Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I first read Midnight's Children in 2012, but that was my second attempt to read the book. The first time was the previous year, I think. I couldn't get through it the first time, even though I really liked the beginning.
I knew a little bit about Indian history before reading it. I had at least heard of some of the famous people mentioned, but I'm not sure how necessary that is. Jo Walton talks about that issue in her review of the book at Tor.com:
Midnight’s Children invites you to immerse yourself in India the way you would with a fantasy world—and I think that was partly Rushdie’s intention. He was living in England when he wrote it. He’s talked about how writers like Paul Scott and E.M. Forster were untrue to the real India, and with this book I think he wanted to make his vision of India something all readers, whether they start from inside or outside that culture, could throw themselves into. I don’t think his intention was to teach Indian history, though you’ll certainly pick some up from reading it, so much as to demonstrate the experience of being plunged into Indian history, as Saleem is plunged into it at birth.
The novel starts with the main character, Saleem Sinai, describing his birth. He is telling his life story to his fiancee, Padma. And he is dying, so he doesn't have much time. Saleem starts by telling of his birth in the exact moment that India became an independent country. He then backs up to recount the story of how his grandparents met, and then the story of how his parents met. Most of Book One takes place before Saleem's birth. His family is Muslim, but since he grows up in Bombay, Hinduism figures prominently in the book as well. I had to look up a few things, but I found it pretty accessible without a vast knowledge of Indian mythology.
"Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately, this makes the story less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal."
And eventually he comes back to the moment of India's independence:
" ... this year-- fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve-- there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to celebrate its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will -- except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood. India, the new myth, rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God."
Book Two begins when Saleem is born. The premise of the book is that Saleem and other children born in the hour from midnight to 1 pm have magical powers. Saleem and Shiva, both born exactly at midnight, are the two most powerful. Saleem is telepathic, and later, he gains an extraordinary sense of smell. Shiva's powers aren't described in detail but he lives up to his name: Shiva the destroyer. Book Two covers Saleem's life until the end of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan (April to September). And then, "six years later... there was another war."
"Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real. A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before; there were a thousand and one dead ends. Midnight's children can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view: they can be seen as the last throw of everything antiquated and regressive in our myth-ridden nation, whose defeat was entirely desirable in the context of a modernizing, 20th-century economy; or as the true hope of freedom, which is now forever extinguished; but what they must not become is the bizarre creation of a rambling, diseased mind."
The children, or at least 581 of them, find each other with the help of Saleem's telepathy. Their unity is as tenuous as India's national unity, as it turns out.
I can't really classify this novel as either comic or tragic. It is a book of contrasts. It is pretty disturbing at times, though. Let's see, there's torture, alcoholism, domestic violence, and misogyny. This is one of my favorite novels, in case you can't tell from how much I'm quoting it!
"All games have morals, and the game of snakes and ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate."
I'd like to say something about the portrayal of women, but I'm not sure how to address that without going into great detail about exactly what happens in the book. There are several important female characters: Saleem's maternal grandmother, Naseem Aziz; his mother, Mumtaz, who takes a second name, Amina, after her second marriage; his aunt Alia; his sister, the Brass Monkey (the name comes from an English expression); his crush at school, Evie Burns; Parvati, one of the Midnight's Children; and Padma, Saleem's lover and, eventually, his fiancée.
"How are we to understand my too many women? As the multiple faces of Bharat-Mata? or as even more... as the dynamic aspect of Maya, as cosmic energy, which is represented by the female organ?
Maya, in its dynamic aspect, is called Shakti; perhaps it is no accident that, in the Hindu pantheon, the active power of the deity is contained within his queen! Maya-Shakti mothers, but also muffles consciousness in its dream-web. Too many women; are they all aspects of Devi, the goddess, who slew the buffalo-demon, who defeated the ogre Mahisha, who is Kali Durga Chandi Chumunda Uma Sati and Parvati... and who, when active, is colored red?
'I don't know about that,' Padma brings me down to earth, 'They are just women, that's all.'"
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) entry for Rushdie mentions Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum as a possible influence. I don't think I have heard of that book, so I will have to look it up. And in the comments at the Tor review I linked, someone mentions The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman as a possible influence, or at least a book with some interesting parallels. I haven't read that either! Maybe I'll get to it after I read a few of the other very long books I am already planning to read. I don't consider this book all that long, really; considering all the things that happen in it, it is actually pretty short, but dense!
Rushdie has an interesting essay on unreliable narration in the book, which you can read here.
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