This is a huge task for me trying to sum up this massive, fantastical, multi-layered book. This is also probably the most “difficult” book that I have read in the past year. Was it eventually worth the effort? Well, read on to find out :).
The basic story is deceptively simple. It’s about a boy Saleem Sinai who is born in India on the stroke of midnight when India achieved independence. This accident of birth gives him (and other children born during that magical midnight hour), unique, special gifts. Saleem’s gift is his “nose” that allowed him at first to go into people’s heads and know what they are thinking. He is also able to telepathically communicate with the other midnight children forming a kind of “ham” radio link of sorts with the rest of the children. Now after an eventful life, he is breaking into pieces, literally falling apart, and he wants to narrate his story to his lover before he dies.
The book is about Saleem, but it’s also about India because for some magical reason, Saleeem and India’s destiny are intertwined with each other. They both suffer the battering and bruising that comes with being newly independent. To put it in a simple way, this book is like the movie Forrest Gump, but based in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The book starts with the story of Saleem’s grand parents in Kashmir, and then his parents, and then finally Saleem and his fellow midnight’s children. So it’s almost 300 pages in till you get into the meat of the book itself. But, I think any Rushdie reader is used to this. He always starts off slow, and then layers on the fantasy one after the other, until you just can’t stop reading. That’s almost his trademark. It’s always well worth ploughing through the slow starts.
Alongside the turmoil of this incredible family, is the brutal yet ever hopeful history of India during those times – from the Independence struggle, to Nehru’s early hopeful rule, the wars with China and Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh, and the Emergency of 1971. Whew! That’s a lot to pack into one book. But Rushdie somehow manages to do it, and do it very well.
A criticism (well, not really)…more of a thought, this may not be the book for someone who has scanty knowledge of Indian history in the last 100 odd years. Considering the scale of the book, Rushdie really has very little time to set the stage. So, a novice reader is definitely going to miss the importance of many throwaway sentences or statements. An example is the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – a huge deal in Indian history, but I doubt it is well-known outside the country. This episode is dealt with in 2-3 sentences in the book. A non-Indophile would probably not even understand the real-life context or even mistake it for a fictional incident, considering the fantastical way it is written. I think my copy of the book would have been more helpful with a few footnotes to help readers appreciate the details in the novel a little more.
Because, make no mistake, there is a lot of detail. Beneath the dense, slightly overwrought language, there were tons of surprises in store. Till the end, I literally had no idea where the story was heading – and while this is not a good thing in most books, it was here. Do you remember those games of passing the parcel from when we were kids? We were given a huge multi-layered parcel, which we had to pass on to each other, till the music stopped. The person holding the parcel had to unwrap one layer, take the gift hidden in it and exit the game, which continued on till the parcel was completely unwrapped or only person was left in the game.
Well, reading this book felt like that game. There were layers upon layers of surprises built-in, and so many characters walking in and out of the story that I literally felt like I was unwrapping one of those multi-layer parcels.
A lot of reviews about this book talk about the political/historical angles in the book. For me, the book also appealed on a purely personal level. To me, it was all about hope and dreams at the birth of a child (or a nation), the gradual growth during the early years, the tumultuous times of puberty, and the eventual disappointments and broken dreams of adult hood, then maturity and eventual acceptance of death.
So, is this my favorite Rushdie of all? Unfortunately, I still have to say no. This was a beautiful book, I enjoyed it a lot. But in my personal viewpoint, his later books are better. They have more depth to it. I feel he was just starting out here, and he had yet to acquire the discipline and maturity of his later books. But, can you believe this is just his second book? God! even here, the way he plays with words, ignoring sentence structure and formation rules, and still coming up with sentences that can tear your heart and make you laugh out loud… that’s sheer God-given talent and brilliance at work here.
Oh, and there are some sly one-liners that give a hint of his future troubles with religious fanatics. Catch this little remark that Saleem lets slip in this book:
On Cornwallis Road it was a warm night. An insomniac cow, idly chewing a Red and White cigarette packet, strolled by a bundled street-sleeper, which meant he would wake in the morning, because a cow will ignore a sleeping man unless he’s about to die. Then it nuzzles at him thoughtfully. Sacred cows eat anything.
Considering that India is a country where cows are worshipped, this statement is sacrilege indeed. But oh so true, I couldn’t help chortling out loud.
Oh, and there are some more interesting tidbits about this book I have to tell, but to paraphrase Saleem’s own words, everything must come in its order, and so…that is blog post fodder for another day :D.
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