Amina & The Silver Spittoon

Plot Box: Amina & Nadir - Lapis Lazuli and the Free Islam Conference - Amina & the Monsters

Plot Box: Amina & Nadir

In their Agra basement, Aadam Aziz's daughter Amina looks after the poet Nadir Khan, who worked with her father on the Free Islam Convocation. Terrified of the violent extremists who destroyed the Convocation, Nadir hides in Aadam Aziz's basement, where he falls in love with the dark-skinned Amina. [...] and then this girl comes with food and she doesn't mind cleaning away your pots and you lower your eyes but you see an ankle that seems to glow with graciousness, a black ankle like the black of the underground nights... (56)  The silver lapis lazuli spittoon, which was the symbol of the Free Islam Convocation around which the members used to debate, also becomes the symbol of the underground love between Nadir and Amina (whose original name is Mumtaz): Like Shah Jehan and his Mumtaz, Nadir and his dark lady lay side by side, and lapis lazuli inlay work was their companion [...] a wondrously-carved, lapis-inlaid, gemstone-crusted silver spittoon. (58) ❧ Even later in Bombay, when Amina is married to Ahmed, she still meets Nadir in secret. Saleem's rage about his mother's (rather chaste) affair leads inadvertently to the death of his Uncle Hanif, who espouses political ideals similar to those of Nadir. ❧ Amina is linked not just to her father, to whom she's very close (her mother can't accept her dark skin), but also to the politics of her father's fellow Convocation-goer, Nadir. The silver spittoon starts off as a symbol of the Free Islam Convocation and the related love between Amina and Nadir. It ends up as the battered object Saleem hangs onto, even when he doesn't know why. But the reader knows why: it represents the ideal of subcontinental unity espoused by Aadam Aziz, Nadir, and Amina. ❧ Amina most clearly champions this ideal when at the risk of her own life she protects the itinerant Hindu Lifafa Das, who is about to be killed by a misinformed and angry Muslim mob. This connects to Saleem, first of all because the moment Amina stands up to this mob she announces that she's pregnant. (We find out later that the baby is actually Shiva, but while Saleem grows up he believes that Amina announced that she's pregnant with him.) Secondly, the spittoon is linked to both the Free Islam Convocation and to Saleem's own convocation or conference: the Midnight's Children Conference. The spittoon thus helps to tie together Attar's Conference, old Aziz sahib's birds (and his gems, for the spittoon is gemstone-encrusted), Aziz's Convocation, the love between Amina and Nadir, and the ideal which gives the novel its name.

Lapis Lazuli and the Free Islam Conference

While the Free Islam Convocation may be based on reality, Rushdie associates it with all sorts of fanciful and literary elements, the most striking of which is a silver lapis-lazuli-encrusted spittoon. This spittoon is initially linked to the common people (as opposed to the politicians and military leaders), to the liberal joviality of the Hummingbird’s group (as opposed to the Muslim League), and to the love between Nadir and Amina. In a lecture/interview in October 1983 (in Kunapipi), Rushdie says that the silver and lapis lazuli spittoon is one of the leitmotifs which helps hold his otherwise unwieldy novel together. He says that the game of snakes and ladders, the pointing finger, and the spittoon “in themselves have no meaning or no particular meaning but [...] form a kind of non-rational network of connections in the book.” Yet the game of snakes and ladders makes sense in light of Schaapsteker’s snaky logic and Saleem’s doomed attempt to ride the snake of evil to moral triumph (as I argue in a section below). 

The spittoon is a symbol — and something like an objective correlative — of optimism about the subcontinent. T.S. Eliot argues that “objective correlative's purpose is to express the character's emotions by showing rather than describing feelings.” In this case, Saleem is deeply pessimistic about the future — especially because of Partition, the wars with Pakistan, and the Emergency — yet the silent, emotion-laden symbol of it remains with him nevertheless. As I will argue later, optimism is with him to the very end of his account, when he entertains the idea that his marriage with the Hindu Padma may lead to a honeymoon in Kashmir. Whatever our dim view of this happening today, Saleem is writing at the end of the 1970s, and Rushdie is publishing in 1981, long before the Ayodhya dispute, the Mumbai bombings, and the political rise of Hindu nationalism.

Rushdie foreshadows the silver spittoon's appearance when the betel-chewing old men in Agra suspect that Aadam is being too optimistic about the future of the country:

they had begun to talk about omens; calming themselves with their game of hit-the-spittoon, they speculated upon the numberless nameless Godknowswhats that might now issue from the fissuring earth. (MC 39)  

Through the fate of this humble, prototypal spittoon Rushdie indicts both the British and any of their self-serving Indian allies for the coming plight of Partition: the army staff car with Brigadier Dodson and Major Zulfikar inside it scatters the street urchins and

knocks over the spittoon. A dark red fluid with clots in it like blood congeals like a red hand in the dust of the street and points accusingly at the retreating power of the Raj. (MC 44)

The “superb silver spittoon, inlaid with lapis lazuli” which Saleem eventually inherits initially belongs to the Rani of Cooch Naheen, the financial backer of the Free Islam Convocation. In sharing her spittoon, she hopes to embellish the free speech and bonhomie that her fellow members of the Convocation enjoy together. While criticizing politicians who “go like toads to the British and form governments for them,” she says, “Let the walls be splashed with our inaccurate expectorating! They will be honest stains, at least” (MC 45). The Rani is right in ways she doesn’t mean, for the Convocation is inaccurate or out of step with the reality of political power, especially as this works in the separatist aims of the Muslim League, the chief opponents of the Hummingbird and the second conference which he plans to hold in Agra. The Rani’s full name, which translates as “the Queen of Some Nothing” is relevant here, since she dreams of and gives money (and a silver spittoon) to something that can never be: a good-hearted unity, an open and loving conference between Hindus and Muslims. It’s no surprise therefore that the silver spittoon pops up again and again in the novel, accompanying and comforting Saleem on his long and arduous journey through Indian history. It crops up most poignantly immediately after the defeat of the Convocation: we find it in the basement of Aadam’s house, a symbol of the Convocations ideals that are brushed under the carpet, and of the unconsummated love between Amina and Nadir Khan. 

It’s of course Aadam who risks his life by backing the Free Islam Conference and by harbouring the fugitive Nadir in his basement (against the strong objections of his increasingly zealous wife).  Aadam is perhaps Rushdie’s most feisty example of the secularist who is willing to fight for his beliefs – or non-beliefs.  Intolerant of intolerance, Aadam literally throws from his home the tutor who teaches his children “to hate Hindus and Jains and Sikhs and who knows what other vegetarians” (MC 42-3).  His antagonism to the communalism which lies at the heart of India’s major internal division, reaches an extreme of its own when in “the iconoclasm of his dotage” he lashes out “at any worshipper or holy man within range.” His final act is to steal the sacred lock of Muhammad’s hair from the Hazratbal Mosque and bring it into the Hindu temple of Shankara Acharya (MC 277-278).  This act can be seen as a desperate, symbolic attempt to bring Hinduism and Islam together under one roof, especially when one recalls that the temple of Shankara Acharya has both Muslim and Hindu history associated with it.  

Amina & the Monsters

The mythic cycle in Midnight’s Children is depicted mostly in terms of patrilineage, yet Saleem’s mother Amina plays a major role. Just as Aadam fights Muslim separatism by supporting the Free Islam Convocation in Agra, so Amina stands up to Muslim zealots by defending the rights of a Hindu, Lifafa Das, who has the blind courage -- or simply bad luck -- to ply his trade in a Muslim part of town. Rushdie makes the link between father and daughter explicit: at the moment she turns against her neighbours in order to protect the harmless Hindu itinerant, “something hardened inside her, some realization that she was her father’s daughter” (MC 77). Amina’s refusal to demonize those who are culturally and religiously alien to her surfaces when, following Lifafa into the old city, she confronts her fear of the Others (Hindus, magicians, the poor) who live on “the wrong side of the General Post Office.” These Others initially seem to comprise “some terrible monster, a creature with heads and heads and heads.” Yet Amina doesn’t succumb to her fearful, demonizing imagination. Instead, she realizes that it’s her fear that makes her see these people as monsters: “‘I’m frightened,’ my mother finds herself thinking” (MC 81). She learns very quickly to discard the “city eyes” which are blind to poverty, and to see that the powerless masses have little to do with the type of evil communalist monster that terrorizes her husband and threatened to kill Lifafa Das.

Poverty in Bombay and a rakshasa demon. Sources: photo (clipped) by Varun Chatterji; image from British Museum (Wikimedia Commons).

Poverty in Bombay and a rakshasa demon. Sources: photo (clipped) by Varun Chatterji; image from British Museum (Wikimedia Commons).


Rushdie skillfully contrives it so that the violent and fiery spirit of communalism is depicted in Lifafa’s newspaper photo of “a fire at the industrial estate” (MC 76), that is, it is depicted within the very peepshow microcosm which remains antithetical to this intolerance. The fire is the work of the extortionist gang, Ravana, named after the most infamous of the Hindu demons or rakshasas. The “ten-headed Ravana, who ruled over Lanka and was the enemy of Rama, is the most celebrated king of the rakshasas,” who “take any form they like,” who “are children of darkness who wander at night” and whose “rule is unchallenged until midnight” (Daniélou, The Myths and Gods of India, 309-310). Saleem’s Midnight’s Children are born after midnight and have little in common with the rakshasa demons except that they have special powers and some of them can change their forms. The darkness associated with the pre-midnight reign of the rakshasas seems concentrated in Shiva, who is born closest to midnight. 

One should note that while rakshasas are demons, Shiva is anything but. Rushdie's character Shiva is a version of what Saleem might have been had be been brought up poor and in the streets instead of in a wealthy family. The god Shiva, like Kali and Durga, does have ferocious aspects, although they are not usually emphasized. Here are some of the more ferocious images from the Wikipedia article on Shiva, the first showing Shiva with a skull necklace sitting with Parvati (a union that comes up later in Midnight's Children) and the second showing Shiva in two very different moods. I will return to Shiva and Parvati in my final section on Midnight's Children.

Left: Shiva and Parvati, Jaipur, 1800, from the British Museum, author anonimus (Wikimedia Commons). Above: source Rudolf Ammann and Marcin Konsek (Wikimedia Commons)

Left: Shiva and Parvati, Jaipur, 1800, from the British Museum, author anonimus (Wikimedia Commons). Above: source Rudolf Ammann and Marcin Konsek (Wikimedia Commons)

Lifafa’s picture of the fire and Saleem’s fabulous cloud in the shape of a pointing finger both serve to link the Muslim mob that threatens Lifafa in Amina’s muhalla (neighborhood) to the Ravana gang that sets fire to Ahmed’s warehouse. The cloud forms as a result of the Ravana gang’s burning of a Muslim industrial estate, and it hovers over Ahmed in the Red Fort. Literally “hanging around in the background of [his] own story,” Saleem follows this cloud to the old city, where “the insanity of the cloud like a pointing finger and the whole disjointed unreality of the times seizes the muhalla” (MC 74, 76).

Given that Saleem titles his chapter “Many-headed Monsters,” and given that this chapter deals with the rages of the Hindu gang and the Muslim lynchmob, Rushdie may be implying that the mob is merely a less organized version of the gang. The tight intertwining of scenarios, the constant shifting from Amina’s journey to Ahmed’s Red Fort nightmare, underscores this parallel. Rushdie also makes another important point: members of both religions betray their own ideals by exploiting religious prejudice. In the Hindu epic Ramayana the monkey king Hanuman helps the hero Rama defeat the demon Ravana, who has abducted Sita, Rama’s wife. By extorting Muslims, Hindus create a twisted, nightmarish version of Hindu mythology, one in which the heroic monkey king Hanuman takes the form of mad monkeys who exacerbate rather than reverse the harm caused by the Ravana gang. Rushdie makes sure not to place all the blame on Hindus, however: the Muslims who persecute the defenceless Lifafa Das prove themselves to be anything but valiant soldiers for Allah. Amina shames her neighbours by crying out,

What heroes! Heroes, I swear, absolutely! Only fifty of you against this terrible monster of a fellow! Allah, you make my eyes shine with pride! (MC 77) 

Instead of living up to their ideals of tolerance and heroism, Rushdie’s Hindus and Muslims create a demon which, like Frankenstein’s monster, turns upon those who are responsible for its creation. 

Rushdie is fond of this type of dynamic in which worldly intolerance and coercion create a violent and scourging otherworldly force. He employs a variant of the many-headed monsters later in Midnight’s Children, when Saleem and his three comrades are punished by Hinduized figures after they scourge the land in the name of Allah. Also, in Shame, Raza is hounded by a Hinduized version of Satan after he inflicts his version of Islamic Law on his nation.

Amina’s stand against the demon of communalism provides a link between the generations of Aadam and Saleem, and between the historical locations of Kashmir and Agra (the mythic and Moghul past) and the location of Bombay (the present and future). In between lies the Partition generation, those who were adults during the hideous massacres – represented succinctly by the phrase, “thousands killed in four days of screaming” and by the single figure of the white beggar who thinks of her husband walking through the slaughter of nighttime Calcutta “with blood on his shirt, a white man deranged by the coming futility of his kind” (MC 82). Also, in between lies Delhi, the new nation’s capital, which is also the home to the bright hopes of Nehru and the dark acts of Ravana and the lynchmob.



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