[Nicknames: Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha, Piece-of-the-Moon.]
Pompous. Funny talking. Ugly. Disfigured. Probably crazy. A Muslim in a Hindu India. Sounds like leading man material doesn't it? He's a regular Brad Pitt or Robert Pattinson, right? Seriously, we are glad that this is a book and not a movie, because we're not sure we could stand an hour and a half of looking at Saleem and dealing with his egotistical voice. Despite his lack of heroic good looks, Salman Rushdie has chosen this kid for his main character.
Facts (as Saleem likes to say): Saleem Sinai is born on August 15, 1947 in Bombay, India. Time: at the stroke of midnight. Day: India's very first Independence Day. According to Saleem, this makes him a Very Important Person. Well, that and a bunch of letters and prophecies about his birth. He eventually learns that he and another child (Shiva) were switched at birth.
More facts: When we meet him he's a couple of weeks away from his 31st birthday. Saleem believes that he's dying, and that literal cracks have formed in his body. We're not gonna lie—it's a little weird. He says, "I ask you only to accept (as I have accepted) that I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious dust " (1.3.1). That's right—it's totally a fact that Saleem's body is filled with cracks and about to crumble into as many particles of dust as there are people in India. "Facts" are not exactly facts in this novel, if you hadn't already noticed.
Okay, enough of the "facts." Let's get down to business.
You might say that Saleem is not exactly modest. Okay, that's an understatement—Saleem is possibly one of the vainest characters we've ever seen. Look, we have proof:
Who else would claim that his birthday is more important than the deaths of hundreds of people? Better yet, who would say that he's the next prophet of God? Only this guy.
He's the protagonist, so duh the novel is about him. He shouldn't know that, though.
We can look at Saleem's Mount Everest sized pride in a couple of ways. Either Saleem really is the center of everything that happens in India (so all of his comparisons to great people and prophets are legitimate) or he's crazy and impossibly vain. We're still not sure which one it is, but either way he's super arrogant.
You've heard of midlife crises, right? Well, Saleem has a first-ten-years crisis instead. By the time he's eight, Saleem is already worrying about his purpose in life. When most kids are still playing with coloring books, he's trying to achieve greatness. And it makes sense. He hears everyone talking all the time about their big expectations for him, and he doesn't want to disappoint.
Even though he tries his best, Saleem still has the feeling that something's not right. He feels that, "[...] I, alone in the universe, had no idea what I should be, or how I should behave" (2.11.14). This is only until he discovers his telepathy, though—then he has a ticket to greatness.
Or so he thinks, anyway.
Even when the Midnight's Children come together, purpose is still a problem. Saleem and Shiva argue about it constantly:
"The thing is, we must be here for a purpose, don't you think? I mean, there has to be a reason, you must agree? So what I thought, we should try and work out what it is, and then, you know, sort of dedicate our lives to..." "Rich kid," Shiva yelled, "you don't know one damn thing! What purpose, man? What thing in the whole sister-sleeping world got reason, yara? For what reason you're rich and I'm poor? Where's the reason in starving, man? God knows how many millions of damn fools living in this country, man, and you think there's a purpose! Man, I'll tell you—you got to get what you can, do what you can with it, and then you got to die. That's reason, rich boy. Everything else is only mother-sleeping wind!" (2.15.47)
Years later, Saleem finds his purpose. It is to be sterilized by The Widow. Yep, the Midnight's Children existed to be destroyed. Or, that's what he thinks—we're kind of doubtful. All signs point to Saleem being an example of Absurdism, i.e., the idea that humans always search for meaning, but are never able to find it.
So why is he here? Who knows?
Saleem would have a hard time answering the question, "Who are you?" He couldn't tell us something simple like, "I'm Saleem Sinai." He'd probably say something like, "I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well" (1.1.3). He'd be no fun at an icebreaking party.
Let's start at the beginning.
Well, that's hard. Saleem spends a long time—like several chapters—telling us his family history. That's an old-school technique: lots of literature uses a family tree to tell us who the characters are. There's one problem here, though: Saleem isn't his mother's biological child. Heck, he's not even his "real" father's biological child. What does all that family history mean then, if he's not related to these people by blood?
It means that Saleem is a mixed up guy. From the beginning he has serious identity problems. He says, "Even a baby is faced with the problem of defining itself; and I'm bound to say that my early popularity had its problematic aspects, because I was bombarded with a confusing multiplicity of views on the subject [...]" (2.9.28). That "multiplicity of views" basically defines his identity. Saleem is six billion things in one… at least metaphorically if not literally.
Despite all this multiplicity, Saleem seems to have finally gotten a hold on himself by the end of the novel. When he reveals his birth switching to Padma, they have this conversation:
"An Anglo?" Padma exclaims in horror. "What are you telling me? You are an Anglo-Indian? Your name is not your own?'' "I am Saleem Sinai," I told her, "Snotnose, Stainface, Sniffer, Baldy, Piece-of-the-Moon. Whatever do you mean-not my own?" (1.8.50)
For Padma, the switch changes everything.
Padma's ideas of identity and family have to do with biology. Saleem's ideas are something else. When Padma says that she's glad that the Buddha (a.k.a. Saleem with amnesia) ran away from the war, he corrects her: "But I insist: not I he. He, the Buddha. Who, until the snake, would remain not-Saleem; who, in spite of running-from, was still separated from his past; although he clutched, in his limpet fist, a certain silver spittoon" (3.25.2). In other words, Saleem is not Saleem without his memories.
By the end of the novel, Saleem starts defining himself by his past and his memories. They make him who he is—it doesn't matter anymore that he's not biologically his parents' child. That's why the Buddha, who can't remember anything, is not Saleem. Maybe it's a weird way of looking at it, but are you still yourself if you can't remember anything about yourself? Your body is constantly changing, so if not for your memories, what makes you you?