Theme of Identity
Crisis in the Novels of Salman Rushdie
world is suffering from identity crisis. For the present phenomena
moreover every writer has indicated towards it, Rushdie's novels also
reflects in this direction. In each novel Rushdie uses the same pattern he
explores the philosophical significance of ideals and concepts through a
number of characters who are so intimately connected that they literally
or figuratively fuse, and when they separate they share the identity of
Rushdie's first novel Grimus presents the crisis of Flapping Eagle's soul.
Flapping Eagle, the hero of the novel, is marginalized by his own tribe
for the inauspicious circumstances of his birth. He drinks the elixir of
eternal life and becomes an eternal voyager forever homeless rootless. He
feels tired of eternity and hopes for a place where he can finally grow
old and shake-off the burden of immortality. He finally brings destruction
upon himself and his world.
In, Grimus, the Quest 'motif' of the Flapping Eagle, the protagonist is
allegorically presented : at a domestic level, if it is a quest for his
sister, the Bird-Dog, at a symbolic and more important level, it is his
quest and interaction with Grimus, which provides the essential fictional
value of the narrative. Flapping Eagle is a creature with a dual
consciousness of Time and Time lessens. His quest is essentially beyond
the realms of Time for conquering the limitations of Death. His quest is
thus denuded of history and temporal consciousness.
In the world of the Marvelous, his drift into a world of Timelessness
becomes his "conscious" medium for the exploration of his sister Bird-Dog,
who appears more as a vision, as she is taken away by Sispy, that is
Grimus into his world of Calf-Island.
Calf Mountain, which is an aspect of the ascent of human mind in its quest
for a Timeless world is represented by its many Inner and Outer
Dimensions. Virgil Jones explains thus the "Timeless topography" of Calf
Mountain to Flapping Eagle :
Thus one's identity is a part of universe our identity has its entity in
universe and universe is the reflection of ours identity.
His quest for human progress is symbolically resolved in the world of the
inner quest. As Virgil Jones conceives the human mind and all its
attributes as Dimensions, the quest is to harmonize all those attributes
into a settled system of feelings and attitudes :
"Lurking in the Inner Dimensions of every victim of the fever is his own
particular set of monsters. His own devils burning in his own inner fires.
His own worms gnawing at his strength. These are the obstacles he must
leap, if he can."2
Grimus, the half-denuded self in history and memory symbolizes the quest
for such a fusion of man's scientific activity and creativity. Virgil
Jones introduces the central dilemma and gnawing predicament in man's
quest for knowledge and refinement, through the world of Grimus and his
Calf Mountain. He tells Flapping Eagle thus : "What you must ask
yourself is this : is there such a thing as too much knowledge? If
marvelous discovery is made whose effects one cannot control, should one
attempt to destroy one's find? Or, do the interests of science override
even those of society and, indeed, survival?"
If Virgil Jones's dilemma, thus, focuses on the central issue of the
narrative, Grimus's ideas variously reinforce its thematic concerns. For
Grimus, as for Virgil Jones, the dilemma among progress and sanity and
security is an all-too-imminent aspect to be neglected.
Grimus appears to have found a harmonious fusion between science and human
creativity in a unique manner.
Thus, Grimus can not be marginalized by the "dimensions" of Time and
Space. His conceptualising of Dimensions has truly sought an Utopia of
fulfilled harmony between the head and the heart :
"I find my own time a great deal more interesting than either the past or
the future. And it proved easiest to transport from parallel dimensiosn if
one fixed upon a constant time."3
His definition of the human mind, and its most important attribute namely,
choice and discretion, are aspects of Timelessness. He tells Flapping
Eagle thus : "Free will really is an illusion, you know. People bhave
according to the flux-lines of their potential futures."4
Grimus's great Experiment is truly realized in a state of a temporal
reality in achieving aesthetic perfection.
His grandiose conception, the Stone Rose, a curious, combination
representing the mechanical order and the metaphysical order, alike, is in
the modernist tradition of studying Futuristic possibilities of man's
growth The stone rose works as a weapon of wizard Its potential is endless
and non explainable.
Flapping Eagle's ultimate release is into the world of Grimus where the
interaction with Stone Rose is a cataclysmic experience for him.
His dilemmas are yet unresolved about the utility and creativity of Grimus
and his conception of Stone Rose. Stone rose seems an object of mystery to
Flapping Eagle. In any case, his quest for a Timeless World of unchanging
and eternal permanence proves futile.
As a consequence of Grimus's telepathic transfer of his conception and
powers of the Stone Rose to Flapping Eagle, the atter's powers increase in
endlessly enormous proportions. But its disillusionment with such powers
is without the Faustian attraction, in the initial stages. His truly
humanized self makes him decide to give up the powers of the world of
Stone Rose. He eminences thus his own "disintegration" in a world of
fantasy : "The combined force of an unlimited power, unlimited learning
and a rarified, abstract attitude to life which exalted these two into
the-greatest goals of humanity, was a force I-Eagle could not bring
himself to life... No, I-Eagle thought, the Rose is not the supreme
Ultimately, after thus destroying the alluring phantom of an endless and
absolute power, and knowledge, Flapping Eagle once again rearranges the a
temporal priorities in the marvelous World of Calf Mountain, into a more
stable and secure order thus : "Deprived of its connection with all
relative Dimensions, its World of Calf Mountain was slowly unmarking
itself, its molecules and atoms breaking, dissolving, quietly vanishing
into primal, unmade energy. The raw material of being was claiming its
In Midnight's Children, the political history is the starting points of
the quest Saleem Sinai announces his emergence into this world in a moment
of political reality : The world of Azids, the progenitors of the three
generations of the Muslims is the beginning of the narrative. The
historical recreation of the individual destiny is realized as part of an
imaginative device in fulfilling the larger thematic purpose, namely, the
search for identity in Saleem Sinai's mind.
This wavering between the supposed 'alien-ness' and real 'rootedness' at
least in some profound manner, provides the essential thematic focus of
the narrative.. The emerging political scenario, the introduction of the
world of politics and the politicians is related to the narrators world.
"How many things, people, notions we bring with us into the world, how
many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility! Because of the
child born that midnight, and for every one of the midnight children there
were as many more. Among the parents of the midnight : the failure of the
Cabinet Scheme;... chicken-breast-eater of a wife; and more and his Red
Fort and Old Fort ....To understand just one life, you have to swallow the
The theme of identity operates with grim intensity and purpose. The
political or even politico-cultural and other themes of India's national
development are artistically and emotionally well integrated into the
motif of quest for identity of Saleem Sinai. As his quest is essentially
spiritual, the historical detail only becomes a transitory phase in his
growingly temporal awareness of the world of facts into an introvert world
of intuitive perception of reality through Fantasy, or Dream and Memory.
Though Saleem Sinai truly and most vitally placed in India's national
history, by birth He tragically drifts away from it. As he is a close
observer as also a witness of the national growth, over a period of nearly
three decades, he is constantly disillusioned with it. Like Omar Khayyam,
afterwards, he also becomes a "peripheral hero" post-independence India.
As a result of the tragic negation of his relationship with the Indian
national history, his drift into history-less anonymity and silence is
inevitable. However, as a form of fulfillment, in his quest for true
identity, Saleem Sinai takes recourse to fantasy to seek his roots with
the Indian psyche, through fantasy and memory of a bygone past, though not
in its recent past, which in any case negated him. Thus, Saleem Sinai
moves in and out of Time in the narrative. When he is in Time, that is, as
'observing', but in no case participating in its national history, it is a
matter of pain and disillusionment for him.. On the other hand, in his
drift into fantasy and memory, Saleem Sinai establishes his roots,
howsoever tenuously, with at least a little amount of fulfillment.
Saleem Sinai seeks the medium of Fantasy for various purposes, both for
liberation and attachment. As the fantastic mode is a Timeless construct,
he can retrieve himself into his troubled psyche and resolve his national
identity between Indian and Pakistan there. Memory or reminiscing with a
degree of objectivity and authenticity serves such a purpose. His method
of memory is by sensory perception more particularly that of taste. In any
case, this emphasis on memory, as a form of objectivity and negating Time
is different from his history-less and anonymous role as Buddha.
The narrator feels that his identity is not safe in Pakistan where words
and action are quite contrary to each other. He see Pakistani world as a
world of falseness and unreality. In any case, his re-entry into India,
the world of alternative realities after the 1965 war is yet again
realized in a world of fantasy.
This fantastic drift in the 'air-lanes of the sub-continent offers Saleem
an opportunity to seek identity with the entire sub-continent psyche. In
any case, the quest for identity it not settled in his "anonymous" drift
into India and Pakistan. His Indian roots are as yet not fully established
"Anyway it was not 'my' country or not then. Not my country, although I
stayed in it- as a refugee, not citizen."
Saleem's quest for the national identity with India is both a historical
and personal necessity. At least, his grandfather Adam Aziz appears rooted
in the Indian psyche, in some degree, as he tells his friend the Rani
Cooch Naheen thus : "I started off as a Kashmiri and not much of a Muslim.
Then I got a bruise on the chest that turned me into an Indian...."
Saleem probes into the entire Indian phenomena to obtain his absolute
identity. As a result, Saleem's quest becomes a genealogical necessity. In
continuation of his quest from the levels of memory and fantasy, Saleem
enters a world of anonymity. As he constantly roams and moves in the
"air-lanes" of the subcontinent, for identity, he feels himself not only
alienated by the psyche of India and Pakistan, alike, but loses his own
self and identity as an individual, and reaches a state of history-less
The Bangladesh War provides such a context for Saleem to further feel the
bruised psyche of the Indian subcontinent, as he is outside the values of
both India and Pakistan. He is a denuded self, fully disintegrated in Time
: His growing sense of identity troubles him a lot.
His drift is from memory into total forgetfulness : "With some
embarrassment, I am forced to admit that amnesia is the kind of gimmick
regularly used by our lurid filmmakers."
His ultimate drift into Sunderbans, the jungle away from civilization, is
an occasion for the total loss of identity, in any for As the name
Sunderban itself suggests the bewildering beauty that makes one complete
out of senses, out of rationality and logic. He is without any purpose in
life, as his disintegrated mind and self are irretrievably lost in utter
As Saleem is even beyond any kind of rationale of dreams of memory, he
seeks to retrieve his lost self from the depths of total anonymity and
forgetfulness, with the emphasis on the words "longing for flight into the
safety of dreams.." However, his "reincarnation" or "re-realization" into
Reality from anonymity and fantasy, alike, is done by the "tantriks" of
snake poison, which instead of killing him, retrieves him, metaphorically
though, into memory from amnesia.
He shows a universal longing. The narrator feels himself a part of
universe and feels himself within universe or vice-versa.
His retrieval at least into fantasy from anonymity follows the need for
sensation. "..I had been rescued by rebellion from the abstraction of
numbness; as I bumped out on the dirt of the magician ghetto, silver
spittoon in hand, I realized that I had begun, once again, to feel."
Such a retrieval from the anonymous world of Buddha and Sunderbans, soon
after the Bangladesh War is tragically negated by the Emergency. However,
the world of Emergency is realized in the magical aura of fantasy; thus
Saleem is once again able to discriminate Time and Timelessness, in their
His meditation culminates in a sense of fulfillment, free from both the
limitation of Time, as also the nebulous qualities of a Timeless reality.
In other words, he is spiritually stationed, as it were, between Fantasy
and Reality, on the one hand Memory and Anonymity, on the other hand
Saleem finds that in the journey of quest he is not alone his family
members are also there.
He realizes that he and the children born at midnight were not destined to
identity.. He and the children born at midnight seem the subject of
sucking to the whirlpool of multitudes. It is a situation where one is
neither living nor dead. Thus novel ends on a note of fear and terror of
Shame also recreates the motive of identity in Omar Khayyam. Though Shame
and Midnight's Children recreate identical thematic designs, the latter
appears to be a far more complex and rewarding artistic experience. Unlike
Saleem Sinai, Omar Khayyam is not truly bedeviled by a dual perception,
between India and Pakistan. His relationship with the Indian psyche is as
a form of transfer. Thematically, if Saleem is supposedly rooted in the
Indian psyche and the Pakistan psyche acts as a form of comparison and
contrast and another aspect of opposite. His drift is from Pakistan (at
least, apparently so) to India unlike Saleem Sinai, Omar Khayyam is
deliberately stationed as a 'peripheral hero' experience, such as
Independence and Emergency, Saleem is truly integrated in the case of Omar
Khayyam, his destiny even from his birth is anonymously divorced from the
national history. He is a "peripheral hero", whose vision is meant to be
as his destiny.
"Dizzy, peripheral, inverted, infatuated, insomniac, stargazing, fat :
what manner of hero is this." His parentage like Saleem Sinai, is indeed a
case of mystery, as he was to discover his mother among the three sisters,
Chunni, Munnee, Bunny. Even the three sisters are lost in a haze of the
past history and reluctant to drift into a hopeful future.
As Omar Khayyams destiny is "inverted", he is lost for ever in the
dissonances of Time and Space. His perception of life is shattered by a
wrong apprehension of priorities : He finds a chaotic situation or a
different world to himself.
His quest for reality is futile Omar Khayyam, unlike Saleem Sinai, is
peculiarly inhibited by history. If Saleem feels unredeemed in Time, Omar
Khayyam develops even from its very conception a grim negation to Time.
His drift from the shackles of a temporal order becomes an insistent urge
for him even from his childhood.
In the world of his three mothers, his drift is into an irretrievable
past. A nihilist sense of nothingness is realized in the world of the past
As a result of such a stupefying experience, his psyche is fatally
limited,. Unlike Saleem, Omar Khayyam's quest is losing oneself into the
death and decay of the sense of past history.
As Omar Khayyam gets ready to start his search for a world of sanity and
hope on his twelfth birthday, in an anonymous city, this is also the
beginning of the search, in the life and world of Nishapur and in the
lives of his three mothers. Omar Khayyam's release into a world of future
is, indeed, a liberation into total freedom of spirit and mind. His
release, symbolically is into a world of knowledge and reality, against
the decadence of a past history.
As the narrative progresses, Omar Khayyam has no significant role to play,
as he is "peripheral hero". However, his quest for "roots" and identity is
parallel and simultaneous with the national history of this intended
anonymous country. His roots into the national and domestic history of the
Hyders and Harappas is through Sufiya, who is herself a specter of his a
historical connection through Sufiya is to further his movement into a
Sufiya, the "Wrong Miracle", who suffers from a mysterious
psychological disorder, is realized in a world of ghosts. If in Midnight's
Children, the fantasy has the quality of dreaming a beautiful spectacle
and pageantry, in Shame, it is grim and macabre. Sufiya is at the center
of such a horror story.. She is a beast of horror and a virtual cannibal.
She finally becomes symbolic of the structure of the haunting guilt of her
father Raza Hyder. Omar Khayyam appears a dispassionate observer of the
emerging political setting. In any case, he presides over all the
important and crucial political events in the narrative. He appears thus
at the time of disaster to the life of Iskander Harappa.
As Omar Khayyam is outside the limitations of Time, he is not a fit being
to survive there.
Ommar Khyyam's insomnia is an aspect of the drift into eternity as
afterwards realized in his union with Sufiya. As he cannot sleep, he
cannot dream. His decaying mind and listless hope in search of identity
are truly outside Time. The theme of insomnia continues, both in symbolic
and real terms: symbolically, if he is a living witness to the decadence
of the moral and political system of an anonymous country, in real terms,
he is aimlessly drifting in an a temporal world as his roots are only
apparent but not real in Time.
As the national history progresses in its increasing disintegration of its
moral and political ethos with increasing corruption and nepotism, Omar
Khayyam's crisis also increases in its grim intensity. As his painful
quest for roots" in this anonymous country ends, he is liberated into a
world of Timelessness : Omar enigma of birth becomes the enigma of life.
He finds himself homeless rootless. His very home becomes a nightmare to
him as it is connected to his marginalized sense. So home seems to him a
ghostly place from where as he desires to escape or root out himself.
His drift into anonymity is strengthened by his union with Sufiya, is
herself moving into a macabre world of haunting myths. As Omar Khyyam is
seeking to move out to Time, and its vicissitudes, Sufiya's "growth in
Time is reversed; that is, in her psychological make-up, she is retreating
to the world of Beasts.
The poignancy and futility of his role as _a "peripheral" man comes home
with all its bitterness. He feels himself only a spectator and others
appear to him as actors. His isolation bursts out in following words.
In this criss-cross moment of the "immigrant and native", "Godly and
profane" lies the locus of Omar Khayyam's quest, as that of Saleem Sinai
earlier. They are complementary to each other in their quest in mutually
differing national situations.
Omar Khayyam's ultimate release into a world of silence without
fulfillment is on a note of horror and nightmare. His union with Sufiya in
a nightmare is an occasion for the lonely ending of the narrative destiny
of Omar Khayyam.
Built into this theme of identity, is connected with the theme of Shame,
which literally means Sharam, a complex feeling of guilt because of
willing negation of values. As the narrative plot dramatizes the
degenerating moral and political ethos, "Shame" becomes a recurrent
metaphor for rendering such a condition. As shame is the major attribute
of all the characters, Omar Khayyam at least becomes aware of such a guilt
in his mind. He seeks to internalize it by a process of rationalization.
Ignoring the feeling of shame in one's mind may be an aspect, of hypocrisy
and insensitivity to any kind of enlightenment of mind. As all the
characters are steeped in immorality and duplicity, without any recurrent
feeling of shame, becomes the martyr for the sin of this anonymous
country. In a general sense, the narrative is based on the shameful deeds
at various levels and many places: Rushdie shows the pervasiveness of
shame. It's not in case of Omar and Sufiya. It exists in plurality.
The fictional world seeks to redeem itself from these acts of shame, or
Sharami. Both Saleem Sinai and Omar Khayyam could not succeed in the quest
for idenity Saleem's quest for identity with the Indian psyche is as much
unsettled in its ultimate meaning, as it is in the mind quest of Omar
Khayyam in his identity with an anonymous country. However, between these
two moving realities of India and Pakistan, Saleem wants to establish his
identity with the entire Indian subcontinent. For, his quest is not
nationally limited to either India or Pakistan but largely universal.
"The terrible fatalism which had overcome me of late had taken on an even
more terrible form; drowning in the disintegration of family, of both
countries to which I had belonged, of everything which can sanely be
The occasion is the further bruising of the sub-continental psyche with
its partition into Bangladesh.
The causes for such a amnesia in his own mind cannot be resolved because
of the irretrievable forces of history. Thus, his reconciliation and even
sanity are to be sought in fantasy and dreams. After his list less
drifting in Pakistan, his roots continue to be tenuous and insubstantial
Bilquis's predicament is equally similar and intense. As her association
with India is tenuous and insubstantial, she seeks identity with Pakistan
but she is a migrant from an uprooted country, that is India.
Bilquis illustration hints the destiny of migrants the failure of hope and
dream of progress, Omar Khayyam. like Saleem Sinai, leads to find his
emotional and spiritual abode, at least in fantasy. As Rushdie tells us in
an authorial voice, due to such a failure in the fulfilling of their
narrative destinies, both Saleem Siani and Omar Khayyam renew their
association with the spiritual world of an anonymous country.
Thus, Rushdie's fictional world explores the world of eternity. As Grimus
belongs to the genre of science fiction, Midnight's Children and Shame are
mostly complementary in their thematic exploration of identity of their
respective protagonists. Both Saleem Sinai and Omar Khayyam are explorer
of a national destiny to which they do not belong by reasons of history,
and as yet cannot alter the historical destiny of these two nations their
drift is outside it Their historical rootedness in a concrete and
uncompromising national reality is all too real for them to deny it the
tragic irony is that they are the part of the history or a country here
they have not identity. And yet, they cannot accept such a position. Thus,
out of this history of negation, they want to explore a meaning and
fulfillment outside it, at least in dream and memory. The theme of
identity in its broad historical terms may be defined as national
identity, both for, Saleem Sinai and Omar Khayyam; but in its intrinsic
value and meaning this quest becomes an "interiorised" reality and an
aspect of their own emotional and life patterns. In this context, the
question of expatration for Rushide is symbolic of such a predicament for
himself. Unlike Saleem Sinai and Omar Khayyam, Rushdie has to establish
his emotional identity with yet another national situation, that is,
England. As Rushdie tells us with an almost morbid and recurrent emphasis.
"I am an emigrant from one country (India) a new comer in two (England,
where I live, and Pakistan, to which my family moved against my will)...
We have performed the act of which all men anciently dream, the thing for
which they envy the birds; that is to say, we have flown."
It seems that on the issue of identity Rushdie's heroes are a voice of
1. Rushdie, Salman, Grimus, London; Grafton Books, 1977, p.32.
2. Ibid. p.84.
3. Ibid. p.239.
4. Ibid p.239.
5. Ibid. p.251.
6. Ibid. p.253.
7. Rushdie, Salman, Midnigth's Children, London : Jonathan Cape, 1981,
8. Ibid. p.108.
9. Ibid p.40.
10. Ibid, p.332.
11. Ibid. p.353.
12. Ibid. p.445.
13. Ibid. p.445.
14. Ibid. p. Rushdie, Salman, Shame, Calcutta Rupa, 1983, p.25.
15. Ibid. p.19.
16. Rushdie, Salman, Midnight's Children London Jonathan Cape, 1981 p.420.
17. Ibid. p.380.
18. Rushdie, Salman, Shame, Calcutta Rupa, 1983, p.212.
Contributing Author: Dr. Ram Sharma, Lecturer
Janta Vedic College MEERUT, U.P.