Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Midnight’s Children by Sir Salman Rushdie – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, at the precise moment of India’s independence, the infant Saleem Sinai is celebrated in the press and welcomed by Prime Minister Nehru himself. But this coincidence of birth has consequences Saleem is not prepared for: telepathic powers that connect him with 1,000 other ‘midnight’s children’ – all born in the initial hour of India’s independence – and a uncanny sense of smell that allows him to sniff out dangers others cannot perceive. Inextricably linked to his nation, Saleem’s biography is a whirlwind of disasters and triumphs that mirrors the course of modern India at its most impossible and glorious.’

I’d start with a brief summary of the plot before moving into the review – it is narrated by Saleem Sinai who was born when the clock struck twelve, marking India’s independence from the British Empire. Saleem is narrating his story to Padma – his companion and caretaker under the fear that his death is near and starts narrating the story from the time of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz’s young days back in Kashmir. Saleem has telepathic powers and in fact all children born during the first hour of 15th August, 1947 have supernatural powers, and Saleem with his abilities, is able to connect to all such children leading to the Midnight’s Children’s Conference – which gives the book its title, Midnight’s Children. This is not just the story of Saleem but also of the nation that was born along with him and their individual ups and downs mirror each other during the course of the story.

I’ve been an admirer of Sir Salman Rushdie for a very long time and I’ve enjoyed reading his articles, listening to his speeches, often dumbstruck by his ingenious use of the language and also, he stands for the idea that I very strongly believe in – that is, speech and expression is a freedom that can’t be compromised under any circumstances. I quote him too often, including the header of this blog but then, I had not read any novel of his and it was then that I had decided that it is time I pick a book of his and Midnight’s Children turned out to be an inevitable choice, considering it is one of his most critically acclaimed works.

However, when I got into the book, I was continually wondering whether I made the right choice for, at the outset, I felt the prologue was too long and it was beginning to test my patience. However, there is Padma, with the reader for company, who isn’t much different from us and cuts Saleem short whenever he is digressing too much. If digression was a crime, then perhaps Saleem should be imprisoned for life.

 However, as I moved on, I got used to it and I started enjoying the way the story was developing (one suggestion to the reader – please read the first book as Aadam Aziz’s story), the way in which he was developing every character – it was enjoyable to read Aadam’s musings which were way ahead of the time in which he lived in, whose ideas are vehemently opposed by his wife Naseem, later referred to as Reverend Mother by Saleem. The story when it moved to its next phase – of Ahmed Sinai and his wife, when they had just moved to Bombay months before Saleem’s birth and India’s independence – and for me personally, the setting in Bombay was the icing in the cake, thoroughly enjoyable to read the description of the city in the 40s and the early 50s.

My favourite aspect of the novel however was the authors extremely clever use of allusions, linking most of Saleem’s events with that of what was happening to India at that point in time – be it the 1965 war, the Bangladesh war or the emergency (where he made his antipathy towards the Gandhis very visible – a stance which would please a substantial majority of the present day Indians). Moreover, I felt a lot of work has gone into the research on the two nations political history – those who are familiar with it can easily connect to it and recall your history and those who don’t, it is a very interesting for I’m pretty sure many are parts of history that are unknown to most. The uncertainty of the novel was another very good part of it – to what extent was Saleem making it up for there is nobody to verify his account in the present day and Padma (who, in my opinion is the personification of the reader) has not met any of the other Midnight’s Children and hence for all you know, this whole account could entirely be Saleem’s own imagination.

However, despite my praise for the author’s allusions and the subtle digs, I wonder to what extent it could be appreciated by a person who isn’t very familiar with India and Pakistan’s political and cultural history. Moreover, while I also appreciated the deep research of the author, there were some factual errors that could have been avoided – Ramayan wasn’t dictated to Ganesha and as per the myth, it was the Mahabharat (the irony being, Saleem goes on to praise himself for his knowledge using a similar parenthetical comment such as this one) and also, Annadurai was not the founder of the party ADMK but you never know whether these were factual errors committed by Salman or Saleem. Last, all said and done, this book was long, and in some cases unnecessarily long and some of the parts of it was extremely boring, especially the stage of Saleem’s adolescence – that was where the story seemed too petty and yes, I found the excessive use of nicknames irritating, at times (Reverend Mother, Brass Monkey, Eyeslice, Hairoil, etc.).

I’d conclude my review saying that this is a novel that’d test your patience, but it is worth undertaking the test and coming through it.  It took me nearly three months to read this book but I feel it is three months very well spent. It was a book with an excellent story, with the characters, language of the author and the narration of Saleem outdoing the excellence of the story. It is an excellent read for anyone provided you’ve that one ability – perseverance. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book in these three months and I’d give it an 8 on a scale of ten (somewhere between 7.7 – 7.9 to be precise).

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

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