An epic magical realist saga of family and country, connecting far-flung dots into a revealing portrait of the first thirty years of India’s independence from Britain.
The narrator is Saleem Sinai, the first of 1000 “Midnight’s Children,” born the first hour of August 15, 1947, when India officially became independent of Britain. Saleem is the official poster child for the new India, heralded by the people, the press, and the prime minister. However this role turns out to be more than just public relations.
As Saleem grows, he finds his life is inextricably entwined with his country’s history, in ways that are political, metaphysical and mythological. His telepathic powers enable him to communicate with all of the other Midnight’s Children, each of whom possesses a different supernatural ability. Saleem is the only one who can connect them, using his powers to create a sort of psychic conference call.
Salman Rushdie is a grandaddy of the literary fantastic, and reading this book showed my why. He is an impressive stylist and an inventive storyteller, with an intellect capable of treating decades of personal, political, religious, and cultural transformation.
There are many, many passages of humor, beauty, and mystery in Midnight’s Children. In fact, the novel seems designed to strike all the chords that normally elicit an emotional response from me: magic, sex, politics, and violence. It plays with the ways reality influences myth, and myth impacts reality. But despite the high drama of the events recounted and despite the first person narrative, I felt very little emotional connection with the main character or the events depicted.
Perhaps the self-conscious allegory was in part the reason. Saleem is India. He says that the events of his life are allegorical, and they are also true. But this post-modern device, while admired by my brain, failed to engage my heart, at least until Book Three.
Book Three (which in my edition started 439 pages into the novel, with 150 to go!) details Saleem’s misadventures in the second war between India and Pakistan. This final section features some of the most gorgeous and moving prose in the novel.
Saleem’s family has been wiped out in the previous war; all except his sister, a famous singer, who promptly disowns him and turns him over to the military. The explosion that killed his family deprived Saleem of bodily sensations and any memory of his life before. All that remains is his hyper-acute sense of smell, which the army puts to use by turning Saleem into a tracker.
Eventually, unable to tolerate the violence and absurdity of war, Saleem leads several of his men AWOL, down a river and into a psychedelic forest that keeps them hostage (along with some sexy ghosts) for an indeterminate amount of time before spitting them out in an inexplicable flood. Reluctantly, Saleem and his friends make their way back to the city, only to find their own army committing incomprehensible acts of violence upon the unarmed citizens. Indira Ghandi’s new government rounds up the Midnight’s Children in fear of their powers and brings to a close this main thread in the story.
Though I didn’t personally find Midnight’s Children to be a terribly entertaining read, I have a great deal of respect for it as a work of cultural history. It is one of those monstrously epic, magical realist novels where the fantastic illuminates historical truth in a way that straight reportage could never do. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand India after independence. If you read this along with A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (a novel that does engage the emotions, to devastating effect), I’m guessing you will learn more about modern India than any history book could convey.