From the opening scene of Midnight’s Children, this novel begins giving rise to an epic tale. The narrator – 31-year-old Saleem Sinai – on his death bed (so to speak) and running out of time, is writing his life story. He says, “I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my county.” Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947 – the moment when India became a free nation, he is given the gift of ESP – able to read the mind of everyone in India. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that every child born that first hour had the ability to communicate with each other mentally, all through the power of his own brain.
I am not generally a fan of the genre of magical realism and usually avoid those books. But Midnight’s Children is far more than a pulp fantasy. It is stories within stories… stories encompassing the rich history of India and Pakistan including politics, war, religion, and Rushdie’s own philosophy. And it doesn’t end there. Themes are woven emphasizing the relevance of time with subtle hints of history repeating itself, superstition, dreams, and destiny. Loads of symbolism prevail: snakes and monkeys, an antique silver spittoon, drops of blood, peacock feathers, and all the sensory perceptions; sound, smell, tastes and color… lots and lots of colors. Dreams are in black and green symbolizing good and evil, always intertwined. And re-occurring statements like, “most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence” and “what can’t be cured must be endured”, stressing how little control we have over our destinies. Salman Rushdie may well hold the world record for the number of sub-stories, themes, symbols, and philosophical quotes all in one novel.
One of my favorite scenes – and there are so many great ones – is when Saleem’s mother goes to a fortune teller before his birth. A frightening scene in the back alley of a ghetto – dark and mystical – the seer surrounded by snakes and monkeys informs her, “There will be two heads but you shall see only one, there will be knees and nose, a nose and knees… newspapers praise him, two mothers raise him! Bicyclists love him but crowds will shove him! Sisters will weep; cobra will creep… washing will hide him, voices will guide him! Spittoons will brain him, doctors will drain him, jungle will claim him – wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will try him – tyrants will fry him. He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old! And he will die…. before he is dead” whereupon the seer collapses.
From there Saleem Sinai proceeds to explain the meaning behind the prophesy… his life story, starting in 1915 with the union of his grandparents and the lives of his parents, explaining, “Things – even people – have a way of leaking into each other, like flavors when you cook… the past has dripped into me… so we can’t ignore it.”
From there he meanders, tells of his momentous birth, his turbulent childhood, and short (but oh so eventful) life thereafter involving friends and enemies, classmates, neighbors, distant relatives, revolutionaries, and the women in his life. He reveals the secrets of his life, layer upon layer… adultery, swapped babies, murder, love, and death in the rich muslim exotic and chaotic culture of India.
And so many of the events recounted by Saleem Sinai correlate with real historical events like the “State of Emergency” put in place by Indira Gandhi when 1000 political opponents were imprisoned, tortured, and forced to have vasectomies and sterilization. In Saleem’s story, these were the “Midnight’s Children”.
This is not an easy book to read. I almost gave up after about 100 pages because in the beginning so many things are confusing and unexplained. But it all comes together as the story evolves. The plot is absurd, and many of the characters are grotesque… including Saleem. The prose is eloquent and mesmerizing. Rushdie’s style of writing has been compared to Faulkner and Dickens. I found this particular novel more in resemblance to Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. On the lighter side, parts of it almost like Forrest Gump, in the sense that like Forrest, Saleem – against all odds – seems to be intricately involved in the major events of his time. It is number 90 on Modern Library’s list of best 100 novels. My only question is – why it is so low on the list?
Rated 4.5 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.