By: Ramlal Agarwal
Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize and has generally been highly acclaimed. Rushdie is a representative of the post- modernism. Which David Lodge called ‘crossover fiction’ and ‘aesthetics of compromise’. The critics and readers were impressed by Rushdie’s felicity of expression and his ingenuity in handling various narrative techniques like an expert juggler. But, with passage of time, these very qualities are beginning to appear as his weaknesses and are beginning to hurt. It is now clear that it is a novel that is too thick with characters, events and styles. Rushdie himself seems aware of it and asks his muse Pushpa “can any narrative stand so much so soon?” But he does not wait for her answer.
Midnight Children is an unusual novel. It is a jumble of Eastern and Western narrative techniques, a curious blend of history and fiction, cultural clashes between Hindus and Muslims, fates of an individual and a nation and mocking and deriding tone.
The entire novel is flooded with hyperbole, over-blown, high – falutin narrative. For instance, Rushdie’s description of Amina Sinai’s visit to a sooth-sayer is described in the following words:
Amina Sinai sluggishly reaches the upper reaches of a huge gloomy chawl, a broken-down tenement building in which Lifafa Das and his three cousins – a bone setter, a monkey dancer and a shake and mongoose man with all their paraphernalia have a small corner at the very top. There, sitting in a small room, is Ramram, six inches above the ground. He predicts a son for Amina Sinai.
According to his prophecy ” A son sahiba who will never be older than his motherland neither older, nor younger. “The snake and mongoose charmer, donkey dancer, bone-setter and peep show- walla, stand stunned because they had never heard Ramram like this. Ramram continues in his sing-song high-pitched tone – There will be two heads but you shall see only one – there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees. Newspaper praises him, two mothers raise him! Bicyclists love him – but crowds will shove him | sisters will weep, cobra will creep – washing will hide him, – voices will guide him | Spiftoons will brain him – doctors will drain him – jungle will claim him – wizards reclaim him ! Soldiers will try him – tyrants will fry him. He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old. And he will die before he is dead (page 99, Avon Books, 1982).
Rushdie treats the birth of a nation and Amina’s son in the manner of Christ’s birth. Before his birth a sadhu appears at Buckingham Villa and announces “I have come to await the coming of the One.Mubarak – He is blessed. It will happen soon.”
Rushdie’s description of an old boatman as an age-old boatman having lost count of years and recalling having met Isa “beard down to his balls, bold as an egg on his head.” Such descriptions divert the attention of the reader from the main story.
Leaving aside the padding and the floss, the novel, deals with an orthodox Muslim family in Kashmir and a young Western – educated doctor called Dr Aziz. Naseem Ghani, the daughter of Aadam Ghani, a landowner, falls sick of minordisease and Dr Aziz is called to treat her. According to tradition, she is in purdah and no outsider can see her. Hence a perforated sheet is raised to protect her from the eyes of the doctor and the doctor has to examine her from the outside of the sheet. Dr Aziz’s visits are repeated again and again as Naseem’s ailments keep surfacing. Finally, the sheet is pulled down and Dr Aziz and Naseem get married. They have three daughters – Alia, Mumtaz and Emerald. As they grow up, Naseem becomes extra cautious lest they become wayward. Not so Dr Aziz. The husband and wife are at logger – heads on the point of liberty to women. A perceptible change occurs when Dr Aziz comes under the influence of Mia Abdulla, who held Free Islam Convocation in 1942 and Dr Aziz decides to offer shelter in his cellar to Nadir Khan, a fugitive from law not withstanding Naseem’s protests. The girls take Tea and food for him to the cellar Nadir Khan and Mumtaz become thick with each other and eventually get married. Ahmed Sinai, a merchant, visits them to sell his wares and is drawn towards Alia and Major Zulfikar raids the house of Dr Aziz looking for Nadir Khan. However, Nadir Khan escapes leaving a note of Talaq, Talaq and Talaq. Ahmad Sinai drops Alia and marries Mumtaz and gives her a new name-Amina. The couple move to Delhi where Ahmed has a godown. But during riots, the godown is torched and the couple move to Amritsar and then to Agra and finally to Bombay where he buys the bunglow of Methwold, an Englishman packing up to leave India. Dr Aziz passes through a series of ups and downs in his business life and Amina gives birth to a male baby at the fateful moment of India’s Independence. Mary Pereira, the nurse, swaps Amina’s child with Vanita’s child in revenge on Vanila, whom she suspects of having an affair with Methwold, the Englishman. It is not clear what this baby – swapping means. Is it a symbol or a mere act of revenge? But it does highlight that the moment of Independence was mired in conspiracy and intrigue. When ultimately Dr Aziz becomes broke, he is invited to Pakistan by Zulfikar and thus Dr Aziz moves from India to Pakistan. In Pakistan, his son Saleem Sinai becomes a Pak citizen. In Pakistan, Saleem gets involved in a series of misadventures and also wounded in a war of 1965. A woman called Parvati and an Indian soldier called Picture Singh arrange his escape to India, much in the style of Shivaji’s escape from Agra, in a wicker basket. Saleem marries Parvati who converted to Islam. The story moves forward through all sorts of digressions and feuds between Hindus and Muslims and finally Saleemends up as an employee in Mary Pareira’s pickle factory.
Midnight’s Children is a sad story of a Muslim family badly battered and buffeted from place to place partly by fast changing political scene, partly by fluctuating family’s economic conditions and partly by individual compulsions. Normally such a story touches the hearts of readers. But unfortunately, Midnight’s Children hardly does so, because the matter is not in sync with the manner it is told.
(Published first by : KITAAB CONNECTING ASIAN WRITERS WITH GLOBAL READERS, 2020)