Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 1991
Number of Pages: 533 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, at the precise moment of India’s independence, the infant Saleem Sinai is celebrated in the press and welcomed by Prime Minister Nehru himself. But this coincidence of birth has consequences Saleem is not prepared for: telepathic powers that connect him with 1,000 other “midnight’s children” – all born in the initial hour of India’s independence – and an uncanny sense of smell that allows him to sniff out dangers others can’t perceive. Inextricably linked to his nation, Saleem’s biography is a whirlwind of disasters and triumphs that mirror the course of modern India at its most impossible and glorious.
Colorful. Vivid. Powerful. Bold.
These are just amongst the litany of words that can describe Salman Rushdie’s magnum opus. Midnight’s Children first won the 1981 Man Booker prize before twice earning the distinction of being the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993 and 2008. The encomiums it got from literary critics and various award-winning bodies have cemented the book’s reputation as a literary heavy weight. What is Midnight’s Children all about that it is such a literary favorite? What made it tower above all the other Man Booker winners?
The initial impression on Midnight’s Children, in view of its literary success, is that it is a daunting read, even to the seasoned readers. And as one probes deeper into the book, this point is proven to be all the truer. It is a nonlinear, slow-paced read that is not made for pleasurable reading. Its sheer extent and density can be overwhelming. But behind it is a colorful and magical story about India, about its history and about its people.
At the center of this powerful prose is Saleem Sinai. Born precisely 12 midnight of August 15, 1947, Saleem holds the distinction of being born at the exact moment that India, as a free nation, was born. As he grew up, he discovered that his birth was more than a coincidence. He was born with a sensitive nose which can sniff out dangers and with a telepathic power which enables him to enter other people’s mind and to an extent, influence their actions.
Saleem Sinai is relating the story in his perspective to his soon-to-be wife Padma. A vivid and colorful narrator, he is the Indian equivalent of Middlesex’s Cal Stephanides. However, at times, he is confusing, obscuring what he deemed as important details in an endless litany of words that leaves one gasping. His rambling possesses this cryptic ability that makes something simple sound complex.
The book didn’t start off with the way one expected it to be. The beginning was dull and boring, dealing mostly with Saleem’s family’s history. The unbearably slow pace makes one want to put it down. The pace begun picking up with Saleem’. The words begun to dance gracefully to the beat of music. The pace became steadier, sweeping the reader in a whirlwind of events that reflect India’s history, especially on its infancy.
At the center of India’s history are the midnight children. Saleem soon learned that he wasn’t the only one who possessed preternatural powers. While entering other people’s minds, he learned that there were others who had magical powers that range from witchcraft to time traveling to incredible strength. Coincidentally, they were all born within the first hour of India’s independence. The closer their time of birth to midnight is, the stronger their powers are, making Saleem the eldest and the most powerful.
Using telepathy, Saleem brought together all of midnight’s children. He acted as a telepathic conduit, assembling all these children and forming the Midnight’s Children Conference (MCC). They communicated with each other through Saleem. Beyond their powers, the children are themselves the embodiment of the diversity prevailing that makes India unique. However, this diversity is going to be MCC’s own unmaking.
Due to the diversity of the MCC members, there prevailed a bevy of different cultures and beliefs. This caused discord amongst them, mirroring that has also beset India in its infancy. Each meeting of the conference almost always ended in arguments concerning ethnic, religious, linguistic and political differences. Although some members have their own idea of how to run the assembly, some members were comfortable not getting involved.
Beyond the thread of diversity that divided India and the MCC, one prevalent theme is politics. It is astonishing to read how Rushdie fearlessly portrayed the shaky politics that has prevailed over his home country. He does not shy away from such hard-hitting topics nor does he sugarcoat his political preferences, one that is reflected in his latest work, The Golden House. He is so vocal he even got sued by no less than Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself for one controversial line in the story.
Midnight Children’s complexity is what makes it a worthwhile read. As one digs deeper, the initial intimidation one felt melts because one gets engrossed with the events that gripped India. The book’s rigorous depiction of the infancy of India, including its partition, is one of the numerous achievements of the book. Rushdie is relentless in his indoctrination of his readers with a very important phase of Indian history. Indeed, his mastery of literature and writing is in full display in the book.
Another towering achievement of the book is its colorful characters who are as colorful as the events that they found themselves in. Saleem’s family is a curious understudy. They are your typical Indian family united by blood, tradition and superstitious beliefs but divided by jealousy, hatred and ambitiousness. Of midnight’s children, the incredibly strong Shiva and the witch Parvati are the most prominent and are bound to shape Saleem’s life.
To say that Midnight’s Children is breathtaking is an understatement. India’s history beside, it is a staggering narrative about a bevy of themes like unity and division, family and friendship, and love and hatred. Through Saleem, Rushdie was able to display his remarkable power of observation and depiction of human behavior. The characters are complex but are the true embodiment of India as a nation. Rushdie’s character development is impeccable, complimenting the story from the start to finish.
As always, Rushdie’s depiction of his home country is admirable. India is a colorful country filled with numerous stories, and Midnight’s Children is just among them. Rushdie knows how to pay tribute to his roots like no other author does. He didn’t mince a word in describing its political system, its history, its social diversity and its prevailing social issues. But in spite of its growth, superstitious beliefs and tradition are still prominent. Rushdie’s fortitude in bringing all these things to light is truly astounding.
Midnight’s Children is a staggering work that will remain to be a literary powerhouse for years to come. That Booker of Bookers distinction is well-deserved. It is a novel about India yet it is not a novel about India. It is a classic that is difficult to appreciate but once it got going, it fills one with awe and magic. It is a Booker for years to come and a precious gem that is to be forever treasured.
Recommended for those Salman Rushdie loyalists, those who like magical realism, those who are interested in Indian and South Asian literature, those who like reading vividly portrayed narratives, those who are looking for complex yet worthwhile read, and those who are looking for well-written prose.
Not recommended for those who dislike slow-paced reading and those who are looking for a pleasurable read.
About the Author
To know more about Salman Rushdie, click here.