Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Midnight's Children Revisited

The occasion of the Best of the Booker award prodded me to revisit the Midnight’s Children after one long decade, if I remember it right. For constraint of time, I read it randomly, beginning in the middle, skipping pages, and finally ending with the first page.

Saleem Sinai –variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer and Buddha –is still fantastic. The episode of his being baldy at the age of ten – the outcome of an angry school-teacher’s assault –shocked me again but what hurt me more was the cruelty of his classmates his age who made him a permanent object of ridicule for his baldness. His losing a finger in the fight with friends is equally painful for me. Fortunately for me, Rushdie made Saleem a rich man’s son, and that indeed had a check on my overactive lacrimal glands.

I had forgotten about Saleem’s Hanif uncle and Pia aunty, who were associated with Bollywood, one as a failed script writer, and another as a failed actress. They were still an interesting read, and I enjoyed Saleem’s interaction with them.

Midnight’s Children, I feel this time, has a strong storyline, or rather a string of compelling episodes. They alone can carry you along with their own force, even if you ignore the sub-text.

And it’s an overwhelmingly Indian story. Hindu gods, myths, Indian foods (chutney specially), Muhammad, Pakistan, Indian democracy, election, you name anything. It left me wondering how foreign readers got to crack all these. Then Rushdie’s humour is not always as good as his wits, and he can bore you to death with his endless babble with Padma, the perennial woman in his life. But he’s marvelous in his observations on India’s politics, people, culture and other sundry things.

What’s so special about Midnight’s Children? You get bits of tragedy in almost every episode. An undercurrent of pathos flows throughout the entire text, and finally seeps into your consciousness to form a huge grey.

In its content and style, Midnight’s Children brings about a huge paradigm shift in English writing. It was a great risk-ridden experiment for a writer whose first book simply vanished without a trace. I cannot but appreciate Rushdie’s courage and confidence. But at the same time I’m surprised that even after so many years and so many good and bad novels down the line, Rushdie has the same mindset, and his writing style remains the same – with all its components intact, only a bit jaded by time.

Now, from the first page:

I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date; I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th,1947. And the time? The time matters too. Well than; at night. No, it’s important to be more…On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out; at the precise instant of India’s arrival at Independence.

Saleem Sinai's sojourn begins.

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