Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, won the 1981 Booker Prize, and in 1993 it was decided that Midnight’s Children was the ‘Booker of Bookers’, or the best book to win the Booker Prize in a quarter century. The author of six novels, Rushdie has won awards from several countries for his writing over the years, and his books have been published in over 24 languages (http://www.randomhouse.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780812969030).

Although Midnight’s Children was to be historical in concept initially, Rushdie found himself instead creating a book the writing of which was for him “about the nature of memory. . . For instance, a lot of people. . . keep asking me why Gandhi’s not in the book. Well, he’s there when he dies, and he’s also there in the background of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, but he’s not particularly or centrally there, and I keep saying, this isn’t a history book. This is a book about one person’s passage through history” (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html, emph add). That one person is the narrator, Saleem Sinai, who says at one point near the end of the novel, “I no longer want to be anything but who I am. 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….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. . . to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world” (MC, 383). And that is exactly what Rushdie attempts to do: feed us an entire world, complete with history, politics, wars, intrigue, love, hate, forgetfulness, and neglect. Included are all the moving larger pieces which shape the smaller ones, and all the moving smaller pieces that make up the larger. Each chapter is characterized as a pickled jar of memories and, according to Saleem, there is an art to the spices used in the pickling process: “In the spice bases, I reconcile myself to the inevitable distortions of the pickling process. To pickle is to give immortality, after all… a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art,” he explains in the last pages, “is to change the flavour in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and a jar) to give it shape and form — that is to say, meaning” (MC, 461). This sounds as though Rushdie’s original historical, indeed almost mythic, intent was preserved in some way. Nevertheless, he insists the novel was a personal book. People often ask him if he “thinks of writing mythic books,” and he always responds that “you can’t sit down to write a myth. A myth is a collective act. The society does it….You can’t sit down to say ‘I will now express the collective experience of my generation.’. . . most people who would sit down to do that would write something very bad. I sat down to write a personal book. If people have that response to it, then it’s a matter of great pride” (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html).

Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 ‘in Bombay, India, to a middle-class Moslem family’ (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rushdie.htm). His father’s father was an Urdu poet, and his father was a businessman educated at Cambridge College in Britain (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rushdie.htm). His own life experiences are often the well for his astutely sensitive, symbolically layered, and lavishly attentive descriptions of Indian life throughout the years leading up to and following the region’s independence. He says that he spent a lot of time ‘excavating’ other people’s memories as well in order to come up with such a detailed final work (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html). In fact, in one interview he explains that he had so much material he had no idea how to organize it, and the resulting oral narrative developed out of desperation with an unfocused manuscript many times too long.

The gravitational point turned out to be Saleem Sinai, dying in a pickle factory and narrating Midnight’s Children in the disorganized-re-mapping-of-one’s-most-important-memories sort of way that an elderly person might have when trying to relate their entire life-story. It might seem the storyteller had one foot in eternity already, the way everything is interconnected in their flickering perspective. That’s characteristic of Indian oral narrative style, and of many other oral traditions as well. Rushdie explains that “‘an oral narrative does not go from the beginning to the middle to the end of the story. It goes in great swoops, it goes in spirals or in loops, it every so often reiterates something that happened earlier to remind you, and then takes you off again, sometimes summarizes itself, it frequently digresses off into something that the story-teller appears just to have thought of, then it comes back to the main thrust of the narrative.’ (Rushdie, “Midnight Children and Shame.” p.7)” (http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Mid_Children.htm). In this way, Midnight’s Children complexifies history in structure (memory is a complex beast!), while simultaneously simplifying it by pinning it down around a central figure– similar to the way bits of sugar crystal dissolved in water will solidify and gather around a stick.

At the same time, the memory of this central figure (Saleem) at times plays tricks on him and inks a fictionalized version of his past. He is not infallible, factually speaking. Historical dates (like the date of Gandhi’s death) are occasionally misstated and then glossed over, in the way an old one has of trusting more to memory than to fact, because somehow that’s the way it was, altogether-like. Most dates are right — but more importantly, all dates are reliable in character and effect, holding together many far-flung pieces with a personal logic that retains an integrity which holds true to Indian experience. In fact, many Indians have asked him, point-blank, why he even wrote the book at all. ‘We know all of this,’ they’ll tell him, ‘We could have written this book’ — which he takes as highest praise (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html). Any author should be pleased to receive a compliment like that — never mind thousands upon thousands of them!

Historically, there are many sound landmarks in Midnight’s Children, written in memorial-type fashion, from a distance. One remarkable event Rushdie included in the book is the Armritsar Massacre, which occurred on April 13th, 1919. Dr. Aziz, who is Saleem’s grandfather, is there when it happens. Aziz and his ‘good Kashmiri wife’ Naseem have had an argument over her reluctance to give up her limiting traditions of meekness, submission and shy propriety in order to become a more modern Indian woman– ending in his burning all her veils and her sending him out of the house (MC, 34). Significantly, the sentence immediately following the summation of their argument runs thus: “While in the Cantonment area, at British army H.Q., one Brigadier R. K. Dyer is waxing his moustache” (MC, 34).

The next page begins April 13th, and Aziz is walking unsuspectingly around Armritsar with his doctor’s bag. A crowd sweeps him through an alleyway and into a compound full of peaceful protesters of the raj. A speech is being made, and Dr. Aziz’s nose is itching terribly. Brigadier R. K. Dyer arrives and Aziz sneezes so hard that he falls forward in the crowd, his doctor’s bag opens, and everything in it goes flying (MC, 36). This saves his life, because as he attempts to collect it all and replace it in the bag he hears ‘a chattering sound’, and people start falling on him, staining his clothing red (MC, 36). At the close of the scene, “they have fired a total of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd. Of these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark, killing or wounding some person. ‘Good shooting,’ Dyer tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly good thing.’ (MC, 36). The story then jumps back to Aziz’s quarters where he finds himself unable to exactly answer Naseem’s query as to where he’s been. His response: “’Nowhere on this earth,’” he said, and began to shake in her arms” (MC, 36).

The way the Armritsar Massacre is painted here proves once again Rushdie’s thesis that the nature of the book is personal. It works as emotive memory rather than as a documentation of an event. What is not said is almost more important in memories and un-burying truth than exactly what is said. The realm of the heart is not a court of law.

Another historical linkage can be found near the end of the book when Parvati-the-witch summoned Shiva. Saleem says “He [Shiva] can be concealed no longer, however; because one morning in May 1974 – is it just my cracking memory, or am I right in thinking that it was the 18th, perhaps at the very moment at which the deserts of Rajasthan were being shaken by India’s first nuclear explosion? Was Shiva’s explosion into my life truly synchronous with India’s arrival, without prior warning, at the nuclear age?” (MC, 406-407) But again, this centers history around the book’s main character, making it a personal telling, not a documenting of facts. Oddly, that is the very thing which makes it so wholly familiar to so many Indians.

In the end, however, despite the historical and political linkages one can find littering Saleem’s life-memories, I agree with the critic who reminds us to look at the author as author, rather than historian: “In order to appreciate fully the work of Salman Rushdie, one must look past the politics surrounding his novels and study Rushdie the artist. Only then can the reader develop an appreciation for his brilliance and examine his universal insights into the human experience. Anything less is denying his work the credit it deserves” (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/jason_paper.html).

Rushdie’s writing has a spider-web-like intricacy that deserves much meditative study and respect. It’s almost as if touching any part of the story makes the entire web shake and jiggle in response, there are so many delicate interwoven connections through connections through connections. His narrating character helps him to accomplish this complex structure. Literarily this is called leitmotif, rather than simple symbolism. Taking any one image or name or date-connection in Midnight’s Children and deconstructing it is not going to get a result with anything near the life or meaning that Rushdie interleaved through the pages of the book. The building of symbolic structures and significance over the span of a novel with such a light touch takes a level of genius I only hope to ever be able to achieve. The sheer brilliance of it — and hours of thought and work it must have taken — demand respect. It is simply astounding to see how each bit tugs on each other named, described, and bounded bit in such a carefully balanced, yet informal, conversational way. The effect of the whole displays tremulous truths that refuse to come out when objectified wholly on their own… It’s a style worth turning green over.

Rushdie also attempted to make Indian linguistic habits graspable in the English language — similar in nature to an ongoing project he’s been developing with his language use over many years. “If you look at Midnight’s Children,” he says, “it’s to try and find a way of making English acquire the rhythm and flavor and music of Indian languages. To try and bring a kind of Indian vernacular speech, an Indian sense of metaphor, across into English” (http://www.powells.com/authors/rushdie.html). He’s also been noticing for some time that tempo has a great deal to do with the reader’s emotional response to what is written, and can even override content! He explains in an interview with Powells that “if you play with the tempo of something, it actually affects the meaning quite dramatically. You can take something mournful, speed it up, and it becomes like The Keystone Cops. Or you can take something funny, slow it down, and it becomes melancholy or it reveals other dimensions, and so on. So I’ve often been very interested in the issue of tempo in writing and what it does if you tell the story at the wrong speed” (http://www.powells.com/authors/rushdie.html).

Some have wondered at the seeming hopelessness concluding and enwrapping the whole novel. There’s an increasing fragmentation and confusion in the telling that reflects what was going on culturally and politically at the time, and some readers have wondered whether Saleem’s vision of multiplying cracks and final explosion, as well as the tone of the book itself which lends toward hopeless disintegration (distilled in the Midnight Children themselves), was a comment on the “possibility of the nation state” (Portenaar, 57; http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Mid_Children.htm). Does the reader have a choice?, they ask. Rushdie responds with typical verbosity, saying that “the story of Saleem does indeed lead him to despair. But the story is told in a manner designed to echo, as closely as my abilities allowed, the Indian talent for non-stop self-regeneration. This is why the narrative constantly throws up new stories, why it ‘teems’. The form–multitudinous, hinting at the infinite possibilities of the country–is the optimistic counterweight of Saleem’s personal tragedy. [The optimism] resides in the people, . . . the people have enormous energy and invention and dynamism, are not passive, and that kind of turbulence in the people is, I suspect, where the optimism lies (“Midnight’s Children and Shame” 17 Kunapipi 7 (1985): 1-19.). http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Mid_Children.htm) Also, one of Saleem’s last comments on history in the novel expresses hope. He says that “one day. . . the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth. . . that they are, despite everything, acts of love” (MC, 461). Having just stated that he is afraid of absurdity, it is unlikely that this hope is expressed idly, or merely aesthetically.

Salman Rushdie’s writing in Midnight’s Children can be stunning, crass, beautiful, shocking, painful, and deeply touching all at once. He has certainly distilled, from a personal vantage, the times and experience of multitudes of people and printed them in such a way as to draw his many readers far, far into the struggles in foreign fields and hearts. He is a gifted artist. In 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that a “torpid inability to understand someone else’s grief” afflicts the entire world, and asked who had the capability of “…impress[ing] upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far-off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced[.] Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof,” he says, “are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature” (ASCEaDM, 565). Salman Rushdie’s contribution to literature is accomplishing just what good literature should, in this sense.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dunlop, John B., et. al. ed. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. New York. Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1975. (ASCEaDM)

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Vintage, 1995.

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