Report on Presentation of Midnight’s Children
- Review by KAVERI NARANG
On Sunday 5th of September, Dr Nandini Sen, a teacher of English in Delhi Univ, presented Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, which for the purpose of her talk she subtitled as ‘A Tryst with the Subcontinent’s Destiny’. This is the novel which has the rare distinction of not only winning the Booker Prize as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1981, but also the “Booker of Bookers” Prize and the best all-time prize winners award in 1993 and 2008 to celebrate the Booker Prize 25th and 40th anniversaries. Dr Sen presented a review of the major features of the novel, and invited Questions and Answers thereafter.
She commenced her session with a brief biography of Salman Rushdie, and then presented the distinguishing characteristics of this seminal novel.
First she pointed out how this novel marked a watershed in the history of Indian authors writing in English in its unself-conscious appropriation of the legitimacy of non-English speaking authors possessing both the skill and narrative sensibility to compete on an equal basis with native English speaking writers. As narrated by its main protagonist, Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of India’s independence, the novel is a tale of the formation of India and of its post colonial history, and the life of Sinai and the nation into which he is born are thereafter inextricably linked at both the literal and allegorical level.
The thematic concerns in the novel identified by Dr Sen are its:
- Magical Realism: reflected in many intersections in the novel between the ordinary and the extraordinary, not least in the character of Saleem Sinai, who possessed unusual psychic as well as olfactory powers, which he later discovers was shared by all children born in India between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. on that date. The use of magic realism intertwines the story of Saleem and his family with the history of India
- Autobiographical elements: Several aspects of the life of Salman Rushdie were represented through the life of Saleem, born into privilege and comfort
- The influence of Oral Histories: the novel taps into the rich history of the Oral tradition in our country’s literary repertoire through various narrative devices. For instance Saleem recounts the story of his life orally to his fiancée Padma. The timing and circumstances of births are also used as compelling metaphors.
- Personal Histories: Actual historical events in the tumultuous years leading up to India’s Independence and in the post colonial years are presented through the prism of various circumstances in the lives of Saleem, his friends and his family. These include the declaration of martial law in Pakistan, the Emergency in India, the language riots in Bombay, the theft of the Prophet’s hair, and other major events that impacted India and its immediate neighbours in the post-independence years.
The novel is divided into three books. The first book begins with the Sinai family in the years leading up to partition and independence. The second book is about the birth of Saleem Sinai and simultaneously the birth of a nation. It covers the growing years of Saleem and the family’s decision to move to Pakistan, which reflects an actual phase in the life of the Rushdie family. The last book covers perhaps the most eventful and catastrophic phase in the life of Saleem, in parallel with the Indo-Pak wars leading to the birth of Bangladesh, culminating in the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi. In his inimitable satirical style Rushdie exposes the political hypocrisies and overweening national pride which resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan, and also the disastrous declaration of Emergency in India.
Midnight’s Children is thus a monumental epic with multi-faceted layers of meaning and significance which has made it one of the most outstanding pieces of fiction ever set within the confines of this vast subcontinent. In conclusion Dr Sen posed an interesting question. Rushdie, in symbolizing the troubles of post-independent India through the travails of Saleem and the other Midnight children, seemed to attribute these to the political and economic system in the country. Her query was about whether the inability of these gifted children to overcome these systemic challenges despite their special powers and abilities, was reflective of the lethargy and fatalism which inhibits our ability to carve our own destiny.
Dr Sen’s presentation was followed by queries from members of the audience relating to Rushdie’s style and significance as an Indian-born English language novelist, a brief discussion of how he compared with other great Indian authors, how Midnight’s children compared with some of Rushdie’s other novels, and how it ushered in the age of the rising literary significance of Indian authors writing in English.