Introduction and Theme
Before disbursing trite compliments and proposing it as a masterly work of postmodern literature, it must be explained what sets this book apart and why one must attempt to read it. I deliberately use the word “attempt”, since it is not an easy book to read. Not for everyone. A category of readers, and this by no means reflects on their depth or level of erudition, will drop the book after a few pages or chapters, or even doggedly complete it despite finding it painstakingly difficult, to never return to another Rushdie work again. The reason is mainly due to the narrative style, which takes the reader on a journey through the twisted alleys and grimy side streets of the narrator’s perception. Through these murky and sometimes unreliable paths one must piece together the events and characters that surround his topsy turvy, magical life – a life that came to being at the same time an ancient country was split into two by forces of greed and opportunism.
The story is told by Saleem Sinai, the narrator, to Padma, who takes care of him and eventually proposes marriage. Saleem, born at the stroke of midnight of August 15th, 1947, possesses a remarkable gift – an extra sensory nose – which imparts upon him telepathic powers. He uses it to commune with the other children born with the nation, each with preternatural qualities of their own. One is a sorcerer with saucer like eyes, one an alchemist, one a time traveler, yet another a master of the vanishing trick and so on – the magnitude of their versatility increasing with the closeness of their time of birth to the midnight hour of that fateful night. Saleem and Shiva(in some ways his rival) are both born at the stroke of midnight, one with the gift of “noses” and the other, of “knees”. Saleem forms a league with these extraordinary children through a weekly meeting that he conducts in the head. He calls it M.C.C (Midnight’s Children’s conference) – where all the children(five hundred something) tune in and talk to each other. He suffers from the “optimism disease” of foreseeing a new India, a truly democratic country where secularism is supreme and poverty is eradicated. Instead he is greeted with wars and personal tragedy that tears his life apart. His life, along with those of the children, is tied to that of that nation. They are “both masters and victims of their times”.
The novel spans the time from India’s independence(although there’s a significant portion attributed in the beginning to Aadam Sinai, Saleem’s grandfather, and his descent from Kashmir) till the period just after the emergency(1977) under Indira Gandhi. A reader with no background of India’s political history in the twentieth century is at a serious disadvantage and will fail to put things in perspective. In fact, knowledge of the partition and formation of Pakistan is also crucial to truly appreciate the book. Rushdie visits the Indo-China war of 1962 and the two wars with Pakistan, the first over Kashmir(1965) and the second which led to the liberation of Bangladesh(1971). The events leading to the second Indo-Pak conflict, during which the narrator’s family had emigrated to Pakistan and taken Pakistani citizenship – is dealt with in details, from Pakistan’s tactical ploy to undermine the subversive Awami League leader Mujibur Rehman to the actual war itself, through the perspective of Saleem and a band of young soldiers as part of the ludicrous “canine unit”.
Rushdie is bitterly critical of the emergency(1975 – 1977), lashing out at both Indira Gandhi(referred throughout as “The Widow”) whose desperation for power led to a virtual totalitarian state, and his son, the “labia-lipped” Sanjay Gandhi who, although unelected, undertook extreme measures to drive his mother’s “garibi hatao” movement – uprooting the helpless poor and forcefully implementing vasectomies in the name of birth control. He is equally critical of the supine opposition in the Janata Party and it’s senile, urine drinking leader Morarji Desai. who eventually became the Prime Minister of India after Indira Gandhi is swept out in the post emergency elections.
The language is rich with vivid metaphors and pregnant imagery. There are farcical elements that makes one laugh at their ridiculousness when used with such apparent sincerity. Can you imagine a game of hitting a spittoon with betel juice squirted from the mouth, or a person killing people with immensely powerful knees? Saleem’s own face has a fiercely cartoon like semblance – with a bulbous nose (I was reminded of Rastapopoulos, the Tintin villain), missing hair(“baldy”) and discolorations(“map face”). There’s also great irony forming the backbone of the story – Saleem himself is not what the real Saleem and Saleem’s son is not a true son but a true grandson (I will not dispel the vagueness of these statements here for fear of giving away crucial parts of the plot). Symbolisms are inlaid throughout the work. Saleem and others of the M.C.C are the children of hope, of a newly independent India. Yet twenty something years later when the nation reels with war, corruption and despotism, Saleem’s son is born in stupor, a mute spectator to the stifled world around him. There’s the “black mango” leading to Saleem’s discovery of his telepathic abilities, the jar of pickles in Mary Pereira’s pickle factory, Saleem’s extra sensory olfactory skills, Tai Bibi’s smell recreation – the book is replete with such evocations. There are nostalgic recollections of Bombay, Rushdie’s (and Saleem’s) home town, where our hero returns in the end to find his fond reminiscences of the city – their estate, hoardings and shops – replaced by flyovers and skyscrapers.
Reading this work is like taking a bumpy ride in a dark tunnel, guided only with a glimmer bright enough to reveal the tracks underneath. While the tunnel is solid like the historical facts, one is unsure of what to expect in the journey, just as Saleem’s own life throws one off balance. Rushdie employs magic realism, a literary device that freely blends supernatural and real events, to a tremendous effect. Orotund words are sprinkled effusively yet efficaciously. And there are gems of aphorisms waiting to be discovered, such as this one:
“Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.”
Style and syntax is effortlessly bent to suit the flavor of Indian-English. Such masterly control of the language over such an extensive length(Knopf’s hardback Everyman’s Library edition is 589 pages) is a feat befitting one awarded the “Booker of Bookers”. Yet it is arguable if such a style can really wield the magic of reaching the very depths of one’s emotions. The heaviness of the language and complexity of the narration, no matter how great the literary accomplishments, circumvents the direct path to one’s heart.
© 2007 mystic-wanderer