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#90….Midnight’s Children

December 15, 2009

“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.”

I have to admit I had my apprehensions about reading anything by Salman Rushdie. All his name brought to mind was what happened when I was a teenager with his book The Satanic Verses, which already sounded sacrilegious to my Catholic-raised mind. Turns out the Ayatollah Khomeini agreed with me; the book contained what he perceived as a blasphemous reference to the prophet Mohammad. Khomeini issued a fatwa (basically a death sentence) for the British-born Rushdie. He was forced to live in hiding for years, and Iran and the UK actually broke diplomatic relations in 1989, thanks to his book. Those out there who don’t think writing a book can change your life, think again!

In Rushdie’s 2nd novel, Midnight’s Children, our narrator, Saleem Sinai, is born exactly at midnight on August 15, 1947…the very day India becomes independent from Britain. But Saleem’s time seems to be running out, as he is mysteriously beginning to disintegrate into millions of pieces, so he begins to tell the story of his extraordinary family. He begins with his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, a foreign university trained physician who falls in love with his wife piece-by-piece as it is shown through a hole in a sheet, so he falls in love with her before he even sees her face. Their daughter Mumtaz steals her older sister’s boyfriend Ahmed away from her, but upon marrying him, she realizes she does not love her husband. She resolves to fall in love with her husband piece by piece, much like Aadam did with Naseem. She saves the life of a Hindi entertainer from a Muslim mob, and he reads her palm and predicts she will have an extraordinary son. In Bombay, where they rent a mansion from a Britisher, William Methwold, Amina and another poorer woman become pregnant at the same time, and both deliver right at midnight. The babies are switched by ayah Mary Pereira, so that the rich baby will be poor and the poor baby will be rich. Saleem is actually the baby of the British Methwold and the poor woman, who dies after giving birth, but he is unknowingly raised as the son of the Sinais.

Saleem is not a beautiful baby. He has patchy colored skin, very light blue eyes, is unable to blink, and has a huge nose. Soon afterwards, his sassy sister Jamila, also known as the Brass Monkey, is born, who grows up as a tomboy-ish attention seeker, setting fire to people’s shoes and breaking stuff. Saleem gets all kinds of special gifts during the novel, such as reading people’s minds, killing people in his sleep, an extraordinary sense of smell, and the ability to communicate with people who are far away in his head. Saleem finds out that the living 581 ‘midnight’s children’ are from all over India, and have special gifts that are more extraordinary the closer they are born to midnight. He creates the Midnight Children’s Conference (MCC), where all of them can meet, in his head, between midnight and 1am every night, to talk about their gifts and what to do with them. Here Saleem meets Shiva, the baby he was swapped with on his birthday and the true son of the Sinais. Shiva has huge knees with which he can crush people, and he is a member of a rough gang. Saleem’s parentage is discovered when Saleem needs a blood transfusion and the doctor realizes that Saleem’s unique blood type could not have come from either Amina or Ahmed. The Brass Monkey has now become the favored child and his father barely acknowledges his existence, and she becomes a famous singer. As Saleem grows, the children of the MCC grow as well, and begin to take on the beliefs and prejudices of their parents, so that no one gets along. He meets up with one of the other Midnight’s Children, Parvati, who has gotten pregnant by Shiva, and they get married and she has her son Aadam on the night of India’s Emergency. He has huge ears and doesn’t make sounds. The Widow, the leader of India, has found out about the MCC through Shiva, and goes about rounding up all of them when she begins leveling the slums as part of a ‘beautification’ project. All except those who are dead (Parvati dies) are taken into custody and all have hysterectomies and testectomies to prevent their magical skills from living on. What she does not realize is that Shiva got a bunch of other women pregnant, so the legacy of the MCC will live on.

There was really no way to quickly summarize Midnight’s Children, so I didn’t try; nor did I want to. To do so would not have done justice to the richness of the story and even with my long summary, there are still important plot aspects and symbolism I didn’t get to…but I have to leave you something to discover for yourself. The third section of the book was a little harder to get into with all of the war stuff, and I had to reread that section twice because I felt like I was missing things. There were also many historical personages from the Indo-Pakistan conflict with very similar sounding names so that made it sort of confusing as well. I had to go to Wikipedia a few times while reading to learn about Indira Gandhi (who was apparently the inspiration for ‘The Widow’), the Indian Emergency and Partition, and this really helped me understand what was going on in the story.

East vs West, poor vs rich, modern vs traditional….all are struggles that the heterogenous country of India went through to become the democracy that it is today. Saleem tells us on the first page of the book that ‘his destiny is insolubly chained to that of his country’. He is born on the day of India’s independence, of poor Indian and wealthy English parents, with both bloodlines visible in his physical features, and throughout the book, he shares his fear of crumbling into 600 million pieces (at that time the population of India). The struggle between the traditional and the modern is also highlighted in the battle of wills between Naseem and Aadam, as they definitely don’t see eye to eye on the role of women and raising children.

After I read this book, I was mad at myself for waiting so long to pick up a Rushdie novel. I am sure I will again in the future.

Grade: A

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