A Primer of Modern India

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 16, 2002 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

In the days preceding Indian Independence Day, hordes of street children sell small paper tricolors, the saffron and green flags of their native land. And they do so with smiles full of teeth and promise. Yet once the day has passed, the flags are strewn all over the grubby streets, their brightness marred by footprints and betel juice, their solidity threatened by the monsoons. Euphoria is not a system of waste management, and once the speeches are made and the bands have played, the illusion of unity and progress is replaced by the fact of dispersion and decay.

1997 was India's Golden Jubilee, its fiftieth anniversary, and it was then that I witnessed the flags' cruel fate. It was also when I first read Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Books in India are plentiful, and at least in Bombay it is common for peddlers to sell them on the sidewalks. My copy was pirated: the paper was grainy and gray, the cover faded, the typeface at a small angle to the page.

"I was born in the city of Bombay," begins the book, with an obvious nod to Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (which opens with "I am an American, Chicago born.") Bellow haunts much of what is to come. Rushdie writes with a manic precision, and his word-play and appreciation of the absurd place him in the company of American virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon, whom Rushdie praises in his essay collection Imaginary Homelands.

The title Midnight's Children refers to the children born within an hour of midnight on August 15th, 1947, when India was born. The Times of India, the country's premier English daily, offers a prize to the parents of such children, of whom the narrator, Saleem Sinai, is one. But the prosaic note is soon struck: the prize is a meager 100 rupees. A little later, the door to fantasy is blown open, as the midnight's children possess supernatural powers ranging from telepathy to sorcery to flight. How many children are there? Why, one thousand and one, of course, as many children as Scheherazade has nights.

The novel is a history of Saleem's life and origins; and, because of his oddly synchronous birth, it is also a history of the fledgling nation, up to and including the Emergency under Indira Gandhi and India's first nuclear test. And, relevantly enough, Saleem's family has roots in Kashmir, the Muslim-majority Indian state that remains the biggest burr under the nation's hide.

With the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, Rushdie became an official enemy of fundamentalist Islam. A price was put on his head and his body was self-sequestered. In Midnight's Children, the signs of apostasy (Rushdie was raised Muslim) and the provocations of sanctity are already apparent. He mentions the prophet Muhammed, "on whose name be peace, let me add; I don't want to offend anyone." Yeah, right. Fond of olfactory metaphors, Saleem compares Pakistan's "flat boiled odours of acquiescence" to the "highly-spiced nonconformity of Bombay", and he ridicules the Muslim belief that heaven is populated by virgins. One day, Saleem's grandfather Aadam Aziz is praying in the direction of Mecca when he hits his nose on a rock. The nose begins to bleed and he decides forthwith that he will never again "kiss earth for any god or man." But then, he has been to infidel Germany and has absorbed the basics of Western medicine. Hence: Dr. Aziz, the name of Forster's Indian protagonist. The allusion is cute. Is it too cute?

The name games do not end there. A certain shiftless poet is named "Nadir" Khan. Carmen Miranda is mistakenly called Carmen Verandah. One of Saleem's midwives is named Flory (the doomed Briton of Orwell's Burmese Days) and one of his fellows is named - ahem - Rushdie. Saleem's nemesis is named Shiva, after the Hindu god of creation and destruction. And please meet Parvati, traditionally Shiva's consort. Sure enough, Shiva and Parvati connect, as it were, and Saleem adopts their bastard child. The child has elephantine ears like Ganesh, the legendary child of Shiva and Parvati. And so on.

Aside from showcasing Rushdie's grasp on rudimentary Hindu mythology, these correspondences underscore how, in India, myth and reality are often intertwined. With apparent disdain, Rushdie notes that the government of India often used astrologers as consultants for its Five-Year Plans. Meanwhile the Indians tended to deify their leader Indira, and indeed any celebrity -- Sonia Gandhi, Princess Di, Mother Theresa - and, for that matter, any thing. One Dr. Narlikar (Dr. Time, I believe) decides that Bombay's invaluable landmass can be extended using massive concrete tetrapods. He displays one prominently

"...as a kind of icon pointing the way to the future; and here he noticed a thing which made him lose his reason. A group of beggar-women had clustered around the tetrapod and were performing the rite of puja. They had lighted oil-lamps at the base of the object; one of them had painted the OM-symbol on its upraised tip; they were chanting prayers and they gave the tetrapod a thorough and worshipful wash. Technological miracle had been transformed into Shiva-lingam...."

In 1993, Midnight's Children won the "Booker of Bookers", awarded to the best of the Booker Prize Winners for the first 25 years of its existence. That this honor went to an Indian is either a testament to contemporary Indian writers, or a reflection on the stagnation of British letters. In any case, Rushdie is wittier than the Brits, and his delight in their language is contagious. One character calls Saleem's long nose a "cyranose", another a "proboscissimus"; and still another adds, "'You could cross a river on that nose.' (Its bridge was wide.)" Confusing perhaps his Latin and his Greek, Rushdie coins the word "sperectomy: the draining-out of hope." And who could forget his paean to poo?

"Dung, that fertilizes and causes the crops to grow! Dung, which is patted into thin chapati-like cakes when still fresh and moist, and is sold to the village builders, who use it to secure and strengthen the walls of kachcha buildings made of mud! Dung, whose arrival from the nether end of cattle goes a long way toward explaining their divine and sacred status!.... How wonderful, how ineffably lovely it must be to be named for the Purveyor of Dung!"

When Saleem's father becomes a slave to drink, Saleem refers to his alcoholism as a battle with the djinns in the bottle: thus, inevitably, "djinns-and-tonic." Rushdie can also whip out the occasional eye-stopping simile. When Saleem's mother becomes concerned that his sister is dehydrated, she drenches her "as if she were a lawn."

Midnight's Children is more controversial in India than it is in the West, in part because Islam is not the only object of Rushdie's irrepressible ridicule. He is especially critical of the Emergency and of the bungled and bloody formation of Bangladesh. In the first case, he trains a jaundiced eye on Indira's assumption of dictatorial powers, her suspension of civil rights (so much like the Raj's Rowlatt Act), and her sterilization campaign, a Draconian attempt to halt India's exploding population. He even draws a parallel between the Emergency's riot suppression and the Amritsar massacre of 1919. As for Bangladesh, Rushdie is baffled by the resistance against the independence movement. For was not self-determination the (admittedly not always faithfully applied) basis for the subcontinent's original independence and Partition? With American consent and weapons, the armies of Pakistan swept into its defiant eastern wing and murdered (the adjective for India is always 'countless') people, while some 10 million refugees fled to India, their temporary ally. It was, Rushdie notes with incomprehension, "the biggest migration in the history of the human race." Yet it wouldn't be the last time that governments would "unleash the war-hounds of unity", as the continuing foolishness over Kashmir well proves.

Born in Bombay and educated at Cambridge, Rushdie upholds the Anglo-Indian tradition of ambivalence toward his homeland, and he toes the Naipaul line that India's colonization was "desirable". He mines the seam of its symbols and metaphors, while at the same time chiding its backwardness and anarchy. "I am not stupid," retorts Mrs. Aziz, accused of being ignorant of medicine. "I have read several books." When a native Kashmiri informs the Indian and Pakistani armies that Kashmir should be independent of both, Rushdie quips, "Naturally, they shot him." He mocks medicine-men who "thought that fried spiders could cure blindness", and he warns us - accurately - of what to expect from the Taj Mahal, "whose outdoor corridors stink of urine and whose walls are covered in graffiti and whose echoes are tested for visitors by guides although there are signs in three languages pleading for silence." In one maxim he summarizes India's fatalism and serenity: "What can't be cured must be endured."

I was once chatting with an eager and articulate Indian when he sighed, "America is going to Mars, and we cannot yet feed our own people." How do you do it? he seemed to ask. It was as if I could recommend a book or utter a spell that would transform his country into mine, without quartering India's population or destroying its culture. The only American character in Rushdie's novel is a girl named Evie. She is a stereotype but a precious one: pugnacious, boastful, brusque: "Hey you! Alla you! Hey, whassamatter? You all deaf or what?" Eventually she is sent to reform school for stabbing an old lady. Of course, Saleem adores her. Indians are as enchanted as they are repelled by the liberties of freedom's land. Rephrasing Marx's famous dictum from the Brumaire, Rushdie writes, "Europe repeats itself, in India, as farce.... Evie was American. Same thing."

As a former resident of Bombay, I find much to cherish in Midnight's Children. Rushdie captures like no other its extremes of exhilaration and despair, growth and decay, love and loathing.... He leads me to sit again at Gaylords restaurant, to gaze at the leaden-gray Arabian Sea, to walk the causeway to Haji Ali Mosque, to dodge a stream of urine or betel, to ponder my ponderous washerwoman. Upon learning that the Sinai family will return to sultry Bombay from arid Pakistan, Saleem's sister cries out, "Back-to-Bom!" I know what she means.

But familiarity breeds contempt, and Rushdie is now a prisoner, like so many declining artists, of New York. He has never written a work to equal Midnight's Children. Maybe he was just a flash in the pan, but it seems more probable that New York is just extraordinarily dull compared to Bombay: Rushdie now writes of professors and divorces, like everybody else. Then again, some of his fame rests not on his work, but on the Khomeini's fatwa against it. The uber-Booker might simply have been given to him as an act of defiance against those who cannot tolerate free expression. "Perhaps," writes Rushdie, "if one wishes to remain an individual in the midst of the teeming multitudes, one must be grotesque." Failing that, one can always blaspheme Islam.

The difference, perhaps the main difference between fundamentalists of all stripes and everybody else is that fundamentalists have no sense of humor, because humor is impossible without a distinction between literal and implied meaning. On the other hand, there are dangers in taking the joke, any joke, too far, lest we cease to mean anything we say, or mean anything. "I must work fast," Rushdie writes, "faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning - yes, meaning - something. I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity."

* * * * *

Review of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Vintage, 1995.

* * * * *