I was not prepared for the way this book ends. There has been too much foreshadowing, I thought, too many narrative obstacles hurled at me by Salman Rushdie, for me to be completely floored by how he would tie up this story. I was so very wrong. The last 100 pages of Midnight’s Children quite literally winded me as the whirl of Saleem Sinai’s world is once against devastated by the tides of history.
At the beginning of Part 3, Saleem suffers from an affliction that takes him from his destroyed life in West Pakistan to East Pakistan (formerly East Bengal, later on Bangladesh) where he and three other young Pakistani soldiers joined the war against the Bengal secessionists. What occurs there is a Heart of Darkness-like ordeal in the swampy jungles, where Saleem and his companions begin to lose not only their sanity, but also the pieces of their civilized selves. To be quite honest, this part became very difficult for me to read through. It is partly due to some stylistic idiosyncrasies that Rushdie chose to include and partly because I didn’t really care enough for the minor character to parse the meanings behind their fever-dreams. I was also not knowledgeable enough about the Bangladesh Liberation War to catch all the allusions he makes.
Thanks to India’s intervention, the people of Bengal manage to beat the Pakistani forces and declare themselves the independent nation Bangladesh. This also marks Saleem’s complete break from Pakistan. He is smuggled back to India, where he has to contend with the fact that he is now bereft of family and he is alone in the world. He makes a home for himself in the slums of Delhi where he lives with a fellow Midnight’s Child, Parvati-the-Witch. He befriends one of my favorite characters in the novel, the communist circus performer Picture Singh. We also witness Saleem attempt to have a contented life with his son and family.
I’m hesitant to reveal what actually happens in the last parts of the novel because every small and seemingly inconsequential detail that Saleem has included in his story since the beginning is conjured back into this overwhelming crescendo of inevitability and meaning. His nemesis Shiva makes an appearance, so does Indira Gandhi and the rest of the Midnight’s Children Conference. The way Rushdie manages to fold the events of The Emergency with Saleem’s own destiny is nothing short of devastating. I stayed awake until 3 AM without quite meaning to and by the time I finished the novel, my brain was still attempting to unfurl the story’s various permutations.
Assigning a rating for this book is now a process fraught with indecision for me. It’s true that I struggled for a substantial part of my reading and I still feel that the novel’s earlier attempts at distancing itself by sheer virtuosity–while understandable–has been excessive. But the ending came at me like that pickaxe into a frozen lake that Franz Kafka speaks about. So is this a 4 star or a 5 star book? It is such an in-your-face and mouthy narrative that confronts ingrained (Western) notions of how novels should be.
We have about as many deities as people, Rushdie seems to say, how can a novel about one character not include these multitudes? By the end of Midnight’s Children, the reader is left with the feeling that they, too, are bursting at the seams.