Midnight's Children

13 March 2016

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce's standin, Dedalus, ends his youth with a vow to leave his home and tell the tale of the Irish soul; in his words, to "speak the conscience of his race".

As Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children tells it, things are not as simple in India. Despite the purpose burning within him, Saleem, the first child of midnight, born at the exact moment of India's independence, is not free to leave and speak his people's conscience. His enchanted life is a mirror of his nation's: sad, violent, caught between poverty, superstition, colonial legacy and an uncertain future. He becomes a Forrest Gump, present at the great and terrible moments of the era, holding the map as Ayub Khan plans his coup and rooting out Sheikh Mujib during Pakistan's desparate bid to hold on to Bangladesh. As modernity sweeps over the world, his powers diminish and his purpose remains frustrated (until finally it is abandoned). By the end, he contents himself with pickling chutney and watching his son grow as he disintegrates, the magic of his life drained out.

Midnight's Children is a masterpiece. It is everything a great book should be: long, sad, and overflowing with characters. Rushie imbues his narrator with his own potent understanding of human life, and together they tell wonderful stories. Ultimately the most compelling facet of the book is Saleem himself, a telepath who remains filled with empathy even as his gifts and future are taken from him. Even as Shiva the destroyer, second child of midnight, condemns him to castration and mutilation, Saleem cannot hate his rival; he can only bemoan the fate of his thousand brothers and sisters and beg their forgiveness.

Development is freedom; I hope that if Rushdie had wrote this book in 2016 rather than 1981, Saleem would have had a better life. But I wouldn't change a thing about Midnight's Children - and I'd encourage everyone with eyes to read it.

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