My love for Midnight’s Children was slow-burning. But if a wildfire can begin with a match—and I’m pretty sure they can—then that’s what happened to me.
As it turned out, all my initial struggles to follow the large cast of characters introduced in its early chapters were moot, since Rushdie dumps them all to make way for a new troupe of players right around the time Saleem Sinai is born.
Oh, yeah, that. Saleem Sinai’s birth coincides to the second with the birth of an independent India in 1947. This becomes sort of important later on, when his entire life mirrors, maps, and modifies the course of Indian history. He also has superpowers, as does every child born between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the night India gains its independence.
Don’t expect a kind of mid-century X-Men set in Bombay, though. The Midnight’s Children in general play a relatively (and unexpectedly) minor role in the book, and we hear more about their superpowers than we actually observe. If I had to lodge one complaint about the first half of Midnight’s Children, it would be that Rushdie, politician-style, promises much more than he delivers.
That all changes in the second half.
We accompany Saleem through his childhood misadventures, his move to Pakistan, his time at war, his stay in a magician’s slum, the birth of his son, and the writing of his memoir. We meet his friends and enemies, his entire extended family, doctors and soldiers, state leaders and prophets, an actress, a witch, a nanny, and a snake charmer. And even that doesn’t begin to tell this story.
I wish I knew more about Indian history before picking up Midnight’s Children, but I learned plenty along the way. Indira Gandhi actually sued Rushdie for defamation in 1984—a suit that came down, in the end, to a single sentence. Rushdie and his publishers agreed to remove the sentence from future editions of the book, and the case was dropped. He reflects on the incident in his 2005 introduction to the novel:
It was after all an amazing admission she was making, considering what the Emergency chapters of Midnight’s Children were about. Her willingness to make such an admission felt to me like an extraordinary validation of the novel’s portrait of those Emergency years.
Within a few weeks, adds Rushdie, Indira Gandhi was dead—assassinated by her own bodyguards.
This wouldn’t be the only time Rushdie was threatened by the powers that be: In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā calling for Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers over controversies surrounding The Satanic Verses (a novel inspired, in part, by the life of Muhammad). All assassination attempts on Rushdie have been unsuccessful, but his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991.
But that’s another story for another blog post. If you can manage to read Rushdie’s work without rioting, issuing a fatwā, or assassinating anyone, you’re in for a treat. Midnight’s Children is one of those remarkable books planned so thoroughly and executed so tightly that a thousand and one threads come together not just once, but countless times. The novel’s timeline is vast, and its scope—inevitably—monumental. Thematically, Rushdie bounces back and forth between time, truth, family, politics, religion, sex, and fatalism—and his feat of acrobatics is so stunning that every other
writer gymnast today is left feeling a little jealous.
Midnight’s Children is sad but not depressing, beautiful but not pretentious. It’s an iconic work of magical realism, but its merits transcend genre. In other, simpler, better words:
I highly recommend.
And I think I’ll leave it at that.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
The children of the hour of darkness were born, I’m afraid, 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.
Padma — did you have, when you were little, a world of your own? A tin orb, on which were imprinted the continents and oceans and polar ice? Two cheap metal hemispheres, clamped together by a plastic stand? No, of course not; but I did. It was a world full of labels: Atlantic Ocean and Amazon and Tropic of Capricorn. And, at the North Pole, it bore the legend: MADE AS ENGLAND. By the August of the nodding signboards and the rapaciousness of the Narlikar women, this tin world had lost its stand; I found Scotch Tape and stuck the earth together at the Equator, and then, my urge for play overcoming my respect, began to use it as a football. In the aftermath of the Sabarmati affair, when the air was filled with the repentance of my mother and the private tragedies of Methwold’s heirs, I clanked my tin sphere around the Estate, secure in the knowledge that the world was still in one piece (although held together by adhesive tape) and also at my feet.
Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each ‘I’, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.