Where It All Goes Down
All right, we have a lot to cover here—about sixty-two years of history spread across three countries. So strap on your thinking cap, because this might be a bumpy ride.
First, the basics. Time period: 1915 to 1977. Location: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Normally, settings are all about places like countries, cities, or homes. This novel is all about time. Saleem is obsessed with it.
Forget being set in India. This novel is set in the time leading up to and the thirty years after India's independence. It's kind of important to the plot. Actually, it's almost impossible to understand the novel without having a good grasp on the history involved.
Let's dig in.
P.S. We'll do this all in the past tense, just to make everything clearer.
28 July 1914: World War I (1.2.4)
World War I began just one year before Aadam Aziz returned home from Germany, and it started the long list of battles that parallel Saleem's family history.
It coincided with Dr. Aziz's weekly treatments of Naseem Ghani behind her perforated sheet. On the same day that the war ended, Aziz finally got to look at Naseem's face. We know that the Allies won The Great War, but Ghani the landowner won this one.
March 1919: Rowlatt Act And Satyagraha (1.2.41)
Now we're walking down the road toward India's independence. During World War I, England enacted "emergency measures" to control India, and the Rowlatt Act extended those measures indefinitely. People hated it. The act meant that people could be arrested anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Actually, people got so upset that they organized a Satyagraha (protest) against the act.
People began to organize and rebel against British rule, and this anger grew until India's independence, and Saleem's birth.
13 April 1919: Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (1.2.62)
Great—the people were sticking up for their rights, but England wasn't going to take this one lying down. This massacre happened because of the protests against Rowlatt Act protests. Brigadier General Reginald E. H. Dyer fired on a meeting of around 20,000 people in Jallianwala Bagh square, and between three hundred and a thousand people died, with many more wounded.
You probably remember this as the scene where Aadam Aziz sneezes and it saves his life, but he comes home covered in blood. Our point? Saleem's family history is the history of India. So of course his grandfather was part of the massacre. After all, many historians say this is the moment that English rule began crumbling.
1939—August 1942: WWII, The Quit India Movement, And The Muslim League (1.3.29)
Now it's Mian Abdullah's turn to get on stage. But first, some back story.
In 1939 the British Governor General brought India into World War II. He didn't ask permission, so yeah… guess how people felt about that? While most people were against it, the Muslim league supported the war.
Three years later, Gandhi called for immediate independence of India from British rule. Great, right? Not so much.
The British arrested the Indian National Congress and kept them behind bars until the end of the war. Oh, and they said that India couldn't be independent until the war was over.
Now remember how we said that the Muslim League was totally okay with the war? That's because they were British allies. The Muslim League was gaining a lot of power, and they had some demands for their ally. The biggest of them was a separate state for Muslims, a place called Pakistan. And since they were besties with Britain, they were probably going to get what they wanted.
Here's where Mian Abdullah fits in: he's against partitioning India. This is a fictional guy, and his movement is also fictional, but Rushdie includes him as the opposite of Jinnah for Muslims in India. For a while, we get to read about an India that was never partitioned. Of course, Abdullah dies, so that doesn't last long.
16 August 1946: Direct Action Day/ The Great Calcutta Killings /The Week Of The Long Knives
Things got even messier when the Muslim League planned to divide India between Muslims and Hindus. The plan didn't go over too well, and a strike was set up. Only it didn't end up being a strike. It ended up being massive riots that began in Calcutta and spread throughout India—in the first seventy two hours, four thousand people died.
The result? Hindus and Muslims were at each other's throats. Even though Lifafa Das's encounter with a rioting mob seems totally random, it makes perfect sense when you realize that across India, Muslims and Hindus were killing each other. When you think about it this way, it makes Amina even braver for standing her ground.
15 August 1947: Indian Independence And Partition Of India
Finally. India is independent. But instead of celebrations, there were more riots: India split into Pakistan and the Republic of India.
As you probably know by now (because he says it over and over again), Saleem is born at the stroke of midnight. His story is the story of the new India.
30 January 1948: The Assassination Of Gandhi (2.10.38)
Gandhi was walking to a prayer meeting when Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, shot him in the chest three times with a Beretta M 1934. The last words that he said are rumored to be Hai Ram, or Oh, God.
Gandhi's death marked a new beginning for independent India. While he was alive, Gandhi was a spiritual leader for the nation. Even though the government was in charge, they weren't considered "real" leaders while he was around. The government used Gandhi's funeral to show the nation that they could handle leading the country: they made sure that everyone knew he was not a Muslim and orchestrated the entire funeral. Actually, they did a pretty good job.
Gandhi's assassination is announced right in the middle of Hanif's new film. The movie is over the top, romantic, and fantastic, but the real world shuts it down. From then on, Hanif only writes realistic movies. How appropriate for a moment when a spiritual, mystical nation attempts to become a secular state. Remember that Hanif succumbs to the fantastic in the end, so imagine what will happen to India.
1958: Pakistani Coup D'état (2.20.25)
This is a funny book, but Zafar peeing his pants in a room of military officials has to be one of the funniest scenes, don't you think?
Yet, as funny as it seems, it is part of a huge historical moment. Saleem and his cousin don't realize it, but they are smack dab in the middle of Pakistan's first coup d'état.
We just saw a new beginning for India, and now it was time for a new beginning in Pakistan. Things didn't go so well for Pakistan after independence… yeah, it's never a good sign when you go through four prime ministers in two years.
Finally, Commander-in-Chief Ayub Khan decided to shake things up a bit: he declared martial law, and twenty days later Mr. Commander-in-Chief replaced Iskander Mirza as the president. Everyone hoped the new government would be strong and stable.
1962: The Sino-Indian War (2.18.6)
You probably noticed that the rest of this list is straight up wars. That's because the next fifteen years were not a good time for India: they were marked by warfare and bloodshed. It all started in the Sino Indian war and it ended when Indira Gandhi declared the State of Emergency.
Saleem uses the start of the Sino Indian War to mark the end of the Midnight's Children, which also marks the end of Saleem's comfortable childhood and India's peaceful independence.
A lot of endings there.
Oh, by the way, the big result of this war? India learned that it needed a better army.
1965: Indo-Pakistani War Of 1965/ Second Kashmir War (2.23.28)
This is the war that kills Saleem's family. Kashmir, the region that Saleem's family is from, was in the middle of the war: India wanted it and Pakistan wanted it. Both sides used the biggest number of troops that they had ever used. The five-week war ended with thousands of casualties on both sides. And even though they were forced to stop fighting by a UN mandated cease-fire, India was considered the winner because they got to keep Kashmir.
26 March 1971: Bangladesh Liberation War (3.24.27) And Indo-Pakistani War Of 1971 (2.23.64)
Now things get a little messy. These two wars took place in the same year. The Bangladesh Liberation War took up the first part of the year, and the Indo Pakistani war finished the last thirteen days of December. Yeah, it's a little confusing, and stuff gets mixed up in the book too. Saleem's friends think they are going to fight Indians, but they end up fighting their fellow Pakistanis (meaning future Bangladeshis, since before independence Bangladesh was called East Pakistan) in the Bangladesh Liberation war.
Here's how the whole thing started: Bangladesh was upset with Pakistan back during the first Indo Pakistani war. They didn't understand why Pakistan was so obsessed with Kashmir and they resented getting only a tiny number of defense forces in comparison to Pakistan. That's not how you treat friends, ya hear?
Bangladesh wanted to separate from Pakistan, but Pakistan wasn't down with that. War began, and before long, India got involved. By this time, it was clear that India wasn't just there to help Bangladesh. They wanted to start a war of their own.
Think about what this war means to Midnight's Children. Saleem has no memory, he's fighting on the Pakistani side of the war, and not only is his family dead, but he meets his childhood friends while they are dying.
Remember how we said earlier that India was becoming a secular state? Well, the way that Rushdie describes the atrocities of these wars, it seems almost like he's telling a ghost story or a twisted fairy tale instead of describing reality.
Unfortunately it was real. As many as three million civilians were killed in Bangladesh, nearly half a million women were raped, and half of Pakistan's population was eviscerated.
By this point, it seems the India that Saleem grew up with has been destroyed. But not quite—there's one more thing.
1975-1977: The Emergency
The Emergency was a twenty-one-month period where Indira Gandhi ruled India absolutely. Elections and civil liberties were suspended; people were arrested for protesting or being part of certain political organizations; the Constitution of India was changed willy-nilly, and people were forced to be sterilized.
The Emergency is often considered a dark time for India. The Times of India ran an obituary the day after the Emergency began reading, "D'Ocracy D.E.M, beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice, expired on June 26." Basically, the Emergency was the death of hope and liberty. Considering that, it's probably not a stretch to say that the India that began on Saleem's birthday died during the Emergency. In the same way, the Midnight's Children (the hopes and dreams of that India) were eliminated. At the same time, the beginning of the Emergency it is also the birthday of Saleem's son Aadam. Just as his father became tied to a newly independent India, Aadam is tied to a post-Emergency India.
The End Of A Checkered Past
Whew! Hope you liked that historical ride.
Here's the deal about the setting: Rushdie doesn't just give us the "real" historical India. He provides us alternative Indias, histories that never happened, or failed.
Most settings are important because they have an impact on the story, but the India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in Rushdie's novel have a slightly different importance. Sure they are important to the story, but Rushdie is not just telling the story of his nation, he is nation building. He's making an India that isn't totally historical or totally fictional. An India that could have been is created before our very eyes. That's a pretty sweet magic trick.