Thursday, August 20, 2015

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

"To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that," declared the author flatly through his narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born on the stroke of midnight August 15, 1947 at the same instant that India was given its independence. 

"There was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary ... a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will--except in a dream we all agree to dream ... a mere fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat ... India a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivaled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God."

Thus, with wit, style, and erudition, Rushdie has his narrator usher that event, acknowledging the roles of a dying Jinnah who desired to witness the creation of Pakistan during his lifetime and of Mountbatten with his "extraordinary haste." Was it because the British believed there might be substance to the rumors that Hindus and Muslims had started to work on a resolution of their differences and feared a successful new nation where Britannia had ruled by division?

Those who prefer their fiction separated, like yokes from whites, from mere political history must suffer through much in this blockbuster, from the massacre at Amritsar, through the shenanigans of pro versus anti Muslim Leaguers, through comparisons between Nasser and Nehru, between Indian and Pakistani troops, actions in Kashmir and so on, as if to the last syllable of recorded time. 

William Methwold, the departing expatriate who sold to the narrator's parents Methwold Estates in Bombay, whinged that the British had provided "hundreds of years of decent government ... built your roads. [We bequeathed India with] schools, trains, the parliamentary system. The Taj Mahal was falling down until an Englishman bothered to see to it." 

But Reverend Mother (the narrator's grandmother) noticed that there was no water near the pot. "I never believed, but it's true, my God, they wipe their bottoms with paper only." Magna Carta, habeas corpus, and Shakespeare notwithstanding, the British Empire remained in her eyes as the great unwashed.

Rushdie's exuberant and eloquent stories set this blockbuster aside from Virgil's constipated and politically correct epic of the rise of Rome/Augustus or Tennyson's prissy, labored homilies that celebrated English greatness. Instead, from Tal, Aadam Aziz (the narrator's putative grandfather), heard many stories, "endless verbiage which made others think him cracked." The boatman of Kashmir told the tallest of tall tales: "listen, nakoo. I saw that Isa, that Christ, when he came to Kashmir, beard down to his balls, bald as an egg, old and fagged out." 

But the narrator was ecumenical in his casual references to religious figures. He compared his own visions to those of Mohammed ("on whose name be peace -- I don't want to offend anyone") who had been commanded to Recite and received for his confusion the comfort and reassurance of family and friends that he had been singled out as the Messenger. The narrator, on the other hand, saw "the shawl of genius fluttering down, like an embroidered butterfly, the mantle of greatness settling on my shoulders." In an aside he explains a cozy reference to elephant-headed Ganesh, "despite my Muslim background, I'm enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories."

Myth, politics, a cunningly contrived plot, almost overwhelms the imaginative, inventive, and most enchanting language. The Sinai family fed upon Reverend Mother's "curries and meatballs of intransigence"; Amina ate the "fish salans of stubbornness and biryanis of determination." Mary Pereira made them "pickles of guilt and fear of discovery." 

This may very well be the Great Indian Novel. There is that air about it, but it may have been too clever. 

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