Photo from Vanity Fair
Despite the inclusion of characters who live in slums and wander the streets to make money, Salman Rushdie is chiefly chronicling the lives of the affluent Indians in Midnight’s Children. This is an important thing to note because while Saleem constantly proclaims that his story is the story of India, he is telling it from his position on top of the country’s socioeconomic pyramid. His own home–a compound that used to belong to an eccentric British man named Methwold–cloisters him and his family from most of the turmoil that occurs in Bombay after India’s independence from British rule. Not that the members of his household are protected from the political and social changes around them; no one is untouched by that.
The circumstances of Saleem’s birth has shades of soap opera-style scandal and mystery but the most important aspect is the time when it occurred. He is born exactly at midnight of August 15, 1947, the day of India’s independence. This ties him closely to the 1000 other newborn babies that entered the world on the same hour but only Saleem earns himself a letter from Jawaharlal Nehru.
The second part of the book goes on to focus on Saleem’s childhood. I am at the part where he has reached his tenth birthday and received the full gifts of being a Midnight’s Child. Not only is he connected with the children born on the same hour as he was, he can also read the minds of other people, a power which he uses to probe the different secrets that surrounds him.
The characters that populate Saleem’s childhood are legion, including a younger sister named Brass Monkey, a best friend named Sonny, and a nanny named Mary Pereira, who hold a terrible secret that involves Saleem. Rushdie’s capacity to sketch vividly drawn characters is quite extraordinary, considering that so many of them enter and leave the narrative stage at the same time. Saleem has a tendency to allude to events and people from the future even as he is telling stories about his childhood in Methwold Estate.
The density of the narrative hasn’t let up, but I’m having an easier time absorbing things here since my last blog post. I was initially afraid that I wouldn’t successfully connect with the characters on an emotional level, but even Saleem is starting to grow on me. The most compelling characters so far are Saleem’s mother Aminah, Brass Monkey, and an American Girl named Evie Burns. Saleem notes at one time that the women in his life seem to have the most impact on him, mostly because he has always been slightly afraid of them. A lot of domestic drama occurs within the walls of Methwold Estate. Saleem is aware of them because of his telepathy. Some are a little bit tiresome–the decline of Saleem’s father comes to mind–but I find my interest picking up whenever history begins to intrude their little cul de sac.
The thing struck me is the fact that despite the popular characterization of Midnight’s Children as magic realist in nature, it is vastly different from the Latin American stories that I have read of that genre. I’ve always had the impression that the stories of Garcia Marquez, Esquivel, et al. are suspended in time, despite alluding to historical events once in a while. They come off as kind of parables in that way. Rushdie seems pathologically incapable of leaving out the historical, literary, and cosmic significance of every plot point. Actually, the biggest criticism I could give is that I often feel the blunt insistence of symbolism and metaphor in the narrative itself, like the writer cannot help but point out all the clever things he has included in it. But I guess this is also consistent with Saleem’s character.
I hope that the other Midnight’s Children will be fleshed out in the succeeding chapters. The brief description of the powers they’ve inherited themselves (lesser in magnitude than Saleem’s, of course) are pithily hilarious. This is a book about loud characters and I’m getting the impression that since Saleem can now connect with a thousand other magical people, their voices are about to become louder.