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Distorted Myth and the End of the Raj: Rushdie's Midnight’s Children
and Scott's The Jewel in the Crown

-- Victoria Tatko

Allusions to numerous traditional myths are woven into Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children, emerging distorted within the fictional narratives. Two myths in particular, the stories of Daphne and Apollo from classical western mythology and of Parvati and Shiva of traditional Hindu mythology, respectively, have been textualized to reflect a central theme of the novels, political and personal disequilibrium. Becoming a metaphor for the chaotic instability of mid-twentieth century India, the textualized myths defy linear comprehensibility and fail to reestablish a basis for belief and truth that is destroyed by the subjectivity of both work’s narratives.

The classical myth of Daphne and Apollo begins by Apollo pridefully remarking to Cupid that the god of love does not deserve to use the bow, a hero’s weapon. Enraged, Cupid retaliates by defiantly firing an arrow of love deep into Apollo’s bones and, simultaneously, a leaden arrow of repulsion into Daphne, a beautiful nymph (Hendricks 53).

Now fearing love, Daphne retreats into the forest, where for a time she wanders and hunts, isolated from suitors. When Apollo chances to glimpse the nymph in her lonely forest, however, his heart inflames with love, and he approaches her. The fearful Daphne turns and flees, only to be closely pursued by Apollo. Running, he vainly calls after her, pledging his "harmless" amorous intents. Just as he almost overtakes her, the weary Daphne--reaching her father’s river--prays desperately for an altering of her beauty. Immediately, her arms stretch out into beautiful leafy limbs and a rough bark encircles her legs; her once flying feet become rooted stubbornly to the ground. Reaching out to embrace a girl, Apollo’s arms find themselves wrapped around a trunk; disappointed, but continuing to love her, the sun god proclaims his loyalty to the lovely laurel.

Scott has projected elements of the Daphne-Apollo classical myth into The Jewel in the Crown; the textualized myth is artfully woven to run simultaneously backward and forward. In one sense, Daphne Manners begins as a tree, "[r]ooted clumsily to the earth" (381) (yet, already failing the idyllic, she lacks the physical beauty of the laurel). As the text unfolds the events proceeding her rape at the Bibighar Gardens, Daphne metaphysically runs--in reverse--toward Hari Kumar, her dark Apollo, unable to see the disaster looming ahead. Only after her rape does she turn around, literally, to run fearfully forward through the dark streets of Mayapore to "safety." Yet, in the Bibighar Gardens she metamorphoses from a tree-like, awkward girl into a sexual woman. When her voyeuristic attackers-to-be watch her make love with Hari, an Indian, Daphne Manners looses the protected and transcendent eternality of white woman. Shedding the tree-bark-like purdah, she emerges as a sexual, if not virginal, female. Following her rape, the now pregnant Daphne, though still physically plain, acquires a laurel-like, metaphysical beauty and graceful glow.

While the textualized myth appears to be thus moving in reverse, it simultaneously proceeds forward. After her rape, Daphne Manners fearfully flees not from Hari Kumar, her westernized, dark Apollo, but from India itself (and from the failure of the British Raj). Yet, swift as she flees, Manners’ feet carry her away too late. While Apollo does not succeed in sexually violating Daphne-the-nymph, Daphne Manners’ silent, smelly attackers are successful in their assault. Unlike Apollo with booming voice who presumably pursues in daylight, Manners’ silent aggressors spring out of the Bibighar’s quiet darkness; poor Manners does not even have a chance to run before it is too late. Nor does she escape by metamorphosing into a laurel tree, joining the other beautiful plants in the Bibighar gardens. While E. M. Forster’s Mrs. Moore observes that "Englishmen like posing as gods" (51), The Jewel in the Crown emphasizes through this altered myth that the English definitively are *not* gods. Daphne, her deceased human father, and the generations of Anglo-Indians who have gone before her cannot supernaturally--or even naturally--whisk Daphne to safety or correct Britain's colonization of India.

The primary characters in Scott’s textualized Daphne-Apollo myth dynamically represent multiple identities within the traditional myth. A noteworthy example is found in an alternate version of the traditional Daphne-Apollo myth that adds Leucippus, a Peloponnesian prince also in love with the beautiful, man-fearing Daphne. Growing his hair long, Leucippus disguises himself as a young maiden and befriends his beloved, but jealous Apollo schemes and reveals Leucippus’ deception. Once aware of Leucippus’ true sex, Daphne and her sister nymphs set upon the prince and stab him to death. Scott echoes this Apollo-Daphne-Leucippus love triangle with The Jewel in the Crown’s Daphne-Merrick-Hari triangle, in which the identities of the three fictional characters dynamically represent each traditional character. For example, Merrick’s external heterosexuality and repressed homosexuality can be viewed as a twisted reflection of the dual sexuality of the cross-dressing Leucippus. Yet, Merrick is also twice Apollo, on one level, pursuing and proposing to Daphne Manners and, on a deeper level, simultaneously chasing the dark, beautiful Hari, whom Merrick has "chosen" to persecute. Later in The Raj Quartet, Merrick also becomes the fleeing nymph when a passionate group of nationalists, who seek him not in love, but in hatred, pursue him. When they finally hack him to death with axes, again, Merrick has become Leucippus.

Scott’s textualized myth reveals the Daphne-Hari-Merrick love triangle’s spinning confusion of sexual identity and power as central to the colonial situation. Scott blends, first, the traditional Orientalist engendering of the colonized nation as feminized erotic, possessed and probed by the masculine power, and, second, what Sara Suleri describes as "the marked homoeroticism of the narratives of colonial encounter" (16). This confusing mutability of sexual roles, as Michael Gorra remarks, "suggests the near impossibility of maintaining a healthily honest sexuality of any kind in a world where ‘the situation’ . . . has the power to blight all human relations" (647).

The Parvati-Shiva traditional myth textualized in Midnight's Children begins with the Hindu god Shiva grieving the death of his wife, Sati. The mourning Shiva abandons his position as military defender of the gods, becomes an ascetic, and retreats to the desolate mountaintops to practice austerities. With Shiva’s absence, the demon Takara--invincible to all but Shiva’s son--successfully wages war against the gods, driving them back from their domain and stealing their treasure (Ions 87). Dismayed at the loss of their power and with Shiva still single and childless, the gods reincarnate Sati as Parvati, a beautiful daughter of the Himavan, god of the Himalayas. As Shiva had grieved greatly at her death, Parvati expects Shiva to be eagerly awaiting her earthly return. However, Shiva is now too deeply engaged in his own austerities to woo her. Attempting to (re)capture his attentions, Parvati ascetically engages in her own self-denial. When Shiva continues to ignore Parvati, the gods send Kama, god of love, who pierces Shiva with one of his arrows. Immediately love-struck, yet still possessing self-control, Shiva disguises himself as a Brahmin and tests Parvati's love for him. When her love for Shiva proves true, Shiva reveals his identity to her, and, going back to her father’s house, they begin what soon becomes a turbulent marriage that eventually produces two sons (Ions 91).

Elements of this Parvati-Shiva myth are projected into Rushdie’s Midnight's Children, yet the textualized myth appears, like in The Jewel in the Crown, altered by the dynamic shifting of identities of the primary characters. For example, Shiva-of-the-knees and Saleem, whose fates have been intertwined since they were switched at birth, dually portray the traditional Hindu Shiva in that they alternatively share the consort Parvati-the-witch. Yet, simultaneously, the fictional relationship between these two struggling opponents, Saleem and his "alter ego" Shiva-of-the-knees, also resembles the mythic traditional opposition between Hindu gods Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer (Ions 46). Another example of dynamic identity, though Parvati-the-witch often represents her namesake, she also doubles as the traditional Kama, god of love, when she magically summons Shiva-of-the-knees and then releases him after becoming pregnant as planned.

Incidentally, as Wendy B. Faris suggests, it is quite conceivable that Midnight's Children’s characters could actually be incarnations of Hindu gods. Faris writes,

In India, of course, beliefs regarding reincarnation make metamorphoses through time particularly ubiquitous, and many of the characters in Midnight’s Children duplicate a deity, Saleem’s much mentioned nose (to cite only one instance) corresponding to Ganesh the elephant-headed god’s trunk. (179)

Two gods could even be embodied in one person, such as gods Vishnu and Ganesh in the character of Saleem. Yet even if divine, Saleem and the other midnight's children prove unable to exist successfully in postcolonial India, let alone to banish the prevailing demons and witches of chaos. Similar to what--in another post-colonial situation--Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his poem "Israfel," the greater implication is that even true avatars, or incarnations, of the gods themselves could not establish an ordered existence in mid-twentieth century India’s turbulence.

Rushdie also disturbs the sexual balance of the Shiva-Parvati myth by incongruously including Saleem into the Shiva-of-the-knees and Parvati-the-witch relationship, a mythic matched pair. Rushdie’s Parvati, who should traditionally desire Shiva, longs primarily for Saleem, who closely resembles Vishnu, the Preserver, Shiva’s traditional opposite. This perversion of desire, a kind of mythic adultery, affects three of the most important of India’s midnight’s children. As these three characters in many ways embody the country itself, their skewed love triangle emphasizes the portrayed imbalance in postcolonial India as a whole. Saleem’s rightful companion according to the traditional myth, Padma-the-picklemaker, who makes preserves, eventually does become Saleem’s consort, as the traditional Lakshmi a.k.a. Padma, goddess of good fortune and also preserver, accompanies Vishnu (Ions 46, 90-1). However, although Saleem ends with his traditional consort, Parvati’s misdirected desire has already severely damaged Saleem's overall stability. Thus, the resolution of proper sexual roles is qualified by the chaos that has irreversibly entered both Saleem and India, whose fate is so closely aligned with his own. Ultimately, Saleem fails to preserve himself in his role as Vishnu and faces unavoidable dissolution from the onslaught of the postcolonial chaos.

Hints to the ultimate projected outcome of the Indian situation lie in the novels’ most significant alteration of myth, how both Rushdie and Scott have darkly diverted traditional myths' endings in the textualized myths. In the traditional myth, Daphne-the-nymph’s transformation into a laurel tree is only semi-tragic. While robbed of her future as an animate being and thus living a death-like existence, nymph Daphne is also granted an immortality of sorts--as her branches were revered by champions, musicians, and artists for many ages (Hathorn 102); thus, a certain good results from her metamorphosis. In contrast, very little, if any, good emerges from Daphne Manners’ transformations. At best, her only redemption is left behind in her child Parvati, a musician--perhaps one who would in Greece have donned a crown of %daphne%, or laurel. Merrick, like Apollo, lives to love again, as is revealed later in Scott’s The Raj Quartet, yet continues to choose a path of abuse and racial hatred. Also, as we learn later, Hari is released from prison only to eke out an impoverished, death-like existence in the slums of India.

Likewise, in Midnight's Children, the ending of the traditional myth is also severely darkened and distorted. The Parvati, Shiva, and Saleem triangle--however twisted--is permanently shattered. Not only has their telepathic communication been irrecoverably severed, but also betrayal, sterilization, and death cleave their unity. This division glaringly contrasts the traditional "sacred union of the Two-in-One" of Parvati and Shiva (Zimmer 197) and also the traditional Vishnu-Shiva, who oppose in their actions, but are united within Prajapati, the Hindu supreme god and creator (Ions 46).

Just as the optimism accompanying the traditional myths does not survive in the textualized versions, Midnight's Children’s Saleem likewise seriously doubts the hopeful myth of a free India itself--"the new myth--a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivaled only by two other mighty fantasies: money and God" (111). With India itself as distorted myth, Saleem sighs, "We must live, I’m afraid, with the shadows of imperfection" (548). Too tired and crumbling to fill the empty hole left by this myth's decay, Saleem also quietly remarks:

A long hot dusty bus-ride through streets beginning to bubble with the excitement of the coming Independence Day, although I can smell other, more tarnished perfumes: disillusion, venality, cynicism . . . the nearly thirty-one-year-old myth of freedom is no longer what it was. New myths are needed; but that’s none of my business. (546)

As both novels’ conflicting, subjective narratives present disillusionment with objectivity, in general, these novels attempt to return to the older system of myth and mythology to establish a secure base for truth. In doing so, both seek, as Rushdie writes in "Is Nothing Sacred?"--"not simply rational explanations, but explanations of the heart" that "the language of secular rationalist materialism . . . failed to answer" (11). In Myth, Truth and Literature Colin Falck observes that mythology did once provide the means to come to terms with things that we cannot understand:

Since all language must be based in gesture, and must arise out of a dawning consciousness of bodily power and its limitations, the gods and cosmic forces which populate myths can perhaps best be seen as satisfying a pre-objective need to give form and comprehensibility to powers or agencies which lie outside our human power or agency and which it must be among the first function of a developing language to try to come to terms with. (116)

However, both novels' return to myth to provide comprehensibility of the post-colonial Indian situation fails--as is evidenced by the altered myths’ more tragic, chaotic endings, confused identities, and, in Midnight's Children, Saleem’s crumbling into dust--millions of disparate, unrelated pieces. Undoubtedly, these novels do not present a coherence of the Indian situation.

With disillusionment in objectivity and the failure of myth to reestablish a foundation for truth and belief in turbulent mid-twentieth century India, the question remains, What does the future hold for India? As symbolic of the country’s future, Scott and Rushdie each offer a child with, again, mythological connections, Parvati Manners and Aadam Sinai. Although myth has largely failed to reinstall comprehensibility, residual hope for the next generation enters through the vehicle of myth. Further, even though myth fails to reestablish belief, order, and truth, it survives in the textual narratives as fragmented pieces of an older, more secure, if fictional, age. Moreover, Saleem’s manuscript endures, as it must for us to read Midnight's Children. Has not then Saleem’s "chutnification of history," this unity of memory and thought--as well as the accumulated annals of Scott's historian--evolved into its own sort of myth that lives and makes at least a physical cohesion of mid-twentieth century Indian events and perceptions? Perhaps, in both novels, as C. Kanaganayakam asserts, "The framework of myth rights itself at the end" (92).

Yet, no glossy optimism can ignore Rushdie’s and Scott’s complex manipulation of myth in their portrayal of mid-twentieth century India. It is impossible to forget the pain of the Scott's captured nymph, the disillusioned dissolution of Saleem the Preserver, and both works' twisting chimeras of identity. Through the struggle and the anguish, these two writers of India employ myth to search for cohesive comprehensibility of personal and political chaos. While the novels appear equivocal on the ultimate success of the quest, which perhaps contains a mixture of both promise and failure, we must also realize that this searching is not characteristic only of India. Rushdie observes in "Is Nothing Sacred?" that the "rejection of totalized explanations is the modern condition. And this is where the novel, the form to discuss the fragmentation of truth, is created" (11). Will we ever discover the coherence we seek? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no, but we can be certain that the novel will continue to employ myth in probing the human condition’s disparate parts.


Works Cited

Falck, Colin. Myth, Truth, and Literature: Towards a True Post-Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Faris, Wendy B. "Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction." Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Ed. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995. 163-190.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. London: Harcourt Brace, 1924.

Gorra, Michael. "Rudyard Kipling to Salman Rushdie." The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed. John Richetti et al. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Hathorn, Richmond Y. Greek Mythology. Lebanon: American University of Beirut, 1977. 

Hendricks, Rhoda A., ed. and trans. Classical Gods and Heros: Myths as Told by the Ancient Authors. New York: William Morrow, 1974.

Ions, Veronica. Indian Mythology. London: Paul Hamilyn, 1967.

Kanaganayakam, C. "Myth and Fabulosity in Midnight's Children." Dalhousie Review 67 (1987) : 86-98.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "Israfel." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. 1362-4.

Rushdie, Salman. "Is Nothing Sacred?" New Perspectives Quarterly 8 (1991) : 8-15.

---. Midnight's Children. New York: Avon, 1980.

Scott, Paul. The Jewel in the Crown. New York: Avon, 1979.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.