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A Creature Which Would Be Impossible If It Did Not Exist: "Midnight's Children" Turns Thirty

[Image from http://www.enhanced-editions.com] [Image from http://www.enhanced-editions.com]

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which turns thirty this year, opens with one of the most celebrated bouts of throat-clearing in literary history:

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.

And so we meet Saleem Sinai. Like his great literary ancestor, Tristram Shandy, Saleem, once he gets his story underway, will take more than a hundred pages of narration before he manages to actually get himself born, looping back in time to spin out his family’s many stories. But his opening words nevertheless introduce us immediately to Saleem’s obsessive theme: thanks to the sheer dumb luck of birth, on that August 15, he came into the world “handcuffed to history.” “For the next three decades,” he assures us, “there was to be no escape.”

There are beginnings, and then there are beginnings. For a young novelist still working as an advertising copywriter, one whose debut novel, Grimus, was something of a bust, Midnight’s Children was a beginning almost as auspicious as that enjoyed by Saleem himself (this may be one reason why readers have sometimes been reluctant to distinguish between Rushdie and his literary creation). Awarded the 1981 Booker Prize, Midnight’s Children was subsequently granted the title “Best of the Booker” on two separate occasions, in 1993 and in 2008, and the novel also featured prominently on the great majority of the “best of the century” literary lists that flourished at the end of the last millennium.

But the influence of Midnight’s Children can’t be sufficiently measured in the currency of literary awards. Its true influence can be read on the face of contemporary literature itself. Almost as soon as it was published, Midnight’s Children began to be described as a groundbreaking book, a book that opened up new possibilities for contemporary fiction. But in re-considering the book on the thirtieth anniversary of its publication, it is also worth thinking about some of the doors that have closed in the intervening three decades. If we allow ourselves to be guided by the spirit of Saleem Sinai, however, we might be able to re-discover some of those doors today, and perhaps even pry a few of them back open.

***

One of the most powerful recurring images in Midnight’s Children is the pointing finger. We first encounter the finger of Tai the boatman, beckoning to Saleem’s grandfather Aadam Aziz, leading him on the path that will cause him to leave his birthplace of Kashmir for good. Then comes the finger on the severed hand that drops from the sky, sending Saleem’s father Ahmad Sinai and family packing to Bombay. And so it goes, all the way through to Saleem’s own finger, in his guise as “The Buddha,” guiding his team of soldiers towards the atrocities they commit in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Saleem encourages us to see these pointing fingers as signposts along the path of his destiny. Indeed, the strongest memory of his childhood bedroom is the reproduction of a painting hanging on the wall: the young Sir Walter Raleigh sits at the feet of a fisherman who points towards the horizon, seemingly guiding Raleigh on towards his future.


[John Everett Millais, The Boyhood of Raleigh. Image via Google Images.]

As Saleem recalls it, the fisherman’s beckoning finger also pointed towards another frame on the bedroom wall, which held a letter from the Prime Minister declaring Saleem to be the first, and thus the truest, of the Midnight’s Children:

the finger pointed even further than that shimmering horizon...driving my eyes towards another frame, in which my inescapable destiny hung, forever fixed under glass...Jawharlal Nehru wrote: “Dear Baby Saleem, My belated congratulations on the happy accident of your moment of birth! You are the newest bearer of that ancient face of India which is also eternally young. We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.”

Saleem’s first thought, then, is that the fisherman’s finger points him towards his own particular destiny, which is to represent the nation. But he also offers the possibility (among several others) that the finger actually pointed not towards the horizon, or towards Nehru’s letter, but rather out the window and towards the Arabian Sea, “a sea on which the sails of Koli dhows glowed scarlet in the setting sun.” These were the fishing boats that were the only remaining signs of the first inhabitants of Bombay, the Kolis, who, as Saleem has previously told us, had been completely dispossessed by the city’s development. In this interpretation, the fisherman’s pointing finger actually represents “an accusing finger . . . which obliged us to look at the city’s dispossessed.” It also points, not towards a destiny to come, but towards a lost people and an untold story, one of the many yet-to-be-told (perhaps never-to-be-told) stories “jostling and shoving” inside Saleem’s mind.

I would in turn like to aim that pointing finger, in its accusatory guise, straight back at us, the critics and teachers and readers who have been responsible for the reception of Midnight’s Children over the past three decades. Early on, Saleem tries to prepare us for what is to come in his tale: “there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumors, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane!” “I have been a swallower of lives,” he warns us, “and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the lot as well.” This call to multiplicity, the demand to attend to the many stories inside each individual story (especially the stories of those who have been dispossessed and forgotten), can, I think, provide a potent antidote to a pervasive way of reading non-Western literature.

What I have in mind is a form of reading practiced by teachers, by critics, and even by individual readers. It has its origins in an entirely commendable multiculturalist impulse: the desire to allow other voices into a “Great Books” canon that has consisted overwhelmingly of Western European (and, more recently, Euro-American) literature. Given the almost constant attacks upon the very idea of multiculturalism (and particularly given the innocent blood recently spilled by Anders Breivik, who might justifiably be called a monocultural fundamentalist), I feel the need to stress that I absolutely endorse this multiculturalist impulse; it is not in itself to blame for the particular reading practice I have in mind.

What concerns me, rather, is the effect produced when multiculturalist desires hit up against various limits. For teachers, these limits manifest themselves most clearly in the unavoidable choices imposed when writing a curriculum or preparing a syllabus: there are only so many weeks, and thus only room for so many readings. For critics, these limits arise from the need to determine which books to read, discuss, and champion among the multitude of possibilities. For individual readers, the dilemma of choosing among books written by unfamiliar writers from possibly unfamiliar places about possibly unfamiliar topics may be what imposes these limits.

All these factors lead to different varieties of a reading practice that I’ll call “one-of-eachism” (it’s a moniker that I hope would meet the approval of Saleem Sinai, with his love of stuck-together phrases). This is a way of reading in which an individual book is given a sort of representational status, asked to stand in for a particular country or culture or group. One-of-eachism, in other words, is the process by which an individual novel, in any of the limiting contexts I’ve described above, comes to be considered not as a novel from India but as the novel from India — or, in other cases, the novel from the Caribbean, or the novel from Africa, or the novel from “the Islamic World,” and so on. This is rarely a conscious or premeditated move, but rather a process that evolves through the actions of various publishing, translating, reviewing, and teaching institutions (not to mention the literary award circuit).

The further step in this process is that such novels wind up being read in a way that is more sociological than literary in nature. Not only is the particular novel called upon to represent the national or regional literary tradition from which it comes; it is often called upon to represent the entire nation, a demand not unlike that expressed by Nehru’s letter linking Saleem’s birth to India’s moment of independence. A novel such as Midnight’s Children, simply put, becomes an introduction to India. The demand upon such novels — one which, I must stress again, is motivated by the best of multiculturalist intentions — could be summarized, somewhat crudely (but not, I think, inaccurately) as: “Tell us about India so that we can better understand it.”

***

What is striking is that Midnight’s Children has been placed, like Saleem himself, in the position of “national representative” in spite of the fact that Rushdie’s novel succeeds so magnificently in fracturing the whole idea of a single national identity. There is a gap, in other words, between what certain readers may want when they pick up the book (namely, a better understanding of the “reality” of India) and what we actually have before us when we read Midnight’s Children.

This is something Rushdie himself addressed not long after the book was published, in a puckish essay entitled “‘Errata’: or, Unreliable Narration in Midnight’s Children.” He begins by acknowledging that Midnight’s Children is riddled with errors: names, dates, places, citations from Sanskrit literature — page after page, the novel gets them all wrong. Annoyed readers took to stopping him on the street and writing him letters in order to correct these errors. Rushdie has an answer for these critics, but he is equally interested in this reaction itself, which, to him, indicated how the book’s success had “distorted the way in which it was read”:

Many readers wanted the book to be the history, even the guidebook, which it was never meant to be; others resented it for its incompleteness, pointing out, among other things, that I had failed to mention the glories of Urdu poetry, or the plight of the Harijans, or untouchables, or what some people think of as the new imperialism of the Hindi language in South India. These variously disappointed readers were judging the book not as a novel, but as some sort of inadequate reference book or encyclopedia.

This is precisely the sort of reading practice that I’ve described: the demand to tell us about India so we can understand it. Unfortunately, this is precisely the wrong way to read a novel, and this is one of the many lessons that we can retrieve from Midnight’s Children.

Part of the problem here, as Rushdie notes, is the classic error of failing to recognize the unreliability of the book’s narrator. Midnight’s Children responds to this demand for factual accuracy with a narrative technique based on what might be called representational inaccuracy. The novel places us in the hands of Saleem Sinai, a narrator who is transparently, even proudly, unreliable. Saleem peppers his story with errors that he presents to us as historical facts, or as evidence of his deep erudition and thus of his trustworthiness, sometimes contradicting an earlier “fact” in service of a later attempt to stretch the truth.

Indeed, in the case of certain major historical events, such as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Saleem takes pains to acknowledge his own unreliability. Having given us his account of the event, Saleem looks back many pages later and declares: “rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date. But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time.” As we will see, Saleem proposes to make a virtue out of such unreliability. If we are willing to follow him down this road, we may find ourselves in turn questioning of our very sense of what counts as an “accurate” historical narrative.

The further problem described by Rushdie, the cataloging and condemning of the novel’s errors and exclusions, partakes of an even more fundamental error in the reading of fiction: mistaking the narrator for the author. Saleem’s story, as he takes pains to tell us, is, in addition to being completely fragmented and inaccurate, also completely opportunistic. Its points of emphasis, elisions, additions, and outright inventions are all the result of his obsessive search for meaning. Midnight’s Children is thus as selective in its approach to Indian history as Saleem is in the telling (or, more accurately, the constructing) of his own personal history. For teachers of literature like myself — specifically, for those of us who teach introductory literature classes with the purpose, at least in part, of introducing students to the basics of literary methodologies — this is precisely the sort of opportunity provided by a great novel: the opportunity to ask questions about the relationship between the world we inhabit and the stories that we tell (and read) about the “reality” of this world, how one influences and constructs the other. What is unfortunate, however, is how many brilliant readers fall into this very simple error of mistaking narrator for author.

For I would argue that there is in fact a school of reading that addresses Midnight’s Children, and other contemporary novels that are often identified as “Rushdiesque,” almost entirely through this very question of their errors and exclusions — judging them, in other words, as “inadequate reference books” (to use Rushdie’s phrase), rather than as works of literature. It is in some ways an understandable sort of argument, given the book’s influence, since Midnight’s Children really has come to be seen as a primer for understanding the history of modern India. Exclusions from such a historical narrative could be seen to have major consequences. But doesn’t such an approach represent a fundamental form of violence (I must use the word) towards this novel, or indeed any novel? Doesn’t Midnight’s Children, through literally every aspect of its form and style, represent a rebellion against precisely this way of understanding history as a more or less accurate telling of more or less accurate facts? And what are the consequences of this violence (since, like all violence, it must have consequences)?

***

To begin to come at some of these questions, I want to invoke the events that have come to be known as “The Satanic Verses Controversy,” or, in some cases, simply the “Rushdie Affair.” One of the many consequences of these events has been the closing of a number of the doors opened by Midnight’s Children.

The debate around The Satanic Verses ultimately came down to a conflict between two positions. On the one side, there was the idea that the fictionalized representation (or satirization) of the accepted sacred origins of Islam might legitimately represent a form of blasphemy, with particular consequences for Muslim communities, especially minority communities in Europe and North America. This was depressingly often seen as the “non-Western” or “Muslim” position, despite the fact that some of its strongest proponents were located in metropolitan centers, such as London. On the other side, there was the idea that the principle of free expression requires defending a writer’s right to publish a fictionalized or satirized representation of the origins of Islam, even if individual readers may find it offensive to their beliefs. This was in turn depressingly often seen as the “Western” position, despite the fact that many of Rushdie’s bravest and most eloquent defenders were non-Western writers, and in particular Muslim writers. It must be noted that in recent years, Rushdie himself, whose public statements have become increasingly Islamophobic, has done more than his share to contribute to this false and harmful “Western vs. non-Western/Muslim” dichotomy.

What very quickly dropped out of the whole debate was the one point that readers of literature are uniquely positioned to make: The Satanic Verses is not a fictionalized or satirized version of the origins of Islam. It is a novel with an unnamed first-person narrator, and an unreliable one at that (though not quite so wildly unreliable as Saleem Sinai). This narrator presents us with a story focused upon two fictional characters. One of these characters suffers from circumstances that are shown to affect his sanity. While in this disturbed state of mind he has a dream, and within that dream is located another dream. It is, thus, in a dream within a dream, dreamt by a deranged character, that we are presented with a story that bears many parallels to the accepted narrative of the origins of Islam.

Under such circuitous fictional circumstances, to impute the views represented in this character’s dreams to the novel’s narrator, never mind to the actual author, is a bit like suggesting that because Sarah Palin likes to quote (very selectively) from the speeches of Martin Luther King, we can therefore conclude that Dr. King’s views must surely be identical to those of Sarah Palin. This would seem to be such an obvious point to anyone at all familiar with the basics of novel reading that I feel as though I am insulting readers by setting it out in such detail. And yet, in the larger debate around “the Rushdie affair,” at a certain point, this point simply ceased to matter. That it did so, and continues to do so, indicates a failure by critics, and by teachers, and by lovers of literature as a whole, to intervene effectively in the public sphere.

It also leads to a more frightening suggestion. When we read Midnight’s Children primarily as a historical account of modern India, are we not treating the book in precisely the same manner as those who attacked (and for that matter, many of those who defended) The Satanic Verses? Are we not reacting to the supposed “accuracy” of a book that does not actually exist, rather than addressing ourselves to the novel before us?

Indeed, even those who fell back upon arguments related to free speech in defending The Satanic Verses against censorship were also falling back upon the traditional way of viewing a novel’s relationship to history. Books can’t really hurt anyone, their position implied — or, to put it another way, a novel might change the story around, but these changes are harmless since novels can never really change history, and so those who attacked The Satanic Verses were simply overreacting. But when we read a novel like Midnight’s Children as an inadequate reference book rather than as a work of literature, we are failing to reckon with the whole question of how novels both engage with and represent history. We miss, in other words, the chance to ask a question that is both literary and political: the question of precisely how literature itself is simultaneously a representation of and an intervention into history.

For I must insist that Midnight’s Children is a book that actually did (and, if we can return to it today, still does) have the intention of changing history. Take Saleem’s tragic narrative of Mian Abdullah, “The Hummingbird.” The Hummingbird was largely responsible for “the optimism epidemic” that swept up Saleem’s grandfather, among others, by presenting an alternative within the South Asian Muslim community to the separatist vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The latter was a vision that Jinnah shared, of course, with the British colonizers, resulting ultimately in the establishment of the states of East and West Pakistan.

The Hummingbird himself is a professional conjurer (Midnight’s Children is full of magicians) who, in the words of the newspapermen, “rose from the famous magicians’ ghetto in Delhi to become the hope of India’s hundred million Muslims.” He gained his nickname through his habit of continuously humming, “humming in a strange way, neither musical nor unmusical, but somehow mechanical, the hum of an engine or a dynamo.” Mian Abdullah was, in other words, “a creature which would be impossible if it did not exist,” as Saleem declares. Saleem in turn is only able to bring this impossible creature to life by providing speech to an old photograph taken of his grandfather with the Hummingbird and his supporters, much to the chagrin of Padma, our surrogate reader and the audience for Saleem’s tale, who declares: “What nonsense. How can a picture talk?”

The assassination of Mian Abdullah — perhaps at the hands of Jinnah’s supporters, perhaps at the hands of British agents (there were too many suspects, since he had too many enemies) — puts a sudden end to the optimism epidemic. His death, according to Saleem, also closes down a movement that might have been part of a larger popular revolt against communalism and partition. The murder itself, refracted through a whole series of narrators, contains the same “impossibility” as the existence of the Hummingbird himself (including the intervention of hundreds of street dogs, drawn by the Hummingbird’s high-pitched humming as he tries to defend himself, who attack and kill the assassins). Yet Saleem insists upon its accuracy: “If you don’t believe me, check. Find out about Mian Abdullah and his Convocations. Discover how we’ve swept his story under the carpet.”

Assiduous critics (in particular Anne C. Hegerfeldt, in her fine book Lies that Tell the Truth) have done just this, but with little success. No real life Mian Abdullah appears to exist, and accordingly, historical parallels have had to be offered. But the search for the actual existence of the Hummingbird takes us away from our primary work as readers of literature. “Sometimes legends make reality,” Saleem tells us, in the midst of spinning out the story of the Hummingbird. There was an alternative to partition, he suggests further, a popular movement that might have changed history, and it was prevented from doing so. How does a novelist tell the story of that which has not happened? Doesn’t such a telling represent a true conjuring, a bringing of lost possibilities from the past into the present? These are the questions that Midnight’s Children puts before us today, thirty years after its publication, on the anniversary of the day that marked that traumatic partition.

Just after admitting to his accidental-on-purpose error regarding the assassination of Gandhi (another murder, another set of possibilities extinguished), Saleem puts some fundamental existential questions to us: “Does one error invalidate the entire fabric? Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I’m prepared to distort everything — to re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in the central role?” The relationship of the individual story to “everything” — that is, of literature to history — is at the center of Midnight’s Children, in every word written (and then subsequently recited, to Padma and to us) by Saleem Sinai.

This is why, as readers, we cannot demand that Midnight’s Children simply tell us about India so we can understand it. “The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite,” the narrator of Rushdie’s subsequent novel, Shame, informs us near the beginning of that book. “There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space.” This is what Rushdie represents in his great trilogy: the Pakistan that is and is not Pakistan in Shame, the Elowendeeown that is and is not London in The Satanic Verses, and, most vividly, the imaginary land of the Children of Midnight that is and is not the subcontinent intentionally and traumatically carved into three in Midnight’s Children.

To his own question of whether one error invalidates the whole story, Saleem fails to reach a satisfactory conclusion: “Today, in my confusion, I can’t judge. I’ll have to leave it to others.” Who are those others but us, the book’s readers? The pointing finger of Midnight’s Children accuses us, but it also beckons us towards a past and a future that is, and is not, and might be: one that, like literature itself, “would be impossible if it did not exist.”

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