Email Us Contact CCT   Advertise with CCT! Advertise with CCT University University College Home College Alumni Home Alumni Home
Columbia College Today March 2003
Cover Story
My Columbia Connection and Amit
Roar, Lion, Roar
Hitting the
    High Notes

Double Discovery
    Helps Bring
    to the Community


Alumni Profiles





This Issue





A Short History of Midnight

Nicholas B. DirksNicholas B. Dirks, Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and History and chair of the anthropology department, wrote this text for CCT and will use it in his presentation, “The Colonial Context of Midnight’s Children,” one event in the Humanities Festival that is accompanying the University’s sponsorship of The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children at the Apollo Theater on March 21–30. Page references refer to Midnight’s Children; footnote references are at the end of the text. Dirks, the winner of the 2002 Lionel Trilling Book Award for Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton 2001), thanks his Columbia colleague, Professor Janaki Bakhle, for assistance in the preparation of this essay.

Midnight’s Children begins with the confession that the narrator was born in Bombay not just “once upon a time” — as all fables would have it — but at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947: “the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence.” (p. 3) We are immediately aware that this novel will be a blend of fable and history, an allegory about modern India written through the life of Saleem Sinai. Saleem tells his tale in part to entertain Padma, who is looking after him as he is beginning to fall apart, but also in a broader effort to make sense of a life that has been overtaken by allegory. The cracks in his body have not just surfaced but have begun to eat away at him, despite his best efforts at (self) preservation as he labors away in a pickle factory. Indeed, if he announces his birth in the first paragraph of the novel, he anticipates his death in the second: “Now, however, time (having no further use for me) is running out. I will soon be thirty-one years old. Perhaps. If my crumbling, over-used body permits.” (p. 3)

Zubin Varla as Saleem
Author Salman Rushdie (right) speaks during rehearsals with Zubin Varla, who plays Saleem Sinai in the stage version of the Book Prize-winning novel Midnight's Children.

Saleem is not kidding. History has been too much for him, and there has been too much history in the bargain: “Please believe me that I am falling apart … I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug — that my poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage above and below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has started coming apart at the seams.” (p. 36) The year is 1978, and the state of emergency that had been declared over a period of 19 months by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had just been concluded thanks to the victory of democracy, and not incidentally of the opposition Janata party. Signs of serious illness hung over post-emergency India like the fog over Delhi in the grip of a winter cold wave.

Indira Gandhi had come to power a decade earlier with a promise to end poverty and fulfill the plans of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, not just to transform the economy but also to redistribute its resources. The popularity that had followed the war with Pakistan and the birth of yet a new South Asian nation, Bangladesh, had waned by 1974. Growing scandals around the misuse of government funds for campaign purposes soon led Gandhi to suspend democracy, rounding up opponents on all sides of the political spectrum. She used her newfound power for a number of draconian social measures, most dramatically the forced sterilization of Indian subjects to curtail runaway population growth. Once again mistaking symptom for disease, the Congress sowed the seeds of internal discontent and growing division across the Indian body politic. Small wonder that Saleem feared he was falling apart.

If Saleem used his story to narrate the history of disillusion and dissolution, however, he did not in fact begin in 1947. Instead, almost as soon as he announced his birth and impending demise, he zoomed back to another beginning, on a Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915. His grandfather, Aadam Aziz, had just returned from a five-year stay in Heidelberg, where he had completed his medical education. He returned to see his native land “through travelled eyes.” (p. 5) Not only did he see things differently now (Kashmir had become a hostile environment), he also “felt — inexplicably — as though the old place resented his educated, stethoscoped return.” (p. 5) In a peculiar sense, Kashmir condensed many of the colonial and postcolonial problems that were to plague the subcontinent for years to come — problems that today are more explosive than ever. As a princely state, Kashmir was one of many survivals of “old India” that was used by the British to rule indirectly. Princely states were created to forestall the need for further military encroachment, especially after the great rebellion of 1857 made clear the dangerous limits of imperial expansion, even as they were fashioned to signify colonial intentions to preserve traditional authority and custom. Kashmir, like a number of other large, princely states, was deemed to be culturally and politically autonomous at the same time it was not only rigidly contained within the sovereign authority of British rule but also controlled in large part by British concerns to make alliance with powerful anti-nationalist forces.

The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir initially was established in 1846 with the installation of the Dogra dynasty, a Hindu royal family that ruled over a predominantly Muslim population. During the period after Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858 that enunciated a new policy of non-expansion and protection of religious freedom (in dramatic retreat from earlier policies), Maharaja Ranbir Singh enacted the British injunction to develop forms of cultural authority that would maintain order and control. The Maharaja fashioned himself as a “traditional” Hindu sovereign and used religion (and religious patronage in particular) to assert his authority. This colonial policy of indirect rule through the notional preservation of older religious values made for growing tensions, which were exacerbated when the British subsequently insisted, as the tide of nationalism began to rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that the Indian princes — the Kashmir rulers were among the most critical for the British given the strategic importance of Kashmir — provide a solid layer of loyalty and political support. That communal (meaning in the South Asian environment primarily Hindu and Muslim) tensions grew in places such as Kashmir only enhanced the colonial policy of divide and rule, recruiting Muslim minority communities along with princes and other regional magnates to the cause of slowing down the nationalist movement. (1)

When Aadam Aziz began to practice his new medical expertise upon his return to Kashmir, he was recruited as a most suitable bridegroom by a local landowner. He came to know the landowner’s daughter body part by body part, as discrete but spreading ailments were examined — in accordance with tradition — through the veil of a perforated sheet. As desire grew on both sides of the sheet, parts were mistaken for wholes, and in the end, the marriage was undone by the chasm between old and new, East and West, Kashmiri Muslim tradition and Western scientific values. Meanwhile, the marriage and its progeny tell the story of colonialism and nationalism, as the couple moves south to Amritsar just after the first World War I, and Aadam Aziz learns the hard way the limits of his Western medical knowledge. All the disinfectants and bandages of his doctor’s bag are useless in the face of the violence unleashed by General Dyer and his troops on a fateful day in Amritsar in 1918.

During the war, the Indian contingent of the British army was 1.2 million strong, and 60,000 Indians died. The secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu, declared that “British policy in India would henceforth have as its overall objective the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British empire.” The Montagu-Chelmsford Report of 1918 was followed by the Government of India Act of 1919, granting a small measure of provincial autonomy to Indian ministers responsible to councils elected by a propertied franchise. The franchise was tiny (amounting to less than 2.8 percent of the population) and based on property and educational qualifications, for the most part a group heavily tilted in favor of the British. The reforms were accompanied by repression, for the government also invoked emergency powers, and in July 1918 issued a report that made vague references to pervasive terrorist plots and advocated continued wartime measures to stifle dissent. Under the Rowlett Bills, cases of sedition could be tried without a jury and suspected “terrorists” could be interned without a trial. Mahatma Gandhi, who had recently returned from South Africa and had by this time begun to take over the leadership of the nationalist movement, called for an all India hartal or strike. It was scheduled for March 30, but was postponed to April 6. As it happened, there were strikes on both days and long after. In April 1919, India witnessed the biggest and most violent anti-British protest since 1857. The scale of the protests were sparked by a combination of post-war grievances, growing nationalist sentiment, developing belief that Gandhi might provide the leadership to take on the British at last, and by brutal and provocative repression, particularly in the Punjab.

In early 1919, Dyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab, issued a restraining order preventing Gandhi from coming into Delhi and the Punjab. Although the local strike had been peaceful, Dyer came to believe that stern measures had to be taken to stem the nationalist tide, especially in the wake of the extraordinarily successful hartal . He declared martial law on April 11, 1919. On April 13, a peaceful, unarmed crowd, consisting in part of villagers who had come for a fair and had no idea about the ban on meetings, met in an enclosed area called Jallianwalla Bagh in the heart of old Amritsar. Dyer led armed troops into the area and ordered them to fire directly into the crowd: 1,600 or so rounds were fired. There were close to 1,500 casualties including at least 379 killed, many women and children, some of whom jumped into a well to escape the gunfire but then drowned or suffocated. Dyer was unrepentant. At the subsequent commission, he said he was sorry he ran out of ammunition and that the narrow lanes had prevented him bringing in an armored car. Dyer was subsequently suspended, but a huge sum of money was raised by popular subscription in England by a British public that saw him as a hero defending Britain’s rightful imperial role in the East.

The carnage of Jallianwalla Bagh did much to propel a nascent nationalist movement that had to contend with the conviction on the part of many elite Indians that the reforms had been well-meaning and that the British did indeed intend to take steps toward decolonization. Gandhi made his decision to continue the non-cooperation movement the next year because he realized that the British did nothing they were not forced to do. Gandhi attempted to recruit Muslim support for the movement by coordinating with and highlighting the Khilafat Movement, which pressured the British government to honor the sovereignty of the Turkish Caliph as the spiritual head of Sunni Muslims around the world. Gandhi also asked the Indian elite to refuse to participate in the British systems of recruitment and cooptation. For example, he asked all Indians to relinquish British titles and honors, and all candidates for the new legislative councils as proposed by the 1919 Act to step down. He asked voters to stay away from the polls, the general public to boycott foreign cloth, and for Congress to begin to set up the parallel institutions of civil society and government, inaugurating its own colleges and courts. He organized a wave of strikes in late 1919 all over the country. With astonishing compliance to Gandhi’s requests, during the all-India movement in 1921 and 1922, lawyers gave up their practices, and students left government-controlled schools to stage massive strikes in Calcutta and Lahore.

The British responded with repression, though not this time with the violence of Amritsar. After November 1921, the government outlawed all “voluntary organizations.” Within two months, the British had imprisoned more than 30,000 Indians. Jails overflowed while middle class prisoners became the firsthand witnesses of the brutality of the Imperial justice system. During the last phase of the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi organized a tax revolt in some rural regions — hitting out directly at the profitable revenue collection system that supported the apparatus of colonial rule — to protest the crackdown on the freedom of the press, speech and association. But because of a single, if dramatic, outbreak of violence on February 5, 1922 — when 23 policemen were burned alive by angry peasants in a little village called Chauri Chaura — Gandhi called the movement off, fearing that his followers were not yet ready to mount the final stages of a movement that for him depended on complete nonviolence. A month later, Gandhi was arrested on the charge of sedition. It was not to be the last time he was locked away, but never again did the British allow him to be tried in a public courtroom. His eloquence would be remembered for a long time, as he offered no defense, enlarged on his plea of guilty, and asked for the highest penalty, concluding with a statement detailing British abuses in India during the last two centuries.

Gandhi had begun the most extraordinary nationalist movement in the global history of colonial defiance, but his reaction to a single incident of Indian violence led many to believe — both then and much later — that he had squandered the strategic momentum of a movement that might have led to independence long before that August midnight, 25 long years later. Was Gandhi a political saint who would put India’s political future on hold to preserve his pledge of nonviolence? Was Gandhi captive to landed interests and elites who feared the more radical possibilities of a violent movement that might end up pitting peasants against landlords? Whatever the answers to these questions, what the British called the “transfer of power” required many more years of resistance and struggle. Gandhi led the dramatic salt march in 1931 to protest the colonial monopoly on (and huge profit from) salt before retiring from formal politics after his bitter confrontation with B.R. Ambedkar over the question of separate electorates for “untouchables” (or “harijans” — children of God — as Gandhi preferred to call them) to pursue a career of social rather than political reform. But in the end, Gandhi not only came out of retirement, but also seemed at times to give tacit approval to some of the violent outbreaks associated with the Quit India movement of 1942. And despite the colonial panic that ensued after 1942, leading to the imprisonment of almost every nationalist leader the British could round up for the duration of the war, it was the combination of the unceasing pressure of nationalist mobilization and the exhaustion as well as depletion caused by World War II that finally made the British consider “quitting” the subcontinent.

The Quit India revolt that flared up for about six to seven weeks after August 9, 1942, had taken the form of guerilla warfare: telegraph wires were cut, railway stations/police stations/courts were attacked, trains were derailed, post offices were burnt down and representatives of the Raj were attacked. The government reacted by banning the press. Students responded by going on strike and organizing underground news networks while workers struck. In the important industrial city of Ahmedabad, mills were shut down for as long as three-and-a-half months. According to official estimates, 250 railway stations, 500 post offices and 150 police stations were destroyed or damaged. In response, British police and troops took hostages, imposed collective fines, set villages on fire and staged public whippings of suspected “terrorists.” On August 15, 1942, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, ordered the use of machine guns to spray crowds from the air. By the end of 1942, more than 60,000 people had been arrested, of whom 26,000 were convicted and 18,000 detained under the Defence of India Rules. By the end of 1943, 91,000 people had been arraigned. But despite the unprecedented scope — and brutality — of the British response, underground movements continued, and it became clear that the nationalist movement would not be silenced. Although a band of Indian prisoners of war did not succeed in their efforts — led by Subhash Chandra Bose — to join the Japanese on the eastern front and throw the British out by force, the combination of resistance and war finally forced the British to the negotiating table.

In June 1945, in a scenic hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas, the British convened the Simla Conference. In determining the structure of negotiation, all present agreed that there needed to be parity between Hindus and Muslims, though the conference broke down without resolution. The “official” British position was that all Muslim parties have a say in the negotiations, while Mohammed Ali Jinnah insisted that the Muslim League be the “sole spokesman” for Muslims in India.(2) Although the conference failed, it set the stage for elections in India in 1945–46 in which the Muslim League did very well. Jinnah’s intention was to replace the unitary center of British India with two distinct and separate political entities or federations organized by two constituent assemblies, one for the Muslim provinces and one for the Hindu provinces. These two assemblies would then send their representatives to the Center. In 1946, the British government negotiated the terms of an interim “Indian” government, feeling further pressure from a new wave of strikes. It is worth remembering that even at that point, as the independence of India was planned in more concrete detail than ever, there was no formal talk of partition. The British proposed a three-tier confederated structure in which Muslims would have dominance over the Northwest and Northeast provinces in a united India.

For a brief moment that summer, all parties accepted this arrangement for a loose confederation: India would be one, though it would be divided into three parts, with two “Muslim” controlled provinces. But the plan still needed full working out, and Jinnah insisted that all Muslim government officials be members of the Muslim League rather than Congress. Meanwhile, as the most powerful and well-organized voice of the nationalist movement, Congress was able to press the British to move ahead quickly with the formation of an interim government (controlled by representative Indians) and a constituent assembly (elected by the legislators returned by the 1946 election). Congress accepted the proposals of the cabinet mission but rejected Jinnah’s claim that he, and the Muslim League, could speak for all Muslims in the new provincial government. Jinnah, outraged at the direction that constitutional negotiations were taking, called for the first extra-constitutional action. He planned “Direct Action Day” and in response, Nehru, Congress president, retracted the commitments made by his party in accepting the cabinet mission plan. On August 16, 1946, a year before independence, violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims. Communal riots on an unprecedented scale started in Calcutta, where close to 5,000 people died, spreading to Bombay in September, and then back to Noakhali in East Bengal in October. Serious riots also took place in Bihar, Garmukteshwar in the United Provinces, and, in March 1947, in the Punjab. (3)

Against this background of growing violence, the British appeared to abdicate all responsibility and finally started to plan their departure. The first date set for Britain’s withdrawal from India, during February 1947, was June 30, 1948, and the charismatic Lord Mountbatten, fresh from his war victories in the Pacific, was appointed the last British Viceroy of India to supervise the transition. Upon Mountbatten’s arrival in March, Gandhi suggested that he turn over all power to Jinnah if that was what would be required to keep India intact. By then, however, most Congress leaders were fed up with Jinnah’s apparent intransigence, believing that Gandhi had gone soft, and that partition might well be inevitable. In early March, the Muslim League brought down the Coalition government in Punjab and renewed its claim to form the government in the province that was now seen as the cornerstone of the Pakistan proposal. Soon thereafter, the Congress high command voted for a partition of Punjab into Muslim majority and Hindu/Sikh majority halves and asked that the same principle be applied to Bengal. The League ratified this in turn, and on June 4, 1947, it was finally decided — in what has come to be known as the “tiered” vote for partition — that Pakistan would split off from India. Cyril Radcliffe, a newly arrived British official, was given a month to draw the borders between India and Pakistan, and the rush toward independence became a rush as well towards partition. Even before the midnight hours in August that were now set as the dates for independence (August 14 for Pakistan), hundreds of thousands of people were on the move, many with the idea that they would return “home” as soon as the violence had subsided. But the violence only escalated, and within a matter of months, close to a million people (Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs) had lost their lives, and more than five million people fled their homes. What began as a frenzy of communal riot was soon taken over by the imperatives of statecraft. People who had left their homes out of fear lost their houses and their lands, and as time went by the borders closed and early beliefs of freedom of movement and joint citizenship abandoned to the inexorable and exclusive logic of the two nation idea. (4)

The intransigence of Jinnah on the one side and Congress on the other obscured the extent to which the British merely bequeathed to the subcontinent the bitter seeds that they had sown. Having begun to recommend separate electorates for Muslims as early as 1909 in large part as an outgrowth of imperial interest in gaining Muslim support, the British had repeatedly used the fear of “majority” Hindu rule to stymie nationalist ambitions first for responsible government and then for independence. Had the British been prepared to work toward a “transfer of power” before the combination of World War II and overwhelming nationalist resistance brought them to their knees, they might well not only have avoided the tragedies associated with partition, but have been able to play a very different kind of role at the end of the Indian empire. Instead, the end turned as nasty as the beginning — with all its corruption, scandal, violence and disruption — had been 200 years before. Nevertheless, not only was the aristocratic image of Mountbatten used to cleanse British guilt of their accountability for partition, it became a symbol as well for the imperial idea that the British had given India so much that was good. After all, the British had invested heavily in railways and telegraphs, in schools and hospitals, in devising legal systems and administrative codes. The chaos and violence of partition was seen by many in Britain as evidence that India was ill-equipped to rule itself.

By the time the British finally quit India, they had not only left relations between Hindus and Muslims in disrepair, they had been in South Asia long enough to leave many other legacies as well. Perhaps the most subtle legacy was the production of a hybrid postcolonial elite, not quite “white,” but significantly marinated in the manners and customs of the British. (5) For Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children , this was no accident. William Methwold sold his estate to his newly independent Indian clients with two conditions: “that the houses be bought complete with every last thing in them, that the entire contents be retained by the new owners; and that the actual transfer should not take place until midnight on August 15.” (p. 105) As he went on to remark to Ahmed Sinai: “You’ll permit a departing colonial his little game? We don’t have much left to do, we British, except to play our games.” (p. 105) But the little game is hardly so innocent. Within days, Sinai’s voice has changed, becoming “a hideous mockery of an Oxford drawl” (p. 106), and Methwold’s plan works like clockwork. “ ‘My notion,’ Methwold explains, staring at the setting sun, ‘is to stage my own transfer of assets. Leave behind everything you see? Select suitable persons — such as yourself, Mr. Sinai! — hand everything over absolutely intact: in tiptop working order. Look around you: everything’s in fine fettle, don’t you agree? Tickety-boo, we used to say. Or, as you say in Hindustani: Sabkuch ticktock hai. Everything’s just fine.’” (p. 107) As the clock ticks toward midnight, things settle down: “the sharp edges of things are getting blurred, so they have all failed to notice what is happening: the Estate, Methwold’s Estate, is changing them. Every evening at six they are out in their gardens, celebrating the cocktail hour, and when William Methwold comes to call they slip effortlessly into their imitation Oxford drawls; and they are learning … and Methwold, supervising their transformation, is mumbling under his breath … Sabkuch ticktock hai.’ ” (p. 109) It is only later that we learn, thanks to the redistributive miracle performed by midwife Mary Pereira, that Sinai’s son is, or rather is replaced by, Methwold’s literal progeny, a baby born of an illicit union between the departing Englishman and Vanita — the wife of the poor estate’s clown and bard, the cuckold who was called Wee Willie Winkie. Remember, the narrator tells Padma, “the wild profusion of my inheritance.” (p. 121)

Saleem carries the weight of too much history, to be sure. One of many children of that fateful midnight who, “in a kind of collective failure of imagination, … learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts … .” (p. 131) Saleem confessed in retrospect that history’s multiple determinations and accidents led to failures not just of imagination but of the dream of freedom itself. All Midnight’s Children were, as it happened, not just the children of their parents, real or presumed. Rather, they were the “children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history.” (p. 132) A grotesque fable, a miraculous history, a broken dream, history at its most gripping. And yet, even in the dreamscape time of Rushdie’s subcontinental version of magical realism, just the beginning.



(1) For further background on the colonial history of Kashmir, see the important dissertation by Mridu Rai, The question of religion in Kashmir: sovereignty, legitimacy and rights, c. 1846-1947 (Department of History, Columbia University, 2000).

(2) See Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the demand for Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

(3) See Gyanendra Pandey’s fine recent book, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

(4) See the recent dissertation by Vazira Zamindar, Divided Families and the Making of Nationhood in India and Pakistan 1947-65 (Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, 2002).

(5) See Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge Press, 1994).





This Issue



  Untitled Document
Search Columbia College Today
Need Help?

Columbia College Today Home
CCT Home

March 2003
This Issue

January 2003
Previous Issue

CCT Credits
CCT Masthead