by Salman Rushdie
As you've probably noticed by now, especially if you read our discussion on family over in the "Themes" section, family's a big deal in Midnight's Children. There are two main families in this novel, Shiva's and Saleem's, and they both tell us a lot about those characters.
Let's start with Saleem. Here's the family that he gets surrounded by as a baby:
Yes, I was a popular little fellow: my two mothers, Amina and Mary, couldn't get enough of me. In all practical matters, they were the most intimate of allies. After my circumcision, they bathed me together; and giggled together as my mutilated organ waggled angrily in the bathwater. "We better watch this boy, Madam," Mary said naughtily, "His thing has a life of its own!" […] Together, they cared for me beautifully; but in the matter of emotion, they were deadly rivals. (2.9.22)
Not one, but two moms. And Mary is basically a nanny, which only rich people have. And they love him so much that they are jealous of each other. Lucky kid.
What about Shiva? Here's his father-son relationship:
And when his father had, about a year previously, completely lost his singing voice, Shiva had had to defend himself against Wee Willie Winkie's parental zeal. "He blindfolded me, man! He wrapped a rag around my eyes an' took me to the roof of the chawl, man! You know what was in his hand? A sister-sleeping hammer, man! A hammer! Bastard was going to smash my legs up, man—it happens, you know, rich boy, they do it to kids so they can always earn money begging—you get more if you're all broken up, man![...] Broke his goddamn wrist, man! That showed him—damn fine, no? I swear!" (2.15.52)
No moms. No nanny. No people loving him to death. Just a poor dad who actually wants to maim him so that he can beg for money. What a difference.
A lot is said during the novel about the economic inequality of India, but these two different family relations might be the easiest way to show how Saleem is part of the upper crust, and Shiva is barely surviving.
Saleem says it best: "Our names contain our fates; living as we do in a place where names have not acquired the meaninglessness of the West, and are still more than mere sounds, we are also the victims of our titles" (2.55.55). Names in Midnight's Children are more than just words. They mean a lot.
There's Parvati, Padma, and Shiva, who are references to Hindu gods. There's Aadam, the patriarch, who also just happens to share a name with the first father (besides God) in Judeo Christian religions. There's even the Rani of Cooch Naheen, whose name basically means the Princess of nothing at all.
But just in case you don't believe us, we're going to talk about two names: Mumtaz and Sinai. For those of us who didn't get it, Saleem tells us the reference of her name:
[...] but at night, descending through a trap-door, she entered a lamplit, secluded marriage chamber which her secret husband had taken to calling the Taj Mahal, because Taj Bibi was the name by which people had called an earlier Mumtaz-Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Emperor Shah Jehan, whose name meant "king of the world." (1.4.31)
So her name links her to a woman whose husband was so in love with her that he built a UNESCO World Heritage Site to immortalize her when she died. That's some serious love. So before we even know what happens between Mumtaz and Nadir, it's safe to assume that their love isn't going to be interrupted by anything.
And her other name, Amina. Well that's just funny. It means truthful, and since she has to lie to her husband about her affair and her strange way of supporting the family, she's anything but.
Sinai, the family name, probably sounds familiar to you. We'll let Saleem tell you about it:
Sinai contains Ibn Sina, master magician, Sufi adept; and also Sin the moon, the ancient god of Hadhramaut, with his own mode of connection, his powers of action-at-a-distance upon the tides of the world. But Sin is also the letter S, as sinuous as a snake; serpents lie coiled within the name. And there is also the accident of transliteration-Sinai, when in Roman script, though not in Nastaliq, is also the name of the place-of-revelation, of put-off-thy-shoes, of commandments and golden calves; but when all that is said and done; when Ibn Sina is forgotten and the moon has set; when snakes lie hidden and revelations end, it is the name of the desert-of barrenness, infertility, dust; the name of the end. (2.55.55)
Sinai is a reference to Ibn Sina, one of the greatest scholars in history, one of the most famous Islamic writers, and all around legendary guy. It is also a reference to the Sumerian moon god Sin, who was considered the God of wisdom, and is also a reference to how the moon moves the tides. Finally, we get Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where the Temple of the Israelites will be rebuilt when the Messiah arrives. All of that in just one little name.
By choosing this name, and even by telling us the references, Rushdie lets us know that the Sinais are important people. They are scientists. They are scholars. They write. They move history, like the moon moves the tides. They are holy. But they are also infertile, like the Sinai Peninsula.
So yeah, pay attention to those names.
There are three characters in the novel that are almost defined by their physical characteristics: Saleem, Shiva, and Aadam Sinai.
You know how the whole nose thing goes—it's kind of a big deal. Saleem describes it:
On Aadam Aziz, the nose assumed a patriarchal aspect. On my mother, it looked noble and a little long-suffering; on my aunt Emerald, snobbish; on my aunt Alia, intellectual; on my uncle Hanif it was the organ of an unsuccessful genius; my uncle Mustapha made it a second-rater's sniffer; the Brass Monkey escaped it completely; but on me-on me, it was something else again. (1.1.14)
The Aziz nose is basically shorthand for each of the characters that are blessed with inheriting it. If you want to know who these people are, look at their noses. And for Saleem, his nose isn't just shorthand for who he is, but it actually defines him because of his power.
Next let's look at knees. That means Shiva. While the Aziz nose changes in meaning, the knees only have one definition. Saleem tells us, "Because although a nose is uniquely equipped for the purpose of sniffing-things-out, when it comes to action there's no denying the advantages of a pair of grasping, choking knees" (3.29.12). They are weapons. They grasp, choke, and kill. Just like Shiva. So by having these violent knees we get to know that Shiva is an extremely violent person, and that's all we know about him.
Last but not least we'll consider ears. Aadam Sinai is born with huge ears:
He was born with ears which flapped so high and wide that they must have heard the shootings in Bihar and the screams of lathi-charged dock-workers in Bombay... a child who heard too much, and as a result never spoke, rendered dumb by a surfeit of sound, so that between then-and-now, from slum to pickle factory, I have never heard him utter a single word [...] (3.28.67)
Ears are for listening, right? So while Saleem is sniffing things out, and Shiva is crushing things, Aadam is just listening. Listening for what? Well that probably has to do with Aadam's ears linking him to Ganesh. Ganesh is the god associated with removing obstacles, wisdom, and writing. So his ears give us a hint of what might happen in the future. Maybe Aadam is listening for the obstacle that he has to remove. Just a guess.