Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Book One

CLICK HERE to read my Movie Review of Midnight’s Children

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In his introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie writes:

In the West people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.

I admit, when I started reading Midnight’s Children, I was frustrated. I knew I just couldn’t read it purely as a fantasy. Why, these are real dates in history, important events, the World Wars, the Mahatma’s call for an independent India with non-violent means, the separation of India and Pakistan along religious lines… There must be more, I told myself. I knew I could never read it as an insider, but I could at least peek through the fences, and get a glimpse of what’s going on inside.

And so I did. I searched for background info and author interviews, both online and off. As a result, my reading pleasure is enhanced after I found out how realistic the novel is. Personal happenings actually correspond with important historical events, not unlike the movie Forrest Gump, little people tossed in the currents of history.

Rushdie in an interview noted that instead of using an Austenesque way to tell his story by focusing on the details and the minute, he chose to adopt a Dickensian approach, placing his characters on a macro, societal canvas. As a result, we have a monumental epic. Mind you, he just wanted to write a novel about childhood, he said.

The narrator, Saleem Sinai, started with his Grandfather Aadam Aziz in 1915, thirty-two years before India’s independence. The young doctor examined his patient and future wife Naseem through a perforated sheet a bit at a time, under the close supervision of her cautious father. When at last she complained of a headache, he finally could see her face, “on the day the World War ended.” It’s pure humor also, and I’ve enjoyed Rushdie’s free wheeling brush strokes.

But often the comical may just serve to bring out more poignantly a sombre reality. When I first read the ‘Mercurochrome’ chapter, it didn’t hit me at all. Later, I read about the atrocity that had actually happened on April 13th, 1919, the Amritsar massacre. British Brigadier-General Reginald E. H. Dyer ordered Marshal Law regulations, banning all assemblies. A large crowd defied his orders and started converging in the compound Jallianwala Bagh for a peaceful protest. Dyer marched fifty riflemen up and ordered them to shoot at the crowd indiscriminately, men, women children.

They have fired a total of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd. Of these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark… ‘Good shooting,’ Dyer tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly good thing.’ (p. 34)

A few days ago, Aadam helped the wounded on the streets and got Mercurochrome all over his white shirt, and had to explain to wife Naseem the red stains were not blood. Now on this fateful day, Naseem assumed the red was Mercurochrome again, but was told, “it’s blood,” and she fainted.

The relevance of the perforated sheet reemerges in the next generation when Amina Sinai, Saleem’s mother, has to learn to love her husband Ahmed Sinai one fragment at a time:

 ‘Who, after all,’ she reasoned privately, ‘ever truly knows another human being completely?’

The last two chapters ‘Methwold’ and ‘Tick, Tock’ strike a chord in me. Why, I’m not totally an outsider after all. For the first fifteen years of my life, I was a colonial. I was born and grew up in the then British colony of Hong Kong. So reading Book One of Midnight’s Children, I feel certain affiliation. It reminds me of my childhood days, which were also filled with multiplicity of cultures, the fusion of languages, and fortunately, the calm co-existence of religions. There were spittoons and Mercurochrome. I was familiar with bilingual usages, aware of the divide between the subject and the ruling, the East and the West. Even now, I can spot the ‘imitation Oxford drawls’. My “Tick, Tock” moment was when I watched on TV here in Canada the last governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten standing in the rain holding the British Colony flag, saying goodbye to all that on July 1, 1997.

Rushdie’s animated style makes his India colourful and fascinating. His characters, descriptions and dialogues are like the splashes of a Pollock painting. That’s where the fantasy comes in, I suppose, on the large canvas of history.

Book One ends with intrigue. Saleem Sinai, it turns out, is a changeling. At the stroke of midnight August 15, 1947, two boys were born, but was soon mixed up by midwife Mary Pereira in a wilful act of self-assertion. This too has its deeper reference:

When we eventually discovered the crime of Mary Pereira, we all found that it made no difference! I was still their son: they remained my parents. In a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts…

I look forward to reading the childhood of these two changelings Saleem and Shiva, and their  journeys ahead.

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Here are the other Read-Along Posts for Book One (so far):

Bellezza at Dolce Belleza
Gavin of Page247
Janell of An Everyday Life
Jerikavonalexandra of averydisorientedreader
Colleen of Books in the City 

If you’ve written a post for our Read-Along, do let us know in a comment.

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CLICK HERE to Book Two: Part A
CLICK HERE to Book Two: Part B
CLICK HERE to Book Three Conclusion

CLICK HERE to read a March 1, 2012 interview of director Deepa Mehta on CBC news.
CLICK HERE to read about the filming of Midnight’s Children.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

27 thoughts on “Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Book One”

    1. Amritorupa,

      Thanks for letting us know about your review. I’m sure we’ll be interested to read it, and esp. for those of us who don’t want to wait. Glad you’ve been following our discussions.

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  1. Such an interesting post, Arti! Rushdie has long intimidated me and I’m not sure I have the patience to tease out and make sense of all the references. Am especially interested in the history vs. fantasy approach. I’ll definitely follow your progress on this group read.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by JoAnn. Yes, we’re open to all, including those who are not in the Read-Along. Glad you find it interesting, and look forward to your engaging in our discussions in the coming posts. And hey, if you’ve the time, hop right on! We’re moving really really slow to allow hop on’s you know. 🙂

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  2. While officially still on my blogging break for one more week, I just had to read your thoughts on our group read. As usual, you’ve added significant historical background which gives us both a reference and a foundation. I, too, missed the importance of the mechurochrome chapter; I am also fascinated to learn of your personal childhood and connections to the novel. I didn’t find this novel difficult to read at all (phew!) and in fact he reminds me a teensy bit of my beloved Murakami in that he writes of deeply meaningful things with a touch of fancy.

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    1. Bellezza,

      Yes, I remember your Lenten blogging hiatus… so this means a lot to have you stop by and comment. I really appreciate the different perspectives everyone of us is taking, not unlike the perforated sheet HA! Each looking at the book from the POV that strikes the most resonance. It’s encouraging that you’re enjoying so much. Since I have no Murakami experience, so maybe it takes me a while to catch on. But I think I’m all ready to jump into Book Two. Can’t wait. 😉

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  3. Ah! Now the title makes sense. And I’m so very intrigued by the line, We learned we could not think our way out of our pasts. Over the years, I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to “think my way” out of situations, and it’s never been particularly useful. Beyond that, our society needs some answers, quickly, and I fear thinking isn’t going to do the U.S. much good, either.

    Ironic that Rushdie’s book might hold some answers for a society that has assumed “thinking its way” out of racial issues actually is enough. I’ll be very interested to read your next post.

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    1. Linda,

      It’s not too late to join us! Hope your can spare the time. This is a fascinating read, so rich, multi-layered… like a cultural kaleidoscope. The writing is just fascinating. I can’t say too much since I’ve only read the first 130 pages (total over 500) but am intrigued by Rushdie’s mind and style. As I said, not unlike looking at a Jackson Pollock painting. 🙂

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  4. Your beautiful soul and personal experience infused in your study and this essay make this rich indeed. You’ve spoiled me for less personal reviews. You have really found a splendid balance, perfect for a blog about film and books.

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    1. Thank you Ruth. I’m constantly learning to ‘find a balance’ (thanks for those words) and maybe ‘concoct a fusion’ (mine) between personal and analytical, subjective and objective. I recently finished the audiobook of Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. He did say this line: “All reviews are subjective.” That settles it for me.

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  5. I’ve been thinking more about that opening quote you shared from Rushdie’s introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition…how the West tends to read the novel as fantasy – while the East reads it as realistic.

    Maybe it’s a holdover from reading a lot of Hemingway this year, but I never once questioned the reality of the historical events that Rushdie’s characters encounter — e.g., train shut-downs and Dyer’s ‘good shooting.’ Heck — for a while, I wondered whether parts of the ‘Humimingbird’ tale were based in reality — as fantastic as that tale was…:)

    But the story reads like a dream, whichever it is. And feels like one of my dreams — since they tend to be reality exaggerated!

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    1. Exactly what I had in mind… those names must have a basis, an event or something. But as an ‘outsider’, I simply wouldn’t know, and that’s my frustration. As someone whose left brain is more active as the right (I’m afraid), I won’t be totally satisfied until I find out what’s real and what’s not… But then again, using my ‘Pollock’ analogy, I simply can’t analyse every splash of paint. It’s better that I stand back and enjoy the whole piece on the canvas. I’ll see… 😉

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  6. Lovely review, Arti! I really enjoyed the one Salman Rushdie novel I’ve read (and I began it deeply suspicious and was scared it would be pretentious!). I’d very much like to read more of him, but I will probably start with others than this – because I own a few cheap copies I’ve picked up on my travels. But this one won the Best of the Booker prize, didn’t it? So I’m sure it’s something special,

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    1. Litlove,

      Yes, Midnight’s Children first won the Booker in 1981, then Booker of Bookers in 1993 (25th Anniversary of the Awards), then again, in 2008, won The Best of the Booker (40th Anniversary), three times. I’m only one quarter through. You know this is a very slow read-along. I’ll have the whole picture by the end of June… not unlike looking through a perforated sheet. 😉

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  7. I think because I read this book for a history class a long, long time ago I didn’t even think of reading it as a fantasy so it’s interesting to hear that so many have. I don’t have much recollection of the book though because it was so long ago except that I liked it. Perhaps I will read this one again someday. Glad your reading is going so well.

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    1. Stefanie,

      Interesting you didn’t read it for a literature class but a history one. I admit the style and the subject matter are quite new to me, and also this is my first time hosting a Read-Along. It sure is a good experience reading and sharing with others. If there’s any book you’ve in mind, maybe we could do a Read-Along again some time in the future.

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  8. I’m really enjoying this read. I love how Rushdie intertwines events in Indian and global history to events in the lives of the characters.

    I’m excited to read more about Saleem Sinai and Shiva and the others. 🙂

    Here’s my discussion post for Book One.

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    1. jerikavonalexandra,

      Glad you’re enjoying your read with us. It’s like a history book written in a fantasy style, isn’t it? I’ve linked your post to the list above. Thanks for participating in the Read-Along!

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    1. Gavin,

      Yes, reading this book brought up memories of my own ‘colonial’ days. And you did too… I’ve enjoyed your personal sharing of the wall hanging with mirrors in your home as a metaphor. Thanks for reading it together.

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    1. Colleen,

      Thanks for posting your review of Book One. I’ve linked it here on my post together with the others. This sure is the kind of book that needs the sharing of different views and mutual support at the same time. Thanks for participating in the Read-Along!

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  9. Arti,
    I’m very, very late with my comments but hope you’re still listening here. I confess to having some trouble getting through Midnight’s Children, although after a cautious start, I am enjoying it.
    A reveiw isn’t in my range at this point, but I will just give my impressions of the book. I find Rushdie’s prose very daunting and so dense that it is impossible to read as quickly as I often do. having never been to India, I nevertheless imagine that Rushidie’s writing is the equivalent of one of India’s crowded, colourful, vibrant and utterly foreign (to me) cities. At first glance the structure seems haphazard and higgeldy-piggledy, the scene noisy and chaotic, with a confusing mass of characters all competing for my attention, like hawkers of plot instead of trinkets.
    So it’s slow going, but as I make my way through it I am more and more admiring of Rushie’s ability to juggle so many characters and subplots without losing the thread, and to put them all in the linear context of India’s fascinating history.
    I’m not even finished Book One – but will endeavour to catch up and say something sensible for the next installment.

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    1. Deborah,

      You’re welcome to stop by anytime. I too had a difficult time getting into it at first, but once in, I found it lively and fun… although I knew I was missing a lot too… still am now that I’m into Book Two, esp. the numbers. I find Book One is like a cultural and political kaleidoscope of India. Book Two is more focused on the child Saleem, it’s more like the ‘childhood story’ Rushdie said was his original intention, in an interview I read. Anyway, I hope you’ll hang in there and continue with your reading, at your own speed, and come visit us to share your thoughts. April 30 will be our post for Book Two Part A.

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  10. I also found I could draw comparisons between Midnight’s Children and Forrest Gump. i wondered later whether I was overthinking it, but it’s great that others thought so too 🙂

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