India’s superheroes: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Saleem Sinai, the first person narrator of Midnight’s Children (Random House), was born in the very moment of India’s independence in 1947. The conceit of the book is that he, and other children born in that first hour, have astonishing magical superheroic powers. The story is bound up with Indian independence, not just after 1947 but before—the story of how Saleem’s parents meet is one of the best bits—and how Saleem’s telepathic powers are at first a blessing and later a curse.

What makes it great is the immense enthusiasm of the story and the language in which it is written. It isn’t Rushdie’s first novel, that would be the odd and openly science fictional Grimus. But it has the kind of energy and vitality that a lot of first novels have. Rushdie’s later novels are more technically accomplished but they’re also much drier. Midnight’s Children is a book it’s easy to sink into. And the prose is astonishing:

I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th 1947. And the time? The time matters too. Well then, at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out, at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps, and outside the window fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later my father broke his big toe, but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, when thanks to the occult tyrannies of the blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.  For the next three decades there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter.

This is a very Indian book. Not only is it set in India, written by an Indian writer in an Indian flavour of English, but the theme is Indian independence as reflected the life of one boy and his friends. Even the superpowers are especially Indian, connected to Indian mythology rather than to the Western myths that give us the American superheroes. But it is also extremely approachable, especially for a genre reader. It was written in English (one of the great languages of modern India…) and by a writer steeped in the traditions of literature in English. Midnight’s Children is usually classified as a kind of magical realism, but Rushdie has always been open about enjoying genre SF and fantasy; he knows what he’s doing with manipulating the fantastic. The powers are real, in the context of the story. It isn’t allegory. There’s no barrier of translation here or problem with different conventions.

Midnight’s Children invites you to immerse yourself in India the way you would with a fantasy world—and I think that was partly Rushdie’s intention. He was living in England when he wrote it. He’s talked about how writers like Paul Scott and E.M. Forster were untrue to the real India, and with this book I think he wanted to make his vision of India something all readers, whether they start from inside or outside that culture, could throw themselves into. I don’t think his intention was to teach Indian history, though you’ll certainly pick some up from reading it, so much as to demonstrate the experience of being plunged into Indian history, as Saleem is plunged into it at birth.

If it weren’t so brilliantly written, it would fall flat on its face. As it is, it has become a classic—it won the Booker Prize when it was published in 1981, and the “Booker of Bookers,” as the best Booker winner ever, twenty-five years later. It’s still in print and still being read, but largely as mainstream literature. It’s not much discussed as a genre work. I do think it has had influences on genre though, notably on Martin’s Wild Cards series. Both were clearly influenced by the comic-book superheroes of earlier decades, but I think the Jokers in the Wild Cards books, the people with minor useless superpowers, may have come from Rushdie:

The closer to midnight our birth times were, the greater were our gifts. Those children born in the last seconds of the hour were (to be frank) little more than circus freaks: a bearded girl, a boy with the fully operative gills of a freshwater mahaseer trout, Siamese twins with two bodies dangling off a single head and neck—the head could speak in two voices, one male one female, and every language and dialect spoken in the subcontinent; but for all their marvellousness these were the unfortunates, the living casualties of that numinous hour.

In any case, this is a delight to read, bursting with characters and description and the excitement of a whole real complex country sprinkled with magic.


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