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December 24, 2011

Rohit Reviews: Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children

After an inspired spell of reading over the summer, the autumn again brought the twin (self-imposed) malignancies of overwork and ill-conceived travel that have long plagued me (and this site). Naturally, as a consequence, the feverish pace at which I had been consuming books ground to an unseemly halt. But as I had quietly committed to finishing the four books I bought in an ill-advised book-buying binge in July before the end of the year, I spent the last few weeks in a mad dash to finish the last—and by far, the longest and most difficult—of the lot: Salman Rushdie's 1981 Booker Prize winner, Midnight's Children. We are nothing, after all, without our entirely arbitrary commitments to ourselves. (I might be nothing regardless of my entirely arbitrary commitments to myself, but that's a story for another day.)

Midnight's Children is the somewhat fantastical tale of Saleem Sinai, one of 1,001 children born with supernatural powers in India between midnight and 1 am on August 15, 1947, the day of India's independence from British colonial rule. Saleem, one of two born at exactly the stroke of midnight, is, along with his nemesis born at the same instance, endowed with the most potent powers of the bunch, and by virtue of this historical accident, his life becomes inextricably intertwined with the country of his birth.

Though narrated by Saleem in the first person to his caretaker and future wife as a sort of autobiography, the novel opens with his Kashmiri maternal grandfather some thirty-two years before Saleem's birth. From there, Saleem's narrative moves slowly to the present, recounting for us the history of both his family and his country. Although seemingly meandering at times, the novel is never without direction or purpose. And it couldn't be otherwise. At some level, we already know what will happen given Saleem's early proclamation that his life would track that of his country, born at the very same time.

A stark departure from the books I have been reading recently, Midnight's Children has a rich magic realism about it that I found to be initially difficult to conquer. As with another epic of the magic realism genre, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, the novel moves in fits and starts, blurs past and present, introduces a dizzying number of characters, and engages remorselessly with supernatural phenomenon. But whereas García Márquez's prose is intoxicating and spellbinding, Rushdie's is atmospheric and evocative: reading Midnight's Children often felt as though one was walking around Bombay Mumbai or New Delhi (both cities in which I have spent some time as a child).

Having often lamented the lack of plot in postmodern works, moreover, I was particularly pleased to find that this novel had a rather well-developed one. Fantastical and imaginative though it may be, it is nevertheless fundamentally a thoroughly encompassing story of one family across three generations in twentieth century India. At another level, it is a recounting of the history of the nation as it transformed from a colonial appendage of Britain to a modern nation between the 1910s and the 1970s. Rushdie's ability to seamlessly and powerfully interweave the two is a rather significant accomplishment in this reader's opinion.

Putting aside my general positive reaction to this novel for a moment, I must point out a few caveats. First, as with all magic realism, the hypnotic nature of this sort of writing makes it a rather difficult read. If you're not paying close attention, you are almost certain to miss crucial details. That was part of the reason it took me so long to finish this book—it's not the easiest book to read right before bed after you've spent twelve plus hours churning legal documents.

Second, and perhaps more critically, it is at a very foundational level a novel that requires some understanding of Indian history and culture to fully appreciate (far more so than, say, works by Lahiri). In both respects, I benefited from my origins—others may not be so fortunate.

On the historical front, many significant figures of twentieth century Indian history make an appearance; understanding their role at some level requires knowing who they are and what they did. Perhaps more importantly, Rushdie sprinkles his prose heartily with Hindi and Urdu expressions and idioms as well as Indian styles and mannerisms. Part of what makes the evocation of the country so powerful is the aptitude with which Rushdie presents both Saleem's monologues and the various character's dialogues. I would think that those who have not spent any time in India would be at a distinct disadvantage in this regard when it comes to understanding the humor.

Finally, without giving too much of the book away, I was a bit disappointed in its conclusion. With Midnight's Children and especially with the midnight's children, Rushdie took on a rather large project. The fact that he could not deliver fully—in particular, that the midnight's children as a class would not achieve the role in the novel that the title might have suggested they ought to have had—may not be surprising, but it is nonetheless somewhat disheartening.

Caveats notwithstanding, however, I definitely enjoyed this novel. Although it's not the quickest or the simplest of books, the good ones rarely are. Having already mentioned One Hundred Years of Solitude, I would be remiss if I didn't leave you with yet another similarity—a prophesy much like that of Melquíades that rather aptly sums up the novel:

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!
Friends mutilate him—blood will betray 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.

Four stars of five.


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