Booker of Bookers, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Here we are. I finished Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children a week or two ago. Since then, I’ve moved on in my reading, and even abandoned another book with ease (John Irving, I know!) What was it about Midnight’s Children that made me persist?
- The very aspect that I found was creating an impenetrable work was the same reason I kept going: the language. And his voice, oh my. Here is the lengthy opening paragraph and the shorter second one that somehow transmit all that this novel will be:
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 Nursing 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, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate – at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.
Now, however, time (having no further use for me) is running out. I will soon be thirty-one years old. Perhaps. If my crumbling, over-used body permits. But I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and a night. I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning – yes, meaning – something. I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity.
2. The delight of the magic realism of the novel. Saleem Sinai, born at the split-second of India’s independence, at the age of nine is able to ‘let [his] newly-awakened inner ear (connected, like all ears, to [his] nose) rove freely around the city – and further, north and south, east and west – listening in to all manner of things.’ And the humour is fab:
I gained my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the eyes of a fat Englishwoman suffering from the tummy-runs; after which, to balance south against north, I hopped down to Madurai’s Meenakshi temple and nestled amongst the woolly, mystical perceptions of a chanting priest. I toured Connaught Place in New Delhi, in the guise of an auto-rickshaw driver, complaining bitterly to my fares about the rising price of gasoline; in Calcutta I slept rough in a section of a drainpipe. By now thoroughly bitten by the travel bug, I zipped down to Cape Comorin and became a fisher-woman whose sari was as tight as her morals were loose … standing on red sands washed by three seas, I flirted with Dravidian beachcombers in a language I couldn’t understand; then up into the Himalayas, into the neanderthal moss-covered hut of a Goojar tribal, beneath the glory of a completely circular rainbow and the tumbling moraine of the Kolahoi glacier.
His use there, of the clichéd expression ‘travel bug’, is genius, and the mention of ‘red sands washed by three seas’ is just marvellous. This cracking prose continues gloriously for another page, with Saleem temporarily residing in the heads of cricketers and temple boys, celebrities and actors. He is a landlord in Uttar Pradesh with a belly filled and stretching against the tie of his pants, and then starving to death in another place, where he was two months old and his mother had run out of breast-milk because of the food shortage. It is extraordinary stuff.
The problem for me, and it was ongoing, was that the lush smart prose drew me on, only for me to continuously lose my way because I couldn’t make sense of the metaphors and most of the time just couldn’t follow what was happening in even a superficial way. I struggled to find surface meaning. I knew that things were significant: Saleem’s face is ‘stained’ with birthmarks and he has a very long nose, described as a cucumber. It drips, continuously and there’s something weird about the shape of his head. I seem to remember he becomes deaf in one ear. All this was so obviously meaningful but it was frustrating because I just couldn’t understand it, and while this can happen with reading, that there can be profundities that not all readers will ‘get’ you still need to throw them a fricking bone, give them something to satisfy. I had the sense that characters represented countries, regions, and that character’s physical features also represented maps or regions, and that events that happened to the family and characters paralleled what happened politically and socially at the corresponding time (Saleem is ten years old, he has a fever. If I looked it up, I bet in 1957 there was some sort of riot or massacre or fire somewhere. I am tempted, seriously, to go back and try to match up the text with historiography of India 1947 – to the seventies). But I remained entranced by what I thought was going on, even if I didn’t get it, and I finished the book with more satisfaction than I read it, if that makes any sense. And I’m glad I persisted, if only to say I’ve read it and be able to say something about it. (I’m reading Freedom at Midnight now, to try to work some of this stuff out.)
There were moment when I sat up and became energised, one is on page 180, when a girl Evelyn Lilith Burns arrives at the estate where Saleem was living with his parents. It has the promise of something, but in the end, fades.
Before I climbed into my first pair of long pants, I fell in love with Evie; but love was a curious, chain-reactive thing that year. To save time, I shall place all of us in the same row at the Metro cinema; Robert Taylor is mirrored in our eyes as we sit in flickering trances – and also in symbolic sequence: Saleem Sinai is sitting-next-to-and-in-love-with Evie Burns who is sitting-next-to-and-in-love-with Sonny Ibrahim who is sitting-next-to-and-in-love-with the Brass Monkey [Saleem’s sister] who is sitting next to the aisle and feeling starving hungry … I loved Evie for perhaps six months of my life; two years later, she was back in America, knifing an old woman and being sent to reform school.
SO. HAH. Wouldn’t that make you read on. I swear, the man is a trickster, by dropping little morsels of intrigue like that, stringing you along only to yell gotcha. He is playing a Snakes and Ladders game with his reader, and I reckon this might be the best shaggy dog story of all time (it beats The Luminaries, if that is a shaggy dog story. I’m not sure I think it is. It also beats The Little Friend by Donna Tartt). You slide down a snake and feel despondent. You don’t get it. It’s too hard. But then there’s a ladder like the one above and you joyfully climb it, only to come sliding down again a few short pages later. The smarty-pants even mentions snakes and ladders down the page from the above text:
A brief explanation of my gratitude is in order at this point: if Evie had not come to live amongst us, my story might never have progressed beyond tourism-in-a-clocktower [the place he goes to connect with people telepathically] and cheating in class … But Evie Burns (was she snake or ladder? The answer’s obvious: both) did come, complete with the silver bicycle which enabled me not only to discover the midnight children, but also the ensure the partition of the State of Bombay.
There is fantastic playfulness (from page 346):
(While Padma [his wife to whom he is narrating the story], to calm herself, holds her breath, I permit myself to insert a Bombay-talkie-style close up – a calendar ruffled by a breeze, its pages flying off in rapid succession to denote the passing of the years; I superimpose turbulent long-shots of street riots, medium shots of burning buses and blazing English-language libraries… through the accelerated flickering of the calendar we glimpse the fall of Ayub Khan, the assumption of the presidency by General Yahya, the promise of elections…
Towards the end of the novel, the pace and tone become frenetic. Rushdie disdains the comma in several tri-word stackings on page 430:
The Friday mosque watches impassively as I swerve duck run between the tilting shacks, my feet leading me towards flap-eared son and spittoon … but what chance did I have against those knees? The knees of the war hero are coming closer closer as I flee, the joints of my nemesis thundering towards me, and he leaps, the legs of the war hero fly through the air, closing like jaws around my neck, knees squeezing the breath out of my throat, I am falling twisting but the knees hold tight, and now a voice – the voice of treachery betrayal hate! – is saying, as knees rest on my chest and pin me down in the thick dust of the slum: ‘So, little rich boy: we meet again. Salaam.’ I spluttered; Shiva smiled.
Oh shiny buttons on a traitor’s uniform! Winking blinking like silver … why did he do it? Why did he, who had once led anarchistic apaches through the slums of Bombay, become the warlord of tyranny? Why did midnight’s child betray the children of midnight, and take me to my fate? For love of violence, and the legitimizing glitter of buttons on uniforms? For the sake of his ancient antipathy towards me? Or – I find this most plausible – in exchange for immunity from the penalties imposed on the rest of us … yes, that must be it; O birthright-denying war hero! O mess-of-pottage-corrupted rival … But no, I must stop all this and tell the story as simply as possible …
A couple of pages later, there’s mention of the Madam, the Widow with the particoloured hair, and if you weren’t a hundred per cent sure that this was Indira G, then it’s confirmation:
The use of ‘particoloured’ to remind the reader of the word ‘partition’ is genius (Gandhi was daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, who himself was one of the prominent leaders for independence, and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi).
Getting close to the end now, and it’s so exciting and full-on. The references are less veiled, more overt. Some pages 439-440 are about the mass sterilisations, ‘ectomies’ Rushdie calls them. Wiki says: India’s state of emergency between 1975 and 1977 included a family planning initiative that began in April 1976 through which the government hoped to lower India’s ever increasing population. This program used propaganda and monetary incentives to, some may construe, inveigle citizens to get sterilized. People who agreed to get sterilized would receive land, housing, and money or loans. Because of this program, thousands of men received vasectomies and even more women received tubal ligations, both possibly reversible. However, the program focused more on sterilizing women than men. An article in The New York Times titled “For Sterilization, Target Is Women” states, “There were 114,426 vasectomies in India in 2002-03, and 4.6 million tubal ligations, the analogous operation on women, though ligation is a more complicated operation.”  Son of the Prime Minister at the time Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, was largely blamed for what turned out to be a failed program. A strong backlash against any initiative associated with family planning followed the highly controversial program, which continues into the 21st century.
The last fourteen and a half pages of the book are amazing. I love the way Salman will not be, er, rushed. He takes his time, he gets everything he wants to say in there. He talks about his son-not-son being part of a second generation of midnight’s children, people who will grow up ‘far tougher than the first, not looking for their fate in prophecy or the stars, but forging it in the implacable furnaces of their wills.’
At the end are snakes in baskets and seething humanity; there’s a ‘Midnite Confidential Club’ with a secret, underground location; and chutney pickles and spices, jars filled and empty:
My special blends: I’ve been saving them up. Symbolic value of the pickling process: all the six hundred million eggs which gave birth to the population of India could fit inside a single, standard-sized pickle-jar; six-hundred million spermatozoa could be lifted on a single spoon. Every pickle-jar (you will forgive me if I become florid for a moment) contains, therefore, the most exalted of possibilities: the feasibility of the chutnification of history; the grand hope of the pickling of time! I, however, have pickled chapters. Tonight by screwing the lid firmly onto a jar bearing the legend Special Formula No. 30: ‘Abracadabra’, I reach the end of my long-winded autobiography; in words and pickles, I have immortalized my memories, although distortions are inevitable in both methods. We must live, I’m afraid, with the shadows of imperfection.
One empty jar … how to end? Happily, with Mary in her teak rocking-chair and a son who has begun to speak? Amid recipes, and thirty jars with chapter-headings for names? In melancholy, drowning in memories of Jamila and Parvati and even of Evie Burns? Or with the magic children …Or with questions: now that I can, I swear, see the cracks on the backs of my hands, cracks along my hairline and between my toes, why do I not bleed? Am I already so emptied dessicated pickled? Am I already the mummy of myself?
The last page and a half are magnificent. I can’t transpose them here but the section begins with ‘No, that won’t do, I shall have to write the future as I have written the past, to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet. But the future cannot be preserved in a jar; one jar must remain empty… What cannot be pickled because it has not taken place is that I shall reach my birthday, thirty-one today…
Saleem Sinai narrates that he will drive ‘south south into the hearts of the tumultuous crowds, who will be throwing balloons of paint at each other’ and merge into a crowd, ‘the dense crowd, the crowd without boundaries, growing until it fills the world’ and it will be hard to pass through, and he will abandon the taxi in which he’s travelling, on foot into the thronging crowd:
I am alone in the vastness of the numbers, the numbers marching one two three, I am being buffeted right and left while rip tear crunch reaches its climax and my body is screaming, it cannot take this kind of treatment any more… the cracks are widening, pieces of my body are falling off … night is falling has fallen, there is a countdown ticktocking to midnight, fireworks and stars… I see that I shall never reach Kashmir, I shall die with Kashmir on my lips… now I see other figures in the crowd, the terrifying figure of a war-hero with lethal knees, who has found out how I cheated him of his birth-right, he is pushing towards me through the crowd … I hear lies being spoken in the night, anything you want to be you kin be, the greatest lie of all, cracking now, fission of Saleem, I am the bomb in Bombay, watch me explode, bones splitting breaking beneath the awful pressure of the crowd, bag of bones falling down down down…
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, all in good 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 privilege 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.
What a closing paragraph.
That is all and it is enough.