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Midnight's Children and the Legacy of Nationalism

From: Callaloo
Volume 20, Number 4, Fall 1997
pp. 737-752 | 10.1353/cal.1997.0080

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Midnight’s Children and the Legacy of Nationalism *


Above the headmaster’s desk in the primary school I attended in rural Trinidad, there was a blackboard on which was neatly chalked the names and titles of heads of state and other important international officials of the time. In my recollection, there were no local government figures represented on this board before 1962, except perhaps Sir Solomon Hochoy, the Crown appointed Governor General, who was sufficiently memorable to a child anyway because of the intriguing looking headgear he wore on State occasions. The eminent bodies featured on the blackboard were persons such as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, our Head of State, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Nikita Krushchev, the Premier of Soviet Russia, and others of that ilk. We had to learn these names for “general knowledge” tests, repeating their titles with little clue about their significance to our small primary school in Barrackpore, South Trinidad. On Empire Day, which I barely recall being celebrated, the entire school, staff and students joined in a cacophonic rendition of “God Save the Queen.” The empire/s surrounded us in many ways, in the songs we sang, the flag we bore allegiance to and, most of all, in the idea of ourselves as a colony and colonized.

The shift to self-government and independent nationhood would at first only register in the symbolic changes around us. To the blackboard above the headmaster’s desk, other important official names we had to learn, like those of the local ministers of education and health, were slowly added. Chief among them was the enigmatic Prime Minister, the Right Honorable Dr. Eric Williams, enigmatic for us as children since his expression remained permanently mysterious, obscured by the large dark glasses he always wore. 1 In preparation for independence in 1962, we were introduced to a new flag, the significance of the colors red, white and black meaning nothing to us then; it was not explained to us, nor the watchwords, Discipline, Production and Tolerance. Our primary school teachers labored at teaching us new songs, including a national anthem which we sung in parrot-like fashion without any appreciation of its chorus, “Here, every creed and race find an equal place.” It took many years, and my [End Page 737] own study of a social history of Indians in Trinidad society, to begin to grasp the complex relationship between Williams’ writing of Capitalism and Slavery, his perceptive understanding of politics through historical knowledge, his experiences of study and sojourn abroad, and the way all of these nurtured the ideas which helped to formulate a concept of nationalism for this society.

Salman Rushdie’s brilliant novel Midnight’s Children, from which I have crafted a title for this essay, is about the birth of a child and a nation. 2 Saleem Sinai is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the very instant that India attained independence. In Rushdie’s novel, nation and child go through the pangs of birth, the tantrums of childhood, the traumas of adolescence and the anomie of adulthood. This essay is a different but parallel investigation about the birth pangs and growth of nationalism in Trinidad, viewed from the perspective of a young girl of Indian descent, born shortly before Williams came to power in 1956. My generation was just old enough to experience the remnants of the colonial state evident in early self-government in Trinidad, and to begin absorbing the new messages which nationhood brought. This essay is therefore a personal and political analysis of Williams’ contribution to nationalist ideas, to the way nationalism was perceived, and was directly or indirectly beneficial to many of my generation, ethnic group, and sex. Rushdie’s phrase “midnight’s children” is also applicable to my examination of nationalism in another sense, one which is consistent with the verbal double entendre characteristic of a Trinidadian mode of humor and social commentary. “Midnight’s children” evokes the idea of blackness and therefore the question of negritude, which was confronted in the nationalist movement. Secondly, the darker shades of gender oppression would remain submerged despite...