Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on 15th of August, 1947, at the exact moment India gained independence from the oppressive British Raj. Owing to the extraordinary time of his birth, Saleem possesses supernatural powers, so do other one thousand children born in India in the first hour of independence; closer their time of birth to the midnight, greater their powers.
In Salman Rushdie’s Man-Booker Prize-winning novel ‘Midnight’s Children‘, Saleem narrates his story to Padma, his lover. In his attempts of keeping nothing to himself, he tries to tell everything at once, becoming a hasty narrator. The storytelling is heavily influenced by ancient Indian forms, which sometimes goes against Western standards. Even after being nonlinear, the narration is successful in peeling the story layer by layer.
The storyteller feels that the reader must know certain back stories, in his words, “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” To exemplify, it is of paramount importance for him to give a detailed narrative of how his grandfather Aadam Aziz had a distinctive nose and how it saved his life in the massacre of Jalianwala Bagh. A British officer Brigadier R.E. Dyer ordered to open fire on an unarmed crowd killing thousands of people. The carnage remains a hurtful incident in the history of India to this day.
In fact, olfactory characteristics play a unique role in the novel. Noses hold a singular place, for his nose defines Saleem. As there is a nose, so are their knees. Shiva, the warrior, also a child of midnight, born at the same moment as Saleem, is his greatest rival. Saleem feels threatened by him. Shiva possesses exceptionally strong knees that make him a great fighter. After the 1971 war, Shiva would become a decorated Major in the Indian army. Unlike Saleem, he is born in a poor family. Throughout the story, Saleem tries to push him out of the narrative, except for times when it is an absolute necessity. Parvati, the witch, another midnight’s child who can perform real magic, believes in Saleem’s purpose and at times, helps him as well.
Saleem’s life and India’s history after independence are inextricable. ‘Midnight’s Children’ is his autobiography – a little biased, but as he remarks in the end, “…in words and pickles, I have immortalized my memories, although distortions are inevitable in both methods. We must live, I’m afraid, with the shadows of imperfections.”
Saleem’s life is a tragedy but his detachment, his ‘third person view’ of all-things-deplorable paints a dry and dark humoured picture. Although his egocentric nature can sometimes be a nuance, it never fails to make the reader curious about the story. He has a distinctive style of forecasting impending events, going on tangents talking about characters and their stories that might not make sense at the time and also recapitulating from time to time… but make no mistake: like a good pickle, everything is blended into everything else. Besides, he believes and mentions,“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.”
In addition to being egocentric, Saleem is also a romantic. When the country is being divided on the basis of languages and other ethnic differences, he hopes, with the help of Midnight’s Children, to show the people of India a new way of living, one in which they can have real equal opportunities. But optimism as a disease is a recurring theme of the novel. Various characters keep catching it like an infection from different people and the brutal reality cures them. Aadam Aziz catches the disease of optimism and goes to meet with Mian Abdullah, the Hummingbird whose pro-Indian stance is opposing the partition of India. But the assassination of the Hummingbird remedies Aadam of his optimism. Saleem’s optimism would is also fated to drown.
Time plays an important role throughout the novel, but places have their own existence as well. Places shape people and people shape places in turn. For example, old Agra shapes Nadir Khan and Mumtaz’s love. Delhi shapes Midnight’s Children’s future. But most of all, the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) has a distinctive character. It represents a good mixture of the East and the West, a symbol of all-things-hopeful and home for Saleem. Saleem is definitely influenced by Bombay and its culture, Bollywood, its songs and indirect kisses and the people of Bombay. The raconteur’s repeated use of hyperbole seems to be a direct influence of larger-than-life Bollywood characters.
While gaining independence from the British, India also went through a bloody partition. Mass migration and innumerable killings were a reality. But even after these disasters, people of independent India were positive that they would overcome the difficulties and achieve their dreams. Midnight’s Children represent those ambitions and their eventual downfall is allegoric to the betrayal of Indian people. But Saleem’s son, who is not his son, lives on, representing a new beginning and a new hope.
In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie has managed to create a rich chutney, delicious with true and honest Indian spices, smells, characters, and their otherworldly stories. In the end, this chutneyfication of all of India is a call to her inner spirit and her amazing people to not repeat mistakes of the past.