"Born Again!"--Double Parentage in Midnight's Children

Benjamin Graves '98, UTRA Fellow 1997

In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie stages various "rebirths" in order to portray Saleem Sinai's obfuscating family history. Having been "born-again" or "renamed," several characters occupy double positionalities within the novel's vast narrative scope. Saleem's grandmother Naseem Aziz is renamed The Reverend Mother, much as Saleem's mother Mumtaz Aziz is renamed Amina Sinai and Saleem's sister The Brass Monkey is renamed Jamila Singer. Rushdie suggests that each birth corresponds to the emergence of new parents--either literal or figurative--that are often at odds with the old ones. India's "rebirth" (its arrival at independence on August 15, 1947) signifies the crux of its long history of antagonism between contending parental figures--between British imperialism and India's indigenous cultural lineage.

The dramatic irony that underscores the novel's plot demonstrates the centrality of "double-parentage" to Saleem's mistaken birthright. Mary Pereira's clandestine exchange of Saleem and his unfortunate rival Shiva shortly after their birth sends each character towards a new class position--Saleem towards a childhood with the haute bourgeois Sinai family and Shiva (the Sinai's rightful child) towards a working class upbringing with Saleem's rightful father Wee Willie Winkie. Their reversal of fortune demonstrates (quite literally) how both Shiva and Saleem have two sets of parents. Such irony becomes even more poignant at the novel's close, in which Saleem marries Parvati the Witch and adopts her son--a son whose father is in fact Shiva! Again, double parents!

In "Damme, This is the Oriental Scene for You!," an article that introduces the 1997 Special Fiction Issue of The New Yorker (June 23 &30), exiled Indian novelist Salman Rushdie alludes to the Greek god Dionysus in order to illustrate India's "polyphonic" negotiation of English and native "vernacular" languages--and, as I suggest, to demonstrate the "rebirth" motif that shapes Midnight's Children. Fifty years after its liberation from English rule, India has arrived at its current socio-political position as the result of a "double-parentage"--both native and colonial:

Like the Greek god Dionysius [sic], who was dismembered and afterward reassembled--and who, according to the myths, was one of India's earliest conquerors--Indian writing in English has been called "twice-born" (by the critic Meenakshi Mukherjee) to suggest its double parentage. While I am, I must admit, attracted by the Dionysian resonances of this supposed double birth, it seems to me to rest on the false premise that English, having arrived from outside India, is a must necessarily remain an alien there.

Although Rushdie's central concern here is to demonstrate India's heterogeneous linguistic predicament, his comments also bear upon the recurrent "double-parentage" imagery that shapes his Booker Prize winning novel. Like Dionysus (Rushdie perhaps confuses the Greek god Dionysus with Dionysius, another martyr altogether and the traditional patron saint of France), Saleem and Shiva together emerge as a double-birth that mirrors India's "rebirth" into independence. Dionysus's dismemberment recalls Amina's figurative dismembering of her husband Ahmed: "she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioural, compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes" (75).

Try to find more instances of double-parentage, rebirth, and renaming in Midnight's Children. How might Rushdie's use of a Western literary trope be influenced by Eastern mythologies? For instance, what role do war, fire, and physical displacement serve in the process of rebirth, and how might these suggest the novel's underlying political message?
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Last Modified: 18 March, 2002