Sunday, 19 July 2009

51 - 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie

I believe that I left you, dear reader, on the precipice of a cliffhanger (if such a thing is possible) while I hurried to complete Salman Rushdie's superlative novel, 'Midnight's Children', and, having waited for a few days for the answer to my question, I'm sure you won't mind waiting for a few hundred words more. Such is life (as a famous Australian criminal is reported to have said...).

Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of August, 1947, shares his time of birth with the country of India itself. Almost thirty-one years later, exhausted by fate, he sits in a Bombay pickle factory with his would-be lover, Padma, recounting the history of his family, how he came to be born, and the effect his life, and those of the other Indian children born in the first hour of the country's independence, had on national affairs. On a vast canvas, Saleem paints a picture of a country struggling to find its identity and a boy struggling to come to terms with his destiny as a mirror of the nation's fate. And a very big nose...

This is a big book. Yes, I've read longer novels, but this has a hell of a lot crammed into its 647 pages, a portrait of a young, yet ancient country, which strays into the magical realism territory of books such as 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and 'Kafka on the Shore' while evoking experiences of the sub-continent so powerful that even someone who has never been near India can smell the streets of Bombay and see the crystal Kashmir lakes. One of the great tricks Rushdie pulls off in this novel is making the different scenes in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh come alive. Saleem's nose acts as a guide for the reader through not only the worldly smells of excrement, perspiration and naan, but also the more subtle aromas of bitterness, betrayal and danger.

The children of midnight of the title, the 1001 children born in the first hour of India's independence, are supernatural beings, with powers beyond those possessed by ordinary humans. Saleem, who accesses his telepathic powers after a series of childhood accidents, is able to connect with the other children and organises a nightly meeting, the Midnight's Children Conference (M.C.C. - an acronym which will raise an eyebrow of any Commonwealth citizen among you...) in the hope of harnessing the powers of the children for the good of the nation. However, there is a traitor in their midst, and the children of midnight are doomed from the start...

So what does Salman Rushdie have in common with Forrest Gump and Hiro Nakamura? Not a lot, obviously: having written a book of this magnitude, there's no way the author has an I.Q of 75, and I'm pretty sure that his temporal manipulation abilities are not that flash. However, by now, patient reader, I'm sure you will have started to see the connection between Hiro Nakamura, the time-travelling Japanese salaryman in the T.V. show 'Heroes', and the array of characters in this novel. In fact, with a time-traveller, a telepath, a boy who can walk through mirrors, a traitor and a government with a desire to eradicate the powers of superhuman beings, it's hard to imagine that the show's writers didn't have a well-thumbed copy of Mr. Rushdie's book on their desk when creating the concept. The idea of the Widow seems especially reminiscent of 'Heroes' sinister governmental interference in the lives of the central characters (although 'X-Men' deals with similar themes).

This Widow, based on a real political figure (saying who would spoil the story a little!), is also involved in the second allusion of my previous post. Just as Forrest Gump lives his life in the shadow of American politics, shaking hands with presidents and living through wars, so too does Saleem become involved in the dramatic events of the Indian post-colonial era. From being the accidental instigator of Bombay's language riots and a witness to West Pakistan's military coup, to being present during the invasion of East Pakistan and the eventual birth of an independent Bangladesh, Saleem's fate really does seem linked to that of his homeland, and it is precisely for this reason that the Widow and her brood of helpers make the decision to eliminate the problem of the Midnight Children (under cover of the Emergency period of the mid-seventies).

It all seems a bit fantastical and far-fetched (and it is!), but Rushdie holds it all together, thanks mainly to the interaction between our narrator, Saleem, and his disbelieving (but eager to hear the story) listener, Padma. Saleem himself admits that certain aspects of his story are not true, contradicting himself and forgetting vital information while Padma interrupts, questions and rubbishes the child of midnight when he gets too big for his boots, or when the story takes a turn too incredible for her liking. In doing so, she takes our part, asking the questions we would ask of the story-teller, raising an eyebrow when we start to get restless. In short, we are Padma (with less chutney).

After almost 650 pages of mesmerising yarn spinning, Saleem's story ends unfinished, with an empty chutney jar ready for the last instalment of his life, the final chapter in the life of this Midnight Child yet to be written. However, we know that the story goes on; another generation of magical beings is set to take over from the first, just as in the more mundane outside world, sons take over from fathers (or mothers...). Whole in itself, yet hinting at a lot, lot more, Rushdie's superb novel has created a story, and character, to rival anything Hollywood has to offer; very apt for a work set largely in Bombay, the centre of the Indian film industry. This sub-continental Forrest Gump has taught us that while life may be a box of chocolates, it's infinitely more interesting if you add a spot of lime-green chutney. And a large dollop of imagination.