Archive for the 'Writings' Category

Response to: “The Great Global Warming Swindle”

Monday, April 9th, 2007

Ok, so here’s my public service post.  A couple weeks back I saw a film that first aired Mar 8, 2007 on Channel 4 in the UK titled “The Great Global Warming Swindle” that (in brief) rejects the idea that climate change (global warming) is significantly prompted/accelerated by greenhouse gases produced by human industry (namely carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels). 

It was a disturbing film to watch, to say the least.  Anyhow, I was disturbed enough to ask some questions and do some research on my own, so here’re the results.  In summary: “Swindle” is a big swindle.

Read my more detailed comments below (originally posted to the campus discussion list where I first heard of “Swindle”):

To C and everyone else,

I’m glad the Channel 4 “polemic” (their label, not mine, but note this is NOT an objective “documentary”) has come up on this list again so I can post about it. I can say that when I first saw it I thought it seemed pretty persuasively put together, and being a complete non-expert in the very specific fields covered (oceanography, atmospheric dynamics etc.) I wasn’t prepared to come to any conclusions. As background, I am a senior in ESPP, so it’s not as if I haven’t had a substantial amount of exposure to these fields or their experts; I’m just not an expert myself, as I imagine to be generally the case in society.

So I went to the head of ESPP, Professor James McCarthy, who’s worked on the IPCC report (co-author and/or co-chair for parts of the two most recent Reports). (Unrelated: He’s also Master of Pforzheimer House.) Anyway, I sent him a copy of the video and asked for his response. After he saw it, he rejected the arguments presented as being generally without merit (which is putting it mildly). Which of course skeptics and cynics might find unsurprising. However, here’re some revealing facts that emerge, which you can verify from various online sources.

To summarize:

(1) The main scientific counter-theory (or theories, if you like) to a significant human contribution to climate change via greenhouse gases has been roundly refuted a number of times already by a slew of other papers in Science and Nature, and mostly before 2005! (For example, the clips of Professor John Christy talking about discrepancies in troposphere/surface warming are outdated since Professor Christy has already authored a paper admitting that his earlier findings were wrong.) For more details on all this, here’s an easy-to-read summary:,,2032572,00.html

(2) The journalistic integrity of the filmmaker, Martin Durkin, is very questionable, which you can easily verify for yourselves. See the complaints of intentional and complete misrepresentation levelled by one of the scientists who appeared:

Carl Wunsch, the MIT oceanography professor in the film, has posted his official response to the “The Great Global Warming Swindle” program on his MIT website. In it, Professor Wunsch says that he was completely misrepresented, and is very unhappy about that, to say the least. He opens his response with: “I believe that climate change is real, a major threat, and almost surely has a major human-induced component.”

And specifically on the way his comments were edited into the film: “By [my comments’] placement in the film, it appears that I am saying that since carbon dioxide exists in the ocean in such large quantities, human influence must not be very important—diametrically opposite to the point I was making—which is that global warming is both real and threatening.”

On the film “An Inconvenient Truth” (heavily attacked by “Swindle”): “I am often asked about Al Gore and his film. […] Some of the details in the film make me cringe, but I think the overall thrust is appropriate.” (emphasis mine) In other words, one of the few credible scientists in the film (and the only credible one according to Professor McCarthy) in fact believes the exact opposite of what the filmmaker(s) portrayed him as saying/believing!

Read Professor Wunsch’s response in full (and see links to other revealing news articles and websites about the science and filmmaker behind “Swindle”) online here:

I appreciate the attention of those people who’ve read this far. I think debate is important, including in the natural sciences (and of course in the policies that lean on that science). At the same time I think the definitive conclusion to draw about Durkin’s film is NOT to take anything in “Swindle” very seriously without careful consideration.

Jason Yeo

PS: Please feel free to forward this to other lists where you’ve seen “Swindle” discussed or mentioned. I think it’s important that people have an opportunity to conclude for themselves whether the film has any actual merit.

PPS: Kindly refrain from making overly broad assumptions about the details of my personal (non-expert) opinions about climate change or how individuals and societies should respond to the issue.

Major tidying

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

I vacuumed the common spaces today, as well as the room Ray vacated when he left for a semester in Paris.  The suite is much cleaner now. 🙂

I’ve also started the long overdue tidying up of this blog, which suffered major messing-up when the blog server I use was migrated from Manila to WordPress.  Not being very tech-savvy, I’ve had to do most of the changes by hand like re-posted old posts, adding links and starting to categorize old posts.  This will take a while, and perhaps will never be completely finished.

I’ve also added two new essays from last semester – it’s the two final papers I wrote on Salman Rushdie’s very lengthy, but deservedly award-winning Midnight’s Children.  These were essays I wrote for extremely different literature classes.  One was for a class on the postcolonial narrative, so I wrote about issues of agency and control: “Happy Accidents and Snakes-and-Ladders: Fate, Agency and Repeating History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children“.  The other was for a class on bilingualism and literature, so I focussed on ambiguity, foreigners and gender based on the framework introduced by one of the other course readings: “Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as a Gothic Democratic Narrative“.


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

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

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.

Happy Accidents and Snakes-and-Ladders: Fate, Agency and Repeating History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Jason Yeo
Eng 167p, Spring 2006
Final Paper

Happy Accidents and Snakes-and-Ladders:
Fate, Agency and Repeating History in Midnight’s Children
The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snake and Ladders.  O perfect balance of rewards and penalties! O seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice!  Clambering up ladders, slithering down snakes, I spent some of my happiest days of my life. When, in my time of trial, my father challenged me to master the game of shatranj, I infuriated him by preferring to invite him, instead, to chance his fortune among the ladders and nibbling snakes.  (Rushdie 161)

In Midnight’s Children[1], Salman Rushdie uses the metaphor of the simple child’s game of Snakes and Ladders to explore multiple questions concerning the history (and thus the future) of India through the experience of Saleem Sinai, whose life is “tied” to the fate of India.  Throughout the novel, Rushdie poses riddles to the reader, having us decide (or merely wonder) whether Saleem’s life (and in turn the allegorical referent of India herself) is the product of chance or of predestination, of human agency or of powerlessness, of logical inevitability or of historical reinvention.  In other words, could Saleem affect his own life, or the life of others (or even the whole nation), through his rational will?  Or was his influence merely incidental to his choices?  And regardless of whether Saleem is in fact powerless to consciously control the tides of history, does his undeniable influence bear the mark of chance, or is there sufficient evidence to make us suspect the existence of inescapable fate?  Finally, does the resulting history of these choices or non-choices, random or pre-destined acts and events reveal a pattern of cyclic repetition on a cosmic scale, or is this neat “form” merely an illusion in Saleem’s imagination?  As Saleem admits towards the end of his narrative, “There have been illusions in my life; don’t think I’m unaware of the fact.” (Rushie 490)  While Saleem ultimately comes to the conclusion that he is largely unable to affect the world in an “active-literal” sense (Rushdie 273), and that his effect upon the world is largely one of fate and as a part of the inevitable cycling of history, yet he leaves enough ambiguity for himself (and for us readers) to imagine other possibilities.

            Although Saleem will eventually see his faith in human agency weakened by his experiences, early on Rushdie introduces us to Saleem’s contradictory sense of agency and fate.  The young Saleem is a firm believer in fate (he-who-was-prophesied), yet he also refuses to give up his sense of autonomy and agency.  This is apparent even in the passage quoted before, where Rushdie carefully describes Snakes and Ladders as a game of “seemingly random choices”, where each move is a product of a choice, made firstly (and importantly) by “tumbling dice” rather than the player, and secondly in a manner that is only “seemingly random”.  This introduces Saleem’s underlying childhood belief in fate and predestination as something both real and non-random, and also as an element outside of human control.  The former idea of fate being both non-random and only bearing the appearance of chance is echoed elsewhere in the novel, for example when the young Saleem ponders on the metaphor of “greatness as a falling mantle”, which “at the appointed hour, would float down around my shoulders like an immaculate, delicately worked pashmina shawl” (Rushdie 178).  As Saleem reflects, the hour will be “appointed”, but unpredictable, and the effect will be as “immaculate” as any conception of deity.  Yet at this point, Saleem still believes that he has some level of autonomy – after all, he can invite others to play the game, just as Saleem’s father is invited to “chance his fortune”; Saleem can choose not to play, just as later he will choose to shut Shiva out of the Conference and choose to keep his (and Mary Pereira’s) secret of switched-at-birth from the other Children.  But perhaps Rushdie has been sufficiently explicit on the matter of Saleem’s sense of autonomy from fate: “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)
            Of course, the strongest piece of evidence for Saleem’s autonomous ability to influence events as a legitimate protagonist on a personal and national level is his revenge on his mother Amina, on Homi Catrack and Lila Sabarmati.  Saleem’s anonymous letter tipping off Commander Sabarmati to Lila Sabarmati’s affair with Homi Catrack is itself a study in choices, with the passage detailing the construction of Saleem’s letter littered with active verbs which embody Saleem’s impending active role in India’s history.  Saleem “extracted”, “found”, “excised”, “seized” and “took” at will, “cutting up history to suit [his] nefarious purposes” (Rushdie 297).  In the careful composition of his poison note, we have evidence that Saleem Sinai is indeed able to influence his life, the lives of others, and even the nation, through premeditated acts.  After all, did Saleem not succeed in punishing his mother for her secret meetings with Qasim (once her former husband Nadir) with a fear of exposure so profound that she would never visit the Pioneer Café again?  But even in this incident the logic of destiny and greater purpose repeated throughout Midnight’s Children is discernible.  Saleem may be “the puppet-master” watching as the nation “performed [his] play” (Rushdie 300), but as Saleem confesses later, “in my life, fate has never been unwilling to lend a hand.” (Rushdie 412)  The result of this confluence of agency and snowballing, cosmic destiny eventually becomes clear to Saleem, who nonetheless traces the cycle of culpability back to himself:
If I hadn’t wanted to be a hero, Mr Zagallo would never have pulled out my hair.  If my hair had remained intact, Glandy Keith and Fat Perce wouldn’t have taunted me; Misha Miovic wouldn’t have goaded me into losing my finger.  And from my finger flowed blood which was neither-Alpha-nor-Omega, and sent me into exile; and in exile I was filled with the lust for revenge which led me to the murder of Homi Catrack; and if Homi hadn’t died, perhaps my uncle would not have strolled off a rood into the sea-breezes; and then my grandfather would not have gone to Kashmir and been broken by the effort of climbing the Sankara Acharya hill.  And my grandfather was the founder of my family, and my fate was linked by my birthday to that of the nation, and the father of the nation was Nehru.  Nehru’s death: can I avoid the conclusion that that, too, was all my fault?  (Rushdie 319)Saleem’s then-belief in personal agency extended far beyond himself, and the novel is filled with his suppositions for why other people act the way they do.  But even in these instances, Saleem sees and insists upon the workings of fate and what he increasingly sees as the repetitive cycling of history at all levels – personal, social, economic, political and so on.  While Saleem explicates this belief many times in the novel, a small taste of this can be seen in the “alternative explanation” that Saleem offers for his father becoming “entirely white” after the death of Doctor Narlikar (Rushdie 204).  According to Saleem, “large numbers of the nation’s business community” turned white during the first nine year’s of Independence “in taking over from the British,” suggesting the replication of the social hierarchies of class and wealth present under the British (Rushdie 204). This cyclic view of history beneath the apparent influence of individual agency is also demonstrated in the chapter where Saleem describes the events that led to his marriage to Parvati, as well as the impending birth of his “son”, all of which he describes as actively planned and executed by Parvati but also inescapable and foretold according to the recurrence of history:

Parvati—just as she had planned, I’m sure—accepted me at once, said yes as easily and as often as she had said no in the past; and after that the Republic Day celebrations acquired the air of having been staged especially for our benefit, but what was in my mind was that once again destiny, inevitability, the antithesis of choice had come to rule my life, once again a child was to be a born to a father who was not his father, although by a terrible irony the child would be the true grandchild of his father’s parents…  (Rushdie 477, emphasis added)

By this point in the novel, Saleem has already gone through the purifying rebirth of amnesia and the painful process of “reclaiming” (or of being reconciled with) his memories in the Sundarbans (Rushdie 419).  That particular event is of especial interest to us as readers because it both signals the beginning as well as the eventual end of Saleem’s “rebellion against inevitability” (Rushdie 440).  While Saleem will finally accept the logic of “No Escape” many months later while in captivity during the Emergency, his rejection of fate came in his discovery of anger and of “not fair”, and an unwillingness to espouse “a prophesied historical role” upon his re-connection with his past (Rushdie 440).  In fact, by the very end of the novel Saleem will be completely won over by the inevitability of history and the very limited scope for personal agency in shaping the “many-headed multitudes” (Rushdie 532).  In Saleem’s almost-31-year-old mind, he has rejected the promise of free will and potential-for-greatness that his father and Mary Pereira (later Mrs Catherine Braganza) had given to him in his childhood: “I hear lies being spoken in the night, anything you want to be you kin be, the greatest lie of all…” (Rushdie 533)  The promise of childhood lullabies has been roundly refused as a lie in the face of 31 years of cruelly mutilating experiences at the hands of fate and history.  Thus, as readers we have been transported by Rushdie through a sweeping and detailed retelling of Saleem’s life as an argument for the inevitable cycle of ups and downs of not-quite-chance, also known as fate, that mark Saleem’s life, which is also “a mirror” of India’s history, owing to the “happy accident of [Saleem’s] moment of birth” (Rushdie 139).  Tragically, not all the “accidents” would be happy ones.  Saleem offers an explanation: “Because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times” (Rushdie 533).  We can think of the repeated mutilations that Saleem suffered of deafened left ear, truncated finger and uprooted hair.  If Saleem had once described playing Snakes and Ladders as a metaphor for life, as “chancing [one’s] fortune” (Rushdie 161), much later he would allude to the “seemingly random choices” of fate as a potentially deadly gamble:

But the Midnite-Confidential had one trick left up its sleeve.  Once a night—just to add a little spice—a roving spotlight searched out one of the illicit couples, and revealed them to the hidden eyes of their fellows: a touch of luminary Russian roulette which, no doubt, made life more thrilling for the city’s young cosmopolitans…  (Rushdie 524)

But of course Russian roulette is a game of life and death, played by spinning the cylinder of a revolver loaded with a single bullet before squeezing the trigger with the muzzle pointed at one’s own temple (which remind’s the reader of Saleem’s temples-like-horns).  At the same time, it is a gamble with one’s own life, the enactment of a certain recklessness that approximates an act of suicide or a death wish.  This is the sort of death wish that Ilse Lubin and others carried when they went to drown in the Kashmiri lake of Aadam and Naseem Aziz, which Saleem reminds us he has not forgotten (Rushdie 464).  And here we find an apparent internal contradiction between Rushdie’s choice of words and Saleem’s experience.  While Russian roulette is a gamble that is willingly accepted and performed by the wielder of the gun, Saleem was by no means a willing participant in this game.  Rather, Saleem found it to be a “trick”, or deception of the Midnite Confidential Club, which promised anonymity in the darkness but then exposed him to the humiliation of being “tittered” at by the faceless “young cosmopolitans”.  In this humiliation we are reminded of the mirrored “daily humiliation” that filled Shiva with murderous hate and an “old violence” after Roshanara Shetty’s poisonous insults sank deep into Shiva’s heart (Rushdie 471).  In remembering Shiva’s violent response to this humiliation during the Emergency, or even of the murderous result of Commander Sabarmati’s humiliation by his adulterous wife, we can see the life-and-death nature of the spotlight which fell upon Saleem at the Midnite-Confidential, inevitably-by-accident. This brings us as readers full circle to Saleem’s self-conscious position as just one person among some six hundred million Indians, but the one (along with Shiva, his midnight twin) upon whom the inevitable spotlight of history’s Russian roulette would fall, time and time again.

Ultimately though, embedded inextricably in the form of the novel as a tale for oration over many nights (echoing the one thousand and one tales of Arabian Nights), and also in the metaphors of games of chance—Snakes and Ladders, Russian roulette—is the unmistakable hope for alternate possibilities and outcomes.  As Saleem hints when he evaluates his narrative, “perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin” (Rushdie 491).  By offering a multitude of different conclusions to well-worn but half-forgotten bedtime stories, Saleem’s father Aadam provides us with the hope that prophesy and fate do not necessarily mark the end of human agency: “…the Brass Monkey and I heard, down the years, all kinds of different versions of the journey of Sinbad, and of the adventures of Hatim Tai… if I began again, would I, too, end in a different place?” (Rushdie 491).  And recall also that Saleem, for all his rejection of boundless possibilities shaped only by human agency, and for all his wish to “write the future as I have written the past, to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet” (Rushdie 532), admits that this is impossible, that “the future cannot be preserved in a jar; one jar must remain empty…” (Rushdie 432)  Looking even closer at the previous lines, we realize also that far from having narrated the past “with the absolute certainty of a prophet”, Saleem has been a notoriously unreliable narrator, and self-consciously so at that.  After all, this is the same Saleem that baldly told us: “in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe…” (Rushdie 310).  This additional crack in the narrative lets us as readers discern the possibility of ambiguity in fate, human agency and the recurrence of history which Saleem recognizes as a profound source of hope (which he also calls the “disease of optimism” Rushdie 343), even as he ends his narrative with the (unlikely) possibility that he will live happily ever after with Padma.  Finally, returning to Saleem’s fascination with Snakes and Ladders, we find the same unmistakable faith in ambiguity, which we may take to be the elusive “Third Principle” (Rushdie 292) that Saleem never seems to find.

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)


[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. 1991. Penguin Books.