The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

90. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie's magical masterpiece, Midnight's Children is a bumping, bouncing allegory – not unlike a ride on a first generation Tata bus – of India's first 30 years of independence. Intelligent and intense, it is also a playfully funny book. However the prose, much like the zippy zing of India herself, can be overwhelming for the Western reader. I find the best way to approach Rushdie is to take a deep breath and plunge right in. It might be a struggle at first, but once you stop fighting the foreign rhythms, the language washes over you, and bobbing to the surface, there's just time enough to catch your breath before you're rip-roaring along in the white-water rapids of Rushdie's storytelling, exhilarated. In short: this is one hell of a book.

It's midnight on August 15, 1947: India emerges an independent nation and in that first hour, 581 children are born. Born amid the hopes and dreams of their newborn nation, these 581 are as diverse – Muslim, Hindu, Jainist, Sikh, Christian – as they are magical. Time travel. Alchemy. Shapeshifting. Mirror-travel. Dynamic hermaphrodism. Strewn across the country, these pint-sized superheros are connected in the mind of a telepathic boy, a boy born on the stroke of midnight, Saleem Sinai. 
Saleem believes his midnight-birth ties him to India's future. He also believes it gives him the right to lead their magical coalition – The Midnight's Children Conference. Problem is, no one can agree on their obligations to their country. Should they isolate themselves from political concerns and live together, in peace, in a magical commune? Or are they bound to direct India into a bright and prosperous future? And is this bright and prosperous future Communist? Socialist? Capitalist? Hindu? Muslim? Sikh? 
There's also another problem: Saleem isn't the only baby born on midnight. In the same Mumbai hospital, a well-to-do Muslim woman gave birth to a son, Shiva, at the same moment that a Hindu woman from the slums gave birth to Saleem (and died for her effort). But, a radically-minded, love-stricken nurse, Mary Pereira, switched the babies, and so the well-to-do Muslim woman took home Saleem, while Shiva was sent off to the slums with his freshly widowed father. 
Shiva scorns Saleem and his Midnight's Children Conference. He scorns Saleem's optimism, his Western sympathies, his democratic tendencies, and where Saleem is diplomatic and impotent, Shiva is war-mongering and fertile. They are the two sides of India's newly minted coins, and although Saleem starts out life in Lord Methwold's British estate, complete with cocktail hour and caged budgies, while Shiva fights for his life in the slums, as India's fledgling democracy falters and Indira Gandhi desperately struggles to maintain her rule, the fortunes of India's midnight sons reverse, and Saleem slips into a destitute life in magician's ghetto while Shiva rises in status, a gentleman soldier. 
As Indira Gandhi circumvents the democratic process, issuing what will be a 2-year State of Emergency, granting herself sweeping powers and the right to rule by decree, Shiva's son, Aadam is born, and Saleem, his effective guardian, realizes that the era of the India's midnight chidren just about over.
We, the children of Independence, rushed wildly and too fast into our future; he, Emergency-born, will be is already more cautious, biding his time; but when he acts, he will be impossible to resist. Already he is harder, stronger, more resolute than I: when he sleeps his eyeballs are immobile beneath their lids. Aadam Sinai, child of knees-and-nose, does not (as far as I can tell) surrender to dreams.

As Saleem's 31st birthday approaches, he stews that last of his story into 30 chutney jars. Preserving the story of the midnight children like pickles, Saleem is preparing to step aside, to hand over history-making to the next generation, to children like Aadam, and Shiva's many anonymous children. But Saleem's wise enough to leave one empty jar – the future chutney– because he knows that tomorrow's story is one he cannot tell. Subsequent generations of midnight children will be the ones who determine how it all turns out.

Reading Midnight's Children I was reminded of the many Englishes in the world. Not that I needed much reminding: as a Canadian I speak an English that is neither American nor British, while owing much to both. And the English spoken in Jamaica is not the English spoken in Ireland is not the English spoken in Singapore is not the English spoken in Nigeria is not the English spoken in South Africa is not the English spoken in Australia and so on. However, these differences of grammar, idiom, vocabulary, and rhythm mostly disappear in literature. Considering language alone (while ignoring setting for example), J.M Coetzee and Peter Carey and John Banville could all be neighbours. Get them in a room together and the rhythm of their language (to say nothing of their accents) places them. There is a case to be made for a greater reflection of these diverse Englishes in the literary establishment. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this book --  with two Bookers and a James Tait Memorial Prize -  is that it gave Indian English literary voice. 


November 2, 2010 at 4:55 PM Becky (Page Turners) said...

I loved this book. It was the first Salman Rushdie book that I ever read. I imagined that he would be really difficult to read, and it was challenging, but I loved how you put it - you just have to not fight it and go with the flow and it becomes a magical journey. I couldn't put this book down and ever since I have been very keep to read his books. I definitely liekd this more than the Satanic Verses which I had a lot of trouble understanding

November 4, 2010 at 2:30 PM Devon S. said...

Yeah, I really liked this book too. I've read The Satanic Verses, but a long time ago. I have to return to it because all I can remember of it is a coarse outline of the story. But I do remember not understanding what all the fuss was about, regarding the fatwa, I mean.

My first Rushdie was The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which is not at all like a typical Rushdie book: very accessible.

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