In his introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie writes:
In the West people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.
I admit, when I started reading Midnight’s Children, I was frustrated. I knew I just couldn’t read it purely as a fantasy. Why, these are real dates in history, important events, the World Wars, the Mahatma’s call for an independent India with non-violent means, the separation of India and Pakistan along religious lines… There must be more, I told myself. I knew I could never read it as an insider, but I could at least peek through the fences, and get a glimpse of what’s going on inside.
And so I did. I searched for background info and author interviews, both online and off. As a result, my reading pleasure is enhanced after I found out how realistic the novel is. Personal happenings actually correspond with important historical events, not unlike the movie Forrest Gump, little people tossed in the currents of history.
Rushdie in an interview noted that instead of using an Austenesque way to tell his story by focusing on the details and the minute, he chose to adopt a Dickensian approach, placing his characters on a macro, societal canvas. As a result, we have a monumental epic. Mind you, he just wanted to write a novel about childhood, he said.
The narrator, Saleem Sinai, started with his Grandfather Aadam Aziz in 1915, thirty-two years before India’s independence. The young doctor examined his patient and future wife Naseem through a perforated sheet a bit at a time, under the close supervision of her cautious father. When at last she complained of a headache, he finally could see her face, “on the day the World War ended.” It’s pure humor also, and I’ve enjoyed Rushdie’s free wheeling brush strokes.
But often the comical may just serve to bring out more poignantly a sombre reality. When I first read the ‘Mercurochrome’ chapter, it didn’t hit me at all. Later, I read about the atrocity that had actually happened on April 13th, 1919, the Amritsar massacre. British Brigadier-General Reginald E. H. Dyer ordered Marshal Law regulations, banning all assemblies. A large crowd defied his orders and started converging in the compound Jallianwala Bagh for a peaceful protest. Dyer marched fifty riflemen up and ordered them to shoot at the crowd indiscriminately, men, women children.
They have fired a total of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd. Of these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark… ‘Good shooting,’ Dyer tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly good thing.’ (p. 34)
A few days ago, Aadam helped the wounded on the streets and got Mercurochrome all over his white shirt, and had to explain to wife Naseem the red stains were not blood. Now on this fateful day, Naseem assumed the red was Mercurochrome again, but was told, “it’s blood,” and she fainted.
The relevance of the perforated sheet reemerges in the next generation when Amina Sinai, Saleem’s mother, has to learn to love her husband Ahmed Sinai one fragment at a time:
‘Who, after all,’ she reasoned privately, ‘ever truly knows another human being completely?’
The last two chapters ‘Methwold’ and ‘Tick, Tock’ strike a chord in me. Why, I’m not totally an outsider after all. For the first fifteen years of my life, I was a colonial. I was born and grew up in the then British colony of Hong Kong. So reading Book One of Midnight’s Children, I feel certain affiliation. It reminds me of my childhood days, which were also filled with multiplicity of cultures, the fusion of languages, and fortunately, the calm co-existence of religions. There were spittoons and Mercurochrome. I was familiar with bilingual usages, aware of the divide between the subject and the ruling, the East and the West. Even now, I can spot the ‘imitation Oxford drawls’. My “Tick, Tock” moment was when I watched on TV here in Canada the last governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten standing in the rain holding the British Colony flag, saying goodbye to all that on July 1, 1997.
Rushdie’s animated style makes his India colourful and fascinating. His characters, descriptions and dialogues are like the splashes of a Pollock painting. That’s where the fantasy comes in, I suppose, on the large canvas of history.
Book One ends with intrigue. Saleem Sinai, it turns out, is a changeling. At the stroke of midnight August 15, 1947, two boys were born, but was soon mixed up by midwife Mary Pereira in a wilful act of self-assertion. This too has its deeper reference:
When we eventually discovered the crime of Mary Pereira, we all found that it made no difference! I was still their son: they remained my parents. In a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts…
I look forward to reading the childhood of these two changelings Saleem and Shiva, and their journeys ahead.
Here are the other Read-Along Posts for Book One (so far):
If you’ve written a post for our Read-Along, do let us know in a comment.