Midnight’s Children: Pleasures of Language and One Point of Postmodernism

Title: Midnight’s Children

Author: Salman Rushdie

Publication Date: 1981

LC Call Number: PR6068.U757M5

I do discuss the plot here, so I suppose I’d say there are mild spoilers. (to the extent that it even makes sense to talk about spoilers in a book like this–it doesn’t quite fit.) Plus I reveal what I think the point is, and it took the whole book to figure that out.

Much of what I knew about Salman Rushdie going in was political. I knew that fatwas had been issued against him in Iran because of his writing (specifically, because of The Satanic Verses), that his work had been frequently banned, and so on.  Although Midnight’s Children never garnered the same kind of controversy, simply knowing Rushdie’s reputation conditioned me to expect a grim, ranty book which would make me cringe with horror on every page.  Sure, I’d read Haroun and the Sea of Stories and it was a delight, but that’s a young adult book and surely not representative of Rushdie’s work as a whole!

So the last thing I expected was a novel that took an incredible amount of pleasure in wordplay, one whose narrator revels in his own cleverness and self-consciously teases his audience, and certainly not one whose plot relied on setting up one ridiculous situation after another, and for a long time, taking them all for granted.  Rushdie gives us a narrator, Saleem Sinai, who cannot tell his own story in a simple and straightforward way.  Instead, he constantly hints at things to come, discusses his current life, inserts unwarranted commentary, makes bizarre metaphors, and generally appears to be struggling, not very successfully, to hold the text together.  At times he seems to be totally in control of it, manipulating the dates, alluding to things to come, and elsewhere he seems like a confused onlooker.

The pleasure of language in this book cannot be overlooked.  Saleem often describes the action as a Bollywood film:

But here, refusing to wait its turn, is another taxi, pausing outside another fort, unloading its cargo of three men in business suits, each carrying a bulky grey bag under his coat… one man long as a life and thin as a lie, a second who seems to lack a spine, and a third whose lower lip juts, whose belly tends to squashiness, whose hair is thinning and greasy and worming over the tops of his hears, and between whose eyebrows is the telltale furrow that will, as he ages, deepen into the scar of a bitter, angry man. (80-81)

We already know these characters, we know what they look like, and before the taxi door opens, we already know who is in it. Furthermore, two of these three characters exit the story in a totally unremarkable way a chapter or two later. No narrative necessity is served by this description of their attributes.  It’s included in the book for no obvious reason other than that it is, well, fun.  Of course it’s far from the only novel to include such moments, but in Midnight’s Children it happens constantly.  There is a lot of attention to the words used and what they mean. One character is named Mumtaz, apparently for the sole purpose of allowing the narrator to make Taj Mahal jokes when she marries a refugee poet who is living in the family basement and moves down into the basement with him.  This impression is only strengthened by the fact that her name changes from Mumtaz to Amina after her second marriage.  There are constant allusions to terms that Saleem has associated with particular events or objects—so that “crescent moons” comes to refer to the assassination of an idealistic leader, which involved curved knives. Even the chapter titles aren’t immune to the analysis of the narrator—the chapter “Alpha and Omega” discusses itself at some length.

This attention to language is part of the way that the Midnight’s Children presents itself as a postmodern novel.  In a way, it’s almost a clinic in postmodernism—or a parody of postmodernism, I’m not sure.  Self-awareness is inescapable throughout, to such an extent that it becomes difficult to say anything about it that Saleem hasn’t already said.  He often comments upon his own use of language, the film-like nature of the story he is telling, or the symbols that recur throughout the novel.  When he is hiding in a basket and escaping back to India over the Pakistani border, I was reminded of an earlier episode in which he hides from his mother in a laundry basket.  This impression lasted for a couple paragraphs before Saleem starts discussing the connection himself.  It’s also true that he can’t tell the story from beginning to end, but is constantly alluding to things that haven’t happened yet.

And then there is Padma, his lover and audience, who stands in for the reader and asks some of the questions that the reader would like to ask. She criticizes Saleem’s  longwindedness, points out his discrepancies, and alternates between rapt interest in his story and occasional frustration at the way he tells it.  The reader is supposed to be a little more sophisticated than Padma is—Saleem is always looking over her shoulder at us, so to speak, and pointing out her little foibles—but there are times when his dismissal of her concerns is less than convincing.

In fact, he is an unreliable narrator, and becomes more and more unreliable as the book goes on. He narrates in detail many things that happened before he was more, stories he can’t possibly have known as well as he claims.  Many of the episodes that he narrates stretch credulity or are downright fantastic, for instance, he claims that because he was born at the moment in which India achieved independence, he had a psychic link with all the other children who were born in that hour in India, but also, he was switched with another child at birth.  He claims that he is dying from a bone disease which is undetectable to doctors. He narrates a long section of the book during which he has amnesia, referring to himself in the third person. It gets weirder. But even setting aside the fantastic nature of many of the stories, he can’t get the dates right, and he points that out himself in a couple different places. By the end of the novel, he’s criticizing his own rather ability to get the story right and even admits to lying outright:

To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death. My first out-and-out lie –although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps excessively romantic, and certainly contradicted by the available meteorological data.  Still and all, whatever anyone may think, lying doesn’t come easily to Saleem, and I’m hanging my head in shame as I confess… (427)

By the time he admits this, though, the reader is not surprised.  He’s been slowly casting doubt upon his own story throughout the second half of the book, after presenting it rather matter-of-factly toward the beginning.  He worries, with some indignation, that people are calling him an unreliable narrator—but the reader has become one of those people by then.  There is a moment in which it is clear that he is practicing self-delusion about the ultimate fate of his sister, and he calls attention to this lie he’s told himself several times by reminding the reader to believe this alternate scenario he’s proposed, and insisting that it must be true.

Since the language is so beautiful and so elaborate, and since the things that are happening in the plot are so over-the-top and ridiculous, it appears at first that all these tricks are there simply to enhance the story and to entertain the audience.  By the end of the book, though, the story has taken a decidedly darker turn, and the reader begins to worry about Saleem.  It eventually becomes clear that this is his way of dealing with history and the trauma that it’s caused him—not an innocent exercise in storytelling, but a practice of making life acceptable in the face of unacceptable experiences.

Saleem attempts to theorize this by finding four modes of experience with history and cataloging them, but I’ll avoid his classifications for the moment and look at the two perspectives that he takes here: that of historian (such as he is) and that of history’s participant and victim.  His historian role is the playful, postmodern one.  It is in this role that, as a child, he composes a note out of newspaper clippings and sends it to a neighbor.  The content of these clippings is transformed through his work; they may have their own meanings, but he reassembles them according to his own vision:

Cutting up history to suit my nefarious purposes, I seized on WHY INDIRA GANDHI IS CONGRESS PRESIDENT NOW and kept the ‘WHY’; but I refused to be tied exclusively to politics, and turned to advertising for the ‘DOES YOUR’ in DOES YOUR CHEWING GUM LOSE ITS FLAVOR? BUT P.K. KEEPS ITS SAVOUR! A sporting human interest story, MOHUN BAGAN CENTRE-FORWARD TAKES WIFE, gave me its last word… (253)

This is a more literal version of what Saleem (and Rushdie?) are doing throughout the entire book, assembling a message out of history.  Throughout the book a comparison is made to history as chutney—many disparate pieces, chopped up, mixed together, and preserved.

As a participant in historical events, again, he abandons plausibility.  Saleem’s life takes him to many different parts of India and Pakistan, where he seems to arrive just in time to be present at events of great historical significance.  His mother announces that she is pregnant with him during some riots in Delhi, he is born as independence is achieved, he moves to Bombay in time for the language riots and eventually to Karachi, where he is present as generals use pepperpots to plan their attacks on India.  He fights in that war as an amnesiac bomb-sniffer. When he returns to India, he joins a band of Communist magicians. Eventually, he marries, and his wife bears a child during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency—which is not to say that the child is born during the Emergency, but that this unfortunate woman goes into labor at the beginning of it and perseveres through an impossibly long labor of several months before the child is born just as the Emergency ends.

Because of all these strange connections, Saleem believes that he is linked with history, and as a result, he ultimately thinks that it is all about him. He considers himself responsible for the deaths of several people that he has known, and he sees himself as the hidden cause of several historical events.  At the same time, though, his narrative of the events that take place do not show him as the initiator of most of them.  The reader may raise an eyebrow at this, but the reasons for it don’t become clear until near the end of the novel, when Saleem is imprisoned by Indira Gandhi’s government.

I’ve alluded earlier to his psychic powers; earlier in the book, he describes using them to organized the Midnight’s Children Conference, a frequent mental meeting of all the children born in the first hour of India’s independence.  All these children had magical powers of one sort or another, but of course, Saleem’s was the most powerful.  He had cherished hopes of doing something special with these powers, but in the end, he lost his own through a medical procedure and in any case, the Children could not agree on anything, so nothing could really be accomplished. Years later, when he is captured by the government, he finds (or so he says) that all the surviving children of midnight are there in prison with him.  They are tortured and forcibly sterilized.  Curiously, this event, which the horrified reader would not dream of doubting as so many of the others are doubted, is one of several whose facticity Saleem feels the need to defend.

Saleem has spent most of the book building up to this, but he passes over it fairly quickly; the impression given the reader is that the attention to details throughout the narrative, the gorgeous language and the jokes and the commentary on the way the story is told is really a kind of procrastination as he comes to this story that he needs to tell but wishes to avoid. He approaches it at last with a kind of resignation: “There have been illusions in my life; don’t think I’m unaware of the fact. We are coming, however, to a time beyond illusions; having no option, I must at last set down, in black and white, the climax I have avoided all evening” (411).  Rushdie has very cleverly involved the reader in this long story with all its twists and turns in a way that, we ultimately realize, is just a distraction, both for Saleem and for us. The real point of the narrative, the real reason that Saleem needs to tell his story, is to expose how he suffered under this political regime. But we come to see that the very trauma that he has suffered makes it impossible for him to tell his story in a clear, compelling way, as a strong political critique. Instead, he comes at it obliquely, beating around the bush for four hundred pages with stories about his childhood and his ancestors and what he did in the war.  Even when it comes to these less painful memories, he can’t face them directly; much of the book is in third person rather than first, because he does not fully identify with his past self.  When he discusses his experiences in the war, he explicitly disclaims identity with the person he calls “the Buddha.”

But at the same time, he concludes that history is personal—that everything that happened, happened because of him.  Rather than considering the Emergency a historical event in which the Midnight Children were a few victims among many, he considers it a conspiracy specifically targeted against them:

[H]ere is another scrap of the Times of India, in which the Widow’s own news agency Samachar quotes her when she speaks of her ‘determination to combat the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been growing’.  I tell you: she did not mean the Janata Morcha! No, the Emergency has a black part as well as a white, and here is the secret which has lain concealed for too long beneath the mask of those stifled days: the truest, deepest motive behind the declaration of a State of Emergency was the smashing, the pulverizing, the irreversible discombobulation of the children of midnight. (Whose Conference had, of course, been disbanded years before; but the mere possibility of our re-unification was enough to trigger off the red alert.) (412)

He cannot be merely the unlucky, random victim of a larger historical tragedy; rather, it is directly aimed at him.  But the Conference, as he points out, has not met for some time. They had met in his head, but by now he has long lost his psychic ability. Furthermore, the Conference was never an effective body, political or otherwise, but merely a group that was able to meet—they had never accomplished anything, and never posed any threat.  It is asserted later that they represent an obstacle  to Indira Gandhi achieving a godlike status because of their supernatural nature—but even supposing they had somehow been of interest to the government, surely all the abuses that were committed at this time cannot be explained in this way?  This explanation still allows others to be merely caught up in the process of history, but it puts Saleem at the very center.

Basically, then—Saleem must bear the trauma of what has happened to him, and this is a terrible burden for him, so much so that he can hardly bring himself to tell the story, although he does not wish to keep it a secret. Ultimately, however, he has one more burden to bear, and he can choose which one it is.  He must either take on the guilt of feeling responsible for everything that has happened in India over the course of his life, or the absurdity and powerlessness of feeling that he has merely been swept along in a terrible moment of history.  It’s the former that wins out.  It’s really strange to think of postmodernism as a defense mechanism instead of a clever game—but I think that’s the case being made here.

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