Midnight’s Children: The Shining Beacon of Literary Anarchy


Midnight's Children - 10/10

Introduction

Let me begin this review with a caveat – Midnight’s Children is not for the weak hearted, it is not for those who are impatient, who want to have their food decorated nicely in front of them on a platter; it is for those who wouldn’t mind going on a treasure hunt overcoming fatal hazards, who have a vivid imagination and can see Anaconda in an ordinary snake, who have disregard for rules and order but who can also find order and meaning in apparant chaos, who believe that we can also ride up on a snake and slither down a ladder. According to Salman Rushdie, non-Indians called it a work in magic realism, and Indians called it a work in realism. Some even called it fantasy fiction and “mythology.” The hallmark of any extraordinary work of art is that it is difficult to pin it down to any particular genre or style. And herein lies the brilliance of Midnight’s Children. Now having set the tone for this review, lets get down to business.

Plot Synopsis

Salim Sinai, the narrator and protagonist of Midnight’s Children, starts by declaring that he was born at the stroke of midnight on 14th August, 1947, the very moment when India became an independent state and also states emphatically, that, after completing more than thirty years on earth, he was falling apart and cracking. And so he must tell his story before the inevitable happens.

The story starts in 1915, in Kashmir, when his grandfather Adam Aziz, a young doctor had come back to Kashmir after finishing his studies in Germany. He suffers from disillusionment and loss of his faith, but finds solace in one of his young patients, Naseem, who he is able to see only through a perforation in a sheet (to bypass the “purdah” tradition). After exploration of many parts of her body separately, during his many diagnosis and treatment sessions, he eventually sees her face and marries her. The couple then move to Agra, Where Adam Aziz gets involved in India’s freedom struggle and commits his allegiance to Mian Abdullah, a political activist against the partition of India, and who was eventually assassinated for his anti partition stance. Nadir Shah, his assistant escapes and hides himself in the basement of Adam’s house, against the wishes of Adam’s wife Naseem. Living in the same house are Adam’s three daughters Alia, Mumtaaz and Emerald and two sons Mustapha and Hanif. Mumtaaz is assigned the duty of giving food to Nadir Shah and beguiled by the poetical mystery of the man, falls in love with him. The two are secretly married. It is the same Mumtaaz who eventually marries Ahmad Sinai, and becomes Salim’s mother. How this happens is a convulated narrative of loyalty, betrayal and jealousy.

Ahmad and Mumtaaz (renamed Amina) Sinai start a new life in Bombay, in an abandoned estate of a mysterious and eccentric englishman called William Methwold, who had planned to leave India immediately after its independence. As the clock ticks towards the hour of Independence. fate decides to have some fun and Salim ends up being born as Amina Sinai’s son, at the exact moment of India’s independence along with many other kids who were born in that hour and is celebrated as the “Midnight’s Child.” But was he really? What really happened on that fateful night?

As Salim grows up he find out that he develops telepathic connection with all the other midnight’s children all over India, all of who have a supernatural gift, Salim’s gift being his ability to connect everyone together and hold “conferences” of all the children and his extraordinary ability to “smell” people’s feelings and even forthcoming dangers. He was their leader, his leadership challenged only by Shiva, another boy who was born at the same moment as Salim, but whose family was not as well endowed as that of Salim’s.

The part two of the book mainly describes Salim’s early life in South Bombay, their eccentric neighbours, the political upheavals of India at that time fully enmeshed with those in his own life and his family. At an age of nine, he falls in and out of love, gets convinced that he doesn’t understand his sister “Brass Monkey,” deals with the issues of midnight’s children all alone, witnesses his mother reviving an old affair, his father running after chimerical business ventures and becoming hopelessly alcoholic in the process and their parents falling in and out of love with each other like the rising and falling fortunes of the country in the post independence period.

A stray accident exposes the secret of Salim’s birth and the role played by Mary Pareira, his nurse, which results in Salim being abandoned by his parents and sent on exile to his uncle Hanif and aunt Pia’s house for a while after which the family moves to Pakistan to stay with Emerald and her husband, General Zulfikar. There Salim becomes an integral part of another history making event: staging of a coup by General Zulfikar against the Pakistan Government and ushering a period of martial law

After Ahmed Sinai’s near fatal heart attack, the family moves back to Bombay and witness India engaging herself in a war with China and getting defeated, thus promting them to move back to Pakistan. This time Brass Monkey, now a young lady, gets reincarnated as Jamila Singer and become the most famous singer of Pakistan, making Salim getting infatuated with her. India’s War with Pakistan put the final nail in the coffin and Salim’s whole family in Pakistan is wiped out in air raids in a single day, except for he himself and Jamila Singer. Pakistan loses the war and Salim loses his family and his memory, being hit on his head by his grandfather’s silver spitoon.

The third part of this Novel is the most bizarre and is full of impossible descriptions of various characters, heightening the fantasy elements of the story. His memory wiped out completely, Salim is converted to his animalistic state, without any feelings, or emotions or perceptory sensations, his extraordinary smelling power, the only thing left with him. He becomes “The Buddha” and works as a human mine tracker in the Pakistani army during the second Indo-Pak war over Bangladesh. What follows is a touching account of a man clueless of his extraordinary past or his extra ordinary power.

When the war ends and Salim is finally rescued from the Sundarbans, he meets “Parvati-the-witch,” one of the midnight’s children most closest to him and slowly learns of his past. With Parvati’s help Salim comes to India, and lives in Delhi in Magician’s Ghetto along with a snake charmer named Picture Singh. Parvati falls in love with Salim but when he doesn’t accept her, she escapes and has an affair with Shiva, Salim’s rival, and gets pregnant. When Shiva abandons Parvati she comes back to Magician’s ghetto, with her unborn child. Salim, then accepts both her and her child and marries her.

But then another tragedy strikes. The then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, (referred to as “The Widow” in the novel) launches a sterilization drive and the magician’s ghetto is destroyed. Parvati dies in the melee and Salim is kidnapped along with the other remaining midnight’s children. After another period of trial, Salim and other captives are finally released when “The Widow” loses the next election, but not before all the midnight’s children are sterilized, thereby wiping out the generation completely. Salim then joins Picture Singh in his quest to prove himself as the greatest snake charmer of India and they come to Bombay, where Salim finally meets Mary Pareira, his nurse, who was responsible for Salim’s fate. Salim’s decides to stay with her and marry Padma, on his thirty first birthday, which coincides with the thirty first birthday of India. His narration being complete, Salim prophecies that very soon his body will crack completely and he will soon disintegrate into “millions of specks of dust.”

Characterization and Plot

All the characters in the novel are complex and unpredictable, with both good and bad traits, which is the hallmark of great characterization. Real people are not one sided. They are not always sure of what they are doing. Many of the characters have over exaggerated features and qualities, like Parvati and Picture Singh, which adds to the magical element of the story. Rushdie’s imagination while depicting his characters is staggering. Another queer but comic, and thus, outstanding feature of the characters is their queer names: Parvati-the-witch, Brass Monkey, Wee Willie Winkie, Picture Singh to name just a few. The names are allegorical, lyrical, comical, meaningful, creative all the same time. Many of the characters are allegorical. But then, we will talk about it a little later.

According to Rushdie himself, the story is long and weird. But thats the charm of the book. It is so long and has so many twists and crests and it meanders in such a fashion that you feel as if an age has ended by the time you finish the book. It is an epic, visualized on a giant canvas and executed with a tragicomic deftness rarely seen in literature.



Dialogue

Dialogue, if used sparingly, and creatively can be more delightful than the philosophical introspection preceding or succeeding it. Rushdie’s characters speak a language of their own, which is a hodge podge of English and vernacular tongue, but is extremely lyrical and delightful. Humor flows out effortlessly, without resorting to cliched jokes, most of it so subtle and intelligent that their subtle intelligence impresses you more than the humor itself. A sample of what I mean is give in the next section.

Language or Writing Style

Rushdie is one of the most stylized authors of the past century. Midnight’s children was the first book of his that I read and I was shocked by the blatant disregard of the rules of English Language. His sentences flow like an endless river punctuated, in between, by a few commas, or exclamation marks, but flowing nevertheless sometimes upto half a page, without stopping. In some places even commas are not there you provide you directions and all you have is an endless sequence of words put one after the other, whose meaning you can only derive if you suspend your disbelieve and go with the flow. According to Rushdie, he learnt from Gunter Grass that true literature knows no boundaries and has no rules, except for evoking in you a picture so vivid and bright, that you “live” the story. For the first time I realized that even anarchy can be deeply meaningful. Given below is a sample of his writing style. Amidst the apparant chaos, you will find (if you have the patience), deeply intelligent insights hobnobbing with stupid exaggerations, creating an effect of humor which is both delightful and touching.

‘But how old are you really, Taiji?’ (Doctor Aziz, adult, redbearded, slanting towards the future, remembers the day he asked the unaskable question.) For an instant, silence, noisier than a waterfall. The monologue, interrupted. Slap of oar in water. He was riding in the shikara with Tai, squatting amongst goats, on a pile of straw, in full knowledge of the stick and bathtub waiting for him at home. He had come for stories-and with one question had silenced the storyteller.

‘No, tell, Taiji, how old, truly? And now a brandy bottle, materialising from nowhere: cheap liquor from the folds of the great warm chugha-coat.Then a shudder, a belch, a glare. Glint of gold. And-at last!-speech. ‘How old? You ask how old, you little wet-head, you nosey…’ Tai, forecasting the fisherman on my wall, pointed at the mountains. ‘So old, nakkoo!’ Aadam, the nakkoo, the nosey one, followed his pointing finger. ‘I have watched the mountains being born; I have seen Emperors die. Listen. Listen, nakkoo…’-the brandy bottle again, followed by brandy-voice, and words more intoxicating than booze-‘… I saw that Isa, that Christ, when he came to Kashmir. Smile, smile, it is your history I am keeping in my head. Once it was set down in old lost books. Once I knew where there was a grave with pierced feet carved on the tombstone, which bled once a year. Even my memory is going now; but I know, although I can’t read.’ Illiteracy, dismissed with a flourish; literature crumbled beneath the rage of his sweeping hand. Which sweeps again to chugha-pocket, to brandy bottle, to lips chapped with cold. Tai always had woman’s lips. ‘Nakkoo, listen, listen. I have seen plenty. Yara, you should’ve seen that Isa when he came, beard down to his balls, bald as an egg on his head. He was old and fagged-out but he knew his manners. ‘You first, Taiji,’ he’d say, and ‘Please to sit’; always a respectful tongue, he never called me crackpot, never called me tu either. Always aap. Polite, see? And what an appetite! Such a hunger, I would catch my ears in fright. Saint or devil, I swear he could eat a whole kid in one go. And so what? I told him, eat, fill your hole, a man comes to Kashmir to enjoy life, or to end it, or both. His work was finished. He just came up here to live it up a little.’ Mesmerized by this brandied portrait of a bald, gluttonous Christ, Aziz listened, later repeating every word to the consternation of his parents, who dealt in stones and had no time for ‘gas’.

Allegory in Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children is full of allegories, so much so, that people not much aware of Indian culture easily categorize it as “magic realism.” Anyone who really wants to understand the story should be forewarned not to take words literally. Almost every character, every twist in the plot, every situation has a double meaning, and what is apparant is just an exaggerated version of the subtle reality. Salman Rushdie wanted to write a novel about children, inspired by his own childhood spent in South Bombay. But he ended up writing a story about a nation. That’s how big his canvas is. You will not be able to understand the greatness of the novel, until and unless you realize that the story of Salim Sinai is the story of India, and that the whole novel is the allegorical reference to the rise and fall of India in the post independence era, and a very intelligent critique of Government policies, politics, religion, and life in general. And all these subtle insights are buried deep within the extremely witty prose of Rushdie.

Just like Salim’s birth was a myth, India’s birth on 15th August, 1947 is also a myth, sealed and proclaimed by a declaration and celebrated by a nation of millions of people. Salim and his family’s fortunes are magically intertwined with the fortunes of India and to some extent Pakistan, and unknowingly he influences the history of this country by being a part of it. Just like the three wars India waged (two with Pakistan and one with China), were the low points in India’s History, they were also low points in Salim’s life. Just like Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule and emergency threatened to kill the democracy and the very fabric of India’s spirit of tolerance and freedom, it also threatened to kill Salim and his powers. Midnight’s Children were never the same after that setback. That is the reason why the story end on a pessimistic note, because India, when Rushdie wrote the novel, was struggling to cope with the after effects of Emergency and the future looked bleak.

The greatness of the book lies in the encapsulation of the history of a nation, through an utterly compelling narrative history of one man. This juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary is a recurring theme throughout the novel and thus gives it a flavor of surrealism.

The Last Word

Very rarely does an author achieve so many things in one novel. Midnight’s Children is a critique on India, a purely fictional story of a man torn apart by his powers and his identity, a touching and funny narrative of a childhood discovered and lost in the great city of Bombay, a bold and raw account of human weakness and passions, a political and religious commentary, and a documentation of the history of two star crossed nations separated by man but fated to be together, all rolled into one. No wonder it was chosen as the best Booker Prize winning novel in the Award’s 40 year history. This book has shaped an entire generation of writers and their writing styles and gave Salman Rushdie the title of India’s first literary superstar in the English Language. In Rushdie the literary world found the ultimate combination in an author: intellect mixed with humor, the effect heightened by those dreamy bespectacled eyes. Rushdie famously deemed this novel “unfilmable.” But apparantly, Deepa Mehta has decided to take up the challenge and make a film on Midnight’s Children. It would be interesting to see how Deepa adapts the story for the film retaining its essence, for the novel is truly “unfilmable” in its entirety.

Midnight’s Children baffles, mesmerizes, makes one laugh and cry and brings out so many other emotions that it can’t be expressed in words. For once I don’t mind being enamored by a work of fiction. According to me, Midnight’s Children is perfect and deserves a rating of 10/10. I would be surprised if I get to read a better novel, ever.

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