Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 12; 30 April 2021

Midnight’s Children: “A thousand and one dead ends”

A cure for optimism

I’ve often thought that Salman Rushdie’s tragedy (if tragedy it is) was that, having published as only his second book the most important English-language novel of the second half of the twentieth century (as not everyone will agree), he still had most of a literary career stretching out before him, and no real likelihood that he could ever equal that early achievement.

In Midnight’s Children, he tells the story of the liberation of the world’s most populous former colony, and of what happened (and failed to happen) in the three decades afterwards. The novel’s narrator is Saleem Sinai, said to have been born at the exact moment of Indian independence. Just before his tenth birthday, Saleem learns that 1,001 children were born in the first hour of Indian independence. 581 of these children have survived to the age of ten. Each of them has special qualities or abilities, including time travel, the ability to pass through one reflective surface and emerge from another anywhere in the country, the capacity to change shape or to “grow prize aubergines in the Thar desert” (p. 277). The closer to midnight a child was born, the greater her or his powers.

Saleem can communicate telepathically with all of these children, and allow them to speak to each other through him. Their powers, qualities and abilities represent the range of possibilities available to the new state. The tale that Saleem narrates is an account of how those possibilities, that potential, are diverted, frustrated and let go to waste.

Even at (and before) the moment of his birth, Saleem is already compromised. To start with, he’s not unique: another child, Shiva, is born contemporaneously. Unknown to everyone, Shiva’s biological father is a departing English colonist who shares the name (William Methwold) of a seventeenth-century officer of the East India Company. The original Methwold was reputed to have first conceived of the idea of Bombay as fortified city under British control (Midnight’s Children, Vintage paperback edition, 2008, p. 122).

Immediately after birth, Saleem and Shiva are swapped around by a midwife, under the influence of her class-warrior boyfriend, with the result that Methwold’s biological son is brought up as the heir to a businessman’s family in a big house (sold to them by Methwold before his departure) while the businessman’s is raised by an impoverished accordion player, the widower of Methwold’s lover. The child known as Saleem gets a letter from the Prime Minister, marking the momentous occasion of his birth, while Shiva is ignored and forgotten, though he has an equal claim to be recognized as the first child in the newly free country. So, the class distinctions of the old order are preserved in the new state.

Saleem’s narrative begins 32 years before his birth, when his Kashmiri grandfather, Aadam Aziz, having made his nose bleed while attempting to pray, “resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man” (p. 4). Saleem recounts the various episodes and events that went to shape (not himself but) Shiva: the fragmented courtship of his grandparents, the shifting identities and attachments of his mother and aunts, the arson of a warehouse after an attempt to pay protection money is frustrated by a monkey named Hanuman, leading the family to move to Bombay. Oh, and the Amritsar massacre, obviously.

We’re already just over 150 pages into the book by the time we get to the narrator’s birth, and Saleem will not discover the existence of the other children for another 120 or so. Because of this, it’s really only quite late in the novel that we, the readers, see that we’re dealing with something of more historical and political significance than a multigenerational family saga.

Having discovered the existence of the other children, Saleem becomes preoccupied with the purpose of their existence, and tries to work out what use can be made of their powers. This gets him nowhere, as they all have a different ideas, and they don’t agree:

I won’t deny I was disappointed. I shouldn’t have been; there was nothing unusual about the children except for their gifts; their heads were full of all the usual things, fathers mothers money food land possessions fame power God. Nowhere, in the thoughts of the Conference, could I find anything as new as ourselves … but then I was on the wrong track, too; I could not see any more clearly than anyone else … (p. 317; first ellipsis original, second added)

Having failed to guide or direct (or exploit) the Children, Saleem becomes complicit in the worst actions and events of independent India and Pakistan. At the age of 11, in 1958, he helps his uncle, the “Punchinello-faced general” Zulfikar to plan and execute a military coup in Pakistan. The child is present when President Mirza is expelled from the country at dead of night. Then, during the war between India and Pakistan in 1965, all his family except his sister and a toadying civil servant uncle are wiped out:

Let me state this quite unequivocally: it is my firm conviction that the hidden purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 was nothing more nor less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth. In order to understand the recent history of our times, it is only necessary to examine the bombing pattern of that war with an analytical, unprejudiced eye. (p. 469)

Also in that conflict, Saleem is “purified” by losing his memory and all feeling. He is

… restored to innocence and purity by a tumbling piece of the moon, wiped clean as a wooden writing chest, brained (just as prophesied) by my mother’s silver spittoon. (p. 477)

In this newly blank condition, Saleem is handed over to the Pakistan army by his sister, who has undergone a transformation since the family moved to that country. Instead of the rowdy, irreverent “Brass Monkey” she becomes a devout Islamic performer, Jamila Singer. When we next encounter Saleem it is nearly six years later, during the brutal attempt of the Pakistan authorities to suppress the struggle for an independent Bangladesh.

Saleem is now known as Buddha and is the accredited tracker of a canine unit: a “dog-man”. His “handlers”, Ayooba, Shaheed and Farooq, believe they have been flown to a city in India and that their targets are Hindu. In fact, the unit is in Dhaka, East Pakistan, shortly to become the capital of Bangladesh, where:

… dog-soldiers strain at the leash, and then, released, leap joyously to their work. O wolfhound chases of undesirables! O prolific seizings of professors and poets! O unfortunate shot-while-resisting arrests of Awami Leaguers and fashion correspondents! Dogs of war cry havoc in the city; … No undesirable is safe tonight; no hiding-place impregnable. Bloodhounds track the fleeing enemies of national unity; wolfhounds, not to be outdone, sink fierce teeth into their prey. (pp. 497–8; first ellipsis original, second added)

More than ever, Saleem is implicated in the worst atrocities. With the assistance of Parvati-the-witch (born at 7 minutes past midnight, and a genuine conjurer living among sceptical professional magicians) an invisible Saleem is brought back into India, to Delhi, where he takes up with the magicians living in a slum below the mosque, “Communists, almost to a man” (p. 554). During the Emergency of 1975–77 (declared by the President at Indira Gandhi’s behest), Saleem betrays the Children, giving up (under torture) their names and locations to the authorities.

The Children are rounded up and sterilized, to ensure that no second generation of Children can be born. In an extreme variant of Sanjay Gandhi’s scheme of forced sterilization, the Children are subjected, not just to compulsory vasectomies and the cutting of tubes, but to castration and hysterectomies:

They were good doctors: they left nothing to chance. Not for us the simple vas- and tubectomies performed on the teeming masses; because there was a chance, just a chance that such operations could be reversed … ectomies were performed, but irreversibly: testicles were removed from sacs, and wombs vanished for ever. (p. 613; original ellipsis)

What the government doesn’t know is that Shiva has been busy single-handedly fathering a new generation of Children, including Saleem’s own son, Aadam, so its attempts to render Midnight’s Children permanently ineffective have already been thwarted. Saleem is ambivalent about whether this is a hopeful or a baleful development, but it can be said with confidence that the novel does not end on a sanguine note about the future of the Indian polity.

Reviewing the novel in The New Left Review (1982) 1/137, pp. 87–95, not long after first publication, Tariq Ali wrote “There is undoubtedly a streak of pessimism and nihilism in the book” (p. 93). From the point of view of a political activist and intellectual like Ali, this is clearly true. But the point of view of the novelist (and, it seems to me, of the reader of fiction) is not that of the political activist. The book certainly does not demonstrate an unobstructed path to a less brutal, more tolerable and just future (as a political manifesto or revolutionary programme presumably ought to do), but since when have novels done that?

My feeling on first reading the book was one of exhilaration. The language is exuberant, the writing inventive, the story constantly surprising. What could be driving this exuberance and invention if the theme was one of despair? It seemed to me at the time, and I haven’t really changed my view since, that they were being driven by anger, fury and a sense of outrage.

At several points in the story, the narrator Saleem describes optimism as a disease. It affects his grandfather in Kashmir, some 5 years before independence, when he comes under the influence of Mian Abdullah (known as the Hummingbird), founder of the Free Islam Convocation and, as a denizen of the magicians’ ghetto in Delhi, probably a Communist (p. 47). Aadam Aziz hopes that the Hummingbird can establish a secular, left-wing, Muslim organization; but the “optimism epidemic” (p. 63) comes to an end with Mian Abdullah’s assassination.

Later, when Saleem himself comes back to India after his shameful action in Bangladesh, he has in mind an “ambitious project of nation-saving” (p. 542), but that too turns out to be an outbreak of optimism, which is snuffed out when his uncle, Mustapha Aziz, tells him that a civil service position can’t be found for him.

Finally, after the Children have been detained during the Emergency, Saleem briefly thinks that the Widow has made a mistake in imprisoning them:

Yes, here is optimism. like a disease: one day she’ll have to let us out and then, and then, wait and see, maybe we should form, I don’t know, a new political party, yes, the Midnight Party, what chance do politics have against people who can multiply fishes and turn base metal into gold? Children, something is being born here, in this dark time of our captivity; let Widows do their worst; unity is invincibility! Children: we’ve won! (p. 610; original emphasis)

Later, it will hurt him to recall his self-delusion.

So, Midnight’s Children is a book in which optimism and hope are snares which will inevitably mislead and let down those who rely on them, while rage resulting from dismay and despair is the source of energy, inventiveness and (perhaps) renewed possibility. Yet, while Tariq Ali criticizes the absence of hope (and what he sees as the selective recounting of the historical background), he nonetheless recognizes that the novel is thoroughly political:

What is beyond doubt is that Rushdie’s novel is centrally an attack on clearly identifiable targets: the indigenous ruling classes in South Asia. His book … is a devastating political indictment of those who rule these countries and, by implication, of those who placed them in their present positions of power and privilege. (Ali, p. 87)

An anger born of despair is, at least in the hands of an author who can control and direct that anger, more liberating than hope could be.

Sorry this issue is so late. It turned out to be harder than I expected to get to grips with a novel that had a huge impact on my thinking about fiction almost 40 years ago. The next issue of this newsletter will go out on Wednesday 12 May and will very likely be about Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 30–Apr-2021.