Thursday, July 1, 2010

Midnight's children: A cocktail of history and fantasy

Years back, at the dawn of twentieth century, a young doctor Adam Aziz educated in Germany bruise his giant nose while praying in Kashmir valley and decides to stop believing... causing the occurrence of a hole in the place of his heart... thereby setting off a chain of events that culminated in the chronicling of them after more than sixty years by his grand son Saleem Sinai...

Saleem Sinai, who was born on 1947 August 15, at the exact stroke of midnight, along with a great nation of huge diversity as his sibling... Saleem Sinai, whose birth was celebrated by media and prophets as the child of independence, whom Prime Minister had welcomed to earth, hoping that his life will become a mirror of the new nation with whom he was born.... Saleem Sinai who had a huge nose like his grand father with telepathic powers, and an ability to converse with hundreds of other midnight's children who came into being in that same hour, possessing unbelievable powers... Saleem Sinai, who by a quirk of fate got swapped just after birth with another child... who is destined to be his arch rival... Saleem Sinai who was destined to be the great Messiah of the nation but was beaten by his family, history and lovers.... 

Salman Rushdie weaves the magical realistic tale of a newly born nation, its expectations, failures, and ultimate downfall with the Emergency, like a master weaver. I always thought of Rushdie as a fame loving, pompous, controversial writer who started an avalanche of untalented and controversy loving Indian English novelists like Sobha De, Chetan Bhagat and Taslima Nasreen... So I never even attempted reading him, till I read an essay of Milan Kundera in his book, Testament Betrayed, where he praised Rushdie and his novel Satanic Verses for its beauty and adherence to the true novel style... Satanic Verses was never to be found anywhere but I got Midnight's children and what to tell! This is amazing stuff. I would say this is the second best novel I read, the first being Marquis' One hundred Years of solitude. 

Midnight's children is the story that works in many levels. It can be read as a fantasy, a commentary on politics of the subcontinent or as an allegory of  actual events. It is a bizarre mix, a cocktail of fantasy and history, were lot of actual events and people are interwoven to the narrative. The story is told from the eyes of Saleem who tells the story to Padma, a woman working in the pickle factory were he lives, at the same time writing it chapter by chapter. Simultaneously we become aware that he is making an array of different pickles with same names of the chapters of his story... Saleem who possess several supernatural abilities is never able to use them to the help of his nation, his sibling due to the differences in opinion from other midnight's children. From the starting itself several references are made of the future events, which makes us to wait eagerly for the appearance of them, like Parvathy and Widow... The story unfolds like an avalanche, were small incidences trigger bigger ones which in turn causes bigger impacts... and all characters are created like a jigsaw  puzzle, an absence of even an onlooker can turn the cause of events... 

Recurrences is a major theme of the novel. Some objects or happenings recur through out the story, in different places, with different people which gives the novel a unique flow. Like the name changes of characters, several characters changes their names, usually during their marriage. Another theme recurring is the shouting of ticket-less passengers outside trains when those with tickets close the doors to avoid them. Initially it is Saleem's grand father and his bride... then his father and mother, but when Saleem's turn comes he is outside the train with ticket-less men.  

Infidelity and impotence are two other themes that recurs. Many characters are not faithful to their partners, like Saleem's mother who visits her former husband in a cafe, or Pia Aunt unfaithful to her husband Hanif. These also play much important part in the numerous twists and turns in the novel. Impotency of many major characters is also an important part to be looked to. Men when subjected to failure becomes impotent in many instances. Like Ahmad Sinai when his assets are frozen by government, or Hanif after the failure of his movies... But impotency becomes a major part at the end of the novel when Indira Gandhi, with her son Sanjay, decides mass vasectomy operations to the poor. It works in two levels, in literal level it becomes a method to sterilize the midnight's children who has power to upset the politics. In a deeper level it works as an  allegory about the sterilization of a whole nation by emergency, where any opponents are oppressed and thereby turning the whole country impotent. 

History of the subcontinent plays a major role in the novel as Saleem's life is entangled with the nation with whom he was born. His grand father is present in Delhi while Jallianwallah Bagh massacre occurs, and after his birth, while they live in Bombay, his presence happens in many noteworthy events, like he becomes the cause of a slogan against Gujarati by Marathas when he accidentally falls into the procession. Later he becomes the cause, indirectly of course, to the death of Nehru. Then there is the Sabarmati case in which also Saleem is said to have his hands. When his family migrates to Pakistan, he is the one with Ayub Khan in the first coup. Again because of his great olfactory skills he gets a chance to be part of the team that overthrows Mujib in Bangladesh. He is present in Dhaka when Manek Shah marches with army to liberate Bangladesh. (There is a great contradiction  woven here, when Pakistani soldiers are eagerly awaiting to finish off vegetarian Hindus, they are told to slaughter and rape their Muslim siblings in East Pakistan, by their superiors.) Then in final chapter the arrival of Widow, who is referred through out the novel, the Prime Minister and his son who plots a devious plan to oppress the opposition by sterilizing them... 

It was a wonderful experience reading this masterpiece... which is like entering a dark cave with thousands of paintings on the walls equipped only with a dim torch light... and taking hours to see and enjoy each of those beautiful paintings part by part, like Dr Adam Aziz, in the novel, who attends his most beautiful patient and would be wife Naseema behind a perforated cloth... examining one part at a time and proposing finally when he sees her face... 


  1. I have avoided this book for many years fearing the writing style! The writing style may be too stressful for me.

    But after reading your review, I have marked it for reading.

    Excellent review. Though too lengthy for my attention span, I managed to read it because of the way it is written.

  2. I had read the book a few years back. I liked it, but also found the writing style quite heavy, sometimes unnecessarily so.

    Somehow didn't agree when it won the "Booker of Bookers Prize" in 1993 and then again "The Best of The Booker" in 2008.

  3. @nona thanks for the kind words... the writing style of this novel IS a bit weird! but i think you will enjoy it.

    @vivek ya writing style is a bit unique... but if it was written in a normal way there wont be any magic in it right?

  4. I thought that this review would criticize the book, so I was all ready to comment the exact opposite. but when I read it, I really liked it. I am glad you enjoyed the book. I did too. its a truly mesmerizing book which is a must read. its length can be taxing but that is no deterrent!
    An excellent review!

  5. hm.. so you are one person who actually liked this book. nice

  6. I Loved this book...and a minor correction, if i may..:) ..One Hundred Years Of Solitude ..Is by Marquez...not "Marquis" :)

  7. thanks... my fault. Actually those days i never googled or wikied :)

  8. It certainly is a gr8 it few years back and loved it then..again only Love in the time of cholera matched the depths of this book...
    Loved ur review too and the interpretation of impotency..