In this restless time of ours, when nationality is being re-evaluated in terms of nationalism, we all must go back to the root of it- a journey that has been reverberating through every self of man at every stage of an’Independent India’. Every reader goes through a special journey with Rushdie’s masterful work, and with this novel which many consider to have jump-started the legacy of Indian writing in English, strong emotions are definitely welcome. Arkoprobho Biswas writes about this resonating read:
There are books that catch you from the very first line, there are books that are slow reads and then there are a few which are slow poisons – once taken, you can never ever leave those behind. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is one of a kind that takes ‘story-telling’ to a whole new level of self-interrogation, where you are no more an ordinary reader or listener of a free flow of tales but a part of the historical journey through time infinite- you yourself become a part of history. The deliberate confusions, false steps, occasional digressions, ambiguity and a conscious unconfident narrative makes it almost impossible for us to believe wholly either in the author or Saleem Sinai, the narrator. The constant toying with space and time has brought the four generations of the narrator( Saleem, his grandpa, his father and his son), spanning over almost 100 years or so and made me clueless about the point, where to begin with. Though I could have at least tried to sum it up, but it won’t do justice either to the book or to me (as a reader). What I found instead in this bildungsroman of the narrative is quite a circular movement that demands our attention to some greater questions of life- a question of identity, a question of belonging. And within it lie several anxieties that match with those of every Indian, born in post-independence era. And of course I am of no exception. I often connect every phase of Saleem Sinai with the gradual growth my ‘self’. A revolting forefather, a struggling grandpa, a strict father and at last a confused ‘me’ who doesn’t even know where does he belong to!
THE PRELUDE: I call it ‘prelude’ because it narrates the events before Saleem’s birth and makes the way smooth through which he is to arrive- arrive in a state of unrest, anxiety and downfall. This stage deals with mother India at her prenatal state (under the British rule) backdrop a very calm, quiet and peaceful Kashmiri landscape. Adam Aziz’s (Saleem’s grandfather) story goes on in bits and pieces along with the conflict between the native identity and the emerging consciousness of being ‘Indian’. A foreign returned doctor, his physical deformity (constant twitching of nose), his patient turning into his wife, a typically old father’s anxiety over his daughters’ marriage, emergence of a Muslim prophet like Mian Abdullah, the massacre of Jwaliana walabagh, the partition tension and a hint of the riot- all these add a little salt to the contradiction (read crisis) of the identity. What makes me worried even today is a ‘Kashmiri identity’. Is it all about the handsome shawl walas on the streets? Is it all about that dry fruit seller at Esplanade? Or does it simply mean some smiling faces beside the Dal lake? Above all, is it ‘Indian’ at all?
‘’I started off as a Kashmiri and not much of a Muslim. Then I got a bruise on the chest that turned me into an Indian. I am still not much of a Muslim, but I’m all for Abdullah. He is fighting my fight’’.
I said right that I can connect to this pretty well?? Because being a bong I know what a non-Bong is. It’s never been easy to build a national identity at the crunching times of British India. It is never easy. Adam Aziz felt the same. Yes, I know!
ACT, THE FIRST: It all started from Saleem’s birth, ‘it’ being the first conscious sin. At the stroke of the midnight of the 15th August, 1947 two boys were born at the same hospital, one to the prosperous family of Sinais, and the other to the streets. Then there is a baby-swap by a nursemaid, namely Mary Pereira.
A street singer left by an English man is given the Muslim aristocrat baby and names him Shiva (ah, the almighty!) and the Sinais are given the ‘cucumber-nose’ English- Hindu and names him Saleem. And thus by a so-called ACCIDENT they become eternal doppelgangers.
ACT, THE SECOND: Children of the midnight are all born with special powers, Saleem with a gift for telepathy- ‘he can enter other lives at will, see through walls’, discovers all secrets including the fact of his true parentage. He confronts truth. And the confrontation of truth has always an unhappy ending.He discovers about his mother Amina’s affair with Nadir Khan, about the imposed duel with Shiva, about his infatuation with his sister Jamila (Is she his biological sister?). Thus this stage presents Saleem as an observer, his omnipresence. With a mere swap of words from the newspaper he brings death of commander Sabarmati’s wife (another ACCIDENT?). ‘’With the eclectic spirit of my nine years spurring me on, I leaped into the head of film stars and cricketers- I learned the truth behind the Filmfare gossip about the dancer Vyjayantimala, and I was at the crease with Polly Umrigar at the Brabourne Staium; I was Lata Mangeshkar the playback singer and Bubu the clown at the circus behind Civil Lines…and inevitably, through the random proceses of my mind-hopping, I discovered politics’’. And then it was not enough. What happened next?-Another ACCIDENT, a bicycle mishap that brings Saleem face to face with the other children of the midnight and their specialities. A Keralaite boy who could step into mirrors, a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish, a boy who could increase or decrease his size, a boy with special power of transformation into werewolf from Nilgiri hills, one’s prophesying of a urine-drinking prime minister and so on and so forth. But what are they supposed to do with these abilities? Can they form a nation? Do they know their truest identities? Saleem is always seen to be torn between these- to do a good or sit back and enjoy.
We, the latest grown ups are all Saleems! We have batted with Sachin, we have fought in Kargil, we have sold fish, we have driven bus and one fine morning we became some socially aware creatures. Now we know the business. We want to be Prime ministers!
‘’But it is Kali-Yuga; the children of the hour of darkness were born, I am afraid, in the midst of the age of darkness; so that although we found it easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being good’’.
ACT, THE THIRD: ‘’To simplify matters, I present two of my own: the war happened because I dreamed Kashmir into the fantasies of our rulers; furthermore, I remained impure, and the war was to separate me from my sins’’. This is the state where the tension of the elders are juxtaposed with the agony of the youths- the state of a war with the neighbor. Was it high time to look back once? To unhappen many things? And here comes the transition of Saleem with a greater sense of reality- a resurrected Saleem whom this world can no more touch. The ‘five-hundred-year-old whores and confessions of love at dead of night’ no more perturbs him. He attains Mokshya.
‘’…I accepted the fate which was my repayment for love, and sat uncomplaining under a chinar tree; that, emptied of history, the Buddha learned the arts of submission, did only what was required of him. To sum up: I became a citizen of Pakistan’’.
ACT ZERO: Zero is the ideal number, zero is nothing . Zero adds nothing. But zero can bring back Zero- the source, where it all started. And ‘0’ has always reminded me of a perfect circle. This might be the strongest argument among all. We have come to the fag end of Saleem’s journey. What is one left with after he attains ‘Mokshya’? –Nothing, he has to get back to where he started (either physically or mentally). And here we often get a hint of forming of a perfect circle of his life. And with a sharp roller coaster ride we are drawn to rapid events of Saleem’s marriage with Parvati, the witch, birth of his son (whose original father is Shiva, Saleem’s early doppelganger), emergence of Picture Singh and Saleem’s return to Bombay.
‘’To sum up: forsaking my earlier, naive hopes of preferment in pubic service, I returned to the magicians’ slum and the chaya of the Friday Mosque’. Like Gautama, the first and true Buddha,I left my life and comfort and went like a beggar into the world. The date was February 23rd, 1973; coal-mines and the wheat market were being nationalized , the price of oil had begun to spiral up, up ,up would quadruple in a year, and in the communist party of India, the split between Dange’s Moscow faction and Namboodiripad’s C.P.I (M) had become unbridgeable; and I, Saleeem Sinai, like India, was twenty-five years, six months and eight days old.’’
People like Saleem are the children of the transition, the colleagues of Mother India, who by then had witnessed the first thirty years of futility of it. They are ‘the voiceless dusts’ who failed, failed and failed to build the new nation. Where do the voices go? The thousand and one pathways with a promise of a new dawn? ‘’…it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their time…to be unable to live or die in peace’’. It’s more like a 3 a.m thought, you cannot decide whether you should at all go to bed or not. You ponder. You waste your time. And suddenly there is the dawn. You call it fresh because you want to forget the sleepless night, you hope for another night’s sleep. You move on. You don’t do anything. You can only look forward to a future in the hope that it must be brighter. Midnight’s Children is all about this sense of life that you cannot do anything much. You just remain restless!
Title art by Trinamoy Das
Portrait of Rushdie by Suman Mukherjee
Image of the book cover from Flipkart
Next post on 1st July