Experiments with Truth
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Cape, 446 pp, £6.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 224 01823 X
Bent to the ground in the gesture of prayer, one morning in Kashmir in 1915, Aadam Aziz accidentally bumps his nose – and gives up prayer for ever. This event ‘made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history’. Long afterwards, the same hole is discovered in Saleem Sinai, hero-narrator of Midnight’s Children: ‘What leaked into me from Aadam Aziz: a certain vulnerability to women, but also its cause, the hole at the centre of himself caused by his (which is also my) failure to believe or disbelieve in God.’ But meanwhile, in the pregnant first chapter, the metaphor has begun to ramify. A hole literally floats before Aadam Aziz, a young doctor constrained by the proprieties of Indian medicine, when he examines a patient piecemeal through a seven-inch circle cut in a sheet. And through the hole, organ by organ, he falls in love with her. A generation later, his daughter, uninterested in her new husband but famous for assiduity, ‘resolved to fall in love with him bit by bit … Each day she selected one fragment of Ahmed Sinai, and concentrated her entire being upon it until it became wholly familiar …’ The theme recurs, with the comedy eliminated, in the many organs maimed or removed in the course of the story – ears, arms, wombs, testicles – and in a familiar Indian sight: ‘cripples everywhere, mutilated by loving parents to ensure them of a lifelong income from begging’. Conjunctions of horror and comedy in this novel are as many and various as the metaphorical conjunctions precipitated with a domino-effect by the hole in the sheet and in Aadam Aziz.
This is only one of the patterns of metaphor and analogy that form and re-form in Midnight’s Children, providing the intellectual satisfaction of comedy in this least solemn of novels, even when its concerns are deadly serious. And, metaphor apart, a domino-effect is at work in the narrative. ‘If I have robbed you, may I be turned into a leper!’ says an old servant, dismissed for theft. Years later he returns for forgiveness, stricken with leprosy (all curses and prophecies come true in this book): mistaken for the ghost of another character, he provokes frightened disclosures about Saleem Sinai’s birth, and makes Aadam Aziz believe he has seen God, which leads to his death in Kashmir in 1964, which is also the moment for Nehru to fall ill and die. The novel is simultaneously a family history, fantasy, allegory, political satire and a Life and Opinions of Saleem Sinai – a life-story with a distinctly Shandian turn, but one that is also a serious inward quest and self-examination. These different departments are juxtaposed or merged with dazzling fluency – the verve, the apparently spontaneous resourcefulness of the tale are amazing – and up to a point the fact that all this throws up ambiguities and puzzles for the reader is just part of the fun and interest. I think that the novel is not altogether secure in all of these departments: where it is most secure is in the conjunctions of metaphor and ideas that ramify in the narrative, cutting across all departments and secretly unifying them. If these conjunctions aren’t quite the same thing that Tristram Shandy gets from Locke and the association of ideas, they have a similar effect of producing wonderful – and at the same time wonderfully natural – comedy.
Saleem’s story begins before his birth, with his grandfather, who leaves Kashmir in 1919 to practise medicine in Agra, and his father, who is a merchant in Delhi and Bombay. The family saga is that of prosperous Muslims owing loyalty to India though ultimately exiled to Pakistan, most of whom perish in the air-raids of 1965. But Saleem is not his supposed father’s son: he was exchanged at birth with Shiva, later to become his rival. Both were born at midnight on 15 August 1947, at the moment India became independent. Saleem has an ominously silent son (also not his father’s son) whose birth coincides with Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency Powers of 1975. Political allegory merges into political satire. And becomes fantasy on Saleem’s tenth birthday, when he discovers magical powers of communicating with all the children born in India in the first hour of Independence. These are the midnight children: originally 1001, of whom 581 survived, with an almost-final fate awaiting them under the Emergency. Fantasy and reality are here juxtaposed: Saleem’s voices are associated with a chronically blocked nose, and his power of communicating with the children is suddenly removed by a sinus operation (this is also the point at which he leaves for Pakistan). But the voices fade only for fantasy to reappear in another form: cleared for the first time, the nose has preternatural powers of smell; Saleem becomes a man-dog attached to a tracker unit of the Pakistan Army. Fantasy is one of the big and most successful departments of the novel, but its true flavour in Salman Rushdie seems to me less a matter of invention than of observation. He observes reality being naturally extravagant with a humorous appreciation that is very like Dickens’s – as in a visit to a Delhi tenement: