Introduction to Midnight's Children:
History & Myth
A Different Type of Novel - Racing Against Time - Family Lines & Mythic Cycles
The cycle which includes our coming and going / Has no discernible beginning nor end; / Nobody has got this matter straight – / Where we come from and where we go to. (Omar Khayyam, Ruba’iyat)
A Different Type of Novel
Awarded the Booker Prize in 1981, the Booker of Bookers in 1993, and the Best of the Booker in 2008, Midnight’s Children is a sensational romp across Indian time and space. It also careens across diverse otherworldly terrain, hurling its readers from an Edenic Kashmiri past into cities teeming with mystics and many-headed monsters. It steers with the wobbliest of rudders through a vast green Wall of Time into a surreal afterlife, and then criss-crosses back through a battlefield of mythic heroes and demons into a present trembling with possible futures.
Mignight's Children (1981) is a very different novel from Grimus (1975), not only in terms of style and structure, but also in terms of its relation between abstraction and reality. Grimus is structured along the mystical models of Dante and Attar. Midnight’s Children on the other hand is structured on the reality of 20th century subcontinental history -- and also on a subsidiary mythic cycle -- starting with a fall from a symbolic Kashmiri Garden of Eden and ending with a possible return to this Kashmiri Garden.
If I were to make a map of the journey in Grimus, it would end up looking like the maps one often sees in copies of The Divine Comedy. It would look especially like the map of Purgatorio, with its mythical island mountain rising from the great ocean on the other side of the world. In other words, the map would be imaginary or fantastical.
In making a map of Midnight's Children, on the other hand, I started with geography -- a map of the Indian subcontinent. I then charted the course of the novel chronologically. I divided it into five main settings, the first two linked by a long and winding road (in yellow) that tracks Saleem's forebears from Kashmir to Bombay.
Each of the five parts contains a historical period paralleled with a period of Saleem's family history. The novel creates a circle of sorts, from Saleem's grandfather Aadam Aziz to Saleem's son, Aadam Sinai.
1. The early years under the British, including the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 and the struggles leading to Partition // Aadam Aziz is present at the Amritsar Massacre and joins a conference in Agra which aims to unify Muslims and Hindus; Amina struggles against Hindu-Muslim violence in Delhi
2. The British leave India in 1947 // In Bombay Methwold mimics the British departure at the moment of Saleem's birth (Independence Day)
3. Pakistan slides from democratic rule, and engages in war with India // in Pakistan Saleem witnesses a military coup and watches his sister become a star of the generals
4. Pakistan's civil war leads to the state of Bangladesh // Saleem feels so bad about participating in the war that he escapes to the Sundarbans
5. Indira Gandhi suspends parliament during The Emergency of 1975-77, shaking confidence in Indian democracy; some citizens are sterilized // the Widow and General Shiva drain -- or 'sperectomize' -- the hope from Saleem and from the nation he represents; these dark deeds are countered by the positive energies of Durga, Picture Singh, Parvati, Padma, and Saleem's son, 'the new Aadam.'
Racing Against Time
While Grimus explores multiple otherworldly dimensions in a philosophic way, Midnight's Children uses other worlds to a more worldly, historical end. Throughout the novel, Rushdie asks the question he asks in his later 1987 Channel Four documentary The Riddle of Midnight: will India survive? Will it be torn apart by the religious forces it boasts, or will it come together, as at the end of Attar's Conference (where the birds are unified and reach a pinnacle of mystical annihilation) or as at the end of The Arabian Nights (where Scheherazade not only saves her sister and many other women, but also marries the reformed would-be tyrant)?
Rushdie makes it clear on the first page that he doubts the outcome: the bliss of Kashmir appears to be, like the glory of the Moghuls, a dream of faraway and longago. One needs to constantly keep in mind -- which is not always easy, given that the story is full of intriguing scenarios and bizarre tangents -- that Rushdie makes it clear at the start of the novel that his narrator Saleem has a deep fear of disintegration and fragmentation. This is what lies behind his writing at breakneck speed:
I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning – yes, meaning – something. I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity.
The metafiction here has a philosophical element to it, as in Grimus. Yet it's also far more grounded, far more applicable to the world of subcontinental history and politics. It certainly isn’t a mere postmodern or poststructuralist game. Rather, it derives from Rushdie's hope that India will find its way toward harmony and tolerance, and from his fear that it will collapse into chaos and dictatorship. One must remember the date of publication -- 1981 -- only a decade since the war between West Pakistan and India-backed East Pakistan (which produced Bangladesh) and only a few years since the democratic violations of Indira Gandhi's "Emergency" (1975-77).
Family Lines & Mythic Cycles
Keenly aware of the impact of the West in India, Rushdie starts Midnight's Children with the fall of Doctor Aadam Aziz, whose name derives from Hebrew myth (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) and from the ending of E.M. Forster's 1924 novel, Passage to India (which focuses on the colonial mistreatment of Doctor Aziz). Behind Saleem's story of his grandfather Aadam’ Aziz is the story of his great-grandfather, old Aziz sahib, who dies in a state of mystical bliss in the Eden in Kashmir. Old Aziz sahib represents unity with God in a Kashmiri Garden of Eden, and Aadam Aziz represents the fall from this unity.
In Kashmir Aadam Aziz rebels against God and tumbles into the violent and divided subcontinent - the Fallen World. Saleem’s father Ahmed (with his djinns, anger and lust) and Saleem (with his incestuous and gutter loves) are proof of lives lived in the fallen world, lives which in the traditional scheme of things would lead to damnation and Hell. Indeed, both characters live in hells of sorts: Ahmed's tortured by the demon Ravana and by corrosive guilt, and Saleem's possessed by his two-headed demon and later enters a heart of darkness, a magic Hell in the jungle of the Sundarbans. Yet Rushdie doesn’t leave Ahmed and Saleem in despair: the former's saved by the love of Amina, the latter by Mary and Padma – all flawed types of divine Grace. Finally, the cycle hints at completion when the Muslim Saleem and the Hindu Padma plan their honeymoon in Kashmir with their adopted son, whose name is – not surprisingly - Aadam.
The novel can also be read as two parallel lines of family and national history. The family line is closest to the mythic curve, for along it Rushdie includes the strongest echoes of Attar’s mystic journey, which is both mystical and mythical: Rushdie charts a line of inheritance from Attar’s Simurg and 30 birds to old Aziz sahib’s thirty species of birds, to Aadam Aziz’s involvement with the Hummingbird and his Free Islam Convocation, to Amina’s valiant stand against the demons of communalism, to Jamila’s nightingale voice, to Saleem’s chairmanship of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference (where he takes the role of Attar’s bird-guide, the Hoopoe). The national line is also strong in terms of myth, for the outcome of Indian history is influenced by figures with strong mythical associations. On the positive side we have Padma (who is also the goddess of Fortune, Sri Lakshmi), Saleem in the multicoloured plumage of the Hoopoe and the yogic swan, Mary and Amina as redemptive figures of forgiveness and love, Durga as the great mother goddess, the powerful Mahadevi, and finally the new Aadam with the awesome powers of the god Abraxas. On the negative side we have Schaapsteker the mad snake man, Ravana the demon of communalism, General Shiva the gang leader and murderer of whores, the apsaras with their sexy evil, and the Widow as Kali with her blood-thirsty lust and her castrations of hope and democracy.
Whether the forces of peaceful unity or violent division will win isn’t clear, for Rushdie stresses that the future is like the empty 31st pickle jar that Saleem can never fill with his spicy stories. Despite the echoes of Attar 30 birds in Saleem’s age (30) and in his 30 chapters, and despite the echoes of Scheherazade’s release in his “thirty jars and a jar,” Saleem and the reader are too close to the present to see how it all turns out. In this sense there can be no final reckoning with this novel. Its final chapters point to the future of the subcontinent, and there can be no final reckoning with that. Or, as Khayyam puts it, “Nobody has got this matter straight - / Where we come from and where we go to.”
Next: The Road from Kashmir