Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
Chosen as a tribute to Salman Rushdie after the unconscionable attack on his life on August 12th, 2022, I found my copy of Midnight’s Children exactly where it should be, shelved under R, on the top right-hand shelf of the section of the floor-to-ceiling bookcase that extends into the closet; up there, along with Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Joseph Anton. I needed steps.
The pages are yellow, almost brown, and the glue crackles in the ominous way that tells me the leaves are detaching themselves from the spine. And the words? The words are nowhere near as heavy going as I remember. Perhaps I have become more sophisticated since 1982.
Midnight’s Children is a book for enjoying the words and what words will do. It’s a book you return to daily, not a book you can’t put down. There’s no reading it fast to see what happens, although plenty does happen.
Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on the day India became an independent nation, believes that his life is India’s history. Because of this, he is disintegrating, cracking from the navel outwards, and he has to tell his story while he still can. But does he begin at his birth? No, much to the frustration of his sole living listener, Padma, he begins with his grandfather, because his grandfather had blue eyes, and, most importantly, a big nose.
Only they aren’t his grandfather’s eyes, and it isn’t his grandfather’s cucumber of a nose, because Saleem was swapped at birth with another child born at midnight.
Saleem’s nose gets him into a lot of trouble. Hiding in a chest of dirty washing in the bathroom, where he takes his nearly-nine-year-old self for comfort, and where he can’t smell his surroundings due to his perpetually congested nose, he catches sight of his mother’s backside, as round as a black mango, inhales the end of a pyjama cord and his head explodes. The result? His mind is now a receiver of messages from all the other children born in India between midnight and one in the morning on the day ‘a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary.’
Midnight’s Children is a collage of liberated India in all its brilliance and messiness, the smells of its fabulous pickles and the spectacular nagging of its women, its divisions, its crowds, its hustling and its poverty, its superstitions and its magic, its violence and its hope.
There is a lot of humour in this book; a lot of wit. There are a lot of characters too. Keeping track of them is a challenge, especially if their names are difficult for you because they are not how you learned names ought to be when you were a not-quite-nine-year-old. I say them out loud, in my head if there’s someone else in the room.
This is a long book: 463 pages in my old paperback; 536 in the 40th anniversary edition now available.
If you like a long read, a rich portrayal of a tangled world, and a touch of the improbable creeping over the line into the impossible, Midnight’s Children is for you.