In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…
I remember the first time I picked up a copy of Midnight’s Children. It was in a small bookshop in Mumbai in 1998, air-conditioning thundering away behind me, monsoon rain beating furiously at the windowpanes.
I had been in India less than a year, working as a management consultant. The bookshop was a thrilling find – back then it was one of only a handful in the city that sold international fiction.
I had heard of the book, but never read it. The cover blurb intrigued me, promising to teach me a little more about the country that I found myself in. I knew that it had won the Booker Prize (in 1981) – this was clearly a work that had garnered the highest critical praise. I handed over two hundred rupees (£2) and headed home in an autorickshaw, bouncing along potholed roads, their less-than-pukka surfaces denuded by the rain, an annual occurrence, I would come to learn.
That night I began the novel. It is hard to express the feeling of delight that moved through me as I turned the pages of Rushdie’s epic work. Wonderful prose, lyricism, humour, satire, and an injection of history, all coming together to make a perfect whole.
The book is told in the style of magical realism, the story of Saleem Sinai (“variously called Snotnose, Sniffer, Baldy, and Piece of the Moon”), and 1001 other children born at the precise moment of India’s independence, all endowed with a host of fantastical powers.
The novel begins with one of the finest openings in literature. “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. The time matters, too… On the stroke of midnight… at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence I tumbled forth into the world… thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.”
The story of Saleem is the story of the birth of modern India, from the critical moments of the Independence movement, through the bloody mess of Partition, and its aftermath. Rushdie gleefully dissects the first three decades of Indian nationhood. (Rushdie himself has stated that “Midnight’s Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways which its author cannot wholly know.”)
It begins with Saleem’s grandfather, Aziz, in the paradise that was once Kashmir. Dr Aziz, newly returned from Europe, is beset by doubt, of his faith, of the country he now finds himself in, caught in the earliest throes of anti-colonialism. He marries and moves southwards towards Bombay. The novel then tracks the progress of the Independence movement, the cataclysmic upheaval of Partition, Saleem’s life in a changing Bombay, and his subsequent trials as India suffers the birth pangs of becoming the world’s largest democracy and most populated republic.
We follow Saleem as he is put through the wringer of history, ending up in both Pakistan and (what would become) Bangladesh, and ultimately finding himself a victim of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’, a two-year constitutional meltdown instigated by the PM that allowed her to ‘rule by decree’. Rushdie pulls no punches in taking down Gandhi and her decision-making during this period, when elections were suspended and civil liberties curbed. (Gandhi took Rushdie to court in 1984 claiming that the book had defamed her. The case was settled out of court.)
Midnight’s Children is a long book, almost 600 pages, full of exuberant writing, richly textured historical forays, a cast of thousands, relentless allegory, and a seemingly endless vein of creativity and wit. The New York Review of Books called it “one of the most important books to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation”.In 1993 and again in 2008, the book was awarded the ‘Booker of Bookers’ – that is, the best of the Booker winners.
It is my favourite novel about India. Can I say more?
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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in the same period in India, the 1950s. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here
And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here