About 12 years ago, I had bought a pirated copy of Midnight’s Children while strolling in Dalhousie, in Calcutta, and 20 pages into the novel I had lost track of the plot (too many things were happening and the narrative timeframe was shifting back and forth too much and too fast).
I still continued reading only to give up 30 to 40 pages later. In early 2013, I read Anton Joseph, Rushdie’s memoir, where Rushdie extensively described the making of Midnight’s Children, starting from conceptualization to finish. The process had taken four years.
The idea for Midnight’s Children had come to Rushdie in bits and pieces. And once the bits and pieces crystallized into a concrete idea, he knew he had a novel, one whose setting would be India, his homeland which he had left as a child to go to England for studies but where his cultural roots still lay. But India is no England. It’s a country which is not just geographically vast but also diverse in every possible sense.
To taste its soil in all its complexities and diversities, Rushdie decided to come to India and crisscross the country as a low-budget tourist. After he returned to England, he left his full time advertising job to begin work on Midnight’s Children. Four years and some months later, this novel hurled him into the world of literary stardom.
The reason why I brought up Rushdie’s India tour is that it’s the key to my Midnight’s Children experience. The plot seems to join all the dots that together form the map of India also taking Pakistan and Bangladesh (in other words, the entire subcontinent) into its whirlwind narrative. At another level, the book is a deep and rich experience of India, to the extent that it can be safely called an India book, above everything else. (Rushdie has, in fact, called it his love letter to India.) Through the use of language, imagery, anecdotes, mythology, history, lives of common people and those not so common, it creates a complete image of the country reflecting all its characteristics.
MC is also a piece of stupendous story telling including three generations of a family, some 80 years in the life of a country (India – starting from 1920 to 1981). However, it’s on 15th August 1947 that the story takes its most significant turn with the birth of Saleem Senai. (How Rushdie has mingled fiction with history - Saleem is being born and the coming of independence marked by celebration on streets by people and Nehru's momentous speech - is legendary and something for writers to learn from.) From here on, the plot traces the life of Saleem Senai together with the life of its co-born, India, with the paths of the twins crisscrossing several times over as the two move through their formative years through triumphs and disasters.
But enroute to adulthood, Saleem's life takes him to Pakistan and from there to Bangladesh where he is witness to and participants in their histories (some military coups and the 1971 war) and then returns to India to go through the travails of Emergency. (The story ends vaguely in 1979.)
In the narrative, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Bhutto, Mujibur Rehman share space with commandeering grandmoms with speech quirks, philandering husbands, conspiring aunts etc. It makes the canvas not only vast but also deliciously varied.
In the foreword, Rushdie has acknowledged his debt to Dickens and that’s one thing that any keen observer will notice almost throughout the book – its similarity with Dickensian milieu: in situations, characters and the overall canvas – all of them have a dramatic and larger than life character to them.
Almost all the characters have some idiosyncratic trait (either in appearance or behavior or speech) which makes them endearing and enduring, both within the plot and beyond. In almost all situations, you will find drama and theatrics of the kind that we have come to associate with Dickens.
The canvas, characters, the language, as also its success (two Bookers), Midnight’s Children is every bit a grand affair. And reading it was a special experience.