I have to admit to not knowing what to expect from Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie when I added this book to my Classics Club list. I hadn’t read anything by this author previously and only knew that another of his books, The Satanic Verses, had provoked an enormous amount of angry attention from Muslim people.
The story of Midnight’s Children is told by Saleem Sinai, a Muslim boy who was born at the exact moment when India became an independent country. Saleem story is entwined with that of India’s, and also with 1001 other children who were born in the same midnight hour. All of the children were born with a different telepathic power.
The story started with Saleem’s grandparents, who fell in love bit-by-bit, unable to see the whole of each other through the modesty sheet with a viewing hole which separated them. Not surprisingly perhaps, once they did see more of each other, they weren’t as enamoured as they had been previously. Saleem’s grandparents story is told against the background of India working towards independence in 1947.
Saleem’s own parents had their trials but hoped for great things after Saleem was born at such an important time in their country’s history. Saleem’s telepathic power was the ability to see into other people’s minds and to commune with his fellow Children inside his own mind. Later, when Saleem learned that he had been swapped at birth with Shiva, another of the Children, he closed off part of his mind to the other children who by then had began to resent and distrust Saleem, and they drifted away. After an accident, Saleem lost this power but gained another, the ability to smell the truth.
The next section of Saleem’s life tells of his family’s exile from India, and of him becoming a soldier in Pakistan. This part of the story is dreamy and confused, as Saleem has lost his memory and his ability to feel emotion or connect with anyone else. I was very interested in this part of the story having worked with a man some years ago who had been a soldier in the Indian Army during this time and in this place. Having heard some of my workmate’s war stories I feel sure that he would appreciate Saleem’s story, even though he and Saleem fought on opposite sides.
In the third section of the story Saleem returned to India with the assistance of one of his fellow Children, Parvati-the-witch, who used her power of invisibility to make the journey. Back in India, Saleem and Parvati-the-witch lived together in a slum, with the terrible tragedies they experienced being told beside that of India’s 19-month period called the Emergency. This event was declared by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s and during this time slum-dwellers were sterilised and their slums razed.
Midnight’s Children is a massive story which I’ve only skimmed over in this review. Saleem’s narration style is to tell his stories in great detail, with intricate layers laid upon intricate layer which he rambles through. Initially Saleem’s meandering style annoyed me enormously but eventually I relaxed into it and allowed him to get to the point in his own good time. The book took me ages to read.
Midnight’s Children fantastical style reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books. Mad things happen but the characters take them for granted and so as a reader, I accepted them too. In places I felt almost overwhelmed by the story which seemed to swirl around me, barely controlled, faster and faster. Sometimes the story was funny, with toilet humour that made me laugh aloud.
I read parts of the book aloud to myself (at home, not on the train) and think that a narrated version of this book would be a treat to listen to. I would also advise other readers to allow themselves plenty of time to read this book, because it is a complicated story which deserves to be concentrated on fully, as well as allowing yourself the time to research and learn about the real people, places and events which the story is told against.
A reader who has a better knowledge of India’s history during this period would have appreciated this story far better than I did, but I still found the book rewarding without having nearly enough background knowledge. I definitely didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.
Midnight’s Children was book ten in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.