Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 155
(Ahmed) Salman Rushdie 1947–
Indian novelist and science fiction writer.
Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children is considered an extraordinary piece of writing. A complex, allegorical work, it focuses on the identity and development not only of its protagonist but of India, taking also as its subjects the nature of history, literature,...
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(Ahmed) Salman Rushdie 1947–
Indian novelist and science fiction writer.
Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children is considered an extraordinary piece of writing. A complex, allegorical work, it focuses on the identity and development not only of its protagonist but of India, taking also as its subjects the nature of history, literature, and reality.
Midnight's Children, awarded the 1981 Booker Prize, places Rushdie among the great chroniclers of India's political, social, and cultural history for, in addition to its stylistic brilliance, the novel is in many ways an ambitious summary of the plight of the modern Indian, torn between an attraction to Indian culture and the ideas and values inherited from the British.
Through his use of multiple and overlapping allusions, Rushdie demonstrates his mastery of literature, Hindu mythology, and politics. The style and narrative technique of Midnight's Children is often compared to that of Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy and Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, among other works.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290
The novel as global metaphor is currently unfashionable, except when it comes in the guise of science fiction or political satire. Grimus is neither of these, though it spills over into both areas. Dimension-fever, thought-forms, a mysterious Effect haunt the book like the monoliths of 2001: forces to be reckoned with because they are never quite accounted for. But Salman Rushdie doesn't posit a hypothetical future, or warn of things to come: indeed, he makes it plain that what he is writing about is, approximately, the here and now. His ambitious, strikingly confident first novel is a convoluted fable about the human condition: more particularly, about the enduring need for myth and its constricting effect on the individual.
Like most fables, Grimus is cast in the form of an odyssey in search of an ultimate truth. Flapping Eagle, a renegade Red Indian, is given the blessing or curse of immortality (it comes in a bottle) by a pedlar who may be God or just a reflection of the Indian himself—not quite his alter ego but the self with whom he will eventually have to do battle if he is to realize his infinite potential….
Flapping Eagle meets whores and hunters, fading Russian aristocrats and a professor of philosophy, Ignatius Quasimodo Gribb, a gnome in corduroy trousers whose magnum opus is "The All-Purpose Quotable Philosophy". If one has doubts about the world Mr. Rushdie has created they don't concern its logic: the question is whether his dryly entertaining intellectual conceit is anything more than an elaborate statement of the obvious decked out in the mannerisms of Oxford philosophy.
David Wilson, "Fable-Minded," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3807, February 21, 1975, p. 185.
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The hero of [the] intricately plotted [Grimus] is Flapping Eagle, an outcast Indian weary of the immortality conferred on him some 700 years ago by a mysterious elixir…. Rushdie unwinds solutions to his various conundrums—involving a misappropriated alien artifact and a plurality of probability-continuums—with inventive wit and an elegant sense of pacing. The story is ultimately overburdened with ingenuities, but for the most part they are real ingenuities. An imagination to watch.
"Fiction: 'Grimus'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1979 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLVII, No. 11, June 1, 1979, p. 664.
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[The characters and plot elements of Grimus] comprise a pretty flashy bunch of ingredients which could easily have yielded silly melodrama. In this artful first novel, Rushdie manages not only to turn them all into a good story, but also to present it all seriously without pomposity via notably witty prose. There are a few passages where he seems to be trying too hard, but in general, after a slow start, the book takes off like Flapping Eagle's namesake. Rushdie is a talent to watch.
"Science Fiction: 'Grimus'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the July 30, 1979 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1979 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 216, No. 5, July 30, 1979, p. 53.
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[Because Midnight's Children relates] the progress of the political juggernaut through the Indian subcontinent—the juggernaut being literally a religious procession taken through the land in celebration, although said to leave behind a wake of destruction—one might expect a dark and somber treatise. It is nothing of the sort. On the contrary, Midnight's Children burgeons with life, with exuberance and fantasy. It has the same effect on the eyes and the ears as a magnificent circus performance—a scene that is brilliant with color, zest, dare-devilry and loud bravado. The language is as full and copious as a flood or fire of tremendous proportions. If Midnight's Children is sprawling and untidy, then it shares these characteristics with such natural phenomena. If there are many deaths and acts of destruction in the novel, then every death seems merely to fertilize the Indian soil so that 10 heads spring up in the place of the one that rolled. If the last third of the book reveals a slight dwindling of the creative spring, then this is a part of the great design, for by then Rushdie's hero claims to be "disconnected, unplugged, with only epitaphs left to write" and ends, resignedly: "New myths are needed; but that's none of my business."
Before ending on that elegiac note, Rushdie has painted a full portrait of "India, the new myth—a collective fiction in which anything is possible, a fable rivalled only by two other mighty fantasies: money and God." He uses the name India for the whole subcontinent and spans the recent history, both told and untold, of both India and Pakistan as well as the birth of Bangladesh. Yet one hesitates to call the novel "historical" for Rushdie believes—like Gunter Grass whose work is, one feels, the chief influence here …—that while individual history does not make sense unless seen against its national background, neither does national history make sense unless seen in the form of individual lives and histories. (pp. 1, 13)
[In Midnight's Children] nothing is predictable—the fantastic and the earthy follow each other about in a comic dance, as do the tragic and the farcial. Rushdie continually plays tricks on the reader…. He can also veer off on wild tangents, as in his piece on the influence of hairstyles on the course of history or his vision of history as a pickle jar. "To pickle is to give immortality," he says…. [Rushdie] does not lack that indispensable ingredient of the satirist's gift—the gift of love, of concern and involvement without which his satire would have little meaning and no tragedy.
His hero ends his days soberly as the manager of a pickle factory. Before that he assists in the chaos of modern Indian politics, the destruction of law in Pakistan … and even the blood-drenched birth of Bangladesh. He witnesses the birth of his adopted son at the moment when Indira Gandhi declares a state of Emergency….
Obviously this book is of major interest to Indian readers, and it is tragic to think how unlikely that it will be published, distributed or read in a land that prefers to avert its eyes from the intolerable reality and gaze upon maya, the shimmer of illusion. But Rushdie reminds his readers, "Be fair! No body, no country has a monopoly of untruth" and he quotes from the Urdu poet Iqbal: "Where can one find a land that is foreign to God?" making his book not a national allegory or fable but as universal as the works of Cervantes, Swift, Kafka or Grass.
Midnight's Children will surely be recognized as a great tour de force, a dazzling exhibition of the gifts of a new writer of courage, impressive strength, the power of both imagination and control and sheer stylistic brilliance. (p. 13)
Anita Desai, "Where Cultures Clash by Night," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), March 15, 1981, pp. 1, 13.
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For a long time it has seemed that novels from India write their own blurbs: poised, witty, delicate, sparkling.
What this fiction has been missing is a different kind of ambition, something just a little coarse, a hunger to swallow India whole and spit it out. It needed a touch of Saul Bellow's Augie March brashness, Bombay rather than Chicago born and going at things in its own special Bombay way. Now, in "Midnight's Children," Salman Rushdie has realized that ambition. (p. 1)
As a growing-up novel with allegorical dimensions, it will remind readers of "Augie March" and maybe of Gunter Grass's "The Tin Drum," Laurence Sterne's "Tristam Shandy," and Céline's "Death on the Installment Plan" as well as the less portentous portions of V. S. Naipaul. But it would be a disservice to Salman Rushdie's very original genius to dwell on literary analogues and ancestors. This is a book to accept on its own terms, and an author to welcome into world company. (pp. 1, 18)
As a Bombay book, which is to say, a big-city book, "Midnight's Children" is coarse, knowing, comfortable with Indian pop culture and, above all, aggressive. Salman Rushdie assumes that the differences between Colaba and Chembur are as important, and can be made as interesting, as the differences between Brooklyn and The Bronx…. Much of the dialogue (the best parts) reads like the hip vulgarity—yaar!—of the Hindi film magazine. The desiccated syllables of T. S. Eliot, so strong an influence upon other Anglo-Indian writers, are gone. "Midnight's Children" sounds like a continent finding its voice….
Of course there are a few false notes. There is a shorter, purer novel locked inside this shaggy monster. A different author might have teased it out, a different editor might have insisted upon it. I'm glad they didn't. There are moments when the effects are strained, particularly in the early chapters, when an ancient Kashmiri boatman begins sounding like "The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man." On a more serious level, Mr. Rushdie at first has a difficult time endowing the villains of Indian politics with mythic stature …; petty household intrigues seem more momentous than the misaffairs of state…. But with Ayub Khan, the Bangladesh war, "The Widow" and her son, the later pages darken quite handsomely. The flow of the book is toward the integration of a dozen strongly developed narratives, and in ways that are marvelous to behold, integration is achieved. The myriad personalities of Saleem, imposed by the time, place and circumstance of his extraordinary birth …, are reduced to a single, eloquent, ordinary soul. The flow of the book rushes to its conclusion in counterpointed harmony: myths intact, history accounted for, and a remarkable character fully alive. (p. 19)
Clark Blaise, "A Novel of India's Coming of Age," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 19, 1981, pp. 1, 18-19.
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India is so big, so crowded, so jammed full of the fascinatingly particular, so awingly representative of human variety, that a novel pretending to India as subject can't avoid the question of how novels in general may claim truthfully to cope with the daunting vastnesses, the multiplicities of things and persons. What makes Midnight's Children so extraordinarily important, and moreover (for literary importance isn't always matched by a fetching readability), what makes it so vertiginously exciting a reading experience, is the way it takes in not just the whole apple cart of India and the problem of being a novel about India but also, and this with the unflagging zest of a Tristram Shandy, the business of being a novel at all. "Is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality?" speculates writing narrator Saleem Sinai. No, he implies, by way of reply, it's a novelist's disease; but one to be opened up for inspection, foregrounded as they say, nowhere more aptly and revelatorily than in an ambitious fiction of India….
If Indians are, as [Rushdie] says, "obsessed with correspondences"—"Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things, make us clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national longing for form"—then Saleem's narrative exhibits the national craving in super-abundance. It writes history, we might say by way of compliment, on the Walter Benjamin model, spinning webs of meaning around pepperpots and bicycles, spittoons and Mrs Ghandi's parted hair….
As Saleem says of his chum Cyrus-the-great, the nuclear physicist's son turned by a religious mother into Lord Khusro Khusrovand, India's richest guru, much visited by cheque-book-readying American guitarists: "There are as many versions of India as Indians …". [In] a novel packed with visionaries, magicians, illusionists, contortionists and people like Picture Singh and Das the peepshow man who urge you to take a dekko at things their way, Saleem openly parades "history, in my version". He composes his own sentences, in one very memorable episode, out of bits of newspaper headlines: he is cutting up history.
Salman Rushdie has been taught, of course, by Günter Grass that the more insistently weird the narration's point of view the more memorable (and subversive of officials' and politicians' versions) such personalizings of history tend to become. And the disciple is, if anything, more energetic than his master in assembling contorted viewpoints….
The more extravagantly mythicized and openly fictional,… the more memorable and truthful: it's a set of notions (and ones intrinsic, of course, to literary modernism) that Rushdie has Saleem constantly assert and exemplify. India's history is presented as a matter, in the Jamesian formula, of making and making-out, of writing and reading, of language and its arts…. The language itself, it's implied in the novel's Joycean "Abba" (Father) "caddaba" is Naseem's son's "awesome first word". Saleem dwells on how his life has been written in advance, as it were, in the syllables of his family name, Sinai. And he fathers India as he writes it out, the narrator whose birth was the birth of his nation, his pencil equated with his penis….
His audience, the illiterate Padma, named for the Dung Goddess, is always restive, critical, a bit stupid, prone to flouncing and annoyance, an awkwardly choric prodder and squeezer of the tale. She stands for the intransigencies of the material Saleem is striving to memorialize. It keeps falling apart, like himself, fissured, shredding in a world of frayed ghosts, of dogs that chew and dismember and of bombs that fragment. And objects that do remain whole tend to comprise puzzling holes, rebarbative absences…. And, of course, there's the most telling parade of sheets with holes in them: the perforated sheet behind which Saleem's grandmother was medically inspected and ardently wooed by her doctor, and the one which shelters sister Jamila as she performs her songs chastely and almost invisibly in public. These holed sheets are "tophole" … only for dedicated voyeurs. They enforce a vision of fragmentedness apt to a partitioned India…. They stand inevitably for the sheets of paper on which Saleem is assembling a stubbornly bitty India.
It's a remarkably dextrous performance. But if the granting of the Indian text so high a degree of self-consciousness were all, Midnight's Children might be as dismissable … as a smart refurbishing of bits of Sterne and James, of Heart of Darkness and Finnegans Wake, by courtesy of Deconstructionism out of Wolfgang Iser. That would, of course, be a harsh judgment, for this is an extremely gamey, not to say very large, instance of its engaging kind. But it has even more going for it: for its play of signifiers, of textualities, its drama of the reading and writing of India, is bolted firmly into its fierce political despairs and indignations.
India's divisions have always been, it's explained, linguistic ones, But language riots of the sort Saleem sparked did actually happen. The mirages and mysteries of India's text are also the airborne Mirages and Mystères that India and Pakistan hurled at each other. The Battle of Lahore is presented, like everything else, as being difficult to read—who precisely did what to whom?—but such a battle did in fact occur. The spectacular emptyings of family trunk and treasured spittoon, the amnesis and numbness of Saleem, the burying of people's memories and ending of their stories all fall into their logical place in the novel's trading in absentee information; but they come also as the climax of an Indo-Pakistani war of recent memory. Just so, the bad smells of corruption, despotism and carnage that Saleem sniffs out so keenly are not just part of an enticing nasality myth, they're meant also to touch politicians where it hurts…. And when the "labialipped" clones of Sanjay, gleefully vasectomizing and hysterectomizing, turn out also to be testectomizers who cut off Saleem's pencil-penis, we're granted a climax grim enough for any Five Act Play of Signifiers. But it's also a climax that has been and is—and it's as much a part of the distinction of Midnight's Children as anything else about it that it impresses this on us—undeniably more grim yet in the real world of the Subcontinental signified.
Valentine Cunningham, "Nosing Out the Indian Reality," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by Permission), No. 4076, May 15, 1981, p. 535.
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In the bleakness of its vision, Midnight's Children is in many ways the counterpart of V. S. Naipaul's India: A Wounded Civilization, which appeared three years ago. While it is possible to agree or disagree with Naipaul's sobering nonfictional assessment, it would be pointless to do either with Rushdie-Saleem's hyperbolic vision, which is that of a novelist who might at any point begin to laugh at his own intensity.
[In isolating any particular cluster of figures, events, and themes, one neglects scores of others.] Bombay movie stars, millionaire boy gurus, snake-charmers, soothsayers, sadhus, pop singers (Saleem's sister becomes one), purposefully deformed beggars, contortionists, extortionists, merchants, magicians, and servants…. The episodes in which they appear—some of them consisting of hardly more than a paragraph—are wonderfully brought to life, often charming, often shocking. One must not underestimate the novel's playfulness, its absurdities, its highjinks—elements that continuously undercut the despair of its political vision. This playfulness extends to the literary echoes from the West—to the preoccupation with nose-size (blatantly, a phallic "displacement") from Tristram Shandy, to the extremental and olfactory exuberance of Rabelais, to Forster's Dr. Aziz, and to Proust's madeleine, which, in Midnight's Children, is transmogrified into a certain grasshopper-green chutney that serves as a key to the realms of lost time.
As must be clear by now, no one should pick up Midnight's Children in the expectation of a rousing good story, Western-style. Whatever larger narrative movement it possesses is constantly impeded, dammed up, clogged. The novel's momentum is supplied not by sustained action but by style—a style that seems to me almost miraculous in its range and adaptive capacities. (pp. 29-30)
Earlier reviewers have noted the affinities of Midnight's Children not only to Tristram Shandy but to The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in its endless correspondences, in the elaboration of its images into a web of interconnected symbols, Rushdie's novel also suggests John Barth's Letters (though it has none of the emotional aridity which, to my mind, impairs that prodigious work). Mired in the complexities of human love and hate and aspiration, Midnight's Children is anything but abstract or desiccated in its allegorizing tendencies. Yet I doubt that it will reach a very wide audience in this country. It is long; its scene and subject-matter have no automatic appeal for Americans; it cannot be gulped down. The book will gain ground slowly but, I believe, inevitably. Meanwhile we can hope that its publishers will keep it in print and advance its fortunes where they can. For, as I assume they know, they have an extraordinary novel on their hands, one of the most important to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation. (p. 30)
Robert Towers, "On the Indian World-Mountain," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 14, September 24, 1981, pp. 28-30.
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Rushdie attempts to swallow all of India in his epic novel [Midnight's Children]. Therein lies his ambition and his downfall. He is authentic when he writes about Bombay, the place of his birth, the city where he grew up. Probably there is no other Indian novel that captures the sights and smells of Bombay as Midnight's Children does, but when Rushdie writes about the rest of India, he is neither so forceful nor so authentic.
Rushdie attempts to answer the question of one's identity, both individually and nationally, but the story gets lost in his myriad digressions. Up to a point, the digressions are "entertaining," but they seriously detract from the form and the flow of the novel. In trying to be too clever, Rushdie loses control both of himself and of his art. Midnight's Children is a brilliant piece of writing, but as a novel it lacks direction and a point of focus.
K. B. Rao, "Asia and the Pacific: 'Midnight's Children'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1982 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, p. 181.
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One of the more curious aspects of the annual Booker Prize is the fact that in the eleven years since its inception it has been awarded four times to novels set in India with the connecting leitmotif of the decline and fall of the British Empire…. [The fourth novel in this group,] Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, takes in most of this history yet is altogether different. It is the view from within, of colonial and independent India from the midnight hour of 15 August 1947, the birth of Independence, and of a new generation of Indians….
For those born after Independence, the inheritors of the Indo-British sensibility, as for Saleem Sinai, the hero-narrator of Midnight's Children, the search is for the validity of this legacy in modern India, where, as in all developing countries which have emerged from their colonial past, economics, religion and culture are all consumed by the great maw of politics. The novel poses the problem of culture and identity in terms of politics and morality, leading Saleem to seek his identity in terms of connections and places outside the chronological framework of Indo-British history, in the primeval time of India's villages. He uses the English language which he and so many of his contemporaries inherited, plucking out of its richness the words and patterns to convey the human situation of his generation. That he does this so vividly is as much an accomplishment of his feeling for the language as a testimony to the enduring legacy of Indo-British sensibility. (p. 61)
Books I and II [of Midnight's Children] unfold a cultural history at two levels—the Indian experiential and the Western rational. This juxtaposition is not without its comic possibilities, which Rushdie expresses vividly in the lives of the Aziz/Sinai family.
The Indian élite, as it emerged, developed into two groups. There was "the hillock-top world cocooned in money and starched white clothes and things things things." And there was the group that sought the sources of cultural and spiritual renewal in Indian philosophy, religion, and history—finding these and expressing them, as did Tagore, Vivekanand, Gandhi and Nehru in English, in the richness of Indian tradition which European, British and Indian scholars had helped to rediscover. The tensions between the archaic past and the technological present were felt by India's new élite, and still remain unresolved. Whether they can ever be harmonised, or whether one set of values should give way to another, are the issues which Rushdie frantically grapples with. Book III is a cry of despair: time is running out before chaos and anarchy descend inexorably as they did in the past.
Moved by the perception that "what you are is forever who you were", Saleem goes back to times past, first evoking in Book I the twin strands of Western intellectualism and Indian tradition, urban values and rural customs, in his grandfather's home. Book II brings to life the vitality and joy of his own childhood until, as an adult, he pushes himself in Book III into the turmoil of violent social change, "partly out of a sense of fitness—a self-flagellant belief in the rectitude of his belated descent into poverty." The trouble is that he tumbles out of his "hillock-top world" into a crisis of identity. There is a magnificent glow in Books I and II that accentuates the best of Indo-British culture as experienced by the child Saleem in the cosmopolitan city of Bombay; Book III is a nightmare of violence and despair, with Saleem plunging through the worst aspects of the history of the subcontinent in the last decade.
More than anything else, Saleem's imaginative leaps struggle to recapture the particular inheritance of a generation of Indians and the special quality of their cultural development. Depths concealed by the forces of history are uncovered with the penetrating flash of an ingenious metaphor: Anglepoise light. While Saleem writes his story literally sitting in a pool of Anglepoised light, the metaphor suggests the divided sensibility as much as the dichotomies implicit in Saleem's history: Indo—British, Hindu—Muslim, rural—urban, non-violence—brutality. Rushdie's achievement lies in dealing with all of these squarely and honestly….
It is generally recognised that the modern novelist is "a special master of language in whom the energies of idiomatic usage, of etymological implication, declare themselves with obvious force", and that the main impulse of current literature is the search for ethnicity. Midnight's Children evokes this "lost centre" in language that conveys the ineffable and inescapable "Indianness" of the novelist. He dips into the rich store of religious and social customs, into the physical aspects of identity …, for a splendid array of metaphor drawn from Indian reality. The rhythmic flow and the high figurative content of Indian languages, myth, fable, belief and superstition are integrated into English prose in joyful profusion to suggest India's many-tongued diversity. In its meandering interpolations, its paradoxical statements, its parabolic patterns, the novel strives to suggest the formlessness of India's all-encompassing form, its ability to "swallow the lot", "to encapsulate the whole of reality." Traditionally, the women of North India were in purdah, and from within its confines peered at a limited view of the world. The metaphor of the hole drawn from this custom suggests the development of a fractured self, and the manner in which the novel is written—gradually, in vignettes of finely observed detail—reveals a mosaic of experience spread over three generations.
Saleem Sinai writes the story of his life; he also runs a pickle factory. The two occupations allow Rushdie's imagination to run the gamut of connections opened up by the "chutnification of history", "the symbolic value of the pickling process", the pickling of memory, time, history—all of which make the novel a pungent mixture, potent and personalised. Spices/distortions/exaggerations define the extraordinarily perceptive mind and sensitive palate of the suspect narrator—suspect because he gets facts wrong, contradicts himself, and thus enhances one of the novel's most engaging qualities—its pervasive tone of uncertainty.
Perhaps the most daring and comic aspect of Rushdie's creative genius is the liberties taken with the Kashmiri nose. It leaks, runs, sniffs, and enlarges into various metaphorical extensions to allow the penetration of public events into private life, but remains firmly rooted to ancestry and heritage. (p. 62)
Rushdie uses phonemes and word patterns to suggest the vigour and liveliness of folk culture, the pace and variety of urban life, the mythology of Bombay films, the brash exuberance of affluence, the violence simmering and on the boil. He introduces the Western reader to a vocabulary expressing the Indian experience that goes well beyond the koi hai, tamasha, and funtoosh of colonial times. Rushdie, apart from straight borrowings from Hindi—jooloos, arre baap, ai o ai o, surahi, and the ubiquitous nasbandi—delights with picturesque colloquialisms: hotch-potch-town, hankying and pankying, every which way, everywhichthing, Rani of Cooch Naheen, real ruputty joint, went phutt. His prose, liberally sprinkled with Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit names, the deliberately uncontrolled flow of sentence with repetition and sonorous content, suggests the chant of Indian traditional texts. (p. 63)
Memory, rich sediment for the imagination, reveals Rushdie's phenomenal capacity for connection, echo, multiplicity, woven into an intricate pattern that encompasses India's past and present, its social history and political development, so that in seeking his own truth Saleem is indeed trying to define the reality of modern India. In the true spirit of Indian tradition, it eludes expression in logic and language. (p. 64)
[Padma, Mary Pereira, and Tai, the boatman of Srinagar] symbolically unify Saleem's complex identity and define roots that Salman Rushdie clearly wishes to reclaim: Indian, Bombayite, Kashmiri Muslim, multi-cultural and trained in Western modes of thought and expression. The complexity of this identity comes alive in Books I and II with the delicate play of mind on deep feeling and vivid memory. Language here expresses identity in its most profound sense, re-creating time and experience in the timeless cycle of racial memory.
In Book III Saleem emerges to confront modern India and himself. Though events are presented in the face of an adherence to human values and a steadfast faith in India, the personal and national history are not artistically reconciled. The rapid changes in narrative style to suggest disjointedness and incoherence lack the power of the earlier sections, where reality is invested with metaphorical content to reinforce idea. Form and content no longer cohere. Perhaps the problem lies in the attempt to establish contact with all the surviving midnight's children in a symbolic conference, to "encapsulate" the multiplicity of India into a central unity in the Western mould. Despite Saleem's honest efforts, matters get out of hand and the subcontinent is presented as a horrendous place of exploitation and hopelessness. A rapid series of events, the most painful of which are the Bangladesh War and the State of Emergency, is presented in chronological sequence; the long view is suddenly abandoned for an arbitrary survey of less than a decade and a final vision of extinction….
The metaphor of midnight's children as expressing the birth of a generation born into the dawn of freedom could only have sustained its creative and emotive power if presented in historical perspective and not in the context of an individual life.
The despair, it seems to me, proceeds from Saleem's inability to establish a political identity. He plunges into the world of Shiva who grew up on the streets of Bombay while he remained cocooned on Methwold's Estate. Aware all along of the limitations of this life—the uncertain tone of the narrative testifies to this self-knowledge, as does the insistence on the Angle-poise-lit writing of the present and the "hillock-top" world of the past—he presses on, nonetheless, to wrest control or to find acceptance in Shiva's world. Both potential leaders are revealed as changelings, thus acquiring a complex heritage—Hindu, Muslim, British upper-class, underprivileged, to mention only a few of the layers of India's intensely stratified society. Undaunted, Saleem seeks truth within the political process without attempting a diagnostic understanding of it. Shiva in the meantime has acquired an army, violent, nonchalant, rough of tongue, crude in thought. There is no communication; Saleem, of course, cannot think in the languages of the masses of India. The utter disillusion is born, perhaps, from Rushdie's deep attachment, from the authenticity of a childhood world forever lost…. The nagging question remains whether the inherited Indo-British sensibility, uprooted from Indian reality, can encompass the paradoxes of India's strength and future.
The failure of Book III is the inability to encompass the contradictions in modern India…. For Rushdie, perhaps, the events [which combined the liberal Western values and Indian spiritualism] are many, historic, and world-shaking, but none that would bind in a flash of illumination. His Anglepoise light only serves to deepen the encircling gloom.
Does it mean that Western thought and the English language cannot come to terms with the deeper wills of the Indian psyche? The spiritual tradition of India is articulated, if at all, in terms of experience, or attitude of mind, not in terms of logic and language. Religion for the Hindu is not an idea but a power, not an intellectual proposition but a life conviction. (p. 65)
The confrontation, as Arnold Toynbee describes it in his A Study of History, is between the Westernised Indian intellect and the unconsciously religious Indian soul. Whether this is to be resolved on the universal plane in which both Toynbee and Gandhi believed, only the future can tell. In both the quest seems to have transcended the Indian scene, suggesting that the angst of modern India is symptomatic of a malady that afflicts most of contemporary civilisation. Perhaps if Rushdie had reached out rather than within himself a coherent vision could have emerged from the vortex or events of the last decade of sub-continental history.
What remains is language not as repository of Edwardian ideals but providing access to Western culture and technology. The infusion of this new vitality is at the centre of contemporary cultural change. Perhaps the future will embody the best of Indo-British culture; and certainly the English language will survive. It is not, however, the language that was brought in with Macaulay's Minute, but one enriched with vigour first brought to Indian shores by a civilisation that inherited the energies of the Tudors. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children bears witness that this language will endure, infused with the accents and rhythms of Indian tradition and experience. (p. 66)
Maria Couto, "'Midnight's Children' & Parents," in Encounter (© 1982 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LVIII, No. 2, February, 1982, pp. 61-66.