What is the role of the epic structure in Midnight's Children?
There are broadly two views about how Salman Rushdie uses epic structure in Midnight’s Children (1981). The first is that he deliberately uses classic elements of the epic form to parody the genre. The second view is that in Midnight's Children Rushdie does not merely parody epic structure as understood in the West but deliberately uses conventions from Asian and Indian epic traditions to challenge and subvert it. According to this viewpoint, Rushdie seems to be clearly establishing that his story is an epic, but an epic that Western epic structure alone cannot describe. This epic requires multiple points of view and digressing stories to be told, elements that are regarded as anti-epic, but not necessarily so in Asian and Indian epic traditions. This last bit cannot be emphasized enough.
I think both of these viewpoints are useful when studying epic structure in Midnight’s Children. With regard to the first point of view, a comment from Rushdie’s book of essays Imaginary Homelands (1991) gives us a great clue about how epic structure works in Midnight’s Children: “What I tried to do was to set up a tension in the book, a paradoxical opposition between the form and content of the novel.” Let’s take a look at some elements that are common to epic structure as described by Mikhail Bakhtin in his essay “Epic and Novel” (Dialogic Imagination, 1981): an epic requires “a national epic past” or the “absolute past;” a “national tradition” as opposed to mere personal experience; and an “absolute epic distance” that separates it from the present. To these I would also add stylistic elements, such as a lofty, grandiose tone. The form of Midnight’s Children deliberately recalls many epic elements, starting from its narrator Saleem Sinai’s oracle-like tone as seen in the opening paragraph:
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… Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate—at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn't even wipe my own nose at the time.
But as we can see, the content of the opening paragraph undoes the expectations we have of an epic. The “epic past” has been replaced by a more immediate past, harking back to the birth of the narrator. Instead of important sounding epithets used for heroes in epics and romances—such as “Lion-hearted” for Achilles in Homer’s Iliad (compiled 7th century BC)—Saleem Sinai uses self-deprecating epithets such as “Snotnose” and “Baldy.” Further, unlike Homer’s Odysseus, or Arjuna from the Mahabharata, Saleem is physically imperfect and weak, and he refers to his “monstrous” nose and bald head throughout the book. But why does Rushdie parody epic structure in Midnight’s Children in the first place? One explanation is that epics traditionally use an unquestionable and absolute voice for the project of nation and culture building. As examples, think of an epic which establishes beyond doubt that Satan is a villain (John Milton, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, 1667-71) or that Rama represents good and Ravana evil (Valmiki’s Ramayana, compiled circa 5th century BC). But Saleem wants to tell us that these projects are flawed: there is no one story and one version of truth which goes into the making of a nation, much less so in a country as diverse and complex as India. Therefore, the best way to tell the story of the country is through re-imagining the epic form through the broken, digressive history of Saleem himself, which keeps branching into other tales and voices.
Returning to the deliberate use of Asian and Indian epic structures, Saleem’s frequent references to Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights (first published 1839–42) show us she is clearly a narrator whom he emulates. Just like Scheherazade spins stories to prolong her life, Saleem too knows stories are his lifeblood and that of a newly independent India too. Like Scheherazade’s, Saleem’s stories too are different from each other, digressive and drawn out—all staple elements of Asian epic traditions. In his storytelling style, Saleem echoes the classic “sutradhaar” or narrator (literally “thread-holder” in Sanskrit) of classical Indian epic-drama. Further, Saleem’s use of digressions and repetitions recall the cyclical time of Indian epic tradition, while his unreliability as a narrator and the polyphony of voices in the novel are a nod to the tradition of multiple versions of the same Indian epic. For instance, the Ramayana itself may have over a hundred versions sprawling across South and Southeast Asia. The story of India, in all its dizzying contradictions, will require all these elements and versions to be expressed, Saleem seems to be telling us. Through these elements, as well as others from the global South, such as magic realism, Rushdie is also shedding the legacy of colonialism, the “ineluctable superiority of northernness” (Midnight’s Children).
I tend to think that Rushdie's work is a direct response or challenge to the traditional epic structure. The epic structure is one in which the clarity of the protagonist is evident. It is one in which there is an absolute understanding of the narrative, narration is complete, and there is a clear definition as to what constitutes right and wrong. I tend to think that Rushdie's work challenges this. The narrator is unreliable, does not embody the clarity of the traditional hero in an epic work, and the structure is one in which details are omitted or added, events are disjointed, and a lack of clarity becomes the norm. For Rushdie, the modern setting seems to be one in which the individual endures an epic of merely being in the world. The epic structure is not something external, but rather exists in the individual consciousness. Saleem's narrative is epic simply because he survives it. His mere act of survival is where the epic structure exists and through this, as opposed to something larger and more overarching, there is a structure to the epic nature of the work. The work challenges the conception of what an epic structure could be because the conditions in which Saleem and the other Midnight's Children live is one that is far from the traditional contours of what epics are defined as. For this reason, their mere survival becomes epic, and represents the structure by which an "epic" is defined in Rushdie's conception.