Beyond The Reach of Her Imagination: A Feminist Reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Arun Bera, Palshya Jr. High School, Kharagpur, West Bengal, India

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This article explores the ambivalent position of female characters in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. In relation to the male protagonist, the female characters are depicted as `other’s, tools to centralize the male protagonist. Female characters are trapped in a binary dualism of good-bad, angel-demon.

“Women have always been the ones to change my life: Mary Pereira, Evie Burns, Jamila Singer, Parvati the witch must answer for who I am, and the widow, who I’m keeping for the end: and after the end, Padma my Goddess of dung. Women have fixed me alright, but perhaps they were never central- perhaps the place should have filled, the hole in the centre of me * which was my inheritance from my grandfather Adam Aziz, was occupied by for too long by my voices”

These words of the narrator Saleem in the chapter ‘Love in Bombay’ of Midnight’s Children sets the tone of the novel to its female characters. Midnight’s Children contains many characters who are taken from the various pockets of Indian life. The male characters like the female characters share a big space in the novel, yet the female characters are specially mentioned by the narrator at the narratorial level. And the reason for special mentioning is that they are assigned with a chief function of framing protaganonist’s destiny . Therefore, the male characters in the novel enjoy more literary autonomy than their female counterparts. The women in the novel woe their existence to the hero. Their position is equivocal – apparently they are makers of the hero, they themselves are made by the hero.

Let us notice the ambivalent picture –Dr.Jekyll-Mr.Hyde image of female folk in Salman’s fiction. In Midnight’s Children a woman character carries her feminine duty; moreover she does what a man should do.. When Ahmed Sinai crushed by ill luck and financial disaster takes a shelter in the bottle of jinns and other drinks, it again a woman who leads the family to financial stability. She uses her money in race course and earns a lot in returns, fights legal battle for her drunkard loosing husband and wins it for him. Parvati manages to save Saleem from the clutches of enemy and gets herself a son by another man because her man is impotent. Revenge is taken by the Brass Monkey on Evelin for the wrong done to her brother. In the real world of day to day activities female characters outpace their male counterparts in success, managing power, homemaking. In the stories of the novel, female figures Amina, Pia Aunty, Mary, Parvati, Padma are upheld as mothers and dynamic aspects of Maya; they are also caught in bad light of morally low beings and a power that muffles one’s consciousness. Amina is an unfaithful wife like Lila Sabarmati; Mary Pereira commits a serious sin of baby exchanging; Parvati the witch traps and compels Saleems to marry her; she is also an infidel who gets her son from Saleem’s arch-rival Shiva. Vanita and Parvati give birth to bastard children respectively. Most of the female characters of the novel are given schoolboys like nicknames – Reverend Mother, Parvati the witch, Nussie the-duck, the Brass Monkey . The business of giving nicknames denies the character from their real character and own feelings to be revealed in their own way. The narrator is busy in establishing his own version of story and history. He is the centre. Therefore, naturally his objects are denied self consciousness. Female characters in the novel are designed as shaping tools to ease the author’s task of structuring the development of the protagonist’s character. Their characters are prepared to suit two completely opposite purposes. The female characters are painted in black and white colour- the black part to hurt Saleem enough so that he can gather energy to fight against odds of life and the white part to help him survive in life.

Amina assudious mother unfaithful wife
Mary loving ayah sinner
Grandmother caring homemaker authoritative mother
Parvati loving, caring friend too calculative witch
the Brass Monkey spirited singer hater to love-feelings

Josephine Donovan in the essay ‘Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as a Moral Criticism’ admits “much of our literature in fact depends upon a series of fixed images of women, stereotypes… In the Western tradition these stereotypes tend to fall into two categories reflecting endemic Manicheistic dualism in the Western worldview…The following diagram shows how this dualism is conceived:

spiritual material
spirit/so body
virginal ideal sex object
Mary Eve
inspiration seductress
good evil

( Newton p. 213)

But Midnight’s Children being written in postcolonial Indian background by a person whose mindset is shaped by Eastern as well as Western world-view, Euro-American feminism can’t be its yardstick. In the Indian culture the woman who, in the Hindu pantheon, is worshipped as a symbol of Shakti, is often ill-treated at home and outside of it. Therefore, unlike Western literary texts in which a female character is either an angel or a devil Rushdie’s this magnum opus depicts that both a devil and an angel are lurking in a female character. Yet, behind this apparently balancing picture of women what is lost is the authenticity of female experience.

The women are not so much eulogized for their merits as much they are punished for their demerits. Lila Sabarmati is killed by her husband, and that is viewed as a heroic-act across the nation. Amina is made to be frightened by her baby in belly. Parvati has to be perished. Mary Pereira is haunted by a male phantom. When Amina goes secretly to meet her ex-husband she is labelled as an unfaithful wife. Even her little baby Saleem plans to teach his mother a lesson for her infidelity but he has no plan to teach his drunkard father who goes on flirting with his Anglo secretaries, even though he secretly dreams of undressing them. Shiva is not punished by his victims, he chooses his own punishment. In the paternal society male is given the opportunity to choose punishment, while women are crushed by the male hand.

Women are makers at the same time unmakers of Saleem Sinai. The narrator says, “women have made me, and also unmade. From Reverend Mother to the Widow, and even beyond I have been at the mercy of the so-called (erroneously in my opinion!) gentler sex.” The novel projects a pitiable picture of the narrator like a puppet and the women are his tormentors, unmakers, controllers. A sort of sexual role change is a new tactics to project women in men’s torturer- image. When Padma proposes to marry Saleem, he protests `like a blushing virgin’. Here a woman advances and male coils. But woman is determined and man flees “in the burning heat of Padma’s determination, I am assailed by the demented notion it might be possible, after all she may be capable of altering the end of my story by phenomenal force of her will.” When Padma leaves Saleem for two days he not only feels saddened to be alone, also was moved to anger. He grudges “why should I be so unreasonably treated by my one disciple? Other men have recited stories before me, other men were not so impetuously abandoned.” Padma’s sudden departure is appeared to be a torture to him. The influence of the female character on the narrator is appeared to be painful. The Widow is a devouring lady who takes away Saleem’s manliness. Again it is a lady who takes away a man’s sexuality, because she can’t enjoy it?

The pompous story that admires as well as belittles the female folk is told, as the author shows, to a female listener. The relationship between the author and his listener is quite interestingly complex. Their relation is a multi-faceted- one of love relation, hunter-hunted, author–reader. It’s quite prominent that Padma is in love with the narrator. Saleem wants to enchant his listener with his story telling, but he ends up catching her in love-net. “I have become its masters – and Padma is the one who is now under its spell. Sitting in my enchanted shadows… while she my squatting glimpser, is, captivated as a helpless mongoose frozen onto immobility by the swaying”. Padma is impressed not by the story, but by the personality of the narrator. In the chapter ‘Accident in a washing chest’ the narrator says that Padma leaves him for two days. The cause of leaving is hinted in two chapters before ‘The fisherman’s Pointing Finger’ in which narrator hints that Padma is interested more in ‘other pencil’ than in his creative pencil. Writing and biological reproduction are projected as rivals in the novel. The narrator questions “To resent nocturnal scribbling as though they were the very flesh and blood of sexual rival? I think of no other reason for Padma’s bizarre behaviour; and this explanation at least has the merit of being as outlandish as the rage into which she fell, when tonight I made the error of writing”. After two days when Padma returns on her own giving up her wounded vanity to save his love Mr. Saleem she brings with her a herb with which she prepares a love potion to revive Saleem’s vitality and manliness. Padma is depicted in the same light like Parvati the Witch. She is caring and at the same time driven by voluptuous sexual love like Parvati. Woman who changes her religion, takes up a new name to marry a man with a dumb baby, is running after a man mainly for sex! To an author, a reader is an urgent need like sex, but to a reader an author is a mental food. Saleem projects his urgent need of a necessary ear upon Padma in package of sex.

Saleem holds Padma spell-bound with the magic of his foreign accent, personality, stories, but his story telling fails to create her belief in his bizarre story of mindnight’s children’s activities. She cannot make head and tail of Saleem’s language. She can understand Saleem the man not Saleem the narrator. She is seen to underestimate Saleem’s writing, though she is interested in his life history. Padma says, ‘so I thought how to back to this man who will not love me and only does some foolish writery?’ in ‘My tenth birthday’. And that’s why Saleem helplessly cries a woman who loves him cannot understand him. In Rushdie’s world Padma is one of the fiction-sisterhood who fails to understand the spirit of art and story. Its other member is Soraya in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Saleem’s biography is a postmodern metafictional autobiography in which upper–lower, dream–real, fact–fiction, english–hinglish are chutnified. Saleem has multiple fathers, mothers, sisters, multiple families like multiple realities of India. In an essay `The Riddle of midnight: India August 1987’ in Imaginary Homelands Rushdie describes that he met two persons one a 1947 born Hindu tailor Harbans Lal and other a 1947 born muslim Abdul Ghani ,a worker in a shari shop. “They were both slightly built, mild mannered men with low courteous voices and attractive smiles”(p30) . Both of them were communalist in brain and heart. In that particular essay later he says, “I came from Bombay , and from a Muslim family too. ‘My’ India has always been based on ideas of multiplicity, pluralism, hybridity: ideas to which the ideologies of the communalists are diametrically opposed.” (p32) The India that Saleem, who was educated upto secondary level, narrates comfortably matches with highly educated author’s view of India. Rushdie’s own spirit enters into Saleem while he was penning the novel. Saleem’s view is Rushdie’s view. Chutnification to produce a postmodern novel is not conscious a work of secondary school passed man, is the Author’s brain work. Padma is also Rushdie’s creation. Padma’s inability to grasp his story displays author’s prejudice to her. The narrator may not have the intellectualism of an Oxford educated author, yet he has the force of fierce force of imagination with which he has created an unprecedented story which Padma cannot understand because she lacks the imagination as well as intellect. Padma is interested in story only, only in those events that our eyes and reason support, not in plot, way of telling and the stories of midnight’s charismatic children. She demands “Arre baap just tell what happened mister!”(p594) Her brain is full of straight forward clear-sighted realistic traditional stories. Not only Padma, even Soraya can’t understand unrealistic stories of her noted story-telling husband Rashid Khalifa. Soraya fails to understand the value of her husband’s fanciful stories. She also fine-tunes herself to Mr. Sengupta’s materialistic worldview of realistic story:`what is the use of stories that even are not true’-a view that feminist critics attaches to paternal society’s oppressive literary device. French feminist Luce Irigaray posits in The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine(1977)

“ This ‘style’ or ‘writing’ of women tends to put to the fetish words, proper terms, well-constructed forms … Simultaneity is its ‘proper’- a proper(ty) that is never fixed in the possible identity-to- self of some form or other. It is always fluid without neglecting the characteristics of fluids that are difficult to idealize… Its ‘style’ resists and explodes every firmly established form, figure, idea or concept.” ( Rivkin & Ryan p572)

The narrative of Midnight’s Children hammers the notion of realistic novel, single mode of reality, linear form, single identity of the protagonist. Apparently the narrative smells feminine experience of fluidity and multiplicity, which the female listener of the narrative is seen as incapable to apprehend. Women as receivers of stories are absorbed so much in traditional realistic narrative that, feminists claim, is devised to subjugate women, that they hardly recognize a novel narrative that reflects their own temperament. Here emancipating narrative that can free literature from male hegemony is seen to be pioneered none by a male author himself. And that narrative is beyond the imagination of a female reader. Soraya, Padma who left their men are forced to return. Their men do not go in search for them, the ladies surrender and return with the realization of their mistake and guilt-feelings. Yet these ladies’ estimation of their men’s art is never seen to be improved, because they are incapable of doing so.

The narrative of Midnight’s Children places itself in popular masculine literary hegemony by drawing the female reader in the negative image of a listener and privileging the male sight and worldview. In the novel female characters are Janus-faced figures either makers and unmakers of Saleem. They don’t have their own selves, whereas Saleem is a kaleidoscopic figure-Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha, Piece of the Moon. In the postmodern world a reader can also have a share in creation because his/her taste and demands help in shaping productive activity. Padma as a listener-cum- creator is given little credit in the creation of Saleem. When Padma, Saleem’s ‘necessary ear’ leaves him, he thinks of giving up her ignorance and superstition which, he feels `necessary counterweights to my miracle laden omniscience’. Saleem thinks that Padma with her realistic outlook and earthiness keeps the narrator’s feet on earth, prevents him from soaring up. All these are merely verbose like his melodramatic narrative. When Soraya leaves Rashid Khalifa, his son his greatest fan questions the validity of his story nothing comes out of the legendary storyteller’s voice except ‘ark’. Here Saleem goes on scribing his book’s three important chapters for two days without his necessary ear. Realizing that people around him cannot understand him and his story, Saleem begins to put his faith in his son who is not even his own son: “I said: ‘My son will understand. As much for any living being, I’m telling my story for him, so afterwards, when I’ve lost my struggle against cracks, he will know’.” In Haroun and the Sea of Stories a mother leaves her husband for absurd fanciful stories which her little son struggles to revive. Here the narrator hopes that his bastard son will appreciate his story rather than his ladylove. The female readers are given a disappointing image. Padma, Parvati, Amina bibi are seen to be biologically generative, but they lack literary and aesthetic sense. On the other hands Nadir Khan and the narrators are sexually meek, but they are intellectually and artistically generative. Mary, the old ayah prepares superb chutneys delicious for tongue only, the narrator prepares chutneys for both tongue as well as brain. Rushdie’s narration falls into structural binaries into which male is given a tacit hierarchy-

male female
author reader
intellectual sexual
innovative traditional
imaginative materialistic

Rushdie’s characters are to describe in Judith Fetterly’s words from her “On the Politics of Literature”(1978) ‘intellectually male, sexually female’(Rivkin & Ryan p568). In ‘Towrads A Feminist Poetics’ Elaine Showalter criticizes the ‘two-tiered system of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ criticism’-hismeneutics and hermeneutics(Newton.p218). Hismeneutics is a manly aggressive elite literary theories based on linguistics, deconstruction, stylistics, computer. Hermeneutics is intuitive, feminine traditional literary criticism. Rushdie’s fiction creates that division of higher hismeneutic reading and lower hermeneutic reading.

Works Cited

Donovan, Josephine. “Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as a Moral Criticism”. Newton, K. M. ed Twentieth Century Literary Theory: A Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2008 Print

Fetterly, Judith. “On the Politics of Literature”. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael eds Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell 2004 Print

Irigaray, Luce. “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine”(1977). Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. eds Literery Theory: An Anthology Blackwell 2004 Print

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and The Sea of Stories. New Delhi: Penguin Books 1991 Print

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. London: Vintage 2014 Print

Rushdie, Salman Midnight’s Children. London: Vintage 2006 Print

Showalter, Elaine. “Towrads A Feminist Poetics”. Newton, K. M. ed Twentieth Century Literary Theory: A Reader New York:Palgrave Macmillan 2008 Print

Arun Bera did graduation in 2006 from RKM Residential College, Narendrapur affiliated to C.U. He got MA degree in 2008  from B.U. He is now working as an Assistant Teacher of English at Palshya Jr. High School in Kharagpur Sub-division, Pascim Medinipur.

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