Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006).
Summary: Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers.
Salman Rushdie is a native of India of Muslim descent most often known for his book The Satanic Verses, the publication of which resulted in a fatwa calling for his assassination. Since 2000, he has lived in New York City. This novel, his second, brought him to the attention of the literary world and was awarded the Booker Prize and was selected one of the hundred best novels of all time by the Modern Library.
The central figure, Saleem Sinai, is narrating his life to Padma, “the pickle woman” who is taking care of him. Central to his life story is that he was born at the stroke of midnight at the moment India gained its Independence. He sees himself as a twin with India, and that his experiences and actions are intertwined with that of the country. His life and family dysfunctions and travails parallel those of India. In his personal history, he gets caught up in the Indo-Pakistan wars and Bangladeshi independence.
He and the other babies born in the first hour of Independence all have unusual powers. Saleem’s is the ability to telepathically link them together in the “Midnight Children’s Conference” where they deliberate how they might use their powers in their young country. The hopeful promise of these children is not attained, and one, Shiva, who was switched with Saleem at birth is a destroyer, symbolized by his powerful knees, while Saleem’s sensitivities are symbolized by his nose that can sniff out not only smells but dispositions and longings.
Rushdie writes in the genre of magical realism, similar to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Noses, knees, serpents, and impotent men recur through the book. When Saleem’s wife goes into labor, at the beginning of the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, she labors thirteen days, until the emergency lifts. In all of this, the life story of Saleem is mystically linked with the nation.
The challenge in reading this work is both remembering this connection and understanding the history of India during the time spanned by the novel (1947 to 1979). One wishes, particular in the newer edition, that it would have been annotated for those not deeply acquainted with this history. Rushdie himself observes that western readers tend to read this novel as fantasy while readers from India see the book as almost a history.
We trace the central figure from the hopefulness and growing awareness of boyhood to a growing sense of pathos, sadness and, indeed impotence, perhaps reflecting the frustration of India’s hopes, particularly during the Indira Gandhi rule. A life story, that of its own seems sad, and at points dysfunctional, in fact becomes commentary for the early years of India’s statehood. Sadly, this narrative could be the story of many post-colonial states. But Saleem has a son, and perhaps a new generation…. Perhaps.