Spit and Memory

W. Glasgow Philips '92

Spittoons appear through out Midnight's Children. The motif of the spittoon allows the narrative to circle back on itself without losing its forward momentum; by reintroducing it in different contexts, Rushdie builds meaning into the image and provides the reader with a reference point and familiar angle of insight into the meaning of his tale.

One particular spittoon, and extraordinary silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli, appears at the beginning of the story at the house of the Rani of Cooch Naheen, and follows the course of the narrative almost until the end, where it is eventually buried under the rubble of civic reconstruction by a bulldozer. Rushdie's character Saleem comments on the significance of the spittoon at several junctures in the novel, though spittoons and betel-nut chewing (the Indian version of BeechNut chewing) take on wider and vaguer significance in other sections. The silver spittoon becomes a link to reality for Saleem. The following quotation occurs when Parvati-the-Witch has dematerialized Saleem:

"What I held on to in that ghostly time-and-space: a silver spittoon. Which, transformed like myself by Parvati-whispered words, was nevertheless a reminder of the outside . . . clutching finely-wrought silver, which glittered even in that nameless dark, I survived. Despite head-to-toe numbness, I was saved, perhaps, by the glints of my precious souvenir." (p. 456)

The following quotation occurs near the end of the book, at the event of the spittoon's loss:

I lost something else that day, besides my freedom: bulldozers swallowed a silver spittoon. Deprived of the last object connecting me to my more tangible, historically verifiable past, I was taken to Benares to face the consequences of my inner, midnight-given life. (p. 515)

These two quotations illustrate that the spittoon represents the same thing for Saleem that it does for the reader. It is a point of return, a lovely but mundane (after all, it is for spitting in!) reminder of reality in a world that threatens to overwhelm with the sheer volume and variety of its voices and experiences. Saleem is subjected to the voices of the thousand and one Midnight's Children, that threaten to drown out his sense of himself as an individual human, as well as to the manifold physical and psychological beatings rained upon him through the course of his life; the reader is similarly assaulted by the overwhelming density and pace of Rushdie's novel. Without points of return we would be falling with the landslide rush of the story without hope of gaining an interpretive foothold.

Spittoons, and betel-chewing, are endowed with other significance through the course of the novel, though never so explicitly as in the quotations above. Memory, truth, and storytelling are entwined into the motif of the spittoon. The group of old betel-chewers that make their appearance in several places in the novel serve as a kind of repository of common memory, and their stories are wrapped up in the game of "hit-the-spittoon," in which the spittoon is placed a distance away from the chewers and they attempt to direct their streams of red spittle into its waiting mouth. Rushdie warms up to the topics of memory and spit at the beginning of the chapter entitled, appropriately enough, "Hit-the-Spittoon:"

Please believe that I am falling apart . . . . This is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.)

There are moments of terror, but they go away. Panic like a bubbling sea-beast comes up for air, boils of the surface, but eventually returns tro the deep. It is important for me to remain calm. I chew betel-nut and expectorate in the direction of a cheap brassy bowl, playing the ancient game of hit-the-spittoon: Nadir Khan's game, which he learned from the old men in Agra.

Another reference to the same game comes later in the same chapter:

And now the old men place the spittoon in the street, further and further from their squatting place, and aim longer and longer jets at it. Still the fluid flies true. "Oh, too good, yara!" The street urchins make a game of dodging in and out between the red streams, super-imposing the game of chicken upon this art of hit-the-spittoon . . . But here is an army staff car, scattering urchins as it comes . . . here, Brigadier Dodson, the town's military commander, stifling with heat . . and here, his A.D.C., Major Zulfikar, passing him a towel. Dodson mops his face; urchins scatter; the car knocks over the spittoon. A dark red fluid with clots in it like blood congeals like a red hand in the dust of the street and points accusingly at the retreating power of the Raj.

In both quotations the act of chewing or the juice itself is associated with truth and memory; in the first, Saleem collects himself by chewing, calming himself so that he can record history accurately. In the second, the juice takes on the memory of the old men; it is as if they have spit their collected knowledge and injury into the brass bowl, and the spit of memory acts on its own. The shifting tone of the second paragraph quoted above illustrates Rushdie's dense and delicate style, which complicates analysis; moments of humor turn serious in an instant. Opposites are contained in a single image, and tropes fall over one another, as in the betel-juice looking like blood, which is another substance laden with more than its natural weight in meaning over the course of the novel.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Midnight's Children