AUGUST READING: MIDNIGHT'S CHILDEN by Salman Rushdie
There is no getting away from the fact that this is a huge book - huge in its word volume, huge in its wonderful use of the English language, huge in its scope, huge in its characters, in its styles of writing, huge in its diverse use of magic realism, and just like the huge country of India - completely chaotic. For all these reasons this has to be one of the most frustrating, difficult, annoying and crazy books I have ever read. I never thought about giving up, but I did have to relook at how I was to read and absorb this thing. After taking about 2 weeks to read about 100 pages I decided I had to treat this tome like a project. So I found some study notes on line - good old Sparks - and set myself the target of doing the thing chapter by chapter. It worked - nothing like taking small steps to achieve the end goal, and I am pleased that I saw it out to the end. But definitely not a book for the faint hearted.
So why did I persevere? Having lived in India for a short period of time, and being there when it celebrated 60 years of independence, this book has been on my very long list of must reads. And Salman Rushdie, as the winner of two Booker Prizes, as well as the Booker of Bookers, plus being considered one of the most influential and controversial writers of the twentieth century, is an author I felt I should read. When in India I had read the really quite amazing book he wrote for his young son from whom he was separated while in hiding after the fallout from 'The Satanic Verses'. 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' is one of the most stunning stories I have read - it really is magical and an absolute gem to read with a child.
So I thought 'Midnight's Children' - should be a doddle. Oh no, how wrong I was! There is so much of 'Haroun' in 'Midnight's Children' - the guy is a genius with his word pictures and his captivating writing. It is mesmerizing to read. But there is just so much of it that it is hard at times to keep track of the story, or where the characters are, even who they are and what they are doing.
Midnight's Children are the children born between midnight and 1am on the night of 15 August 1947. (Salman Rushdie himself was born in 1947.) The first born baby was Saleem Sinai who is the main character, either as the narrator or being narrated about. There were 1001 (as in the Arabian Nights - the book is a tsumami of symbolism, drawn from the 300 million Hindu Gods, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Indian mythology) babies born during this hour who are all blessed with some sort of magic power. Saleem, being the closest to midnight has the greatest powers of all - the ability to reach into the minds of all the others and communicate with them. The story of Saleem and his family parallels the story of modern India/Pakistan/Bangladesh from the end of World War I until the 1980s. It also traverses huge portions of the India subcontinent beginning in Kashmir, moving to Delhi, Agra, Bombay, Pakistan, Bangladesh and various other places. The transition from British colony to fully independent and functional democracy has not been easy or straightforward, and the book is full of the darker chapters in modern India's history - Partition itself, ongoing Muslim/Hindu conflict especially in Kashmir, the Bangladeshi war, Prime Minister Ghandi's sterilization programmes and suppression of opposition elements.
It is not a pretty story. But nevertheless I am glad I have read it, it has further broadened my understanding of this extremely complex region and population known as the Indian sub continent. If you decide to read this - take some notes with you.