Born in 1947 into an affluent Muslim family in Mumbai, Salman Rushdie grew up speaking English and Urdu in a liberal atmosphere of religious tolerance. He attended the famous Rugby school and then Cambridge University in the UK. While he was there his family were forced to join the exodus of Muslims that fled to Pakistan during the difficult years after the 1947 division of British India into two independent states: India and Pakistan. After graduating in 1965, Rushdie rejoined his family in Pakistan for a time before returning to the UK and taking up a career as a professional writer.
POLITICS AND RELIGION
Not surprisingly, religion and politics are recurrent themes in Rushdie’s work, which combines pungent satire and magic realism. In 1983 he published the novel Shame which he described as “a deeply satirical fairy tale about Pakistan’s ruling circles.” Midnight’s Children was his second novel and earned him overnight success. Rushdie took the title from a speech given by the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru at midnight, 15th August 1947, as India gained its independence from the United Kingdom.
AN ORIGINAL PERSPECTIVE
The story opens as the narrator, Saleem, is dying in a pickle factory near Bombay (known as Mumbai today) – the pickles and preserves being an allusion to the importance of preserving memory. Saleem’s narrative is omniscient, allowing him to comment on events before his own birth with the hindsight of later years, and providing an original perspective on recent Indian history.
Saleem and the other thousand children born at the exact time of the Declaration of Independence have all been given some magical property which is stronger or weaker according to how close to midnight they were born. Saleem was born on the very stroke of midnight and has telepathic powers that allow him to see “into the hearts and minds of men. He also has an enormous and constantly dripping nose with an extremely sensitive sense of smell. From the moment of his birth, Salem sees his fate as linked to that of India.
“I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter.”
“Io ero stato misteriosamente ammanettato alla storia, e il mio destino indissolubilmente legato a quello del mio paese. Nei tre decenni successivi non avrei avuto scampo. Indovini mi avevano profetizzato, giornali celebrarono il mio arrivo, politici ratificarono la mia autenticità. Non mi lasciarono la possibilità di dire la mia.”
REFLECTING THE ISSUES
Saleem telepathically assembles a Midnight’s Children’s Conference, and brings hundreds of geographically disparate children into contact while trying to discover the meaning of their gifts. This Conference reflects the issues of cultural, linguistic, religious, and political differences faced by India in the early days of independence.
“Midnight’s children! … From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of stepping into mirrors and reemerging through any reflective surface in the land […] a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish… and children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri Hills, and from the great watershed of the Vinghyas, a boy who could increase or reduce his size at will [...]”
“I bambini della mezzanotte!… Nel Kerala un ragazzo era in grado di entrare in uno specchio e di riemergere da qualsiasi superficie riflettente del paese [...] e una ragazza di Goa era capace di moltiplicare i pesci… e c’erano bambini con poteri di trasformazione: un licantropo sui colli Nilgiri, e sul grande spartiacque dei Vindhya un ragazzo che poteva aumentare o ridurre le proprie dimensioni quando voleva, [...]”.
RICH AND POOR
Apart from Saleem himself, the strongest of these children is Shiva, also born on the stroke of midnight. Saleem and Shiva’s name tags were exchanged when they were newborn babies and Shiva should have lived Saleem’s life of luxury, instead of the life of poverty he is condemned to lead. Embittered and malevolent, Shiva is given crushingly powerful knees and the gift of war. Saleem’s family endure a number of migrations and wars. Saleem also suffers a period of amnesia and enters a kind of mythological exile in the jungle of Sundarban. His sensitive nose leads him to be conscripted into military service as a tracker, where he witnesses a number of atrocities:
“[…] lady doctors were being bayoneted before they were raped, and raped again before they were shot. Above them and behind them, the cool white minaret of a mosque stared blindly down upon the scene.”
“[...] alcune dottoresse venivano baionettate dopo essere state violentate, e violentate di nuovo prima che gli sparassero. Sopra di loro e dietro di loro, il fresco minareto bianco di una moschea assisteva cieco alla scena.”
Saleem also becomes involved with the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during 1975-77 and is held as a political prisoner. Rushdie’s portrait of Indira Gandhi was so unflattering that the real Indira Gandhi raised libel charges against the author, saying he had depicted her as a “maniacal tyrant.” The Emergency marks the end of the Midnight Children’s powers. Saleem can do nothing but chronicle the interwoven histories of himself and of his nation.
Despite the success of Midnight’s Children, it was another of his novels published in 1988 that was to change the author’s life. The Satanic Verses was considered by Muslim fundamentalists to be a blasphemous parody of the prophet Mohammed and caused mass protests all over the world. On the 14th February 1989, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, declared a fatwah, or judicial decree, sentencing Rushdie and all those involved in TheSatanic Verses to death, and Rushdie was forced into hiding for several years.