Wednesday, November 17, 2010

372. Midnight’s Children – Salmon Rushdie

History: This book was published in 1981 and won the Booker Prize, Great Britain's equivalent of the U.S. Pulitzer Prize; in 1993, the novel was awarded the "Booker of Bookers," a honor accorded to the best novel to be published in the competition's first twenty-five years. In 1984 Indira Gandhi brought an action against the book in the British courts, claiming to have been defamed by a single sentence in chapter 28, penultimate paragraph, in which her son Sanjay Gandhi is said to have had a hold over his mother by him accusing her of contributing to his father's death through her neglect. The case was settled out of court when Salman Rushdie agreed to remove the offending sentence.
In the late 1990s the BBC was planning to film a five-part miniseries of the novel with Rahul Bose in the lead, but due to pressure from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, the filming permit was revoked and the project was cancelled
Plot: Midnight's Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment when India becomes an independent country and has telepathic powers, as well as an enormous and constantly dripping nose. The novel is divided into three books.
Midnight's Children tells the story of the Sinai family and the earlier events leading up to India's Independence and Partition, connecting the two lines both literally and allegorically. Saleem Sinai, an obscure thirty-year-old pickle factory worker who writes the fantastic story of his life each night, reading it aloud each night and having it commented on by a doting woman named Padma. He is born at the exact moment that India becomes independent. He later discovers that all children born in India between 12 AM and 1 AM on 15 August 1947, are imbued with special powers. Saleem thus attempts to use these powers to convene the eponymous children. The convention, or Midnight Children's Conference, is in many ways reflective of the issues India faced in its early statehood concerning the cultural, linguistic, religious, and political differences faced by such a vastly diverse nation. Saleem acts as a telepathic conduit, bringing hundreds of geographically disparate children into contact while also attempting to discover the meaning of their gifts. In particular, those children born closest to the stroke of midnight wield more powerful gifts than the others. Shiva of the Knees, Saleem's evil nemesis, and Parvati, called "Parvati-the-witch," are two of these children with notable gifts and roles in Saleem's story.
Meanwhile, Saleem must also contend with his personal trajectory. His family is active in this, as they begin a number of migrations and endure the numerous wars which plague the subcontinent. During this period he also suffers amnesia until he enters a quasi-mythological exile in the jungle of Sundarban, where he is re-endowed with his memory. In doing so, he reconnects with his childhood friends. Saleem later becomes involved with the Indira Gandhi - proclaimed Emergency and her son Sanjay's "cleansing" of the Jama Masjid slum. For a time Saleem is held as a political prisoner; these passages contain scathing criticisms of Indira Gandhi's overreach during the Emergency as well as what Rushdie seems to see as a personal lust for power bordering on godhood. The Emergency signals the end of the potency of the Midnight Children, and there is little left for Saleem to do but pick up the few pieces of his life he may still find and write the chronicle that encompasses both his personal history and that of his still-young nation; a chronicle written for his son, who, like his father, is both chained and supernaturally endowed by history.
Review: Despite light moments, Midnight’s Children is not a light read. I really struggled to finish this book – and my feelings about it are mixed. Rushdie’s prose is full of symbolism, analogies, magical realism and the complex history of India. The book has multiple themes (the individual vs. the masses and destruction vs. creation to name two). It is also full of numerous characters – some minor, some major and everything in between.
Midnight’s Children is indeed full of meaning. And symbols. Symbols cut out of a perforated, blood-stained sheet. A sheet through which Aadam Aziz examined the patient which would one day be his wife. A sheet which would one day be used as a Halloween costume of a ghost, the symbol of walking death. A sheet that can even hide truth, as the sheet which cloaked the Brass Monkey, alias the Voice of Pakistan, a beautiful voice that did not speak of inner realities. A sheet stained in blood – is Rushdie symbolizing the nations of India (nations, for there are three, not one) that were bloodily cut out of a large, blanketing empire?
The story was planned. Created. The fact that Shiva was named Shiva was no coincidence. That Parvati the witch was named Parvati. And that their offspring had the ears of an elephant, a human Ganesh. (I certainly hope you’ve read the book, and that I’m not giving anything away.) This is all transparent to anyone of even a cursory background of Hinduism.
Rushdie has an imperative to show the reader that he is well-versed and well-read. " the buzzing in my left, or sinister, ear" (201). Yes, Rushdie knows a bit of Greek, for sinister is indeed the Greek word for left. Is there something sinister about what happened to Saleem’s left ear? What is Rushdie trying to tell us? Or is he merely telling us that (and what) he can tell?
For it all fits together almost perfectly. The Widow and her black and white hair. Drainings above and below, causing a dryness that leads to cracking. Do we really need anyone to tell us that the children of midnight represent the birth of a multitude of ideas of freedom, a land full of dreams – in short, a new nation that has, as many before it, caught the optimism bug. And of the ones who want to exterminate this bug once and for all.
Rushdie can take any sentence, any word, and dive into its definition, constructing links, making analogies, playing with meanings. Rushdie masterfully has every number and statistic in place – in place and ready, a skeleton ready for a body, and Rushdie readily provides the body. The allusions and plays on words are everywhere.
Opening Line: “I was born in the city of Bombay, once upon a time.. no that won’t do.”
Closing Line: “Yes, they will trample me underfoot, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privilege an the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.
Quotes: “Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, , of everything done-to-me.”
“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, theur smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth….that they are despite everything, acts of love.”
Rating: Masterpiece. Important but typically boastful

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