Shifting Perspectives: Colonial Otherings in ”Rushdie’s” Midnight’s Children
Asistest universitar doctorand Isabela MERILĂ
Universitatea « Dunărea de Jos » Galaţi
1. Colonial Otherings
As stated by Leela Gandhi in Postcolonial Theory (1998), for one, according to a Eurocentric sense of history, life begins for the colonized with their encounter with the colonizer. If one considers such restrictive representations of the world, one cannot help but notice that even the terms pre- and post-colonial, place the experience of the encounter with the West on a position of reference. Furthermore, the basic definition of postcolonial criticism itself is marked by the same awareness. According to Lois Tyson, for instance,
the dynamic psychological and social interplay between what ex-colonial populations consider their native, indigenous, pre-colonial cultures and the British culture that was imposed upon them constitutes a large portion of the field of study for postcolonial critics. For postcolonial cultures include both a merger of and antagonism between the culture of the colonized and that of the colonizer, which, at this point in time, are difficult to identify and separate into discrete entities, so complete was the British intrusion into the government, education, cultural values, and daily lives of its colonial subjects. (Critical Theory Today, 1995: 363-4)
The difference between the way in which the relationship between the two worlds is conceived of resides in the awareness of the limited, one-sided nature of the former representation, in the voice that is gained by the previously silent subject, and, perhaps most of all, in the multitude of voices and experiences postcolonial studies bring to the fore – to mention only a few aspects.
Focusing on the Western representations of the world and on their presence in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, one may find relevant examples from the first pages of the novel, within the memories of Aadam Aziz: Heidelberg, in which, along with medicine and politics, he learned that India – like radium – had been ‘discovered’ by the Europeans […] and this is what finally separated Aadam Aziz from his friends, this belief of theirs that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors. (1992: 11)
It is one of the mentalities that Tzvetan Todorov, in his Cucerirea Americii. Problema Celuilalt, detects in the writings of Spanish colonists with reference to the so-called New World and its inhabitants. It is, therefore, typical for the colonial perception of the world, based once more on the division of humanity into civilized and savage, intelligent and primitive, superior and inferior.
The nature of the ‘phenomenon’ was more closely examined by Edward W. Said who assigned the term orientalism to the tendency according to which the West assigned negative patterns of behaviour to the East, as well as characteristics which were not to be acknowledged as defining Western society, in order to construct, by opposition, a positive portrait of themselves. For example, the oriental was supposed to be treacherous, promiscuous, coward, cruel, all in all evil, while the European was characterized by courage, dignity, honesty, kindness, in other words, an exemplary human being. In such a context, the need for education, even an imposed one, would become clear, since the orientals were not believed to be capable of deciding for themselves. The latter were the children in need of guidance, the parent having to be rough sometimes,
for the sake of education, and it was never to trust the ‘naïve youngster’ with self-determination. The other was believed to lack reason, since it did not share the ‘civilized’ view of the world.
As far as Midnight’s Children is concerned, Methwold’s contract for the sale of the houses he has built seems to be designed on these lines of thought. He sets an insignificant price on the buildings, but demands in exchange for the buyers not to remove or change anything about them or what they contain before the day of the Independence. Although this seems annoying and strange to the Indian buyers, they decide to accept: Selected by William Methwold, these people who would form the centre of my world moved into the Estate and tolerated the curious whims of the Englishman – because the price, after all, was right. (98) The plan behind Methwold’s conditions is soon to come out when the new inhabitants discover the ‘comforts’ of the English standard of life and start to enjoy it:
things are settling down, the sharp edges of things are getting blurred, so they have failed to notice what is happening: the Estate, Methwold’s Estate, is changing them. [When he] comes to call they slip effortlessly into their imitation Oxford drawls; and they are learning, about ceiling fans and gas cookers and the correct diet for budgerigars, and Methwold, supervising their transformation, is mumbling under his breath[…] All is well. (99)
It is as if the Englishman were trying to secure a continuation of the process of colonization even after his departure from this land.
Turning back to Edward Said’s definition of orientalism, a second, complementary type of othering is portraying the Oriental as an exotic other, in connection with the myth of the good savage raised in closeness to nature, still being perceived as a child of a primitive world.
In Salman Rushdie’s novel, the mentality of Ilse, a German friend of Aadam, seems to follow a passage from the first type of othering to the second. Through Aadam’s memories she is shown to be one of the people who believed that India had appeared with its discovery by the Europeans, she mocks and downgrades him for his religious beliefs, and she finds his appearance hilarious. However, after discovering the meaninglessness of life and death, she comes to India, seemingly under the influence of the myth of exoticism and bliss, only to find her own end into the waters on which she is led by an oriental Charon: Tai, the fisherman.
Therefore, the perceptions of India by the Westerners in the novel belong to the, by now, classic postcolonial repertoire, only the circumstances being different. At this point one may remember Edward Said’s point of view (Culture and Imperialism, 1933) according to which it is a common practice for Rushdie to enter Western discourse and use its techniques so as to give a voice to the silent and marginalized subject. As Said further notices, imperialist powers have the tendency to enclose (previously) colonialized worlds into their miniature and bidimensional versions: The push or tension comes from the surrounding environment – the imperialistic power that would otherwise compel you to disappear or to accept some miniature version of yourself as a doctrine to be passed out on a course syllabus. (405) Rushdie’s novel might be said to give the impression of following this tendency, since Saleem, the child, is presented as ‘the one’, as an epitome of a postcolonial society. Nevertheless, when Saleem starts to function, in his own description, as a radio for the one thousand and one children of midnight, thus, for a variety of voices, he becomes multidimensional. The misleading appropriation of the former practice serves to foreground the latter and it goes hand in hand with the game of mirrors Rushdie plays at the level of cultural representations of the self and other. Accordingly, the next section of the paper in hand may be seen as the reverse image, in which the focalizer becomes the focalized.
2. Reactions to the Colonizing Other
Although colonization implies a process of interference, influence and change, in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children the effects of cultural colonization seem to prevail. According to Lois Tyson, the term may be defined as the inculcation of a British system of government and education, British culture, and British values that denigrate the culture, morals, and even physical appearance of formerly subjugated peoples. (Critical Theory Today, 1995: 366) The reactions of the colonized to this influence are various. Some of Rushdie’s heroes seem to have the regret of not corresponding to a Western set of values, although they might keep it secret and reveal it only under special circumstances. Ahmed Sinai is such a case in point. When he starts to become whiter with every day, he pretends for a while to be worried and consults doctors for a cure, only to admit later his long term envy of the Europeans for their pigmentation, since ‘All the best people are white under the skin; I have merely given up pretending’ (Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, 1982: 179). In such cases, the status of centre belongs to Western civilizations and the subscription to its points of view becomes obvious. Although living in a post-colonial society, one which is supposed to have been liberated from the previous, imposed landmarks for evaluation, Ahmed bears the mark of the colonized longing to accede to the status of colonizer. The desire to be accepted and acknowledged as an individual by the authoritarian other may be seen as being determined by the quest for a stable sense of identity and power.
Another example of the amount in which the ‘dominating’ culture can shape the perceptions the ‘dominated’ have of the world they live in is Ahmed’s cousin, Zohra, who reveals her own very Eurocentric racial representation: ‘How awful to be black, cousinji, to wake every morning and see it staring at you, in the mirror to be shown proof of your inferiority! Of course they know; even blackies know white is nicer, don’tyouthinkso?’ (70) Through the eyes of the ‘blackie’ wife of Ahmed, Amina Sinai, this statement, besides striking as inappropriate, is immediately portrayed as worthy of contempt.
However, this is not a one-sided reaction. Disregard of or mere resistance to the other culture can as much characterize the colonized. An example is provided by Amina herself, when she criticizes her husband’s secretaries (and would-be mistresses), based on their names which mark their otherness in an Asian setting: ‘Those Anglos,’ she said to Mary, revealing a touch of snobbery, ‘with their funny names, Fernanda and Alonso and all, and surnames, my God! Sulaca and Colaco and I don’t know what. What should I care for them? Cheap type females.’ (133) Just as in the previous example, a voice is present to oppose and reveal the relative nature of the othering. The voice belongs to Mary Pereira, the white ayah, saying that the names are good Christian words. In this case Amina stands for the native culture, resisting the rivalling foreign (to her country and her house) intrusions. The tendency to see the other as negative (tainting, dangerous, corrupting) is general, not only for the colonized territory, but, originally, for the colonizing one, being actually one of the pretexts for colonization in the first place.
As far as the occupied territory is concerned, an extreme form of distancing oneself from the other is trying to select from the native culture only those features that oppose the ones characterizing the cultural ‘repertoire’ of the colonizer. The result is frequently, if not always, violent, as Sabina and Simona Sawhney state in ‘Reading Rushdie after September 11, 2001’. According to them, Midnight’s Children is
a critique of the ways in which modernity has undermined more traditional and fluid structures of practical identity and offered in its stead more rigid and perhaps inherently violent forms of categorial identity. The novel’s utopian impulse, on this reading, would lie not so much in its looking forward to postmodern, “hybrid” forms of identity but in its looking back to a time when religious or national affiliation had not yet assumed paramount importance in terms of self-identification. (Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2001: 439)
And nowhere does the course of this passage from tradition to modernity seem more clearly portrayed than in the destiny of Tai, the fisherman. The fishermen were here first, Salman Rushdie writes (Midnight’s Children, 1982: 92), and Tai is presented through Aadam Aziz’s childhood memories as a source of mysteries, wisdom, a being outside time, a story-teller for whose tales Aadam would defy his parents’ rules. However, adult eyes who have seen the West, look upon Tai as a Caliban too fond of drink and are faced with the latter’s anger against the tainting influence of the otherness that Aadam brings back, symbolized by the pigskin doctor’s bag. The bag is the apple of discord which turns the two men into antagonist individuals. Tai succumbs to violent outrage from this moment on which is only to announce his end as a protester – he was infuriated by India and Pakistan’s struggle over his valley, and walked to Chhamb with the express purpose of standing between the opposing forces and giving them a piece of his mind. Kashmir for the Kashmiris: that was his line. Naturally, they shot him. (37).
Just as Tai turns not only against the external other, but against its influences and traces within his own people, Musa, the old bearer, eventually renounces the family he has served for many years, due to their acceptance of a white, Christian ayah. His continuing arguments with Maria Pereira on account of their difference of religion, skin, attitudes (since Musa feels he can perceive an air of superiority in her treatment of him) all lead to a drastic sign of protest from his part: he steals from his own family. To his mistress’ surprise at his behaviour, he sais: Begum Sahiba, I only took your precious possessions, but you, and your sahib, and his father, have taken my whole life; and in my old age you have humiliated me with Christian ayahs. (146)
Another attitude, just as drastic, belongs to the poor Kashmiri population who distrust and renege the ‘Westernized’ doctor, Aadam Aziz, who stands for another instance of postcolonial-related identity: the hybrid. Due to his Kashmiri origin and to his years of study in Germany, he becomes neither native, nor foreign. Actually, he seems to be doomed to be foreign, an other, no matter where he is and that must be part of what causes the hole in him. The moment when he realizes that his previous religion and beliefs do not suit him any more is symbolically marked by rubies and diamonds, blood and tears. To use Homi Bhabha’s term (and not only) Aadam has been unhomed and he acknowledges his condition. As for the hole, it soon finds an exterior counterpart, the hole in the sheet, through which the young doctor is allowed to examine the mysterious patient Naseem, Ghani the landowner’s daughter. Since the space in the sheet is continuingly filled by parts of the woman’s body in a game of puzzle that captures the heart of dr. Aadam, the latter comes to believe, in a quite romantic way, that the hole within himself may also be filled by the female presence. However, this is quite soon proven not to be so – starting with their second night as a married couple – and the differences of culture prove to be more powerful than the connection between man and woman. From this moment on their marriage becomes a ‘battlefield’ on which each struggles for power and resists the other’s influence.
Consequenly, in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children the multitude of reactions to the colonizing other is quite remarkable: from the violent one, against the imposed presence with all it implies, to its desconsideration and demonization even, to the acceptance of its existence as defining part of one’s self, all the way to the submission and subscription to the authority’s points of view. This variety helps draw a more complete and convincing portrait of the Indian postcolonial world, a space of cultural hybridity as a result of the antagonistic dialogue of perceptions that nevertheless takes place in an Indian setting. The end of the novel itself, with the narrator’s explosion into pieces, is representative for the foregrounding of multitude, in Saleem Sinai’s case by returning to the fragmentation that had characterized the first encounter of his grandparent by means of the perforated sheet.
Gandhi, Leela, Postcolonial Theory, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children, Pan Books, London, 1982
Said, Edward W., Orientalism, Amarcord, Timisoara, 2001
Sawhney, Sabina & Simona, ‘Reading Rushdie after September 11, 2001’ in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2001
Todorov, Tzvetan, Cucerirea Americii. Problema Celuilalt, Institutul European, Iasi, 1994
Tyson, Lois, Critical Theory Today, Princeton U.P., 1995