A controversial author of his time, very well known for shaking the muslim population in anger down to their very solidly embedded religious roots, by writing ‘The Satanic Verses’; Salman Rushdie also penned “Midnight’s Children”, weaving a tale that is well knitted, leaving not a tiny hole or a single stitch missed in the fabric of the narrative. One can still disagree with a person’s ideology and opinions, without losing respect for their craft. This is the very thought that prompted me to read ‘Midnight’s Children’.
It is an epic tale which encapsulates the events before and after the partition of the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan and India; a division slicing the land based on the ideologies and religious beliefs of its occupants. The protagonist, Saleem Sinai who is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, at the very same moment as the birth of his nation. Saleem believes that his and all the other children’s fate, all born in the midnight hour, is sealed along with their nation’s; they are destined for great things. It is a tale of how Saleem and Mother India grow together and how their lives progress despite repeatedly being shaken, and their fight against their fate.
Salman Rushdie paints an emotionally and thematically vivid picture, showcasing his full command over all five senses expertly incorporated in the writing. The flying of spittle juice, the humming of Mian Abdullah, the leitmotif ‘whatsitsname’ of Reverend Mother, the blood and mercurochrome stains drop the reader in the middle of the setting and familiarise them with the characters. We immediately know that the crawling mountains, blue skies and frozen lakes means we are in Kashmir. Rushdie has proven himself to be an expert in designating physical attributes to almost all of his characters. The descriptions of peculiar physical features not only cement the characters in the reader’s minds, but also sketch their personality. We only need to read the words 'centre parting of hair’ to know that the author is taking about Methwold, the ‘powerful knees’ always refer to Shiva, and ‘rhymeless and wordless poet means’ Nadir the impotent lover. There are as many characters in the book as possibly the number of pages. The constant reference to physical characteristics keeps the narrative moving without the reader having to turn the pages back and forth. The imagery created with descriptive words marks each character vividly and the reader is able to keep pace without confusion.
This book is a fine sample of magic realism. The tone is set with this theme in the very beginning by saying that the boatman Tai is hundreds of years old and how a blind man is an avid admirer of art. These are things beyond belief and questionable, but because the theme is set form the beginning, we never doubt Saleem Sinai’s telepathic link with all the other children born on the same night as the birth of their nation, or Saleem’s nose being able to sniff out not only smells but also fears and emotions, or the fact that Saleem as a baby never closes his eyes or blinks.
The reference to the silver spittoon with lapus lazuli is symbolic. It is a relic of the past that ties the protagonist Saleem Sinai to his mother, her past and his own present. The constant reference of an old spittoon carefully cherished and passed on with time also acts as a symbolic reminder that time changes, life changes, life also ends, but the pieces of the past can continue to survive, pass on to different owners and witness all the changes come to life. People are connected through chains of events, history remains long after we have vanquished. The silver spittoon survives three generations while Saleem’s family is wiped clean from the earth.
As I mentioned, this book is a recap of historic events that spanned the mid of the twentieth century, Rushdie’s style of writing ensures that one does not find the trip down history’s lane overwhelming or cumbersome. He has aligned these historical events with the incidents that occur in Saleem’s life in a manner that does not interrupt the flow of the story. Instead, the events of history and the ones in Saleem’s life are intertwined and they affect each other, and are seemingly the driving force of each others lives (or so Saleem believes).
I also started this book without a bias towards the author and his prejudices. The writing however confirmed the general view that the author possesses certain biases against certain populations of the world. This is very evident in his choice of words that are laced with cynicism when speaking of the muslim characters in his book, or when mentioning a certain nation. (I say this with no intention of starting a religious or political debate). The continuous derogatory remarks made by the Pakistani soldiers against the Indian soldiers is one such example. The hate speech by members of one army does no injustice to the image of the other army, however, it portrays the Muslims as intolerant and vengeful, and sheds a poor light on the average muslim population as a whole.
You do not have to be a fan of the author or history to read this book. Read this book if you are an admirer of literary fiction, have a love for metaphors, vividly aesthetic writing, a story with odd little details that poetically tie various ends of the narrative together with their repetitive and fulfilling appearances.
The powerful use of vivid metaphors immediately appeals to the senses; I could almost hear the voice of the old man ‘crackling like an old radio because decades were rubbing up against each other around his vocal cords’. I could feel the mountains creeping up like a ferocious wildling as I read ‘the mountains closed in and snarled like angry jaws around the city on the lake’. The blue kashmiri sky poured into the eyes, frozen diamonds, and the transformed rubies will always remind me of how a blue and teary eyed person in the freezing cold hit his nose on the ground while praying, and how in that moment he had been transformed into a non believer as the ‘valley, gloved in a prayer mat punched him on the nose.’ This book is a remarkable example of the fact that one does not read simply to get through a story; we read for the passion of words, of expression, for experiencing the author’s creative liberty. It is an art to use the same old words and arrange them in such a fresh string of array that they sing to us, long after we have finished the tale.