European interest in India as a source for materials and labor goes back to the 1490s, when Portugal won exclusive rights to the lucrative markets and continued through control gained by the Dutch East India Company, which broke the Portuguese monopoly in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The East India Company, an unofficial arm of the British government, impinged on the Dutch, fighting a series of battles for control of different areas of India, eventually consolidating control in the 1750s. The country was under British control for the next two centuries.
After the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, protests against British rule became increasingly common. Nationalistic parties were distracted, however, by the rise of ethnic and religious groups within the country, such as the Muslim League, formed in 1906. In-fighting between Muslims and Hindus diverted attention from the general protest against the British.
After World War I, Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), an Indian nationalist and spiritual leader who preached non-violent protest, launched a movement to resist Britain, based on noncooperation and the refusal to buy British goods. The British jailed Gandhi from 1922 to 1924, but he went on to revive the independence movement, successfully leading the people of India in civil disobedience. He convinced Indians to refuse to pay British taxes, particularly the tax on...
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Rushdie ends the first book of Midnight's Children with the revelation that the man who has been telling the tale, known as Saleem Sinai, is in fact the child of other parents, and that the child the Sinai family had was raised by paupers. Because of their connection by birth, Saleem and the other child, Shiva, are set up to function as foils to each other. A foil is a character whose physical and psychological attributes are opposite of another character with whom he is paired; each of the paired characters highlights the qualities of the other.
It is true that Saleem and Shiva are physical opposites: Shiva is strong and handsome, while Saleem is weak and ugly. It is also true that they are temperamental opposites, as Saleem freely admits when he discusses his fear of Shiva's violent nature. Rushdie even brings their lives together at various times, having them vie for leadership of the Midnight Children's Council that Saleem calls together and bringing Shiva into the story when Saleem is unable to impregnate his wife, Parvati. Still, their paths only cross several times: hundreds of pages of the novel go by without Shiva being mentioned. If he were a more conventional foil, Shiva would be a more constant presence, giving readers a gauge by which to measure how Saleem grows and changes.
Method of Narration
Some novels are written in third person, in which the narrator tells the...
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Reviewers hailed Midnight's Children as a stylistic tour de force and many studies have focused on Rushdie's technical virtuosity and originality. Rushdie is indeed not afraid to dazzle his readers with a rich excess. Some of the episodes of the novel are operatic in texture or have a dreamlike quality; still others use the form of the newsflash and newspaper report for startling effects. Rushdie is fond of juxtapositions, digressions, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and breathtaking changes of pace; but he can also offer pages of straightforward narrative and sections which are constructed with journalistic particularity or essayistic clarity. On occasion the narrator appears self-conscious, self-reflexive, and postmodern in his bid to convince readers of the fictionality of his work; at other times he sprinkles his narrative with Indian names and words and colloquialisms to give the feel of the Indian milieu in which his characters move. Midnight's Children can also be densely allusive, for Rushdie builds his contexts from Indian myths, history, popular culture, and magazine talk as well as from Western literary classics.
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Midnight's Children is the story of Saleem Sinai, the thirty-year old narrator of the novel. Born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the moment of India's independence, Saleem's story has representative significance, for his birth and upbringing are meant to parallel that of India. The novel, however, encompasses over one hundred years of Indian history, since Saleem feels that his begetting is as much a part of his story as is his birth. The novel covers different periods of Indian history, such as the era of British rule, the struggle for independence, partition, the progress of the two nations of India and Pakistan, Indo-Pakistani wars, the creation of Bangladesh, and Indian politics in the 1970s.
Saleem narrates his story to Padma, a girl who works in a pickle factory and is in love with him. Although autobiographical in mode, the novel partakes of the fantastic, for it is Rushdie's point that the history of India cannot be seen in realistic terms. Padma's simple but critical nature causes her to interrupt Saleem's narrative and ask him questions. These prevent Saleem's story from having any kind of consistent forward flow. Also, Saleem's mind tends to wander from time to time so that the novel moves back and forth in time and has more than its share of digressions.
Fantastic, disorderly, nonlinear, and digressive though it may appear to be, Midnight's Children yields up an elaborate plot to readers patient enough to follow the...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1950s: Newly freed from colonial rule, India has a poor but promising economy. Indian businessmen, taking control of their own country, pattern their methods after those of the Europeans.
1980s: After decades of misgovernment, India's economy is considered weak, making a country of 683 million people one of the world's poorest nations.
Today: The Indian economy is growing at an impressive rate, as globalization makes it possible for jobs from anywhere in the world to be outsourced to workers in India.
- 1950s: Tensions are high between the Hindu majority of India and the Muslim majority of Pakistan, leading to a succession of treaties that finally gives way to all-out war in 1965.
1980s: Having tested a nuclear device in 1974, India is a member of the small group of global nuclear powers. Pakistan proposes a non-nuclear treaty with India but is later found to be conducting research into building nuclear bombs.
Today: As recently as 2002, India and Pakistan have come to the verge of nuclear war.
- 1950s: The Indian film industry, in business since the turn of the century, gains international attention as prestigious directors such as Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak present their works at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
1980s: Concentrated in Bombay, the film industry, nicknamed "Bollywood," becomes a commercial...
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Topics for Further Study
- Saleem Sinai's life is influenced by the fact that he was born at the date and hour of Indian independence. Find out the most significant fact concerning the date on which you were born, and make a chart of events from your life that could possibly have been influenced by it.
- When Saleem's sister becomes a pop music icon in Pakistan, her fans do not know her true identity. Choose another country, and determine what your persona would be if you were to become a pop singer there.
- This novel starts in Kashmir, a region that in the early 2000s was still involved in territorial disputes between India, Pakistan, and China. Research the history of the Kashmir valley and propose what you think would be a fair solution to the political uncertainty of the region.
- Near the end of his story, Saleem Sinai befriends Picture Singh, a famous snake charmer. Give a report to your class on the science and the superstition of snake charming.
- How many different ways are there to make pickles? What are the variables? What changes in the formula will create what changes in the outcome? Examine some recipes or, if you can, talk to someone at a pickle factory to find out how challenging Saleem's work is.
- Watch one of India's famous musical films and discuss which elements of the film style resemble techniques that Rushdie used in writing Midnight's Children.
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Even though Midnight's Children is an entirely original work, it is selfconsciously in a distinct narrative tradition which can be traced as far back as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759). In fact, Rushdie echoes Sterne's masterpiece on several occasions and styles his narrative on the earlier novel's transgressive, teasing, digressive, and nonlinear style. Moreover, Saleem Sinai's birth, physical oddness, sensitivity, and playfulness owe a great deal to Sterne's conception of his hero.
Midnight's Children also echoes other celebrated works of world literature. Like Gunter Grass's Tin Drum (1959) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), Rushdie's novel presents a national history through one family's extraordinary experience; and all three books employ the fantastic in the service of reality. Saleem's gift for telepathy parallels the talent of Oscar, Grass's hero, for seeing through the surface; both characters survive the cataclysms of recent history in unique ways. From Garcia Marquez, Rushdie seems to have learned the technique of "magical" realism that has become the hallmark of recent Latin American fiction. It is worth noting that Midnight's Children also recalls one of Rushdie's favorite literary works, the Thousand and One Nights, The number of children born on midnight on that fateful day is Rushdie's way of acknowledging his debt to the phantasmagoric mode of the...
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- Midnight's Children was adapted for the London stage in 2003. Based on a five-hour script that Rushdie wrote for the BBC which was never filmed, the West End production was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with financial assistance from the University of Michigan and Columbia University. After its London run, it played in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then at Harlem's Apollo Theater in New York for twelve performances in 2003.
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What Do I Read Next?
- The fantastic elements of this novel remind many critics of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum, published in 1959, which tells the story of the build up to the Nazi era in Germany through the eyes of a little boy who wills himself to never grow up.
- Midnight's Children is frequently compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude published by Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez in 1967. Márquez spins incredible tales into the history of a fictional South American town, Macondo, in what is considered the finest example of the "magical realism" category into which many critics fit Rushdie's novel.
- Rohinton Mistry, an Indian author, wrote A Fine Balance (1995), which is set in the India of Indira Gandhi during the declared state of emergency of 1974 and 1975 and covers crackdowns on journalists and political opponents, forced sterilization, and many other subjects touched on in Rushdie's novel. It is available from Vintage International.
- The works of Sadaat Hasan Manto, a respected Urdu writer, often focus on the partition of India on August 15, 1947. His story "A Question of Honor" is representative of his work and his worldview. It is available in Kingdom's End and Other Stories, published in 1987 by Verso Press.
- Taslima Nasreen wrote the novel Homecoming—Phera, about a woman who is forced to emigrate from her homeland of Mymensingha at the time of the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Birnbaum, Phyllis, Review of Midnight's Children, in Saturday Review, March 1981, p. 72.
Larson, Charles R., Review of Midnight's Children, in The New Republic, Vol. 184, May 23, 1981, p. 40.
Pritchett, V. S., "Two Novels," in the New Yorker, July 27, 1981, pp. 84-86.
Toolan, David, Review of Midnight's Children, in Commonweal, December 4, 1981, p. 699.
Barnaby, Edward, "Airbrushed History: Photography, Realism, and Rushdie's Midnight's Children," in Mosaic, March 2005, pp. 1-16.
The author makes the point that this novel, rather than being a work of "magical realism," is actually based on a series of imaginary photographs.
Booker, M. Keith, "Salman Rushdie: The Development of a Literary Reputation," in Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie, edited by M. Keith Booker, G. K. Hall, 1999, pp. 1-15.
Booker takes a close look at this novel's critical role in making Rushdie the literary giant he was at the end of the twentieth century.
Goonetilleke, D. C. R. A., Salman Rushdie, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
In the Midnight's Children chapter of this installment of St. Martin's Modern Writers series, Goonetilleke examines how Rushdie, already a...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Cunningham, Valentine. “Nosing out the Indian Reality,” in The Times Literary Supplement. XV (May 15, 1981), p. 535.
Narayan, Shyamala. “Midnight’s Children,” in The Literary Criterion. XVIII, no. 3 (1983), pp. 23-32.
Towers, Robert. “On the Indian World Mountain,” in The New York Review of Books. XXVIII (September 24, 1981), pp. 28-30.
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