69. Midnight’s Children: India’s superheroes to the rescue!

I admit I’ve done a bit of a disappearing act of late. Which is why it’s so fitting for me to have spent my time reading about one thousand and one magical kids in Sir Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The book was published in 1981 and won a bunch of illustrious awards, including the Booker Prize.

… Anyway, let’s go back to the magic powers bit. Some of the characters had the ordinary abilities (time travel, animal transformation, etc.), but there were some bizarros in there, too. Changing genders every time you are immersed in water, anyone? Having some really strong knees capable of throttling someone to death? Yes, I said knees. It all makes sense in the end, I promise.

Except for the murderous knees bit.

As for me, I think I’d like invisibility as my superpower (I demonstrated it so aptly to you this past week and a half). Contemplate the endless possibilities: robbing banks, sneaking into music festivals, cheating on exams… Oh, how rude of me; which power would you like to have?

Sir Salman Rushdie

To redeem myself in your eyes, and sound halfway intelligent, I suppose I’d better tell you more about what Midnight’s Children is about. Themes: magical realism and post-colonialism. Subject: India’s history and, in particular, the after-effects of the country’s independence from Britain.

The subject was a bit ‘meh’ for me; sure, I have a history kink, but I tend to avoid anything about colonialism and modern wars. Reading such stories is tedious: plenty of people die, I end up feeling sorry for everyone, and wondering what, exactly, it is that I should be getting out of the book? A moral lesson? Well, duh, it’s not like I don’t already know that it’s wrong to whip up an Australian army and claim New Zealand.

Luckily, the book was the fictional autobiography of Saleem Sinai and focused mostly on the life of the telepathic with the (literally) powerful nose. Saleem was born, like the rest of the thousand children, on midnight, 14 August 1947, at the moment of India’s independence. Henceforth, his existence was irrevocably, and intricately, tied up with the young nation; as a mirror, or perhaps even a twin, because our Saleem believed that India’s history was all his fault.

He was also a little self-obsessed.

A truly heinous cover

But the writing! It turned uninteresting (to me) subject matter into something mystical and exotic. The story twisted one way, then another; often, and simultaneously, pulled me in opposite directions; described the macabre with nary an eyebrow raised, yet lingered on every angle of the mundane until it became misshapen and peculiar. It was, my dears, absolutely divine.

Rushdie described his style as a “literary idiolect that allowed the rhythms and thought patterns of Indian languages to blend with the idiosyncrasies of ‘Hinglish’ and ‘Bambaiyya’, the polygot street-slang of Bombay [now Mumbai].”

It would seem that Rushdie’s literary idiolect was a success: Westerners viewed Rushdie’s novel as fantasy, whereas Indian readers often saw it as nigh on reality. My previous experiences with India were, truthfully, limited to call centres and Slumdog Millionaire, and not particularly positive (I know it’s both politically correct, and in vogue, to rave about Slumdog, but I distinctly recall abandoning the movie halfway through to do my homework). After reading Midnight’s Children, I decided that the novel was my positive experience, and chosen superhero, of India.

Especially after I learned of the bounty placed on Rushdie’s head by religious extremists.

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20 responses to “69. Midnight’s Children: India’s superheroes to the rescue!

  1. I promise if you read the book Slumdog was based on, “Q & A” by Vikas Swarup, you will not be disappointed. I loved this book, but hated the movie too.

    • How much do I fail for not knowing that Slumdog was based on a book? I’ll have to give it a go, but not until I give time for Midnight’s Children to digest. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Ah, Midnight’s Children has been on my wish list at paperbackswap.com for months. I almost didn’t read your post about it, for fear of spoiling it or raising unrealistic expectations, but now I’m glad I did–first, since I am now prepared for the super powers (I previously had absolutely no idea what the book was about), and second, because now I know the writing is absolutely divine. Can’t wait!

    • Well, they’re not really superpowers, I just referred to them as such because I though that Midnight’s Children would make a cool name for a crime-fighting unit (clearly, I watch too many movies). Definitely give it a go – I wouldn’t describe the book as a fantasy, as the magic was handled in a very realistic way. Rushdie was very creative with the way he used words. It’s not a particularly easy book to read, but once you get in the flow of it … I guess the writing just did it for me. Let me know what you think when you do read it!

  3. I’m glad you liked Midnight’s Children. I thought it was bloody great.

    Rushdie gave Marquez a run for his money as far as I am concerned.

    • I’ve haven’t read Marquez yet! I’ve been trying and trying at the library, and someone keeps borrowing it out. It’s definitely something I will be reading soon (hopefully).

  4. The fatwa business was a major issue in the papers, in england at the time. So much so, that at the time it detracted from him as a writer, as he had to spend his time debating on issues of censureship. Now that this appears to be old news, hopefuuly he can shine just as an author.
    ps. my super power would be persuasion.

    • Well I’m pretty impressed with him for standing by what he wrote (although I never read that book). There was even a failed assassination attempt! There might be more publicity soonish, though, as they will be starting the filming of Midnight’s Children later this year. We shall see…
      Persuasion sounds like a pretty cool superpower – politics would be a breeze.

  5. To answer your first question, I wish I had the ability to teleport. That way, I’d be done with these freaking courses :D What a breath of fresh air to read your review. I so needed the break. Now, I vaguely remember NPR mentioning something about this guy being a target for extremist. I remember thinking the book may have been too upbeat for those times. Oh my, don’t tell me you watched Slumdog Millionaire? I agree with you on the cover, what’s that all about?

    Brilliant review! Thank you so much for the break. Now to figure out how I will pass a test about Multivariate Reasoning.

    Just FYI. I’m screwed.

    • You mean teleport in time? What degree are you studying, to have to learn about Multivariate Reasoning?
      Ah, Rushdie angered a bunch of extremists with his book Satanic Verses, in which he wrote about their prophet (clearly, the extremists are a little confused about the difference between fiction and non-fiction books).
      As for Slumdog, my friend brought the dvd over to mine. She fell asleep halfway, and I started doing my uni readings. Everyone tells me I should have kept watching it because the ending is really good, but I figure if they can’t make a decent first half, then it doesn’t deserve my attention for the rest.
      Good luck for your test!

      • Yeah, teleport ‘back’ in time and tell my student services that they are nuts! My courses are in Criminal Law and Security. Which I am no longer interested in. He want us to apply this method of thinking to everyday situations. I did not enroll in Science classes. Teleportation, my desired superhuman power. Or the power of mind control…muwahahaha :D

  6. Superpower? Given I am training to be a psychologist, it would be to be able to read people’s minds (although my friends always worry I am doing that to them anyway ha ha!) Interestingly, when I was working as a journo, I used to ask that question of a lot of people for a particular segment in the magazine – many said it would be to time travel and I think that would be brilliant too – maybe a little Bill and Ted – but anyway. I also completely agree with you about books on colonialism leaving you cold – this is why I am yet to finish The Siege of Krishnapur. Everyone raves about it but I just can’t get into it at all. That was what I liked about Midnight’s Children – the juxtapositioning of a sort of supernatural realm with the real life events tended to temper down the latter and make it a page turner rather than a yawn fest.

    • A telepathic psychologist would be pretty kick-ass. Time-travel would be awesome, but imagine how annoying it would be doing school reports on history or whatever, and getting F’s because the history books had it wrong? Wow, maybe I watched too many cartoons…

      Speaking of school, we were force fed stories about convicts and Aborigines (I’m Australian), not to mention multiple viewings of Rabbit-Proof Fence, and I think this is where my mental block against colonialism comes from. Colonialism fiction, or history books, just don’t add anything new to what I’ve already studied in a dozen different angles. You’re absolutely right about Midnight’s Children; the other thing I really liked about it was that it didn’t emotionally manipulate readers (i.e. attempt to tug at my heartstrings), and let the plot speak for itself.

  7. Seriously, what crackhead designed that book cover? I should have mentioned that when I blogged earlier. :) I also liked your superhero angle in your review.

    • When I saw the cover, I just HAD to include it. It was so heinous, I just couldn’t look away.
      Thanks, I kept thinking of ‘Midnight’s Children’ as a DC comics crime-fighting unit. Uh, yeah…

  8. Fantastic review. I’ve yet to read Midnight’s Children, but I have read “Haroon and the Sea of Stories” which I loved. I bought “The Enchantress of Florence” a few weeks back and to my dismay I keep reading so-so reviews. Anyhow, it sounds like I should have picked up Midnight’s Children instead.

    • I think you should definitely read Midnight’s Children – it was the book that made him famous, and won the Booker of Bookers (twice!). I’m kind of scared to pick up his other books just in case they turn out not to be as good. I absolutely adored his language and writing style in this book, would you say the same for Haroon and the Sea of Stories?

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  10. I will be reading this book in November as part of a group read-I have read his The Enchantress of Florence and I was enthralled by the beauty of his prose

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