Midnight’s Children, which has finally been adapted as a film, is as tumultuous and unwieldy as the history that it provides. It uses creative, nonlinear storytelling, humor, and the supernatural to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of providing a personal story that also tells the story of India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh). Rushdie’s book is a monumental achievement that has become the gold standard of tying personal narrative to a larger sort of metanarrative that captures history and culture born out of myriad cultures, beliefs, and peoples.
For those unfamiliar with Rushdie beyond the fatwa stories or going by the back-of-the-book summary, the humor may come as a surprise (I think it will be a welcome one). Character’s in Midnight’s Children are often stylized and border on farcical. There are also subtle and clever bits like naming an impotent character “Nadir Khan.” The humor here helps the reader with a lengthy and weighty work that often deals with serious subject matter ranging from massacres to personal tragedy.
This novel is by no means a quick read. This is due in equal parts to Rushdie’s adjective heavy prose and the nonlinear structure. Accounts of past events are interrupted by the narrator’s present life at regular intervals and the accounts do not always come in chronological order. The prose, at least, is a delight, making up for the plot’s lack of profluence.
Because the story is never out-and-out allegory and provides a fair amount of exposition, knowledge of Indian history is not completely necessary, but absolutely enriches the story and allows the reader to appreciate the ways that Rushdie toys with the idea of “truth” and creates a narrative which weaves together the zeitgeist of his native land from periods ranging from the 1910s through the later part of the 20th century (the book was published in 1981).
The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai, born at midnight of August 15, 1947, the precise moment of India’s independence from Britain. For these reasons, Saleem is a self-styled, walking representation of the whole of India, tied to his country’s fate for life. The story, written down by an older Saleem for his children, also includes the story of his parents and grandparents, and so stretches back to the early days of Gandhi’s activism, before home rule seemed truly realistic.
Notable is the tie between Saleem’s family and major world events. Sometimes the personal events coincide with the historical, as when Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz sees his future wife’s face for the first time as World War I ends, and sometimes the characters are thrown directly into the historical events. In Aadam’s story, the Amritsar massacre, where British soldiers opened fire on a congregation of Indians, figures large. Jawaharlal Nehru and other real-life factor into the story but the novel focuses on fictional creations such as Mian Abdullah, who creates an organization to counter Jinnah’s Muslim League.
A major theme for the novel, as well as Indian history, is partition. The British Raj created a country out of what had been a collection of disparate societies that coexisted on the subcontinent. Some academic work has been done linking the British census with the creation or, at least, crystallization of the caste system in India, a social norm that Westerners tend to focus on. Before the British left, they slighted the subcontinent one more time by partitioning the land into Pakistan and India (modern Bangladesh was originally a part of Pakistan, although not contiguous). Although this pleased some leaders (Jinnah), it would result in widespread sectarian violence, especially between Hindus and Muslims, and armed conflict surrounding Bangladesh’s independence and between India and Pakistan, particularly in Kashmir, all of which are featured in Midnight’s Children.
Another recurring element is the idea of truth and accuracy. Saleem’s misremembers dates but, at another juncture, points out that what is important is what people believe to be true, rather than empirical truth, which seems to be Rushdie making a case of the importance of the novel despite its status as a work of fiction. This is tied to the idea of Saleem as India. The narrator says “How, in what terms may the career of a single individual be said to impinge on the fate of a nation? I must answer in adverbs and hyphens: I was linked to history both literally and metaphorically, but actively and passively…” Here Rushdie explains the conceit of the novel, that Saleem (and his family) is not just allegory for India or a participant in its history (like a Forest Gump) but both those things. Despite the soaring, hilarious, masterful prose, this is the true value of the novel.
Midnight’s Children is perhaps the best known and most successful example of capturing the story of a diverse culture in a work of fiction. Recently, I have read Patrick Chamoisea’s Texaco, which does similar work in regards to a neighborhood in the Fort-de-France area of Martinique. Chamoiseau, like Rushdie, provides a protagonist who tells both her story and the story of her parents, weaving together the people and cultures that have come together to make up a place. In Texaco, the settlement and the story are described as a mosaic, which is applicable to Midnight’s Children. In addition to the comparable structure, Texaco also deals with the themes of one power replacing another and class divides sometimes lost in more conventional histories.
Midnight’s Children is staggering in scope. It covers postcolonial (in relation to Britain) and neocolonial ideas (America nudges its way in, of course) and covers most of the 20th century. It is intensely personal and a lesson in the complicated history of the Indian subcontinent from political movements to the India/Pakistan conflict to the war with China. It has magic, unrequited love, and shocking violence. In a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rushdie said that while the novel benefited from the exuberance of a twenty eight year-old author, that he has more technical command now. The technical aspects such as pacing and structure may fall short of perfect, but this is more than made up for by the innovations and the sheer magnitude of capturing the history and people of the most populous democracy in the world.