‘There will be two heads – but you shall see only one – there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees. 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.’
These lines from Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnights’ Children’ foretold as a prophecy gives an outline to the story.
‘Midnight’s Children‘ is one of the most fascinating books in the Indian post-modern literature, combining magical realism and historical fiction.
Salman Rushdie was awarded the Booker Prize in 1981 for this book and subsequently, the “Booker of Bookers” Prize and the best all-time prize winner in 1993 and 2008 to commemorating the 25th and 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize.
The story in ‘Midnight’s Children’ is told by its chief protagonist, Saleem Sinai, born at the moment India became independent from British rule. The story is set in the context of historical events that occurred in India from pre-independence to post-emergency period. He is narrating the story to Padma.
“I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country”.
Saleem is vested with maximum magical power, as he is born exactly at midnight. The powers with the one thousand children born on the night of India’s independence vary as per the proximity of their birth time to midnight. It is the time of early independence era with higher infant and child mortality so many children with powers are bound to succumb to diseases and death.
The narrative takes a non-linear approach, we are given a peep into future characters and incidents.
“The boatman Tai drove my grandfather from Kashmir; Mercurochrome chased him out of Amritsar; the collapse of life under the carpets led directly to my mother’s departure from Agra; and many headed monsters sent my father to Bombay, so that I could be born there.”
Interestingly, there are recapitulations of the story as well, provided at regular intervals considering the length and intricacy of the narrative.
‘Midnight’s Children‘ is divided into three parts – we trace the story of Saleem’s grandfather and then his father, beginning from Kashmir to finally reach Bombay to reach at Saleem’s birth and life. Saleem is turning 31 years old and begins his story that begins even before he was born.
In 1915, Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather hits his nose while offering prayers; he is in Kashmir. The allegory of nose and knees is important for the story and the introduction is so subtle that one almost overlooks. He had spent five years in Heidelberg, Germany studying medicine and is back in the valley. “Doctor Aziz’z nose – comparable only to the trunk of the elephant-headed God Ganesh – established inconvertibly his right to be patriarch”. One stumbles upon the imagery of Lord Ganesha, the memory of which will be revived with the birth of Aadam Aziz’s grandson.
Aadam Aziz meets Naseem, whom ‘he had made the mistake of loving in fragments’. Aziz decides to shift to Agra after the marriage, stopping at Amritsar where he becomes a witness to the Jalianwallah Bagh incident. It is a long story till we reach Saleem’s birth.
The decisive moment of Saleem’s birth coincides with the illegitimate child of the British owner of Methwold Estate, the house bought by Saleem’s father. At the nursery, Mary Pereira, the nurse is influenced by her love for Joseph D’costa and recalls his words, ‘This independence is for the rich only; the poor are being made to kill each other like flies.’ Under the influence, she swaps the two children and hence destines the rich boy to a life of poverty and the poor to wealth.
The Times of India had come up with an idea to award a prize to the child born at the precise moment of birth of the nation. Saleem’s photograph is published the next morning in its edition and awards Rs.100 to his parents. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote,
‘Dear Baby Saleem, My belated congratulations on the happy accident of your moment of birth! You are the newest bearer of that ancient face of India which is also eternally young. We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.‘
And, indeed it is a mirror chronicling India’s political and economic development.
Saleem grows up in Methwold estate; here Rushdie introduces the character called ‘Brass Monkey’, the protagonist’s younger sister. There is the iconic washing chest incident where Saleem watches his mother’s innermost feeling for Nadir and being caught by her jolts him with ‘voices in his head.’ He discovers that all children born in India between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. on 15th August possess special powers.
Saleem, using his telepathic powers assembles a Midnight Children’s Conference, reflective of the issues the young nation faces while the children put forth their own problems living in poverty and uncertainties. Saleem acts as a telepathic conduit, bringing hundreds of geographically disparate children into contact while also attempting to discover the meaning of their gifts but ‘the squabbles begin with I can fly, can you or I can multiply fishes!’ The children born closest to the stroke of midnight wield more powerful gifts than the others. Shiva “of the Knees“, Saleem’s nemesis, and Parvati, called “Parvati-the-witch,” are two of these children with notable gifts and play an important part in Saleem’s future.
Shiva is antagonist towards Saleem for being the rich child while he roams about in poverty, singing alongwith his father ‘Wee Willie Winkie’. It is, indeed, fascinating how Rushdie comes up with such names. There is another character who lives as a tenant, called Dr.Schaapstekkar, for sharp sticker! We also have Picture Singh, the head of the settlement where magicians and contortionists in the slums of Delhi.
The portions on the emergency and the beautification drive is quite a brave effort. Atleast for the time of its publication, to openly criticize Indira Gandhi for imposing emergency, her over dependence on astrology and the sarcasm regarding her hairstyle. Intermittently, we get glimpses of history across the country like in early 1957, Jan Sangh was campaigning for rest homes for aged sacred cows; in Kerala E.M.S.Namboodiripad was promising that Communism will give everyone food and jobs; in Madras, the Anna DMK party of C.N.Annadurai fanned the flame of regionalism; the Congress fought back with reforms such as the Hindu Succession Act, which gave Hindu women right to inheritance.
The Indo-Pakistan war is described in its absurdities for Saleem leads his team down a river and enters a hallucinogenic forest where they live for some time before being let out in a mysterious flood. On making his way to Dacca, Saleem sees Parvati who has been invited amongst the team of contortionist performing the celebration of Bangladesh’s victory against Pakistan.
Saleem’s fate and Shiva’s ambition are waiting to cross each other’s path. And, ofcourse Mary Pereira’s confession if she wishes to correct her hand in changing the destinies of two children.
The end tells us that there will be more midnight’s children, generations and generations of them, and they will all live the same way as Saleem did.
Rushdie’s innovative use of magical realism allowed him to employ the nation-as-family allegory and stun us with telepathy among children from a multitude of languages, cultures, regions and religions.
Women characters are important to this book. ‘Women have made me; and also unmade. From Reverend Mother to the Widow, and beyond’, says Saleem. The reader can understand the flow of events through the protagonist but the cause and effect of each incident is evident only through the female characters – notably, Reverend Mother, Amina Sinai, Brass Monkey, Mary Pereira and Parvati.
The postcolonial experience including the true picture of poverty and the political power struggles are depicted in a proficient way. And, there is so much more than what meets the eyes. You may just be thinking about the characters and events for months together after finishing this book.