Experiments with Truth

Robert Taubman

  • 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:

here, near the top, she sees dark light filtering down on to the heads of queuing cripples. ‘My number two cousin,’ Lifafa Das says, ‘is bone-setter.’ She climbs past men with broken arms, women with feet twisted backwards at impossible angles, past fallen window-cleaners and splintered bricklayers, a doctor’s daughter entering a world older than syringes and hospitals; until, at last, Lifafa Das says, ‘Here we are, Begum,’ and leads her through a room in which the bone-setter is fastening twigs and leaves to shattered limbs, wrapping cracked heads in palm-fronds, until his patients begin to resemble artificial trees, sprouting vegetation from their injuries ... and on the parapet, the silhouettes of large birds, whose bodies are as hooked and cruel as their beaks: vultures.

‘ ... But the birds? ...’

‘Nothing, Madam: only there is Parsee Tower of Silence just near here; and when there are no dead ones there, the vultures come. Now they are asleep; in the days, I think, they like to watch my cousins practising.’

To an extreme, the story relies on the device of prolepsis. The ‘hole’ in Aadam Aziz is one of scores of anticipatory details that achieve their meaning only later. Saleem hints at secrets, withholds information and defers disclosures – yet not wantonly, for in every case explanations arrive in the end. Prophecies come true, with hideous consequences but with a comic inevitability: the effect may be farcical or rueful but is rarely bitter in feeling. It’s a somewhat primitive device, owing more to Scheherazade than to modern fictional technique, but it provides, besides the primitive storytelling satisfactions, a very proper method for Saleem’s gradual self-disclosure and an ideal method for political satire through deferred disclosures about the meaning of events. History is the subject of some of the story’s daring transitions of tone and feeling. It’s allowed to seem comically unshocking, for instance, that air-raids in the war of 1965 (‘whose secret purpose had been the annihilation of my family’) kill off Saleem’s relatives one by one, each in ways (now the reader sees) predestined from the first. But this is a view of war to be reversed in the next chapter, when Saleem as a man-dog – himself a war casualty, with his memory and most of his senses gone – sees the battlefields round Dacca in 1971. Saleem all along ‘has had considerable problems with reality’, but now it’s reality that has problems: what seems like fantasy is only war accurately realised on the page, no more bizarre than in real life and real death. And the war scenes have their own echo of Aadam Aziz at the beginning: ‘somebody drops to his knees; somebody’s forehead touches the ground as if in prayer ... ’

Can it be true that troupes of street magicians, flown out from Delhi, accompanied the Indian Army’s victorious entry into Dacca? Maybe here again the natural extravagance of his subject leaves Mr Rushdie no room or need to invent. The magicians are wanted anyway for the spiriting of Saleem out of the Pakistan Army and back to India. On points of accuracy, Saleem himself affects to be rather casual: ‘Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date’. But, in general, questions about validity and truth-to-life do arise about this book, suggesting limitations or insecurities in it, particularly in relation to history and politics. And yet – such are the ambivalences allowable, indeed natural to fiction – I doubt if they harm it as a novel. For instance, concentrating for its emblematic purposes on politically significant events – Independence, Partition, two wars and the Emergency – it may be found less than close or penetrating in its account of the rest of life. It does seem a disadvantage that much of the family saga – all Saleem’s youth – is spent among the affluent in Bombay, in the world of Bombay talkies, canasta evenings and adultery. Just as material for fiction, indeed, a lot of this family saga is narrow, boring and ordinary, the humour faint, the incidents vacuous. And yet the oddness of calling anything in this novel ‘ordinary’ is itself striking, and makes the case that what Midnight’s Children is in fact doing here is coping quite successfully with just that huge paraphernalia of ordinary or boring things that do add up to an account of a life – and are quite a different matter from emblematic significance.

The fantasy and satire of the novel provide other ambiguities. A centre of vitality here is the magicians’ ghetto in Old Delhi: marvellously realised in an Arabian Nights vein, and very suitable as a symbol of romantic protest (Sanjay Gandhi, as the novel graphically reminds us, had this part of Delhi bulldozed) – somewhat insecure, however, as a basis for political meaning. ‘The magicians were Communists, almost to a man,’ and a Swiftian playfulness animates them: ‘during the 1971 general election a bizarre murder had resulted from the quarrel between a Naxalite fire-eater and a Moscow-line conjurer who, incensed by the former’s views, had attempted to draw a pistol from his magic hat; but no sooner had the weapon been produced than the supporter of Ho Chi Minh had scorched his opponent to death in a burst of terrifying flame.’ The satire may be permissible while leaving room for a doubt about the justice of letting this magicians’-ghetto version stand for the truth about Communism in India. Yet from this ghetto emerge, in different generations, the only two figures in the book with the charisma of potential leaders – doomed to failure, but representing a hope for India. Hope of what? Despite ambiguities, and despite its special concern with the pathos of lost causes, there’s no mistaking the book’s serious commitments: to harmony and conciliation, against war, tyranny and obscurantism. It is in the old tradition of heart-felt indignation at I’infâme. And in keeping with that tradition, the satirical animus is directed against particular targets – most notably, Indira Gandhi. Of course, this is a limitation, if one looks in a political novel for something more searching about the condition of a country. It is partisan rather than diagnostic, and in comparison with radical satire of the kind Günter Grass brings to bear on modern Germany, Midnight’s Children may look inadequate to its subject. One recalls 18th-century satire, however, and the animus directed by Pope and Swift against some small, personal targets. There is satire that rises above immediate provocations and survives them without losing its point, and this is the kind of art to which Midnight’s Children aspires.

But something else modifies its satire – a view of life that is one Westerners have long recognised as peculiarly Indian, and tend to find admirable in its idealism, though baffling in its disregard of consequences. The version of it probably best-known in Western literature is the Krishna and Arjuna passage in ‘The Dry Salvages’, with its prohibition: ‘And do not think of the fruit of action.’ In Midnight’s Children all good causes are hedged around with warnings not to expect the success of these causes: indeed, what throws into relief the book’s commitment to certain ideals, such as love, justice and hope, is its very insistence on human failure in all these directions. It seems to me that this is probably an impossible basis from which to launch political satire to any telling effect. But it affords the book something else: its considerable range of moral interests. Imagination is one of these moral interests. So we have the paradox, in this work of true imagination, that imagination is regarded as a value only so long as it remains potential. This idea is embodied in an astonishing chapter, ‘In the Sundarbans’. It corresponds to the ‘Underworld’ scene of the epics, and takes place in the rainforest of South Bengal, where Saleem has led his team of Pakistani soldiers away from war and history to ‘the safety of dreams’. As it turns out, the Sundarbans is not a refuge but a jungle of ‘phantasms and retribution’. In the sunless mangroves, among snakes and insects drained of colour, the ‘hole’ appears again: ‘One night Ayooba woke in the dark to find the translucent figure of a peasant with a bullet-hole in his heart and a scythe in his hand staring mournfully down at him, and as he struggled to get out of the boat (which they had pulled in, under the cover of their primitive shelter) the peasant leaked a colourless fluid which flowed out of the hole in his heart and on to Ayooba’s gun arm.’ More importantly, however, in the jungle the ‘hole’ becomes a symbol of imagination drained and exhausted, for the jungle is also a place of regression to childhood and of wish-fulfilment, and as the soldiers get their dream satisfactions: ‘at last the day came when they looked at each other and realised they were becoming transparent, that it was possible to see through their bodies, not clearly as yet, but cloudily, like staring through mango-juice.’ This is the real peril of the jungle, and accounts, more than the absence of sunlight, for the colourlessness of insects: ‘it was fooling them into using up their dreams, so that as their dream-life seeped out of them they became as hollow and translucent as glass.’

Since the dream satisfactions of the soldiers are sexual ones, the lesson of this Sundarbans fantasia can be seen to apply elsewhere in the novel, in the real-life sexual relationships of the Aziz and Sinai families – relations in which love has an implicit value quite distinct from any particular expression of it. In its usual upside-down way, what the novel in fact tells about are cases of sexual failure – but not ones that inhibit the growth of love: indeed, they actually seem to be a condition of it. In the first generation (Aziz and Naseem), love without hope of satisfaction is portrayed as ordinary maladjustment:

She has been weeping ever since he asked her, on their second night, to move a little. ‘Move where?’ she asked. ‘Move how?’ He became awkward and said ‘Only move, I mean, like a woman ...’ She shrieked in horror. ‘My God, what have I married?’ ... This was a battle my grandfather never won.

Their daughter Mumtaz is forced by the family to divorce her first husband for impotence, though he is the one she loves and goes back to (her second husband is the one she tries to love bit by bit). The topic has its focus, of course, in Saleem – whose love for his sister makes him impotent with his wife Parvati, and who has been castrated by the time Padma falls in love with him. The point is not the amount of unhappiness all this frustration causes, but how little it matters to those capable of love.

But here, too, there’s an ambiguity – perhaps the radical one of the novel. Saleem’s real father was not an Indian, which may account for the presence here of another ideology, running counter to Indian metaphysics and much more concerned with purpose, order and meaning. These are Saleem’s special concern from the start: made a hero by the accident of birth at the moment of Independence (the framed letter from Nehru on the wall), by the age of nine he is already afraid that ‘my much-trumpeted existence might turn out to be utterly useless, void, and without the shred of a purpose.’ He is, nevertheless, for ever in search of purpose, ‘plagued by constant doubts about what I was for’, and caught in moral dilemmas that involve him in guilt and responsibility. It is an ‘overpowering desire for form’ that rescues him when the smells of Karachi – in a splendid Rabelaisian passage – assail his newly cleared nose. Even the mistake about Gandhi’s assassination is a purposeful one, caused by ‘my desperate need for meaning’ (and Gandhi, one remembers, called his life ‘the story of my experiments with truth’). Ultimately, it’s a moral failure that underlies the tragedy of midnight’s children: ‘the children of the hour of darkness were born, I’m afraid, in the midst of the age of darkness; so that although we found it easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being good.’ Saleem’s own particular moral dilemma, which explains his obsession with form and order, is the fragmentation of life signified by the hole in the sheet, ‘which condemned me to see my life – its meanings, its structures – in fragments also; so that by the time I understood it, it was far too late.’

One may doubt if even that claim is justified. At the end, half-expecting to die on his 31st birthday, he doesn’t seem like a man who has understood his life. He remains deeply ambiguous: hero and victim of his time; dependent on two moral codes, Eastern and Western, in his search for meaning; in spite of his moral rigour, seduced by the idea of ambiguity. He adopts the game of Snakes and Ladders as a useful model of the way of the world, but abandons it because ‘the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity.’ On his 31st birthday he will either die or marry Padma and take her to Kashmir. Padma: a Bombay pickle-factory worker, his confidante as he writes his memoirs, and one of the delightful if incidental voices in the book:

Reverend Mother knew that it was a serious business to accuse a daughter of getting up to hanky-panky under her father’s roof ...

‘A bitter woman,’ Padma says; and I agree.
‘Well?’ Padma demands. ‘Was it true?’
Yes: after a fashion: true.
‘There was hankying and pankying? In the
cellars? Without even chaperones?’

But Padma is only a voice, as is Parvati, who is one of midnight’s children and becomes Saleem’s wife, and as voices I could not tell them apart. There are no rounded, complete characters in this novel, and Saleem’s ambiguities are an aspect of the uncertainty of identity common to everyone. Even their names often change, for other reasons than Muslim custom; more mysteriously, in the book’s predominant image, ‘things – even people – have a way of leaking into each other.’ Saleem is only the most porous, the most fissured of them all. Saleem, of course, is not himself but, a changeling; in a sense ‘fathered by history’, he is given to looking for other parents: ‘I have had more mothers than most mothers have children; giving birth to parents has been one of my stranger talents ...’ Above all, there is his supernatural power, as a child, of merging with the 581 other midnight children. He even disappears out of himself altogether on one occasion, entering a ‘sphere of absence’ usually reserved for the dead, when Parvati makes him vanish in order to smuggle him back to India: ‘The dead die, and are gradually forgotten; time does its healing, and they fade – but in Parvati’s basket I learned that the reverse is also true; that ghosts, too, begin to forget; that the dead lose their memories of the living, and at last, when they are detached from their lives, fade away – that dying, in short, continues for a long time after death.’ The experience isn’t repeated (‘Afterwards, Parvati said, “I didn’t want to tell you – but nobody should be kept invisible that long – it was dangerous, mister, but what else was there to do?” ’), but the idea of absence from himself is an important one for Saleem, and in connection not just with the supernatural but with history. Although his story is one long self-examination, he knows that ‘most of what matters in out lives takes place in our absence.’ Meaning is not in him but lies beyond him. What he is, is what you make of the history of his time.

Salman Rushdie’s originality is more than anything a matter of style, which shows not just in the language, which is perfectly simple and responsive, but in the play of mind – delicate unsolemn and intensely alive – that gives a personal cast to the whole novel. In another respect, Midnight’s Children is not so much original as eclectic. It has close relations with other examples of modern fantasy and satire. For that matter, it has quite close relations with the Arabian Nights and the Mahabharata. But it specially provokes comparison with The Tin Drum, from which it takes several features, as if to test them out in an Indian setting. Thus, Oskar’s drum becomes Saleem’s talismanic silver spittoon. The transformation, however, is usually more radical and revealing. This is both a more fantastical and a more humane and affectionate book – if only because it hasn’t got the same subject as Grass, and doesn’t have to grapple with social pathology and collective evil: to say it lacks the force of Grass’s satire also implies something about its subject – it implies a bit of a compliment to India. For the human touch, compare, for instance, Padma with her counterpart, Oskar’s keeper Bruno. And it’s a great thing that Saleem, after all his adventures in search of meaning and after history has done its worst to him, retains a vital human attribute by remaining just enough of a mystery to himself and to us. Midnight’s Children can even be seen (what one wouldn’t easily say of Grass, or most modern literature) as paying a compliment to human nature. And as fantasy it differs from Grass inasmuch as fantasy finds itself naturally at home in India, with no need for a satirical or other purpose to justify or explain it. In this respect, Salman Rushdie is closer to a novelist of another kind, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who has pictured a Latin American society as a habitat of fantasy, where it is timeless and domesticated and as natural as breathing. But whatever its international sympathies, we can celebrate Midnight’s Children as an English novel: a brilliant and endearing one, the latest of India’s many contributions to English fiction, and the most remarkable of them all.