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Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

September 3, 2011

“The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snakes and Ladders. O perfect balance of rewards and penalties! O seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice! Clambering up ladders, slithering down snakes, I spent some of the happiest days of my life. When, in my time of trial, my father challenged me to master the game of shatranj, I infuriated him by preferring to invite him, instead, to chance his fortune among the ladders and nibbling snakes.

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder with compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother; here is the war of Mary and Mura, and the polarities of knees and nose… but I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity – because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake… Kepping things simple for the moment, however, I record that no sooner had my mother discovered the ladder to victory represented by her racecourse luck than she was reminded that the gutters of the country were still teeming with snakes.”

I have a secret. When I am reading a book and come across a particularly impressive passage – something that strikes me for any number of reasons – I turn up the bottom corner of the page. Many people say that this is some form of cruelty to the book and the author; to me, it is a way of coming back and reading some of my favourite parts again.

About 150 pages into Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s magical realist epic and the winner of the 1981 Booker Prize, the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Booker prize, I realized that I was going to have too many page corners turned up. At the time it didn’t hit me that this meant I was going to want to read the book again; in retrospect, I don’t think it can possibly mean anything else.

As far as modern literature goes, Midnight’s Children may actually be legendary. Through the story of and experiences of a boy convinced of his own importance and failure to achieve his potential in the tides of history, we discover the birth of an entire sub-continent. India and Pakistan free themselves of their colonial shackles in the first section, with Bangladesh doing so (no longer being administered by Pakistan) in the second (or was it the third?). And, goodness me, does Mr. Rushdie ever manage to produce a world where it is just plausible enough that his character, Saleem  Sinai, is the centre of the universe – the hinge upon which a new nation grows and succeeds and fails.

Saleem is one of the Midnight Children; those 500-and-some children who were born in the midnight hour of India’s birth. Saleem, though, is one of only two of these children born at the very instant that the hands of the clock met at midnight. As all of these 500-and-some children are imbued with some form of magical power, it would only make sense that Saleem and his midnight-specific partner would have the most impressive magical powers; that these two would be diametrically opposed to each right from the beginning is merely brilliant plot production. And human deformations – don’t forget about those. Like all details in this novel, they play a very important part. This is how the magical aspect of the novel starts and develops. The realist part is very different.

The realist part hinges on history – that experienced by generations of family created and destroyed by nations that have never managed to be united and never managed to be separated. The story is presented as an oral memoir, told by Saleem to one of his servants (or admirers?), starting thirty-two years before the beginning of the Saleem’s life and ending thirty-two years afterwards. We meet his grandfather, a doctor trained in western medicine but living in the valleys of Kashmir. We meet his grandmother, a woman veiled in a white sheet with a small hole – frequently ill. We watch the two of them meet and fall in love and then, dramatically and immediately, fall out of love.

It is with this that the history of Saleem and the history of his entire continent is told. Symbolism, metaphor, history represented by magical impossibilities that are entirely unlikely but so impressive. And oftentimes you have no idea whatsoever that it is happening. In fact, there are moments where you are downright confused by Salman Rushdie’s direction. There will be moments when you will be angry at him. Tempted to put the book down and never pick it up again. And each time that he shows you that you can trust him your resistance to your frustration builds; if this isn’t your experience, all I can do is tell you to push through. Finish this book.

I encountered this almost road block at the end of the second part of the book. I was lost. I had no idea what story was being told – why it was being told. An enormous event had just taken place. I had no idea where Saleem, or Mr. Rushdie, would go. But I battled through this. And I am so grateful for having done so – the way that the book wraps up in the end is incredibly moving. Devastation filled with every gratuitous word possible, acts and crimes committed against Saleem by the Indian state in a state of emergency (remember, this is a historical novel – don’t allow yourself to forget this). And it hurts to read of how the Midnight Children, tied down to their fates by the hour of their birth, discover this pain that they assumed they were immune to. And, despite this, a spring of hope and a promise for a future. Your joy will be overwhelming.

And none of this is without purpose. Saleem Sinai’s story brings into question enormous questions of social science and history by providing a history. And, similar to Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, which I read earlier this year and recommend, it tells history in an incredibly unconventional but entirely meaningful way. And it is not just the history of an individual – somehow Mr. Rushdie truly manages to tell the history of the country through a single man’s experiences. The intricate nature of the novel is so impressive not only in the detail but in how the detail is used – historical realism this may not be, but effective realism it is.

Early in the novel Saleem instructs his servant (who, I believe, is actually meant to be the reader personified in the novel), “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” This novel is an impressive product of this philosophy – easily the most convincing of all of the books I have read this year, perhaps the most convincing of all the books I have ever read. I love this book more in restrospect than I did while I was reading it, but I was enamoured with it while I was reading it because I wanted to know how Salman Rushdie’s world of details that were yet to be resolved was going to be resolved. Do I recommend it? Absolutely! But prepare yourself for an endurance run of an novel that is, perhaps, the most difficult read you’ve ever read – and fight every urge to set the novel aside and never pick it up again. Every investment you put into this book will astound you with its returns.

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