by Salman Rushdie
Knopf, 446 pp., $13.95
Though written by a Muslim and concerned at considerable length with the militant (and militaristic) Muslim state of Pakistan, Midnight’s Children impressed me as profoundly Hindu in its sensibility. Confronted by a novel of such size (much longer, because of small print, than the number of pages would indicate), complexity, and originality, the reviewer gropes about for analogies. What came to me is the image of one of those astonishing Indian temples—at Khajuraho, say—that symbolize the “World-Mountain” of Hindu mythology. Whether shaped like an upended cucumber or a pyramid with excrescences, the form of such a temple is often obscured (for Western eyes) by the extravagance of its sculptured surface. The riot of gods and goddesses, hooded cobras, flying nymphs, multi-headed demons, garlanded bulls, elephants, monkeys, and copulating couples point to an aesthetic that, like the religion underlying it, is based upon a principle of maximum inclusion. Beside such a teeming world-mountain, even the most intricately arabesqued mosque appears nearly as chaste and symmetrical as the Parthenon.
As if aware that his novel would be difficult to grasp, much less summarize, in its entirety, Salman Rushdie promptly presents us with a symbolic episode that suggests a useful approach. The narrator’s (supposed) grandfather, a large-nosed, Heidelberg-trained doctor named Aadam Aziz, is summoned on a spring morning in 1915 to examine the ailing daughter of a Kashmiri landowner. Arriving at the ill-lit bedchamber, Dr. Aziz sees a curious tableau: two muscular women are holding the corners of an enormous white bedsheet in the center of which a hole has been cut—”a crude circle about seven inches in diameter.”
My grandfather peered around the room. “But where is she, Ghani Sahib?” he blurted out finally. The lady wrestlers adopted supercilious expressions and, it seemed to him, tightened their musculatures, just in case he intended to try something funny.
“Ah, I see your confusion,” Ghani said, his poisonous smile broadening. “You Europe-returned chappies forget certain things. Doctor Sahib, my daughter is a decent girl, it goes without saying. She does not flaunt her body under the noses of strange men. You will understand that you cannot be permitted to see her, no, not in any circumstances….”
A frantic note had crept into Doctor Aziz’s voice. “Ghani Sahib, tell me how I am to examine her without looking at her?” Ghani smiled on.
“You will kindly specify which portion of my daughter it is necessary to inspect. I will then issue her with my instructions to place the required segment against that hole which you see there. And so, in this fashion the thing may be achieved.”
The girl, Naseem, is subject to a variety of illnesses. Each time Aziz is called, he examines a different part of her body. By 1918 he has seen her bottom, which is capable of blushing; still later, a longed-for headache allows her to bare her face, which proves not to be ugly. “So gradually Doctor Aziz came to have a picture of Naseem in his mind, a badly-fitted collage of her severally-inspected parts.” Of course they fall in love, but Aziz must wait until the marriage is arranged before he is permitted to see his fiancée in her entirety.
Of course a novel, however fragmented, is neither a temple nor a collage that may be examined in parts or perceived as an instantaneous whole; it must be experienced sequentially. But the reader is nonetheless advised to keep in mind the image of the perforated sheet in the narrative summary that follows.
Midnight’s Children traces the grotesque destiny of a Muslim Indian family from 1915 to 1977, when Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule was about to end in a general election which she, in a hubristic burst of overconfidence, had called. Its narrator-protagonist is Saleem Sinai, who, in the novel’s present (1977), is an impotent wreck of a man whose body has begun to develop cracks. Living, or rather dying, in a Bombay pickle factory, Saleem tells his fantastic story to a woman who works in the factory. This woman, Padma, whom he calls his “dung-lotus,” is thick, illiterate, superstitious, and often grouchy; a stubbornly resistant audience, Padma nonetheless loves Saleem and is the consolation of his latter days.
The story itself reaches back in time to Dr. Aziz’s odd courtship and the family’s move from Kashmir to Agra. Then it proceeds to the marriage of Saleem’s (supposed) mother, Mumtaz (later Amina) Aziz to his (supposed) father, Ahmed Sinai. Since Ahmed, though well-off, is not an attractive man, his wife (who has inherited her father’s big nose) resolves, “under the spell of the perforated sheet,” to fall in love with him part by part; she succeeds finally in loving every part except the one that is essential to her achievement of motherhood. We follow this affluent but ill-assorted couple first to Delhi and then to Bombay, where they buy a villa on the estate of an Englishman who will allow no changes in his properties or their furnishings until the day of Indian independence, for which the countdown has now begun with the arrival of Lord Mountbatten.
This opening section, occupying over a hundred tightly printed pages, is not only densely populated but contains sufficient action, both realistic and fantastic, to stock half a dozen contemporary novels of the short, well-made variety. The link between the family’s history and that of the nation (the campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, the prelude to Partition, Hindu-Muslim rioting, etc.) is established through dozens of small episodes, together with numerous digressions and disquisitions on the part of the narrator. Meanwhile, this loquacious fellow has not yet been born.
But here is Padma at my elbow, bullying me back into the world of linear narrative, the universe of what-happened-next: “At this rate,” Padma complains, “you’ll be two hundred years old before you manage to tell about your birth.” She is affecting nonchalance, jutting a careless hip in my general direction, but doesn’t fool me. I know now that she is, despite all her protestations, hooked…. “You better get a move on, or you’ll die before you get yourself born.” Fighting down the proper pride of the successful storyteller, I attempt to educate her. “Things—even people—have a way of leaking into each other,” I explain, “like flavours when you cook….”
In this much-deferred birth, as in so much else, Midnight’s Children is reminiscent of that two-hundred-year-old masterpiece of digression, Tristram Shandy. The birth, for which there is also a countdown of days, hours, and minutes, occurs on the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, just as Prime Minister Nehru is beginning his radio speech and as the partitioned Punjab bursts into flames of communal savagery.
Saleem is not a beautiful baby: he has a moon face, fair skin stained by birthmarks, ice-blue eyes, bulbous temples like Byzantine domes, and a rampant cucumber of a nose from which constantly flows “a shining cascade of goo.” Furthermore, nasal appearances to the contrary, he is not his parents’ child but the son of a poor itinerant entertainer and a woman who dies in childbirth; a midwife had, in a moment of revolutionary fervor, changed the babies’ name-tags, “giving the poor baby a life of privilege and condemning the rich-born child to accordions and poverty….” The real offspring of the Sinais—a powerful, knock-kneed infant named Shiva—reappears from time to time in the novel as Saleem’s counterpart and nemesis. As the first-born child of midnight, Saleem is celebrated in the newspapers and receives a letter from the prime minister; but at the same time his father, as a rich Muslim suspected of leanings toward Pakistan, receives a letter from the new government stating that all his assets have been frozen. Again the ironic linking of the personal and the historical is reinforced.
The account of Saleem’s middle-class boyhood in Bombay is so crowded with vividly realized incidents that I can only call attention to their existence. Once more we are confronted with the writhing figures on the temple. The clustering that must be brought into focus centers around Saleem’s discovery, at nine, of extraordinary telepathic powers that enable him to read the minds of those around him—and, incidentally, to cheat at school. At ten, as the result of a concussion, he learns that he is in communication with the 581 children who have survived (given India’s high rate of child mortality) from the 1,001 children born between midnight and 1 AM on August 15, 1947.
These are midnight’s children, “every one of whom was, through some freak of biology, or perhaps owing to some preternatural power of the moment, or just conceivably by sheer coincidence (although synchronicity on such a scale would stagger even C.G. Jung), endowed with features, talents or faculties which can only be described as miraculous.” A boy from Kerala has the ability to step through mirrors and reemerge through any reflective surface, including the polished metal bodies of automobiles. A blue-eyed child from Kashmir can alter his or her sex by stepping into water. Still another, Parvati, is a true witch, with powers of conjuration and sorcery. To Shiva, Saleem’s changeling brother, “the hour had given the gifts of war (of Rama, who could draw the undrawable bow; of Arjuna and Bhima; the ancient prowess of Kurus and Pandavas united, unstoppably, in him!)….”
As the divine names of Shiva and Parvati and the references to the Mahabharata and Ramayana suggest, midnight’s children incorporate the stupendous Indian past, with its pantheon, its epics, and its wealth of folklore and fairy tales, while at the same time playing a role in the tumultuous Indian present. Saleem confesses that, though born and raised in the Muslim tradition, he finds himself overwhelmed by an “older learning” and speculates that he himself might, with his trunk-like nose, embody some of the attributes of the elephant-god Ganesh.
To Saleem himself is given “the greatest talent of all—the ability to look into the hearts and minds of men.” Thanks to these gifts, it is Saleem who organizes the disparate group into the Midnight Children’s Conference, which night after night he telepathically convenes. But the existence of the MCC does not survive Saleem’s adolescence (it is indeed rather like an adolescents’ club). When he is fifteen his telepathic powers are destroyed by an operation that drains his inflamed sinuses—an operation that also confers upon him, for the first time in his life, the ability to smell. Great things lie ahead for Saleem’s extraordinary nasal talents, which can detect psychological and moral as well as physical odors.
When Saleem moves to Pakistan with his family, the novel swerves into a more immediate concern with the political and military history of the two rival nations in the sub-Himalayan triangle. Despite the unabated crackle of comedy on the novel’s surface, the tone darkens, becoming less Shandian or Rabelaisian than Swiftian. Passages of mordantly ironic satire alternate with scenes of phantasmagoric horror. The wife of an Indian government official (Saleem’s uncle Mustapha Aziz), who has been passed over forty-seven times for the headship of his department, is driven insane “by a life in which she has been required to begin ‘being a chamcha’ (literally a spoon, but idiomatically a flatterer) to forty-seven separate and successive wives of number-ones whom she had previously alienated by her manner of colossal condescension when they had been wives of number-threes….” As for her husband, “If Indira Gandhi had asked him to commit suicide, Mustapha Aziz would have ascribed it to anti-Muslim bigotry but also defended the statesmanship of the request, and, naturally, performed the task without daring (or even wishing) to demur.”
When the Pakistani army invades East Bengal to put down the rebellion that led to the creation of Bangladesh, Saleem with his remarkable nose is sent along to sniff out subversive intellectuals, and the reader is spared none of the Goya-esque horrors of throat-slitting and rape that follow. The “dog-soldiers strain at the leash, and then, released, leap joyously to their work.” Soldiers enter “women’s hostels without knocking; women, dragged into the street, were also entered, and again nobody troubled to knock.”
Real people cross this darkened scene: General Ayub Khan plotting at a dinner party to overthrow the civilian government of Pakistan; the fossilized relic of Mahatma Gandhi’s circle, Morarji Desai, who puritanically bans alcohol and ritualistically “drinks his own water” (i.e., urine); and above all, the formidable lady referred to as the Widow and her beloved son, the “labia-lipped” Sanjay. The book invokes a bitter plague upon both nations, sparing neither the militaristic jingoism of the Pakistani generals nor what Saleem observes as the hypocrisy, cruelty, and corruption of the Widow’s regime in New Delhi. For India, so hopeful on the day of its independence, has, like Saleem, become prematurely aged, impotent, mutilated, with ominous cracks developing throughout its body. The potential of the magical children of midnight has been systematically cut out—”ectomized”—by the Widow, “who was not only Prime Minister of India but also aspired to be Devi [doesn’t Rushdie mean Kali?], the Mother-goddess in her most terrible aspect, possessor of the shakti of the gods, a multi-limbed divinity with a centre-parting and schizophrenic hair….”
Meanwhile Shiva the Destroyer, now a war hero, bestrides the land. We are indeed in the Age of Darkness, KaliYuga, “in which the cow of mortality has been reduced to standing, teeteringly, on a single leg!” Only the earthy, accepting “dung goddess,” Padma—the incarnation of suffering Mother India herself—remains to cherish Saleem and, against all odds, to hold out a faint hope of regeneration.
In the bleakness of its vision, Midnight’s Children is in many ways the counterpart of V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization, which appeared three years ago. While it is possible to agree or disagree with Naipaul’s sobering nonfictional assessment, it would be pointless to do either with Rushdie-Saleem’s hyperbolic vision, which is that of a novelist who might at any point begin to laugh at his own intensity.
By isolating this particular clustering of figures, events, and themes, I have perforce neglected scores of others. Bombay movie stars, millionaire boy gurus, snake-charmers, soothsayers, sadhus, pop singers (Saleem’s sister becomes one), purposefully deformed beggars, contortionists, extortionists, merchants, magicians, and servants—there is room on the Indian world-mountain for all of these and more. The episodes in which they appear—some of them consisting of hardly more than a paragraph—are wonderfully brought to life, often charming, often shocking. One must not underestimate the novel’s playfulness, its absurdities, its highjinks—elements that continuously undercut the despair of its political vision. This playfulness extends to the literary echoes from the West—to the preoccupation with nose-size (blatantly, a phallic “displacement”) from Tristram Shandy, to the excremental and olfactory exuberance of Rabelais, to Forster’s Dr. Aziz, and to Proust’s madeleine, which, in Midnight’s Children, is transmogrified into a certain grasshopper-green chutney that serves as a key to the realms of lost time.
As must be clear by now, no one should pick up Midnight’s Children in the expectation of a rousing good story, Western-style. Whatever larger narrative movement it possesses is constantly impeded, dammed up, clogged. The novel’s momentum is supplied not by sustained action but by style—a style that seems to me almost miraculous in its range and adaptive capacities. Saleem’s voice incorporates many voices, ranging from the babu-English of Padma (“Oh, mister, what to say? Everything is my own poor fault!”) to the “bloody-good-show” slang of the generals; in its own right it is prolix, vivacious, allusive, and highly literate, capable of many shadings and of both subtle and abrupt shiftings of tone. Since no passage can convey Rushdie’s style in all its variety, I will simply exhibit one more that caught my fancy—an evocation of the Bombay of Saleem’s childhood:
Now, looking back through baby eyes, I can see it all perfectly—it’s amazing how much you can remember when you try. What I can see: the city, basking like a bloodsucker lizard in the summer heat. Our Bombay: it looks like a hand but it’s really a mouth, always open, always hungry, swallowing food and talent from everywhere else in India. A glamorous leech, producing nothing except films bush-shirts fish…in the aftermath of Partition, I see Vishwanath the postboy bicycling towards our two-storey hillock, vellum envelope in his saddlebag, riding his aged Arjuna Indiabike past a rotting bus—abandoned although it isn’t the monsoon season, because its driver suddenly decided to leave for Pakistan, switched off the engine and departed, leaving a full busload of stranded passengers, hanging off the windows, clinging to the roof-rack, bulging through the doorway…. I can hear their oaths, son-of-a-pig, brother-of-a-jackass; but they will cling to their hard-won places for two hours before they leave the bus to its fate. And, and: here is India’s first swimmer of the English Channel, Mr. Pushpa Roy, arriving at the gates of the Breach Candy Pools. Saffron bathing cap on his head, green trunks wrapped in flag-hued towel, this Pushpa has declared war on the whites-only policy of the baths. He holds a cake of Mysore sandalwood soap; draws himself up; marches through the gate…whereupon hired Pathans seize him, Indians save Europeans from an Indian mutiny as usual, and out he goes, struggling valiantly, frogmarched into Warden Road and flung into the dust…. And in the end his indomitable campaign won a victory, because today the Pools permit certain Indians—”the better sort”—to step into their map-shaped waters. But Pushpa does not belong to the better sort; old now and forgotten, he watches the Pools from afar….
Earlier reviewers have noted the affinities of Midnight’s Children not only to Tristram Shandy but to The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude; in its endless correspondences, in the elaboration of its images into a web of interconnected symbols, Rushdie’s novel also suggests John Barth’s Letters (though it has none of the emotional aridity which, to my mind, impairs that prodigious work). Mired in the complexities of human love and hate and aspiration, Midnight’s Children is anything but abstract or desiccated in its allegorizing tendencies. Yet I doubt that it will reach a very wide audience in this country. It is long; its scene and subject-matter have no automatic appeal for Americans; it cannot be gulped down. The book will gain ground slowly but, I believe, inevitably. Meanwhile we can hope that its publishers will keep it in print and advance its fortunes where they can. For, as I assume they know, they have an extraordinary novel on their hands, one of the most important to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation.