When I finally completed Salman Rushdie’s bestselling novel “Midnight’s Children,” I was truly, truly relieved that I persevered till the very last page for it truly is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that left me marveled and humbled by his ability to blur the lines between magic and history.
Set in the postcolonial era, this novel is as much the autobiography of protagonist Saleem Sinai as well as the story of India. Saleem, who was born at the stroke of midnight on India’s independence, inexplicably shared his life’s triumphs and disasters with the fate of his nation. This coincidence also endowed him magical powers in his large cucumber nose to sniff out danger when others were unable to and telepathic powers to connect with other children like him who were born in the early hours of independence, a group which he called “midnight’s children.’
“It is the privilege and 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.”
Magical as it is, this book is no walk in the park. It was so tough to get through the chapters that my overall reading experience could be summarized as – read, put down, re-read, repeat. “Midnight’s Children” will certainly be up there together with David Foster Wallace’s posthumous work “The Pale King” as one of my most difficult books to tackle, and there are many reasons why this is so.
Foremost, the story plot was difficult to follow. At its core, it was about Saleem narrating chronologically his life story to his to-be wife Padma but throw in a gazillion sub-plots developing in all directions at the same time. Picture a sea urchin with its prickly spokes sticking out randomly, this story felt very much like that.A typical chapter would develop as such: Saleem in the present would lament to Padma and during which drop hints about his future fate before backtracking to the past to give some historical context and slowly drift to Saleem’s life story which would later be interspersed with magical elements.
Furthermore Rushdie’s use of multiple references for the same character was initially quite confusing. The protagonist for instance was known as I, he, Saleem, Buddha, snot-nosed, the children of Independence and so on. Such flexibility in naming applied for most of the other characters so trying to keep up with the various names was tedious. And pronouns were also not consistently used where first and third person references were swapped around freely.
Although it took a lot of extra work I took to get through “Midnight’s Children,” it also made reading it memorable for the story was packed densely with many layers that there was much to slowly appreciate and contemplate on. Take it too seriously and it could be deemed as a work of blasphemy and distorting history. Take it too lightly, and you will miss Rushdie’s criticisms of India’s politics and society that remains true even up till today.
With Picture Singh, I might never have known about the poll-fixing in the state elections in Kashmir. He was no lover of democracy, however: ‘God damn this election business, captain,” he told me, “Whenever they come, something bad happens; and our countrymen behave like clowns.”