In his introduction to Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie writes –
“As I placed Saleem (born at the midnight moment of Indian independence) at the centre... I understood that his time of birth would oblige me immensely to increase the size of my canvas. If he and India were to be paired, I would need to tell the story of both twins. Then Saleem, ever a striver for meaning, suggested to me that the whole of modern Indian history happened as it did because of him; that history, the life of his nation-twin, was somehow all his fault.”
Later, he elaborates, in Saleem’s own words –
“...it is Kali Yuga; the children of the hour of darkness were born ... in the midst of the age of darkness; so that although we found it easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being good. ......”
And then –
“Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real. A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before; and there were a thousand and one dead ends. Midnight’s children can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view; they can be represented as the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our myth-ridden nation, whose defeat was entirely desirable in the context of a modernizing, twentieth century economy; or as the true hope of freedom....”
That, in a nutshell, is what the book is about.
To elaborate a bit more, and get on with my review, here are some thoughts I had, as I read the book.
To begin with, it is not an easy read. I am usually a fast reader, but this book took me more than a month to read. It is not one of those books which you can read at one go. There are parts which make you stop and think, and the narrative at times makes you wonder where on earth the story is going.
The story might be about Saleem, but it is, in fact, a beautiful way of writing history. Every event in the book relates to events which occurred in India in the three decades following independence, and while the story is all about connecting Saleem, and the midnight’s children to the events, it does provide a look at the events in a manner other than simply reading about them in a newspaper or in an history book. This is something the author seems to have noticed, for he writes in his introduction –
“In the west, people tended to read Midnight’s children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”
We all remember events, not just by themselves, but how they affected us. For example, I shall always remember Indira Gandhi’s assassination with our being stuck in Madras, worrying about our journey to Delhi, for my aunt’s wedding, and the Babri Masjid riots with being stuck in college, and getting into a running train in a desperate attempt to get back home safe. Yes, this is no way concerned with the book, but it’s what I loved about the book, his connecting of historical events with events in Saleem’s life. The only difference is, while we look at events in our life against the backdrop of events happening in our country, Saleem looks on at the events happening in the country against the events occurring in his life.... each connected with the other, by virtue of his time of birth.
Rushdie’s choice of the protagonist as the narrator, writing his autobiography, reading it out to his lover... is not just interesting, it is brilliant. It allows him to use a typically Indian narrative – rambling, lengthy, filled with anecdotes, jumping back and forth between different time periods, now talking of a time in the past, now jumping to the present, suddenly going way back in time, and once again leaping ahead, suggesting what is yet to come, tantalising the reader with bits of what lie ahead, constantly reminding us of events in the past (which was actually very useful, since I didn’t have to constantly refer to past happenings). If you have ever heard your grandmother tell you stories of her youth, you will surely see the similarity.
At first, as I struggled to read the book, I wondered why on earth it had won the Best of the Booker award. It was only by the time I completed it that I realised why. To start off with, there is the language – it is simple, easy enough for the casual reader, but good enough for the connoisseur; his choice of words for his characters is just about perfect, he manages to blend in Hindi slang and Indian English without taking anything away from the overall language of the book, something few Indian authors manage to achieve. Add to this his choice of metaphors for describing anything and everything... ranging from a torn bed sheet to the family nose inherited by Saleem, and you have a literary masterpiece!
Then there is his writing style – cynical, satirical, with the underlying sense of humour at the whole situation. He laughs at the typically Indian mentality, at times, cruelly and brutally honest, forces us to see things as they are. And yet, he holds on to the story, and our interest.
The very idea of midnight’s children itself is so typically Indian; it is so much in tune with our love for mythology and seeking a divine meaning, a higher reason for every single event, that it seems inevitable that the children will end up much like our own country – confused, corrupt and helpless.
And, just like almost everything in our country, he carries it a bit too far...The story could have been simpler with just a few midnight’s children, instead, he chooses a number which is difficult to handle, and even with just three of them being important, he fails to give each of them their place in the sun. The story might be Saleem’s. But in that case, the title should have been ‘Midnight’s Child”. Having associated Saleem’s destiny with other children, especially Shiva, I expected to read more about him as the book progressed, which didn’t happen. We hear of Shiva just off and on through the book, when, by rights, simply by virtue of his birth, he should have been a co-protagonist. But the story, narrated by Saleem, remains Saleem’s alone. But then, that was probably the author’s way of showing us the injustice in the world, in which case, he does succeed.
P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India