On the Indian World-Mountain

Midnight's Children

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…

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