“Broken Men”: Representing Masculinity in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
As the projectors closed in on his small figure, a dejected and crippled Zubin Varla feebly limped onto the stage as Saleem Sinai, the fallen star of Rushdie’s first masterpiece, the nose that launched a thousand allegories. The 2003 theatre dramatisation of the novel that won the Booker of Bookers proceeded to trace the gradual decomposition of the narrator as he told his fragmented, unreliable, often demented, version of the story of his life1. The visual effect of the play was dominated by one overarching trope: the man in a state of crisis. In fact, between Padma and Saleem, Aadaam Aziz and the Reverend Mother, Ahmed Sinai and Amina, the play could easily have passed for a feminist epic of powerful women and the men who could no longer hold the strings of a flailing patriarchy. The interest to explore the representation of masculinity in Rushdie’s work is largely due to consistent patterns in the author’s male characterisations. Rushdie’s ‘men’ are repeatedly seen in various states of crisis, whether physical, psychological, mental or emotional. This is seen not only in Midnight Children’s Saleem Sinai, Aadaam Aziz and Ahmed Sinai, but also in Shame’s Omar Khayyam, in The Moor’s Last Sigh’s Moraes Zogoiby and Abraham Zogoiby, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet’s Ormus Cama, and in Fury’s Malik Solanka. Proposing an analysis of the representations of masculinity in Midnight’s Children, this paper will explore the ways in which the text links masculinity to images of fracture, alienation, sexual impotence, colonialism, empowered femininity, as well as class lines.
Midnight’s Children begins its disjointed narrative with an image of Saleem’s ‘crumbling, over-used body’ (MC 9). As he struggles through the novel, crushed by events and dominant characters, the narrative repeatedly refers to the main character’s mysterious physical ailment. Saleem’s physical state, ‘crumbling’ to pieces, mirrors the fractures in his mental and emotional state. His narrative is disjointed, consisting of broken passages and irregular memories, and constantly blurring fact and fiction. His neurotic reactions while recounting crucial moments of his life (the revelation of his parenthood, the realisation of his incestuous feelings towards his sister) even reflect a level of schizophrenic psychosis. Schizophrenia can also be seen in his internal construction of the “Midnight’s children conference” itself:
Telepathy, then; the inner monologues of all the so-called teeming millions, of masses and classes alike, jostled for space within my head’ (MC 168)
Such images of disjointedness and schizophrenic fracture in Midnight’s Children have commonly been read as part of a broader allegory for a fractured India. Here the ‘teeming millions’ inside his head are seen as metaphors for post-Partition and post-Independence India – a nation torn down the middle, and crumbling into the pieces of its multitudinous ethnicities, languages, religions, castes and classes. This metaphorical reading has often been reinforced by the novel’s use of ‘magic realism’, which enhances the rupture between realism and the fantastical.
But Midnight’s Children pointedly rejects a pure Jamesonian national-allegorical interpretation, demanding an instead ‘active-literal’ reading2. This is seen through the character of Padma, who has little patience for Saleem’s constant lapses and whose constant interruptions of Saleem’s narrative prevent the story from being read simply as ‘magic realist’ meanderings. Read as an ‘active-literal’ character, the fractured character of Saleem can thus also be read as representative of a man, not only a nation, in a state of fracture. Here, if the ‘teeming millions’ represent “India”, they can equally refer to the schizophrenic mind of a man split into the multiple pieces of his disjointed origins, identities and relationships to others. More than the nation itself then, the fractures seen in Saleem Sinai can thus be seen as the peculiar condition of the man in the postcolonial Indian context.
Disjointedness or “fractures” are not the only conditions ailing the men in Midnight’s Children.Recounting the story of his grandfather and his father, Saleem exposes ‘where the curse begins already’ (12), where a process of alienation of the men of his family can also be seen to begin. The (false) genealogy linking Aadaam Aziz, Ahmed Sinai and Saleem itself isolates each of these men in terms of lineage, contributing to their alienation. Aadaam bears no sons; Ahmed’s “son” Saleem is not really his own, and Saleem can have no children. The grounding of the crisis in genealogy, and particularly in the male line suggests that alienation in this novel is of a male nature. Indeed, the genealogy of the Midnight’s Children family saga follows a female line from Naseem to Amina, with even the newborn Aadaam Sinai being not Saleem’s son, but the child of Parvati.
Individually, each of these men are pushed deeper and further into isolation, alienated from the world around them. Aadaam relinquishes patriarchal power to his formidable wife – the Reverend Mother dominates the household, exerting her will by, at one point, vowing silence, at another starving him, thus causing further emasculation in Aadaam:
“Man without dignity!” she cursed her husband, “Man without, whatsitsname, shame!” (42)
The Reverend Mother’s forceful adherence to her religion is another source of alienation for Aadaam, who must fight internal battles between his scientific education and the Islam into which he was born. The age of secularity leaves him in utter confusion and eventually, depression, as he is unable to reconcile religion and practical science. Aadaam is consistently represented as indistinguishable, unable to situate the markers of his identity – his ‘central feature […] was neither colour nor height, neither strength of arm nor straightness of back’ (13). The crisis of identity seen to plague the character alienates him from characters around him and presents him as a self-tortured man in search of his place.
If Aadaam is thus alienated from his family and his religious origins, Ahmed Sinai is also seen to withdraw from his estranged wife into alcohol. Also incapable of personifying the patriarch (which, ironically, is seen to emerge in Amina), Ahmed grows increasingly reclusive as Amina’s love for Nadir Khan virtually fills his place in the house. Further rebuked as Amina effectively seems to choose her son over him, Ahmed’s moral weakness culminates in his defeat to alcoholism and the neurotic delusional fear of his “djinns”, which are uncannily similar to Saleem’s own imaginings of the Midnight’s Children.
As for Saleem, it seems he is doomed to alienation even before he is born – his alienation already caused by the twists and turns of his lineage. While the reader begins the narrative expecting the Ahmed-Alia couple to pursue the Sinai family name, Alia’a exit and Amina’s entry begin to suggest that Saleem’s lineage is unclear. Later, he is revealed as ‘an Anglo!’ (118), the real product of the affair between Vanita and William Methwold. With no bond linking him to his “father”, Saleem’s alienation and rootlessness are amplified by multiple, but absent and tragically flawed father figures (Methwold, Winkie and Joseph D’Costa). Emasculated patriarchy thus trickles down from Aadam Aziz to Ahmed Sinai to Saleem himself – impotence or vasectomy, Saleem is the end of his own line. In a sadistic twist of emasculation and isolation, Parvati and Shiva’s son will be named for Saleem’s “father” and “grandfather”, while Saleem himself remains childless.
Images of impotence, sexual inadequacy and even perversity (such as in Saleem’s incestuous feelings towards his sister) also pervade the novel. Amina’s love for Nadir Khan overcomes Nadir’s impotency, and ‘the zone below Ahmed Sinai’s waist had remained as cold as ice’ (175). It becomes clear that Amina’s sexuality reaches fulfillment only in the intimate moments in which a trapped Saleem watches his mother from his hiding place in the washing closet. Saleem himself is self-professedly impotent throughout most of the novel. In his sexual encounters with Padma (who initiates sex herself), one can also decipher the sexualised dimension of Saleem’s crisis – a sexual crisis that peaks in his vasectomy. The allusion to Mrs. Gandhi’s 1977 policies regarding birth control here relates to the state of Saleem’s masculinity and indeed his “manhood” to the thousands of men who underwent the horror of forced vasectomy, and thus refers to the point in Indian history where the metaphorical and symbolic notions of emasculation and castration found a harsh physical reality.
The trope of impotency is not only recurrent in Rushdie’s texts, but according to Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, has been attached to colonialist perceptions and nationalist self-perceptions of the “Indian man”: ‘national impotence’, Rudolph observes, was amongst certain societies an accepted fact of “Indianness” as much perceived by the British as those Indian men who themselves ‘half-accepted them.’3 This suggests that fracturedness and alienation are not only represented as particularly male conditions – they are also seen to be postcolonial male conditions. Psychological crises of masculinity are seen to occur in the men of the emerging bourgeoisie, thus following what Fanon identifies as the ‘sense of inferiority’ internalised by the bourgeoisie as they attempt to emulate colonial figures, and “westernise” themselves into “civilisation”. The men of Bombay’s new emerging national bourgeoisie, such as Ahmed, Commander Sabarmatie and the other English-polishing cocktail faithfuls, adopt the behavior of the new ‘men of power’ even as, ironically, they unconsciously renounce their own position as patriarchs. In Midnight’s Children this particular crisis is inextricably linked to the Methwold Estate and William Methwold himself. Methwold’s Estate, the site of former colonial power, remains the symbol of power and control, even after William Methwold’s departure. As the men of the emerging national bourgeoisie take their place in the Estate, we witness the birth of Macauley’s, (or indeed Methwold’s), children, the ‘class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect’4. Acting as the ‘transmission line’ between colonialism and Independence5, the bourgeois men conform to Methwold’s wish that the house remain in the exact state in which he left them, and adopt habits such as the ‘cocktail hour’, British dress and British speech:
“Tell me, Mr. Methwold,” Ahmed Sinai’s voice has changed, in the presence of an Englishman it has become a hideous mockery of an Oxford drawl, “why insist on the delay?” (MC 96)
In a Fanonian personification of the ‘apes of the white man’6, Ahmed’s internalised consciousness of colonial superiority is revealed. Having been superseded in their position as patriarch, and “feminised” in deference to the colonial figure’s “superiority”, the men’s relationships to the women are also shaken. Methwold conquers the women (except Amina) with his ‘centre-parting, whose ramrod precision made Methwold irresistible to women, who felt unable to prevent themselves wanting to rumple it up’ (95). The images here combine to produce the outline of the man of the emerging national bourgeoisie, emasculated by the dominance of colonial masculinity.
But if the text presents these bourgeois men in a state of emasculation and crisis, the women inversely are invested with power. The text constructs an axis of powerful women who take over their husbands’ inadequacies, overpowering the latter’s flailing bodies and personalities. The Reverend Mother, Amina, Padma and Jamila show strength of character which the men lack, and even Alia displays a hard resilience absent in Aadaam, Ahmed, and Saleem. Parvati-the-Witch is seen as exerting an immense and destructive power over Saleem7. Jamila the Brass Monkey flourishes in a music career while Saleem slowly decays. Amina’s motherly love drives the Sinai family, while Ahmed loses himself to his ‘spirits’. If the Reverend Mother is exuberant in her domination of Aadaam Aziz, Amina operates a secret, potent power over Ahmed:
And Ahmed, without knowing or suspecting, found himself and his life worked upon by his wife until, little by little, he came to resemble – and to live in a place that resembled – a man he had never known and an underground chamber he had never seen. Under the influence of the painstaking magic so obscure that Amina was probably unaware of working it, Ahmed Sinai found his hair thinning, and what was left becoming lank and greasy (68-9).
The narrative of Midnight’s Children is itself directed by Padma, in whom Saleem finds not only the strength to take him through his tales, but who offers to marry him in the final chapter and represents his ultimate hope of salvation. The gender-reversal is evident – Padma’s “masculinity” is matched by Saleem’s “feminine” hysteria and frailty:
What reassuring solidity, how comforting an air of permanence, in her biceps and triceps… for my admiration extends also to her arms which could wrestle mine down in a trice, and from which, when they enfold me nightly in futile embraces, there is no escape. (270)
But it is not only to women that the novel compares the men of the national bourgeoisie. The contrast provided by the character of Shiva indicates the class locations of these forms of emasculation. In one of Rushdie’s favorite metaphors of doubleness, Shiva presents himself as Saleem’s nemesis, his “other self”. ‘Major’ Shiva, the ‘terrifying figure of the war-hero with lethal knees’ (462), embodies the physical strength of the hero, knows no crisis of roots and fathers countless children. His hypermasculine sexuality is directly opposed to Saleem’s impotence, and as the biological father of Aadaam Sinai, triumphs over Saleem’s weakness and inadequacy.
But neither Shiva’s hypermasculinity, nor Saleem’s emasculation is essential to either’s “nature”: an essentialist interpretation of the contrast as signifying “Hindu hypermasculinity” triumphing over “Muslim emasculation” or vice versa, for example, is invalidated by the fact that both characters are hybridised by the mix of their birth and their social identity. Who of the two is the “real” Muslim and who the “real” Hindu (or “Anglo”-Hindu) is deliberately left ambiguous, with the answer eventually proving immaterial. Rather, the disparity between the two forms of masculinity is seen to emerge from the class conditions of each character: Shiva is the son of Vanita and Wee Willie Winkie, both lower-class former employees of the Methwold Estate, while Saleem is of the elite bourgeoisie.
It appears then, that if colonialism affects the colonised male psyche, as described by Fanon and represented in Midnight’s Children, these effects are localised in the interaction between colonial power and the national bourgeoisie respectively, and exclude the non-elite classes. The subjects of “native” patriarchal dominance, symbolised by Ahmed Sinai and the men of the bourgeois ‘educated classes’, find themselves on the losing side of a battle of dominant masculinity against the colonial power represented by William Methwold – a defeat hastily conceded. Fanon’s identification of the psychological internalisation of colonial influences and the creation of “Macauley’s” children is significant. They suggest causal factors for the alienation, emasculation and inadequacy of “Midnight’s Men”.
In this sense, it could thus be posited that Midnight’s Children offers not only a national-allegorical articulation of ‘the nation’, but also a tale of emasculation and loss (or relinquishment) of patriarchal power. Nonetheless, it must be retained from this reading of Midnight’s Children, that if “emasculation” is to be described as a condition of the “man of color” as a specifically colonial condition, then, as Saleem suggests at the end of the novel, the hopes of a re-empowered native Indian masculinity lie in the future generations, here embodied by his son, Aadam Sinai.
Anderson, Benedict. “Origins of National Consciousness.” Imagined Communities. London, New York: Verso, 1983.
Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989.
Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinities in Asian America. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1991.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. London: Penguin Books, 1967.
Jameson, Frederic. “Third-World Literatures in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism. Delhi: OUP India, 2001.
Rudolph, Susanne H. The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Rushdie, Salman, Simon Reade and Tim Supple. Midnight’s Children. Royal Shakespeare Company (March 2003).
Rushdie, Salman. Fury. New York: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2001.
–. Midnight’s Children. London: Vintage, 1995.
–. Shame. London: Henry Holt, 1997.
–. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. New York: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1999.
–. The Moor’s Last Sigh. New York: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1995.
Sanga, Jaina C. Salman Rushdie’s Postcolonial Metaphors. London: Greenwood Press, 2001.
1 Midnight’s Children. By Salman Rushdie, Simon Reade and Tim Supple. Royal Shakespeare Company (March 2003)
2 According to Jameson, the distinction between the ‘personal and the political’ is blurred in “Third World” texts, which are themselves ‘necessarily […] national allegories’. (Jameson, “Third-World Literatures in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”: 69.)
Thomas Babington Macauley, quoted in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: 91.
5Fanon has famously traced the patterns of the national bourgeoisie in its post-colonial rise to power, turning into the ‘apes’ of the ‘white man’, and ‘greatly helped on its way towards decadence by the Western bourgeoisies’, from ‘whom it has learnt its lessons’ Fanon, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, The Wretched of the Earth: 123.
6Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth: 68
7Configurations of female power are in fact a strong trope of Rushdie’s texts: in Shame, Bariamma’s powerful zenana and the trinity of the ‘three mothers’ Chhunni, Munnee and Bunny are contrasted to Omar Khayyam’s effeminacy and emotional weakness; Epifania Menezes’s domestic imperialism in The Moor’s Last Sigh is depicted as almighty while Aurora Zogoiby’s power over the men in her life is unmatched.