Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children--Chewing the Cud
For ages I had been contemplating that I should read Salaman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children". It's a book recommended by many, but the sheer volume had been intimidating. It was only during the first week of this month that I mustered the courage to start the book and once started, it was for the flow to take over. Good prose and not-so-good one at times, long sentences with plenty of clauses and punctuations, and the short ones with crispness accentuating the tone--whatever is the case, the pace remained uninterrupted. And I finished it before the month could tick away. In the final analysis, I found it interesting, a reading pleasure to say the least.
Before attempting a review of the book, let me quote from it by way of an introduction: 'in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade the audience to believe.' Is the opus, then, really an autobiography?
Here the first condition of an autobiography is met; the entire narrative is in first person--a POV that restricts authorial activity to mere exercise of recounting personal experiences. This technique of presentation may not always guarantee authenticity, for the narrator is bound to be selective, and the motive of reserving pride of place for himself in his narratives ever guides him from within. He never forgets it whether he is just churning out the text or interpreting events. He has to be the protagonist in all he presents, or else why should he embark upon an auctorial venture like this? Even, for the sake of enhancing its credibility, when he goes to import others' impressions or judgements or quotes their versions, he tends to be choosy, filtering them to suit his scheme.
In his "Midnight's Children" Salman Rushdie goes in great detail into his (narrator's?) childhood as he spends in Mumbai, into his adolescence as he spends in Pakistan, the land of pure, and into his adult activities as a soldier in Pakistani Army in erstwhile East Pakistan and finally as a fugitive in India amidst the snake charmers and contortionists. The condiments of his narratives include conspiracy at birth, love and infidelity, rationalization of incestuous crush, adventures, magic, historical coincidences and correlations, changes that are either man-made or fait accompli, a surfeit of generalisation, comedy uttered in a tone that is tragic and tragedy in a tone that sounds trivialized. It would appear as if a great man who determines the course of events chooses to remain incognito and comes to surface through his autobiography at a time when hiding any more becomes well-nigh impossible.
The protagonist Saleem Sinai is born at midnight of the 15th August 1947 when the clock-hands join palms to greet him respectfully, when India, 'the new myth--a collective fiction in which everything is possible' achieves her freedom to 'build the noble mansion of free India, where all her children may dwell.' This is by no means an accident; rather it is with a historical purpose, and all through his life he is bound to come in contact with the forces and actors that shape the history of the subcontinent. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India greets him at his birth and expresses his hope, saying, 'We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.'
But Saleem Sinai, the midnight child is not his father's son--in fact, at the nursing home of Narlikar, Mary Pereira the midwife changes the tag labels with another child born to the couple Vanita and the accordion player Wee Willie Winkie at that precise midnight hour. So Saleem Sinai actually born to the poor couple Vanita and Winkie comes to rich Ahmed Sinai and Amina Sinai as a result of the midwife's 'own private revolutionary act'. Does it not constitute a revolution to make a poor boy a rich in this way? Ha! Ha! Very funny indeed! Even that's not true: the child called Salem is not the result of the love between Vanita and Winkie couple; the baby is the result of an illicit affair between Vanita and William Methwold, the Englishman who developed the estate on a two-storey hillock facing Breach Candy Swimming Club where the protagonist would spend his childhood. In a way our Saleem is an Anglo-Indian. Willie Winkie, with his wife succumbing to post-natal hemorrhage, takes his son Shiva with him to the street of poverty and neglect. Thus, with the shared Indian dream of Independence coming true, 'children were born who were only partially the offspring of their parents--the children of midnight were also the children of the time.'
Saleem spends his childhood at Methwold's estate with the song of Mary Pereira lulling him to sleep, 'Anything you want to be, you can be…;' in the company of a varieties of characters, adult as well as children, in his neighbourhood that include Ismail the dishonest lawyer, Nussie-the-duck his adulterous wife and their son Sony, Mr Adi Dubash the atom physicist, his wife and his son Cyrus-the-great; with Dr Narlikar the child-hating gynecologist; with the adulterous Lila Sabarmati and her husband Commander Sabarmati of Indian Navy; with Dr Schaapsteker the researcher of snake-venom as the tenant on the top-floor apartment. He got a sister now, the Brass Monkey who later became Jamila the patriotic Singer in Pakistan. By the time he is 10-year old there comes to Methwold's estate a tomboy of an American girl named Evlyn Lilith Burns who is not only an expert in trick-cycling but also a snob of the first order. Saleem develops a crush on Evlyn just to be unceremoniously rejected by the latter. The jilted lover tries to show that he can, borrows Evlyn's Indiabike, rides it in the circus-ring of Methwold's estate and crashes into Sony. A few months later, in a fresh attempt to impress Evlyn, Saleem loses control and strays down the hillock to ram into the procession of the agitating Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti. There he supplies them a Gujarati couplet, "Soo che? Saru che! Danda le ke maru che!" that becomes the song of war in the sanguinary language riot. That is in 1956. Saleem at nearly nine year of age unwittingly steps into his role of history creator.
At his home front, his father Ahmed Sinai faces a financial crisis; his assets are frozen by government for his role in encroachment of the sea with the help of tetrapod. That is also the time when Amina and Ahmad Sinai dip into the abysmal depth of lovelessness which pushes Ahmed into severe alcoholism. But then Amina, with the Brass Monkey girl growing in her womb, goes out of the way: she stakes her own money in horse race, wins fabulously and dumps her cash into the coffers of the dishonest lawyer called Ismail who in his turn bribes his way to unfreeze the assets of the Sinai family. Then one day Saleem is afflicted by typhoid that proves almost incurable and it is only by the intervention of Dr Schaapsteker's kill-or-cure venom medicine that Saleem convalesces to find himself bandy-legged.
And then the turning point in the flow of events arrives. Saleem the nearly-nine-year-old hides in a wash chest in the toilet and discovers her mother nude on the commode, thinking aloud about her ex-husband Nadir. The son is now affected by the maternal duplicity and harbours a lifelong grudge. A violent sneeze turns into an irreversible sniff and the flow of mucous finds a different channel resulting in blockage. However, his mischief earns him a punishment of silence for one whole day. The punishment that follows the profound discovery, the movement of nasal mucous against the gravitation opens his mind to the magic fraternity of those five hundred and eighty-one midnight children. When Saleem discloses about the strange preternatural voice in his mind and eagerly awaits everybody's admiration for that, all get startled, so much so that a mighty blow from his father lands on his left ear to ruin it for good. Despite that the midnight parleys of all the midnight children go on through telepathy. Saleem performs the psychic travel throughout India, stealthily enters into the minds of politicians, film stars, cricketer, economists and makes things happen.
Now magic takes over. There are twin girls from Orissa that are ravishingly beautiful making their ardent suitors commit self-immolation out of frustration; there is self-proclaimed reincarnation of R. N. Tagore; there is one Sundari in Delhi whose beauty incapacitates everyone that ventures to look at her until her face is mutilated for others' safety (or for begging?); a boy from Kerala that steps into a mirror or for that matter into any shiny surface and comes out of it; a blue-eyed child from Kashmir that changes h(is/er) sex at will; and many others with a special mention of one Parvati the witch, the unquestioned supporter of Saleem in those midnight telepathic parleys or MCC in short. But Saleem also faces the opposition from Shiva, the midnight child in care of the old accordion Winkie and the difference had everything to do with Shiva's impoverished environ or rather with his hatred for the rich. The midnight children have a plethora of ideas how to utilize their talents but nothing eventuates as a common plan of action.
Saleem, the snotnose faces the wrath of his geography teacher and loses his hair on his skull for good; the bullies take revenge on him for dancing with the most beautiful girl Masha Miovic in the school social by dismembering his finger; the need for blood transfusion proves that the blood of Saleem is different from her parents leading to the confession of Mary Pereira about her crime of child-swapping at Narlikar's nursing home; Saleem is temporarily banished to his film-director uncle Hanif's place where his indiscretion with his aunt Pia in a momentary response to her woe-smeared seduction blows over him. He plans and succeeds in instigating Commander Sabarmati to kill the film-maker Homi Catrack who had led Lila Sabarmati onto the path of infidelity and this was Saleem's well-calculated revenge against the film-maker for hobnobbing with his aunt Pia.
The property at Methwold estate gets sold and Saleem along with his parents and sister migrates to Pakistan. There at Karachi while staying with his uncle Zulfikar, he witnesses how a conspiracy leads to an army coup. His sister grows into a beautiful girl with a talent for singing that is unprecedented in Pakistan. Saleem declares his love for his sister who, true to her nature, punishes him for showing love. It is during this period that the Indo-Pak war breaks out and bombs dropped by the Indian Air Force kills Saleem's entire family while razing his house to dust. Then he meets with an accident which gives him a superb power to sniff. This power makes him the ideal candidate for CUTIA squad raised to perpetrate a reign of terror in East Pakistan by tracing the anti-Pakistan freedom-mongers and their activities. When Bangladesh is created with the help of Indian Army, Saleem along with his comrades escapes to the Sunderbans and in the process of flight loses all of them to the bombs and bullets. There at Dhaka among those magical entertainers brought from India, he comes in contact with Parvati the witch who helps him to escape the country by air in her wicker basket with a superb display of vanishing magic. They come to Delhi where he is forcibly subjected to vasectomy by Sanjay Gandhi brigade, meets his bête noir Shiva who is already a war hero and an immoral debauchee. Parvati conceives from Shiva and marries to Saleem to become Laylah, gives birth to his son Adam Sinai and dies. Saleem comes to Bombay to be reunited with Mary Pereira who is now Mrs Barganza and the proprietor of the famous Barganza Pickles.
Saleem tells her stories to Padma of the pickle factory, who proposes to marry him even after knowing that he is suffering from a disease that is incurable and has already undergone a vasectomy during the Emergency.
This is, in short, the story of Rushdie's magnum opus "Midnight's Children". There was a time in the previous century, say in eighties, the freedom of India became an attractive subject for creating fiction. "Freedom at Midnight" of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre is one such opus. Maybe after the Emergency was lifted, people found India had the resilience needed for democracy and this fact inspired many to fictionalize history and historical personalities. While "Freedom at Midnight" lionized Mountbatten, Rushdie kept himself at the centre and developed his fiction. He just made a heady concoction of history, fiction and magic.
And the readability? The style is like a sage of ancient India telling stories to the princes for their entertainment or for their learning, or the goblin telling tales to King Vikramaditya; it is the tried and tested method of storytelling. It is not just the flashback technique; rather by moving back and forth he has managed to tell the story that nevertheless demands some effort from the readers to grasp the threads of text. Grammar is not an aspect to highlight, for styles are created on the ruins of grammatical rules. There are tense shifts even before the context changes, too many desi words cluttering every page, long sentences--some of them running over one and half pages forcing the readers to make efforts just for wafting along the flow of narratives. Nevertheless the story is well-told.
While reading the book, I felt I was reading Roald Dahl's "Matilda" as Saleem tries to peep into the minds of his teachers for cheating in his lessons; felt like I have read about the fuss created by the astrologers at the time of India's independence in Larry Collin and Dominique Lapierre's "Freedom at Midnight"; was reminded of "Achaanak", the Hindi Movie of seventies where an army officer shoots his wife for infidelity. This is, in no way to suggest that I have discovered traces of plagiarism; it is just a reader's feeling.
Still, the question remains: is it an autobiography? If so what portion of it?
Though time and again Rushdie asserts that "Midnight's Children" is a work of autobiography, there are places where he makes it appear that the narrator is a different person. For example, in the chapter captioned as "Jamila Singer" he uses an expression, "jerking my narrator's eyes away from the described past" or "Saleem was working towards a general theory of smell" as if the narrator and Saleem are two different persons. Otherwise, speaking from the point of view of realism, there can be some magic in the life of everybody but not as ubiquitous as in the text narrated here. Fictionalization could be another word to describe this.
A. N. Nanda
Labels: Book Review