Meaning In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981)

Salman’s Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children pulled a hat-trick.  After winning the 1981 Booker Prize,  in 1993, it received the Booker of Bookers, an award commemorating the first 25 years of the prize. Fifteen years later, in 2008, it was recognized again, snaring the Best of the Bookers, an award that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the prize; eligible books included all prior winners of the award.

So does Midnight’s Children deserve this adulation? Undoubtedly there are other Booker Prize winners that I enjoyed more including Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000)–Margaret Atwood rocks!– and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014). But Midnight’s Children falls into a category of its own.

Midnight’s Children is a humbling novel because it aims so high and so often achieves its aspirations. Its expansive vision extends over much of twentieth century India and its incandescent prose is clever and moving .

Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children, is born on the stroke of midnight of August 15, 1947, the very second India receives its independence. Thereafter, Saleem is “handcuffed to history,” emerging almost Zelig-like at the major events that befall his country: ongoing conflict with Pakistan, a border war with China, Bangladeshi liberation, and what Rushdie perceives as the tyranny of the Widow, Indira Gandhi.  Saleem witnesses internal conflicts over language and communism and the Emergency of the 1970’s when Indira Gandhi ruled by decree and presided over the compulsory sterilization of millions of her people.

Saleem is one of one thousand and one children born in the first hour of Indian independence.  All thousand and one possess magical powers, as befits the promise and hope of freedom and democracy.   Saleem himself is telepathic, and he mentally communes with the other thousand youngsters.  He convenes congresses of the midnight’s children’s in his head. At first the mental congresses are fun and empowering. But the MCC fractures under the same pressures and cleavages that assail the new nation.  The demise of the MCC owes the most to Saleem’s inability to confront Shiva, the only other of the children born at the exact stroke of midnight. Saleem is unwilling to reveal that Shiva and Saleem have been switched at birth and that Shiva is entitled to the privileged life that Saleem enjoys.  Saleem’s other attempts to use his gift misfire in the worst ways. He accuses Shiva of vile acts of violence but Saleem’s cerebral machinations inevitably lead to misfortune.  Great power in the hands of children is a dangerous thing.

Saleem is an amalgam of India.  He is the illegitimate scion of a servant of the Raj and an impoverished Hindu woman. As a changeling, he grows up in an upper middle class Muslim household whose true religion is capitalism.  His father experiences anti-Muslim discrimination  in the early years of India’s freedom.  A burnt factory.  Frozen funds–unfrozen only after long and studied bribery .  But by and large, privilege protects Saleem from the surrounding poverty.  He’s a child of the West as much a a child of India. He seems even more attuned to Hindu theology than to Allah. His perceptions are shaped by American movies. Saleem by lineage and  upbringing is British and Indian, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim.

Saleem recounts the thirty-two years of family history before his birth beginning with the marriage of his grandparents in Kashmir.  He’s writing for his adopted son, Aadam, the child of Shiva and Saleem’s first wife Parvati (who is killed in a brutal slum clearance project ordered by the Widow).  Where Saleem is cerebral, educated, obsessed with finding meaning and purpose, and ultimately, ineffectual, Shiva  is brutal and ruthless. For Shiva purpose is besides the point–“you got to get what you can, do what you can with it, and then you got to die,” he says. While the Widow literally crushes Saleem, Shiva takes what he wants without a scruple. He’s the perfect servant of the Widow. In contrast to Saleem’s infertility, Shiva strews “bastards across the map of India.”  Like his namesake  god in the Hindu trinity, Shiva is destroyer and re-creater.  His union with Parvati recalls the union between the Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati, goddess of love, fertility and devotion.  As the Widow imprisons and castrates  the other Midnight’s children, the illegitimate children of Shiva, unbeknownst to her, will survive and form a new generation of midnight’s children.  They will need Shiva’s steel to contend in a world where power has replaced intellect and perhaps, like Aadam, their iron will be tempered by Parvati’s kindness

So who is Saleem in the end? This is what he concludes, “I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all that 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 exception in this matter; each “I,” everyone 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.”

Midnight’s Children deserves a second and a third chance.  I missed much of its richness the first go round, struggling to distinguish between actual history and the magical realism that punctuates the prose.  This is a novel that would benefit from annotations or at least a prologue. This infirmity is my own.  Schooled in Western history, I’m humbled by my unfamiliarity with the historical events that Rushdie charts. As I said, it’s a humbling book.  Midnight’s Children is brilliant.


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