Midnight’s Children (1981)
Episode #9 of the course Masterpieces of world literature and why they matter by Alisa Miller
Yesterday, we examined a book legendary for its use of magical realism as a tool for storytelling. Today, we will look at another book that employs magical realism, this time to help convey the effects of British colonialism on India as it gained independence from British rule, in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Birth of a Child and of a Nation
Midnight’s Children opens with the narrator, Saleem Sinai, telling of the moment of his birth. He was born on August 15, 1947, at exactly midnight, which was also the exact moment that India gained its independence from British rule. Thus begins a winding, wild ride of a story wherein Saleem’s life parallels the history of India’s independence. Almost as soon as Saleem explains his connection to India through his birth, he shifts the story to that of his grandparents and how they met.
In describing his grandfather, Aadam, Saleem tells of how one day, Aadam was praying and hit his nose upon the frozen ground. The drops of blood from his nose turned to rubies, and the tears that sprang from his eyes became diamonds. The incident turned Aadam away from religion and formed a hole that, Saleem explains, left him vulnerable “to women and history.”
In these opening few pages, Midnight’s Children sets the scene for important elements that carry throughout the entire novel, including a non-chronological narrative, the use of magical realism to enrich the storytelling, and narration from a potentially unreliable narrator that reflects the nature of memory and often, the retelling of history.
As the story unfolds, Saleem tells of Shiva, who is born in the same place and at the exact same moment as Saleem. A midwife, in an act of revolution, switches the babies so the rich family’s baby is destined to live a life of poverty and the poor family’s baby is awarded a life of privilege. In this moment, we learn that Saleem was actually the baby from the other family, a poor woman impregnated by a British man. Serving as more than a clever plot twist, Rushdie now makes Saleem a true embodiment of the new India: half Indian and half British.
A Magical Ride
Salman Rushdie masterfully wove together the story of a family with the historical events of India in such a way that anyone unfamiliar with India’s history doesn’t feel lost. Instead, his playful word usage, stunning imagery, and rich character development invite the reader on a magical ride. Throughout the book, Rushdie evokes Scheherazade and her tales in One Thousand and One Nights, which in many ways, is what he is doing with Saleem—sharing history through storytelling—yet also signifying the slippery nature of how inaccurate that retelling can become.
While it might be easy to get lost in Rushdie’s storytelling, it is important to remember that he is actually sharing the plight of a nation of people who, after 89 years of colonialism, try to find their way. At the beginning of the book and as it ends, Saleem states that he is coming apart and predicts he will crumble away into millions of pieces on his 31st birthday, suggesting the idea that each piece of Saleem becomes each of the millions of people in India. Throughout the book, Saleem lives the history of these people, who in turn are each living their own life of reconstruction.
Rushdie won several awards for Midnight’s Children, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and the book is included on several lists, including Modern Library’s 100 Best Books and BBC’s The Big Read. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie, born in Bombay on the cusp of India’s independence, combined elements of both Indian and British elements to the story. Though written in English, Rushdie combined the languages and used storytelling components from both cultures. Rushdie shared both the story of India and a slice of its culture to the rest of the world—and the world responded with appreciation.
Join me tomorrow as we move from Asia to North America to explore the haunting story of the aftermath of slavery in Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved.
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