Religious Uncertainty in Rushdie's Midnight's Children

Lindsey Holden, English 393, DePauw University

Religion's role in Midnight's Children is introduced at the very beginning of the novel when Aadam Aziz loses his faith. This loss creates a hole in him that he will forever attempt to refill. India itself is a country rich in religions, but the complications of the religious mixture creates many of the social and political conflicts from the beginnings of Indian history -- long before it existed as a part of the British Empire. Rushdie expands on the problems and uncertainty of religion through each character's struggle to come to terms with his or her religious beliefs.

After Aadam loses his son, Hanif, he blames himself because he has never been able to believe in God. He thinks that God has punished him by taking his son and spends his last days attempting to get revenge for his loss. "In the remaining years of his life he often disgraced himself by stumbling into mosques and temples with his old man's stick, mouthing imprecations and lashing out at any worshipper or holy man within range" (Rushdie 316). In his last days Aadam finds his belief in God, but instead of finding comfort in God he demands revenge for the death of Hanif. Not only does he speak out against God and religion, but Saleem also implicates him in the theft of the hair from the Prophet Mohammed. Aadam dies, however, before his role in the scandal can be discovered and the mystery unraveled. Therefore the extent to which he was willing to go to extract revenge from God is unknown.

Aadam's inability to believe in God seems to transcend generations and bloodlines. The hole he created within himself passed down to Saleem even though they are not blood related. "What leaked into me from Aadam Aziz: a certain vulnerability to women, but also its cause, the hole at the center of himself caused by his (which is also my own) failure to believe or disbelieve in God" (315). The blame for Saleem's inability to believe in God is placed squarely on the shoulders of Aadam. This blame implies that Saleem should not bother to try to believe because it is impossible to do so. When the Sinai family moves to Pakistan, Saleem finds himself more attracted to the ugly smells of the land of the pure. While he is in a country built for God and his other family members attempt to start new lives, Saleem cannot stay away from the dark underbelly of Pakistan. He becomes less and less attracted to religion while everyone else embraces the new religious lifestyle.

The most prominent change within the family happens to the Monkey, or Jamila. The Monkey experiments with Christianity early in life to get a rise out of her family and restore her to her natural secondary role within the family. She becomes fanatical and recites prayers and hymns around the house and asks her mother for a nun's dress. "She mounted to extremes of religious fervor, reciting the Our Father morning and night, fasting in the weeks of Lent instead of during Rımzan, revealing an unsuspected streak of fanaticism which would, later, begin to dominate her personality." (290). The religious fanaticism that she displays for Christianity soon leads to her conversion to Islam and to her status as a role model within Islam. During the first trip to Pakistan, Saleem watches while his sister leaves her tomboy streak behind and becomes a demure, devout Muslim woman. Upon the Sinai family's permanent return to Pakistan the Monkey is now Jamila and a famous singer and a model of Islam.

Another problematic religious character is Cyrus-the-great, who, after his father dies, allows his mother to turn him into a religious guru. He becomes a mentor to hundreds of believers but shows no signs of belief himself. "For his mother, he put on a sort of brocade skirt and a turban; for the sake of filial duty, he permitted millions of devotees to kiss his little finger. In the name of maternal love, he truly became Lord Khusro, the most successful holy child in history" (308). He becomes a great religious leader because of the sense of duty he feels towards his mother. Cyrus-the-great never denounces his love of science, which implies that he is a sham, putting on a show to impress his mother. Millions of people become his followers, but he never really knows who he is.

Rushdie uses religious hybridity in Midnight's Children to symbolize the identity crisis of India at the time of Independence. The religious uncertainty of the characters is also the religious uncertainty of India. The root of the problems, however, doesn't start with Independence, but, instead, trace back to Aadam's return from abroad and dismissal of his traditional religion. The fact that the problems can be traced to one source suggests that Rushdie believes that colonialism is the true origin of India's problems. Whether or not there is an answer to the question, a possible solution seems to lie with Saleem and his ability to reconcile differences between religions.

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Last modified 11 december 2003