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Les fictions du réel dans le monde anglo-américain de 1960 à 1980

Jean-Paul Regis
Maryvonne Menget
Marc Chenetier

Midnight's Children or the Pickles of History

Liliane Ruf-Burac

Texte intégral

1The background to Midnight's Children is the history of India's Independence and its aftermath. The story is told by a narrator who links the history of the nation to that of his family.

  • 1 Salman RUSHDIE, Midnight's Children, London: Pan Books, 1982. All future reference to Midnight's C (...)

2Why Midnight's Children? There were a thousand and one children born in the first hour of India's Independence, on August 15th 1947, at the stroke of the Midnight hour, "at the precise instant of India's arrival at Independence"1. The narrator is one of the Midnight Children, Saleem, and he announces his birth pompously: "On the stroke of Midnight, as a matter of fact, clock hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came" (p. 9). Nehru wrote a letter to the families of these children, and the letter written to baby Saleem will remain a sort of talisman for him. We shall be acquainted only with three of these children: Saleem, the narrator, Shiva, his changeling, (at the maternity home, he is exchanged by the midwife for another child, so that Saleem is really Shiva and vice-versa) the two boys are like the two faces of Janus, the destroyer and the preserver: "Shiva, the god of destruction, who is also the most potent of deities" (p. 221). As for the other children, the narrator will be in contact with them through his gift of telepathy which he has developed as a result of an accident, and thanks to a ham radio "behind his eyebrows" he sets up a gang which is spread throughout the country.

3These children who do not really belong to their parents are really "the children of the time, fathered by history" (p. 119). The same thing happens in the second generation: Saleem's son is not his own, but Shiva's.

4Although Rushdie's novel can hardly be called a historical novel, it does use the history of India as its background: The three generations of the Sinai family live in various places, both in India and Pakistan, we witness virtually the whole of the twentieth century Indian history. The novel highlights the connection between private lives and national history, which "leak" into each other, according to the pickling metaphor which runs through the novel. Not only do contemporary events have a direct impact on the life of an individual, but also previous events influence it. This is why Saleem starts with his grandfather's story and then his parents' before dealing with his own birth:

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been, seen, done, of everything done to me. I am everyone everything whose being in the world affected was affected by mine... to understand me, you'll have to swallow a whole world (p. 383).

5In Midnight's Children, there are lots of correspondences and coincidences between public and private lives: just as Saleem's birth coincides with the Independence of India, his son's coincides with the beginning of the State of Emergency. There are even correspondences between family incidents and international events; besides, Saleem even feels that public events are directly aimed at his family or at the Midnight children: "Let me state this quite unequivocally: it is my firm conviction that the hidden purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 was nothing more nor less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth" (p. 374). Likewise, "the deepest motive behind the declaration of the State of Emergency was the smashing, the pulverizing, the irreversible discombobulation of the children of Midnight" (p. 343).

6We are constantly made aware of the distortions of history by the narrator: Saleem magnifies his influence on the history of India: he views his birth as equal to the birth of India; it has even been prophesized: "At the end of January, history had finally, by a series of moves, brought itself to the point at which it was almost ready for me to make my entrance. There were mysteries that could not be cleared until I stepped on to the scene" (p. 118). We find several humorous references to his being instrumental in several events of history. The narrator feels directly responsible for a number of events: his revenge on his mother and on her lover precipitates a national crisis and he also feels that he has caused Nehru's death, and is directly related to the violence which ended with the partition of the State of Bombay. And he is even surprised when some events happen without his participation: "And without any assistance from me, relations between India and Pakistan grew worse; entirely without my help, India conquered Goa" (p. 292).

7The child humorously depicted by the narrator feels that he can control the course of history, although later he will view himself as a victim of it. Shiva, the destroyer, becomes a war hero, and his glory is contrasted with Saleem's decline. The narrator is at the centre of the history he records, carrying to an extreme the notion of interaction between the individual and history: he is a mirror of India, and makes sure we never forget it.

8Indeed, this interconnection works both on a literal and metaphorical level:

I was linked to history both literally and metaphorically, both actively and passively, in what our scientists might term "modes of connection" composed of dualistically combined configurations of the two pairs of opposed adverbs given above. This is why hyphens are necessary: actively-literally, passively metaphorically, actively-metaphorically and passively-literally, I was inextricably entwined in my world (p. 234).

9At this stage, we should comment on the use of the word metaphor: throughout the novel, the narrator uses the word quite explicitly, for example: "I seem to be stuck with the radio metaphor" (p. 79). He also reverses the term to indicate that his story "has a metaphorical content which does not make it less real" (p. 200). The function of Saleem as a mirror of India, the motif of the cinema or the pickling factory, are used both metaphorically and in their referentiality.

10Saleem, the mirror of India, is subjected to a series of mutilations which reflect the state of collapse of India. He constantly refers to the cracks which develop in him. Later, as he writes his story, the narrator's body disintegrates in the same way as India. The narrator accounts for his awareness of these correspondences (and those which he sees between the individual and history) by the natural propensity of the Indian mind to see relations between unrelated events:

As a people, we are obsessed by correspondences. Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things make us clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national longing for form - or perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes. Hence our vulnerability to omens (p. 300).

  • 2 S. RUSHDIE, Novelists in Interview, John HAFFENDEN (ed.), London: Methuen, 1985, p. 247.
  • 3 S. RUSHDIE, "The Indian Writer in England in the Eye of the Beholder", Maggie BUTCHER (ed.), Londo (...)

11However, in an interview, Rushdie claims that although the book does contain these broad allegorical notions, he has tried to downplay them - and those connections are not necessarily allegorical2. But what he does believe is that people are part of the national history, that events and people are linked, leak into each other. And he views these connections as an example of the way in which history can be twisted to suit the narrator's purpose, thus showing how subjective the rendering of history can be. He admits responsibility for some of the distortions that his own version of history obviously undergoes: "In my desperate need for meaning, I'm prepared to rewrite everything, to rewrite the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role" (p. 166). He illustrates the fact that history is bound to be subjective and distorted by cutting out words and syllables from items of international news, rearranging events into an absurd story to suit his "nefarious purpose" (p. 260) which is to show how unreliable a personal version of reality can be, and also that there are several possible versions of the same story. In The Indian Writer he declares: "My India, a version, and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions"3.

12Just as history is distorted, it is also recorded fragmentarily; besides, it is impossible to render experience totally, even if one is tempted to do so: "Is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality?" (p. 75). This idea of fragmentariness runs through the novel, and Rushdie admits that his narrator's vision of things, just as his life, is fragmentary. Born at the stroke of midnight, basically divided, Saleem is a prey to the "phantasm of a partitioned woman" (p. 25). Saleem's grandfather, Doctor Aziz, is asked to treat his future bride, but owing to purdah restrictions, he is only allowed glimpses. Saleem's mother in her turn is doomed to fragmentary experience: she trains herself to learn how to love her husband by portions: "To do this, she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioural" (p. 68). Thus his mother was doomed by the perforated sheet (which Doctor Aziz had used to examine his future bride) "to love a man in segments" (p. 107). The motif of the perforated sheet will reappear several times in the novel and will take on a metaphorical meaning.

13Saleem will also be destined to the experience of fragmentariness: his inquisitiveness prompts him to learn about life, hidden in a washing basket, or the boot of a car when he tries to spy on his mother.

  • 4 S. RUSHDIE, Interview on Midnight's Children, and Shame, Kunapipi, 1985, vol. 7 (1), p. 15.

14Saleem's life is affected by the fragmentary syndrome: during the Indo-Pakistani war, his body goes numb and he is "anaesthetized against feelings as well as memories" (p. 353). He is injured by a bomb-blast, as a result of which he loses his memory, which will be partly restored when he meets his childhood friend Parvati, and then when he writes his story in the pickling factory. Saleem's life has been fragmentary, and what he records is fragmentary; therefore, what he retains from the past is bound to be unreliable; but in spite of its shortcomings, memory plays a vital role in the recording of history, and is in fact one of the essential creative principles of the novel. Although Western readers have interpreted his novel as a novel of fantasy, it's really about politics and memory. In Novelists in Interview, Rushdie declares: "What I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory and about my memory"4. Although Saleem's broken life, in a broken world, leaves him with broken memories, they alone enable him to recapture the past: "I must content myself with scraps, with the remaining shards of the past, lingering in my ransacked memory-vaults, like broken bottles on a beach" (p. 427).

15The violence of this description probably refers to Saleem's sufferings and his complete amnesia after he has been found unconscious in a bombed mosque: he clings to a silver spittoon which is the only object that connects him to his past. Sometimes memory refuses to release too painful events: "Here I record a merciful gap in my memory; no chutney or pickle is capable of unlocking doors behind which I have locked those days" (p. 433). However unreliable, memory alone can relate us to our past: even objects disappear: the perforated sheet is burnt in a fire and the spittoon is lost. The narrator constantly refers to possible errors because his memory fails him, or because to he has to "race the cracks" (p. 270), owing to his state of disintegration.

16Because memory is unreliable, and leaves us with scraps and shreds, gaps and distortions are inevitable.

Gaps are possible... Errors are possible... Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Ghandi occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date. But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in India, Ghandi will continue to die at the wrong time (p. 164). Because I am rushing at breakneck speed, errors are possible, and overstatements, and jarring alterations in tone; I'm racing the cracks, but I remain conscious that errors have been made and that, as my decay accelerates (my writing speed is having trouble keeping up), the risk of unreliability grows (p. 270).

17If we are left only with fragments, how can memory render the exact sequence of events? Memory recreates its own sequence of facts, has its own sense of time. After his return to India, Saleem is hired in a pickling factory where he works during the day and writes his story during the night, reading it aloud to Padma, his help and listener, who constantly reproaches him for his "lack of linearity" (p. 164), trying to prevent him from wandering into his own chronology: "but here is Padma, bullying me back into the world of linear narrative, the universe of what happened next... At this rate, Padma complains, you'll be two hundred years old before you manage to tell about your birth" (p. 39). But is fiction meant to give an exact picture of reality?" a little uncertainty is not a bad thing" (p. 212). Memory has a chronology of its own, "its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events" (p. 211), "my memory, stubbornly, refuses to alter the sequence of facts" (p. 222).

  • 5 "The Indian Writer...", op. cit., p. 7.

18Rushdie has recourse to another metaphor to express the impossibility of rendering life in a realistic way. In order to show the difficulty of writing about contemporary history and of assessing it objectively, the narrator compares the closeness of facts to the closeness of a screen: "Later perhaps analysts will see why and wherefore, will adduce underlying economic trends and political developments, but right now, we're too close to the cinema screen, the picture is breaking up into dots" (p. 435). The proximity of events makes perspective impossible. Commenting on the last part of the novel, which is set during the Emergency, Rushdie admits that, as the book nears contemporary events, he becomes more partial: "I felt it would be dishonest to pretend, when writing about the day before yesterday, that it was possible to see the whole picture"5.

19Far from considering that a personal and fragmentary view of history is to be deplored, the narrator claims that a personal and biassed version of history can even be superior to a so-called objective one: "so that the story I am going to tell, which is substantially that told by my cousin Zaphar, is as likely to be true as anything; as anything, that is to say, except what we were officially told" (p. 335). The reality which is rearranged may be as valid as another one. Besides, when the historian or novelist sticks to facts, he misses his target: this is exemplified by what happens to uncle Hanif with his filmscripts: he had first made melodramatic films, but he decides to depict realistically the ordinary life of a pickle factory run by women (like the one in which the narrator works after all his setbacks); this film proves a failure and is left on a shelf.

20In an interview about his novel, Rushdie expresses the same idea about the danger of transcribing facts literally:

  • 6 Novelists in Interview, op. cit., p. 237.

When I began the book, it was more autobiographical, and it only began to work when I started making it fictional. The characters came alive when they stopped being like people in my own family. You see, my grandfather was a doctor, but he never lived in Kashmir [...] One of the discoveries of the book was escaping from autobiography6.

21And when he started his novel with the story of one child, he felt compelled to change the facts, and introduced a second child; then the novel really began to work, while also adding an element of piquant and romance, in keeping with the Bombay melodrama.

22A similar idea is expressed in Rushdie's introduction to Shame, where he suggests that a slight departure from the facts does not make them less real:

  • 7 S. RUSHDIE, Introduction to Shame, New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 23.

My country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not only writing about Pakistan7.

23In other words, Rushdie hints at the need to fictionalize, instead of rendering reality faithfully.

24What is this off-centering, this slight angle to reality? We have already seen that the narrator allows himself to change the facts, and claims the necessity of altering reality: "No country has the monopoly of untruth" (p. 326). Dreams and legends fill in the gaps left by a failing memory, which then "creates its own reality". "Most of what matters takes place in our absence" (p. 427): this sentence should have been the opening one of the novel. We may infer from all these quotations that the novelist's truth is as valid as the historian's. The narrator seems to emphasize the superiority of myth over reality.

25But sometimes it is not even necessary to create legends, because what happens in some countries is already more fictional than what might have been created by a novelist, and then facts are close to fiction. "Strange things are seen to happen in India. The Children of Midnight were fathered by history [...] this can only happen in a country like India, a country which is itself a sort of dream" (p. 137). The magic elements of the novel are prompted by the magic of the country. Just as in the American "non-fiction" novel of the sixties, reality is so incredible that it lends itself to fiction.

26Taking up the metaphor of the cinema, Saleem relates perspective to the necessity of presenting reality through fiction.

Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems - but as you approach the present, it inevitably becomes more and more incredible. Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; the illusion dissolves - or rather it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality (p. 164).

27This idea of perspective has been stated with the same image of the dissolving dots on the screen, but, in this passage, the reference to illusion as reality introduces the debate about the reality of fiction. It has also been hinted at in the statements about the superiority of legends over fact, and memory's creation of its own reality.

It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end, it creates its own "reality", and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own (p. 211).

28From the few clues he is given, the narrator must invent his own version of history. For instance, the narrator tells us how he heard of an assassination and had to build reality around these.

I must be content with shreds and scraps [...] Like scraps of memories, sheets of newspapers used to bowl through the magician's colony in the silent midnight wind. There were other pieces of information. From these, I must build reality (p. 427).

29We have mentioned the pickling factory where Saleem works when he is taken back to India and is hired by Mary, the midwife, whose chutneys have the power to unlock the doors of his memory. Like the cinema, the pickling factory functions both as a referential and as a metaphorical element. In the pickling factory, Saleem works by night at the chutnification of history, and by day he pickles fruit and vegetables: the act of narration is constantly paralleled to the pickling process:

And my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my nocturnal scribblings, by day amongst pickle vats, by night within these sheets; I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks (p. 138).

30Rushdie constantly refers to the pickling process for the preserving of history in words: "What I hope to immortalize in pickles as well as in words" (p. 363); "I however have pickled chapters in words and in pictures" (p. 459).

31Pickling is quite an interesting metaphor: it is down-to-earth and local, it is a typically Indian way of preserving food, and every one has his own recipe. Just as everyone has his own recipe, everyone has his own version of history. As Saleem makes the pickles, he digs into his past which he pickles in jars. The process of making the pickles, with their tastes and smells helping Saleem to recapture the past, is paralleled with the writing of his memories. Pickling and writing are so closely linked that the word pickle is used for both actions, for example: "the Prime Minister has been pickled into immortality" (p. 75); the words referring to both processes "leak into each other" in the same sentence.

I supervise the production of Mary's legendary recipes, but there are my special blends, in which, thanks to the powers of my drained nasal passages, I am able to include memories, dreams, ideas, so that they enter the mass production (p. 460).

32The narrator constantly alludes to the special blends when he gives his own version of the history of India, as if his family and himself could determine the course of events. Distortions are inevitable, but pickling his own story is the only way of preserving it.

33Memories are indeed the main ingredient of fiction, although only scraps are retained. Even objects which are a reminder of the past such as the silver spittoon and the perforated sheet are lost or destroyed eventually. But memories remain; they have a creative role and they generate dreams. As Saleem broods over his memories, he adds his own blends, his own flavours to the scraps of memories. "The trick is to fill in the gaps, guided by the few clues one is given" (p. 427).

34In the novel, these dreams are also induced by Padma, the woman who works with Saleem at the chutnification of vegetables by day, and of dreams by night, and who "bullies him back into linearity" (p. 38). Padma provides Saleem with pickles and with dreams. He calls her the lotus-goddess of the present, who induces forgetfulness and dreamy happiness (The lotus flower grows out of the navel of Vishnu and the lotus-eaters live on dreams): "Padma, the Lotus Calyx which grew out of Vishnu's navel, and from which Brahma himself was born; Padma, the source, the mother of Time" (pp. 194-195). Padma is part of the Hindu trinity as she is part of "the isosceles triangle, supported equally by twin deities, the wild god of memory and the lotus goddess of the present" (p. 150). Padma is also called by the villagers "the one who possessed dung"; she is vital for the flow of Saleem's creation, which is stopped when she leaves him for some time.

How to dispense with Padma? How to give up her ignorance and superstition, necessary counterweights to my miracle laden omniscience? How to do with her paradoxical earthiness of spirit, which keeps - kept? my feet on the ground? I have become, it seems to me, the apex of an isosceles triangle, supported equally by twin deities, the wild god of memory and the lotus goddess of the present... but must I now become reconciled to the narrow one-dimensionality of a straight line? (p. 150).

35With the help of Padma, Saleem is able to preserve the pickles of memory in thirty jars, "waiting to be unleashed on the amnesiac nation" (p. 460). One jar stands empty, the future, which cannot be preserved. The thirty jars represent the thirty chapters of the novel.

36The description of the pickling process, and indeed the whole novel can be read as a meditation on the creative process: We remember that to his spices, memories and dreams, the narrator adds ideas: Rushdie reconciles the traditional notions on the process of writing (the creative role of memory as a process of creation has been explored by Wordsworth as well as Proust and many other writers) with modern ideas such as the role of the reader (Saleem's creative flow is stopped when Padma leaves him). For his inspiration, the narrator depends both on the wild god of memory and Padma, the listener-reader, his balance.

37Having recourse to a typically Indian metaphor, the narrator expresses in his own way the need to fictionalize, that is to add spice, and package the work into form: "the art is to change the flavour to a degree, not in kind; in my thirty jars and one empty jar, to give it shape and form, that is to say meaning" (p. 461). Rushdie integrates notions of Indian cosmology and philosophy into Western culture.

38When he deals with the contemporary idea of fiction as reality, or reality as fiction, stating that illusion is reality, while showing his awareness of contemporary ideas about literature which date back at least to Plato, he also broadens our views with his syncretic notions also steeped in Eastern philosophy. When he discusses the concept of history seen in the context of Brahma's life (p. 194), he places it in the perspective of the Maha-Yuga cycle, that is in the context of eternity. He suggests that the paradox "illusion is reality" (p. 327) has reversed into "reality is an illusion". This gives us food for thought. It may also be part of the humour which pervades the novel, perhaps inviting us not to take ourselves too seriously when we play with such notions as "the fiction of the real" or "the reality of fiction".


1 Salman RUSHDIE, Midnight's Children, London: Pan Books, 1982. All future reference to Midnight's Children will documented parenthetically.

2 S. RUSHDIE, Novelists in Interview, John HAFFENDEN (ed.), London: Methuen, 1985, p. 247.

3 S. RUSHDIE, "The Indian Writer in England in the Eye of the Beholder", Maggie BUTCHER (ed.), London: Commonwealth Institute, p. 76, quoted by Rudy WIEBE in "The Temptations of Big Bear and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children", The Literary Criterion, 1985, vol. 20, part 1.

4 S. RUSHDIE, Interview on Midnight's Children, and Shame, Kunapipi, 1985, vol. 7 (1), p. 15.

5 "The Indian Writer...", op. cit., p. 7.

6 Novelists in Interview, op. cit., p. 237.

7 S. RUSHDIE, Introduction to Shame, New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 23.


Université de Tours

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1988

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