspoken) needs of a modern democracy.  In addition, I will discuss the advantages of reading Midnight’s Children as a gothic novel given Honig’s suggestion that such a reading highlights the problems of democracy, and possibly even hints at the solutions.  Finally, I will end with some thoughts on the effectiveness of such a strategy of reading (and writing) democracy’s narratives through such a lens, and what the implications might be for future cultural workers, politicians and citizens.

Honig argues that “sometimes the (re)construction of the national may require or depend upon the violation of the national.” because an “iconic foreign-founder” may theoretically be a means for democracies overcome the deeply-felt, but poorly understood, alienness from the law which also accompanies a lack of sense of kinship within the nation (SB 343).  In Rushdie’s novel, this sort of discontented detachment is very real, and can range from the total disenfranchisement of the poor (such as Shiva, cheated at birth from a life of privilege) to the empowered dissatisfaction of the wealthy (Saleem’s own family abandons India for Pakistan after the disastrous Sino-Indian war of 1962).  Certainly Saleem’s narrative, which we will later examine in more detail, also offers us multiple levels at which the (re)construction of the national can only proceed after the violation of the national.  But perhaps more succinctly to begin, Saleem’s sister, Jamila Singer, represents a near-perfect fit for this model of national violation for national reconstruction.  As an Indian national who immigrates to Pakistan in 1962, Jamila Singer quickly becomes the “Voice of the Nation”—also “Pakistan’s Angel” and “Bulbul-of-the-Faith”—who revitalizes the national spirit of Pakistan through her piousness and black-and-white nationalism (Rushdie 351-361), cementing her role as a foreign-founder.  As Honig predicts, this transformation is marked by a significant amount of violence and violation of the national.  Jamila Singer is wrested out of her former identity as the irascible Brass Monkey by her new adult role and quickly becomes “public property”, with her original personality wrenched away and replaced by the “national persona”, to the “exclusion of almost everything else” (Rushdie 359).  Her brother Saleem describes Jamila as being “imprisoned… inside a gilded tent” and certainly this imprisonment bears the mark of great violence, even if only fictional or metaphorical violence.  In order to hide her face from the public and thus preserve her dignity as a Muslim woman, Jamila’s manager invents the rumor that she “had been involved in a terrible, disfiguring car-crash” (Rushdie 358).  But of course the former Brass Monkey had already been terribly disfigured almost beyond recognition by her transformation from Indian girl (from an upper class Bombay family no less) to the iconic Pakistani woman in a mere matter of months.  In this case, both India and Pakistan have been violated (India has been rejected by a daughter of India; Pakistan has embraced a foreigner as their mascot who will sing thousands to their patriotic deaths) in order that Pakistan might be revitalized by their new “foreign-founder” who gave them something they were lacking before – a sense of national kinship.  But Jamila only offers us a clear transition from immigrant to national heroine, with little nuance to what is essentially a conversion story (or assimilation narrative).  Honig, however, presses us to see beyond the dualities of native and foreign as good and bad and to appreciate a certain anxious uncertainty about the foreign.  And so we turn to Jamila’s brother, Saleem, the first (by a twist of fate) of the Midnight’s Children.

According to Honig, a gothic reading of democratic theory allows us to appreciate the ambiguous, undecideable nature of the foreign-founder: a magnetic, intriguing, messiah-like figure who may also be a “lunatic and/or murderer” (SB 345).  In applying this gothic lens to a reading of Midnight’s Children, we are immediately struck by how Saleem Sinai, the narrator and chief “protagonist”[3] of the novel, is an ideal candidate for such a reading.  The first remarkable point of confluence is Saleem’s shocking, but eventually overlooked, foreignness, which works at different levels of the narrative.  Firstly, Saleem is in fact an alien to the family, having been the result of Mary Pereira’s baby-switching at birth: “thanks to the crime of Mary Pereira, I became the chosen child of midnight, whose parents were not his parents…” (Rushdie 130).  Secondly, Saleem is of foreign heritage, as the illegitimate son of Vanita, an entertainer’s wife, and William Methwold, a descendent of the original British colonial masters of Bombay.  Until this was revealed, the foreignness of Saleem’s blue eyes and distinct Bergerac nose were only disguised by his grandfather’s Kashmiri blue eyes and equally prominent nose.  To focus briefly on Methwold’s (and thus Saleem’s) foreignness as part of their potential foreign-founder role in the new Indian democracy, we can allow Methwold’s voice to speak as he makes a case for the British as the foreign-founders of India:“Bad business, Mr Sinai,” Methwold sips his Scotch amid cacti and roses, “Never seen the like.  Hundreds of years of decent government, then suddenly, up and off.  You’ll admit we weren’t all bad: built your roads.  Schools, railway trains, parliamentary system, all worthwhile things.  Taj Mahal was falling down until an Englishman bothered to see to it.  And now, suddenly, independence.  Seventy days to get out.  I’m dead against it myself, but what’s to be done?”  (Rushdie 105-106)

But of course at Independence the British left behind many things, including those roads, schools and institutions Methwold references.  And Methwold left not only his Estate, but the seed of a new foreign-founder—Saleem Sinai—to perhaps revitalize the nation in the future.

In writing Midnight’s Children, Rushdie was explicit about its allegorical nature, and thus we can usefully apply Honig’s gothic reading to Saleem’s character as a narrative of democracy.  Saleem is extremely self-conscious and uncertain about his role vis-à-vis India, his “birth-sister”, for whom he confesses “truly-incestuous feelings” (Rushdie 444).  Even in this expression of Saleem’s “vaulting, all-encompassing love of country” (the magnetic suitor, SB 345), we hear an eerie, gothic chord being struck – Saleem’s nationalism is compared to incest, which he understands to be forbidden, unclean and sinful (the dangerous lunatic SB 345 who Aunt Pia and Jamila Singer each recoil from and abandon in turn).  But Saleem’s original conception of his relationship to the fledgling nation of India was precisely that of a potential messiah, waiting for the “appointed hour” at which his prophesied greatness “would float down around my shoulders like an immaculate, delicately worked pashmina shawl” (Rushdie 178).  In fact, in a critical scene where Saleem’s discovers his power of telepathy, the central imagery is that of prophets and messiahs, of Muhammad and the Archangel Gabriel as Saleem imagines himself as an inheritor of Prophet Muhammad’s gift of talking with angels (Rushdie 185).  The reaction of the Sinai household to Saleem’s earnest announcement is also classically gothic in its paranoid revulsion and extremity.  The same family that had pampered and fussed over baby Saleem with all the competitive passion and intense love that a particularly special baby deserved as first-born son, first child of India’s Independence and first-born of Methwold’s Estate now turned on him with suspicion, distrust and even violent anger.  Just at the moment when the romantic unity of Saleem with his calling as savior of the nation seems at hand, he is rejected as a lunatic and violently spurned by his erstwhile loving family.  Saleem would henceforth be deeply aware of the ambiguity and duality of things:

[H]aving been certain of myself for the first time in my life, I was plunged into a green, glass-cloudy world filled with cutting edges, a world in which I could no longer tell the people who mattered most about the goings-on inside my head; green shards lacerated my hands as I entered that swirling universe in which I was doomed, until it was far too late, to be plagued by constant doubts about what I was for.  (Rushdie 187)

In this description of being cut off from the social, we hear a resonance back to Honig, who references Modleski and Cameron in pointing out this sense of isolation as a starting point for the sort of anxiety and paranoia that characterizes the gothic genre (SB 345).  But of course this sort of anxiety and sense of ambiguity over whether a well-loved figure is really a villain (Saleem himself claims culpability for multiple murders, which makes him either a murderer or a lunatic) is not limited in the novel to our reading of Saleem’s character.  The same reading can be profitably applied to characters as diverse as Evie Burns, Misha Miovic, Aunt Pia[4], Professor Shaapsteker and of course, Indira Gandhi[5].  As Saleem observes:

[I]f the Mother of the Nation had had a coiffure of uniform pigment, the Emergency she spawned might easily have lacked a darker side.  But she had white hair on one side and black on the other; the Emergency, too, had a white part—public, visible, documented, a matter for historians—and a black part which, being secret macabre untold, must be a matter for us. (Rushdie 483)

Despite the intense suffering that Saleem’s character bears through the Emergency, he still manages to keep in mind the sort of attitude that Honig would have praised as exactly what a gothic mode of reading democratic narratives of foreignness can produce – an attitude of understanding, and of openness to the potential usefulness and even the necessity to the periodic renewal of democracy of threatening, destabilizing elements as best symbolized by foreigners.  As Saleem records, there was a white part of the Emergency as well as a black part: “trains run on time, black-money hoarders are frightened into paying taxes, even the weather is brought to heel, and bumper crops are reaped…” (Rushdie 499), and he does not dismiss the reasons why India might have needed an Emergency either.

Ultimately, Rushdie’s novel does provide substantial support for the wide-ranging theory proposed by Honig about the question of foreignness and foreign-founders, and adds the further complication of the possibility for gender role-reversal in the female-gothic genre.  And while, as Honig admits, a gothic reading (or writing) of democracy’s narratives will probably not single-handedly produce solutions to the inherent anxieties and paradoxical needs of democratic societies (SB 341), but yet they offer the best hope for us as readers (and potential cultural workers and producers) to privilege and attend to the ambiguities of foreignness and foreign-founders as a first step towards achieving the climate of greater openness and acceptance-of-others that Saleem Sinai finally achieves at the end of his narrative as he melts into the multitudinous, cacophonous Indian crowd on his thirty-first birthday.


[1] Bonnie Honig, “Natives and Foreigners” and “The Genres of Democracy” in Democracy and the Foreigner, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
[2] [2] Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. 1991. Penguin Books.
[3] This is an uncertain characterization given Saleem’s own well-founded doubts about the reality and extent of his human agency.  “From ayah to widow, I’ve been the sort of person to whom things have been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victim, persists in seeing himself as protagonist.” (Rushdie 272, italics in original)
[4] In an interesting twist on the female gothic novel, a gothic reading of Midnight’s Children often presents a fascinating gender reversal of the genre since the narrator and protagonist of the novel is male, and the women are often just as ambiguous and deadly as any male villain / (anti-)hero.

[5] Indira Gandhi’s last name, while no relation to Mahatma (or Mohandas) Gandhi, is also a reminder of the foreign-founder status of Mahatma Gandhi as someone born in South Africa and educated in Britain.

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