Nasal Ethics: Midnight’s Children

In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children the nose is used as a tool of psychological “mind-reading” through the acute sixth senses developed in Saleem’s blocked nose that enables him to read not only the emotions of those around him, but also to communicate telepathically with those children born in the same hour and day as Saleem himself. Rushdie uses over again throughout the novel the “metaphor” of Saleem’s nose as “sniffing out” the masked emotions mixed into food that exposes the cook’s true colors to him alone. The nose’s sense of literal and psychic smells connects closely with the food and emotion themes portrayed throughout the novel with interactions between Saleem and his family. With the loss of a normal sense of smell Saleem can ‘sniff out’ the hidden truth within every lie. Behind every offered pakora or perfumed smile there lies a psychological truth to each character’s feelings. Rushdie connects the senses with food, and eating with emotion, with the transference of the cook’s feelings to the consumer; thereby changing whole identities of family members simply by projecting their hate or envy or guilt onto another and changing the entire mood of the spicy, delicious meal. One of the greatest displays of this is with “Alia’s culinary witchcraft” in which her revenge is found through the “impregnation of food with emotions” and where she “fed us the biranis of dissension and the nargosi koftas of discord: and little by little, even the harmonies of my parent’s autumnal love went out of tune.” The family is “under the influence of the korma’s of my aunt’s vengeance – spiced with forebodings as well as cardamons -” and the obvious “inner discord (i)s undoubtedly worsened by the curries of disquiet which we were obliged to eat.” And it is Mary’s chutneys that ring familiar to the grown up Saleem and bring him back to her after years of separation – where he becomes “pickler-in-chief”. The same green chutneys, or ‘guilty chutneys’, and pickles Amina and Mary made together as they talked; Amina “stir(ring) her disappointments into a hot lime chutney which never failed to bring tears to the eyes.” Chutney is a spicy mixture, mixed with emotions of the stirrer, and pickled food is preserved as stories are, remaining stagnant within the characters who tell their tales.

Saleem’s large nose is seen as repulsive, snot-ridden and bothersome, yet it is his tool of power giving him the magic to be able to telepathically converse with hundreds of other children in his mind. They create a sort of ‘freak society’, united by their respective birthrights. Saleem’s grandfather could smell when danger was approaching and this trait, atleast symbolically, has been inherited by Saleem in his later youth. Saleem begins his first several years as a boy who cannot smell anything very well due to a constant stuffed and dripping nose and blocked sinuses. A painful washing bin accident and later a concussion through a bike accident ignites his gift of telepathy. In order to “see more clearly” Saleem’s nose is clogged even deeper with snot, touching a virgin place within his mind. It is interesting how pain incites reward in this story, with the suffering of senses for atonement (Saleem brushing his teeth with coal tar soap) or fasting for the religious Mulsim holiday for a month (with the children awarded trips to the cinema) or Aadam Aziz going on a hunger strike to reverend Mother’s silent refusal…and later her counter protest of food denial until Pia shows her suffering and cries.

Pleasure of the senses also comes into play with “food and erotica” in which a film that is censored for sexual contact uses the eroticized images of a young woman kissing an apple, mangoes, pink cups of kashmiri tea, and passing it to her “lover” to kiss. In the Pioneer Cafe, similiarly, Amina’s forbidden love with Nadir-Qasim is indirectly taking place with Amina holding her mouth and pressing her lips to the glass of her lassi and then passing it to Nadir, who in turn applies it to his mouth. Meals act as more than mere taste pleasure or simple nourishment for the body as they are repeatedly used as “comfort foods” to compensate for sexual or emotional repression or loss of parental love as in the case of Saleem’s “first exile” when Mary wants to feed Saleem after his hospital stay after losing his finger (to cover the rejection by his parents) with the familiar comfort of food.

There are many scents described here, including Ahmed’s “scent of failure” thinly diguised by perfumed Coca-Cola girls and fizzy drinks, and the stench of Tai the fisherman’s filthy body, purposelly noxious to make a statement to a young Doctor Aadam. While Tai makes sure to show his feelings through offensive body odor, the Aziz and Sinai family try to cover or mask their emotions: anger, shame, guilt or envy through calculated “so-called helpful or kind gestures”; well spiced meals, or false words. All of which Saleem begins to understand more clearly as the novel progresses (even as he loses his telepathic sense of smell with a later nose drainage operation). His psychological sense of smell deepens and alters with the addition of a literal one and he can now smell the true properties of human nature along with the emotions in food, city, streets and homes, and even within himself as the “cesspit of his own inequities”. Saleem begins to sniff out the filthy bad smells of his country , and encounters with the ‘dirtiest’ whores, including old Tai Bibi, who can master the scent of any one on earth, and in the heat of “passion” with Salleem brings out the scent of his beloved sister. When Saleem goes to his sister he can smell the “shame and horror” of her reaction and seems to be attracted by love in purity and attracted by sexuality in filth.

Saleem has an almost Proustian connection with scents and flavors of people and food that makes one recall past with nostalgia, reliving a memory through the present senses, marked by reminiscent smells or tastes. He remarks at one point that the “pickle-fumes stimulate the juice of memory.” Saleem has many incarnations and developments with his nose, in losing one power and gaining another; in losing the ability to discern all people and even his country’s inner nature with his sensitive nose. He uses the “pungent inescapable fumes of what-had-been-excised” as groundwork for the life of his psychic inheritance, displaying the psychological ties of his senses to his family history.

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