“I confess: what I did was no act of heroism,” says Saleem Sinai, “I did not battle Homi on horseback, with fiery eyes and flaming sword. Instead, imitating the action of the snake, I began to cut pieces out of newspapers. From ‘Goam liberation committee launches campaign,’ I extracted the letters ‘com.’ Speaker of e-pac assembly declared maniac,’ gave me my second syllable, ‘man’…” and from various other assemblies, declarations, designations, riots, arrests, forces, boarders, spokesmen, etc., Saleem extracts, cuts, seizes, excises, completes, and finishes a message about his aunt’s nefarious activities made up of eclectic newspaper clippings. So Salman Rushdie creates the story of Saleem using his own clippings of Indian history.
Saleem begins to tell his story for the same reason man has always told stories: to explain and order the mysterious of life. Saleem’s first mystery is a coincidence – an odd occurrence that always makes men question the randomness of life – Saleem is born at the exact moment India receives its independence. Saleem, though unreligious, feels that this is too important to be coincidental, and his suspicion is confirmed when another event releases his telepathy. By granting Saleem magical powers, like Dickens granted his characters unrealistically huge personalities, Rushdie confirms Saleem’s belief that things happen for a reason. That reason is to show that by examining these coincidences and mysteries – by searching for the truth in the super-real – a baser truth about real can be discovered. Like Dickens, Rushdie believes that the most human truths can be found uncovered through the most super-human characters, on the narrative course of the detective. This becomes clear as we see the way things unfold for Saleem.
The growths in Saleem’s powers always revolve around experiences with women. He first becomes a conduit when he spies on his mother taking a call from her ex-husband. After that, through his newfound selfhood – the ability to explore the adult world of other people’s minds – he begins dabbling in all the facets of adult life: “Thus my entry into public affairs happened for entirely ignoble reasons; I used the world outside our hillock for light relief.” All children due this: when maturing, they experiment with all aspects of adulthood; but it seems more important when Saleem does it because of the powers Rushdie has granted him. Instead of reading about adult ideas in books or newspapers, or even talking to adults themselves, Saleem turns his functioning right ear from one direction to the other, from the political discussion happening north of Bombay, to the conversations happening over tea in England.
This prying leads Saleem to grave revelations. He becomes disgusted with his father, and thus himself, when he has to see how his father mentally undresses his secretaries, “And much harder things, like going to see my father when his head is full of godforsaken rot about his secretaries.” Saleem even loses faith in politics when he begins to realize that it’s background chatter. This is the tragic plight of all adolescence: they realize the immorality of humanity, and inability of politics to right it: “I tell you, when a boy gets inside grown-up thoughts they can really mess you up completely.” But with Saleem, there is a hope. Through the magical realism of this novel – through the convention of the Midnight’s Children – Rushdie illuminates the power of the imagination. He shows that it can be a constructive force as well as a destructive one. He shows that it can be a powerful way of re-shaping history.
“No, I am no longer proud of what I did,” says Saleem. “But remember that my demon of revenge had two heads. By unmasking the perfidy of Lila, I hoped also to administer a salutary shock to my own mother.” By cutting up the newspapers of that fateful day in India, and re-constructing it in the solace of his bathroom, then slipping his creation under his uncle’s door during a game of murder in the dark, he achieved both goals, and more than he imagined. He exposed Lila, he also shocked his mother. Then these events perpetuated more events. His uncle wounded his aunt and murdered her lover. His mother never met with the leader of the communist party again, resulting in more and more unforeseen events, as the novel makes glaringly clear. But it all started with Saleem’s simple reworking of history.
Saleem is the first to admit that in his recounting of events he does not get all the facts right, but he realizes that that is not the most important element of story telling. The imagination and creativity involved is what propels events from the past, through the here and now, into the future. Rushdie confirms Saleem’s suspicion that his birth date and time were not coincidence with the power of his imagination, then confirms that pursing the line-of-thought sparked therein is possibly the greatest power in the world: the power of creation, and in recreating history, he gets adolescent step after adolescent step closer to finding himself.
And then, finally, after plowing and plowing deeper and deeper into that most important mystery of the human mind – love – his next revelation is achieved. “I find myself pushing, diving, forcing my way behind her defenses…into a secret place where there’s a picture of her mother who wears a pink smock and holds a fish by the tail, and I’m ferreting deeperdeeperdeeper, where is it, what makes her tick, when she gives a sort of jerk and swings round to stare at me as I circle roundandroudnandroundandround.” While probing the mind of his youthful love, Saleem goes too far and is thrown down a hill to the demise of his nation. There is a negative side to the imagination, as well. But in it, Saleem finds his true calling. “I. I. I. I, found myself as one of the Midnight’s Children.”
Thus, through the power of his imagination, propelled by the events of the past, the re-shaping of the future begins, and it begins, on Air India. It is again no coincidence that Saleem first uncovers his deepest telepathy – that of his connection with the Midnight’s Children – while stumbling into the middle of a language riot. His simple rhyme and pun propel a full-scale rebellion – he becomes aware of the power of language, and of the age old conflict that lies therein. “Which is to say,” says Saleem, “that I had entered into the illusion of the artist, and thought of the multitudinous of the land as my raw, unshaped materials.” But many things happen to these raw, unshaped materials as he shapes them to tell his story.
First of all, they become magical, partially indicative of the land from which they come, where it does not seem uncommon for a man’s tears to turn to diamonds and blood to rubies. Secondly, they become construed, because India, as Saleem says, does not have that self-same sense of time as the Western World. And lastly, and most importantly, and contradictorily to the last two, they become modern.
Something happens in the writing of this novel that has not happened in any serious literature before it: it becomes like a screen play. “Zoom in, focus on the cup of Lasse as it is lifted by the delicate hands, kissed by the delicate lips, and then passed to the rugged hands, and softly kissed in the same place, fade out and see my mother gazing longingly into the eyes of Nadir. Pan out further to a war being waged between the communists and the state.”
Though he reaches back several generations for the root of his story, that story is undeniably part of the modern world. It takes place on Air India. Radio is an invention of the modern world, but when it is brought to India, we see how it is incorporated – the very idea of it is turned into a thing of magic – a conduit for the spirits that can change the world. But this is not the way the world can be changed in India. It fails. The convention of Midnight’s Children fails like business failed the businessmen who all turned white and had their assets frozen. And this is the greatest success of Midnight’s Children.
While the modern devices it employs fail its main character, the story proceeds for almost one-third of the novel without them, through the sheer power of imagination, story-telling, history, and magic in all three (i.e. those old tenants of literature that Salman has granted Saleem, which seem so overtly powerful in his story of India). Midnight’s Children is the Masterpiece of India – its epic like Moby Dick is the epic of Nantucket. It is the story of Shiva and Parvati, and also the hundred thousand rows that will arise in a parliament composed entirely of half-grown brats. The heat, the passion, the power, and the land of India all rise-up in it and propel it forward. Even after the inventions of western man – politics, religion, and media – fail, the stories still arise and support the character until the very end. Snake-charmers dual, ex-cons create the greatest chutney in the world, and a woman named after dung regenerates it all. And all because of the birthday of one child. And another. And another. All piling up on top of eachother. While they still have to live in a world that does not suit their traditions, they can bridge that gap with their imaginations. And in fact, to survive, they must.
“Indira is India and India is Indira,” says Saleem, nearing the end of the book, after the western tenant of politics has simultaneously robbed the Midnight’s Children of their innocence by taking away their powers, and robbed them of their adulthood, by taking away their wombs and testicals. But with the continuation of Saleem story after this, with the fall of Indira’s reign, and the persistence of Saleem’s belief in magic being passed onto his child, we must read, “Saleem is India and India is Saleem.” After all, with his imagination, he has recreated its history. And we must also read, “Salman is Saleem and Saleem is Salman,” because by writing this book in the inventive way he did, Salman Rushdie reshaped India, and by doing so, as Steven Connor believes, he altered our view of the modern world, and the course of the future.
“Everyone one of the now 6 billion plus of us contains a similar multitude,” says Saleem, says Rushdie; and says Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The large is always represented in the small. The universal is always located in the particular. And it has always been the aim of literature to discover how: Artists have always forced their way into the realm of universal human truths through the very particular human tails they tell, but in Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie, in the same vein as Charles Dickens, seems to get there with relative ease by allowing his narrator the practical tools of the artists – imagination and creativity – allowing him to define history, therefore re-writing and reshaping it with his unique perspective, and ever since then, as I have learned this term, artists have been looking even harder for that unique, particular perspective that can get to that universal level while affecting and reshaping history how they see fit.