by Salman Rushdie (1981)
Penguin Books (1991)
After buying Midnight’s Children several years ago I often read the first three pages, excited for the day I would finally take the plunge and commit myself. I was really intimidated.
Then I actually started it four years ago for a class. The first 100 pages captivated me, right up until the point where Saleem is finally born. But then I didn’t make it more than two chapters into Part II. At the time, I was engaged to my wife to be, so my mind couldn’t concentrate on too much (I was not a productive reader during that time). Ever since I put the book down, though, I’ve felt guilty for not finishing it — not guilty because I got an A in the class but didn’t do the reading; guilty because I knew I had given up a good opportunity to study a modern classic with the benefit of a classroom discussion. Midnight’s Children has sat on my bookshelf all that time, still with its bookmark right before “Snakes and Ladders.”
When the Best of the Booker shortlist was announced I was excited to again have an excuse to read it. Why did I need an excuse? Well, some books are intimidating, especially the ones you’ve started and had reason to put back down. I’d seen what was on the other side of Saleem’s birth — Part II and on is a dense thicket of the political history (in abstractions) of a country I knew/know little about.
All the same, of the Best of the Booker shortlist, Midnight’s Children was the last one I read. I think I did this because I knew I had to run out of excuses not to read the book. If there was another one to pick up which would also get me closer to the goal of reading the entire shortlist, I might have been tempted to put it down again. Fortunately, times have changed. Though I love my wife very much, I’m finding it easier to concentrate on other things now. I had no trouble staying focused on this amazing — if at times complicated and erudite and dense — book.
I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nurisng Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more . . . On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence.
Saleem Sinai is one of 1001 midnight’s children, the children born during the first hour after India’s independence, though as first born of the 1001, he has special privileges and is neither younger than nor older than his country.
Rushdie can make otherwise mundane events seem mythical and magical. The narrative devices are clever and effective: Saleem is telling the story while he cracks all over, leading to the “not with a bang but a wimper” ending; many parts are told as if in real time, with Saleem going on tangents while waiting for a character to arrive at a door; one of the main characters is Padma, a proxy for the reader at Saleem’s side, who asks questions about the story and sometimes causes Saleem to contradict himself. And what really impressed me: the intricacies and rhythm of the story-telling make it seem like this story has been passed down through generations. As it should, being the story of a nation.
Interestingly, there’s a twist right at the end of Part I: he’s switched at birth with Shiva, another child born at the same time. Saleem grows up in a well-to-do Muslim home while Shiva lives in the slums raised as a Hindu. There is more than that: Saleem’s true father is not even the man who thinks he’s Shiva’s father; rather, most likely William Methwold, an Englishman, is Saleem’s true father, splitting Saleem into even more heritages, none of which he becomes aware of until later in the book, none of which he accepts, choosing instead to adopt the history and heritage as he learned it growing up. I found these ties to India’s past ingenious and Rushdie’s feelings about India’s present very interesting.
It’s not all magic, however, and sometimes can be a real slog. But I attribute many of my problems with the book to my own failings. I am somewhat ignorant of the history of India. More knowledge of the minor but historical characters or the minor but historical events would have made the longer, more tedious center chapters a bit more bearable, if not more interesting. Some of the paragraphs feel like whole chapters because of all of the intricate traipsings through history, and it feels like Rushdie is just afraid to leave anything out. After reading several chapter constructed from these kinds of paragraphs, I started drifting. Another problem with those dense parts is that they lose some of the magic of Rushdie’s prose. It feels like he’s just got to get the events out there, so while in many parts of the book I could enjoy the images, these parts were more like reading a clever textbook.
Despite the rough, slow patches, the ending does not disappoint. It is reminiscent of the tone and style of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which is fitting since Midnight’s Children, with all of its history condensed into one person, has been compared to Joyce’s Ulysses:
Yes, they will trample me underfoot, the numbers marching one two three, four hundred million five hundred six, reducing me to specks of voiceless dust, just as, in all goods time, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privelege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.
Thanks to Indira Ghandi (who was still alive when the book was published! talk about nerve making the Prime Minister “the Widow” villain of the nation’s story — and, yes, did have a hair style that made half of her hair look white and half black) the children have all been stripped of their powers. One thousand one possibilities pulverized to dust. It’s not a hopeful ending. Not explicitly at least, though perhaps Padma (me, the reader), who has proposed marriage, really can turn this around. Then again, Padma, like myself, is naive and basically powerless in the face of so much history.