Midnight’s Children footnote＊ has been widely acclaimed as a literary tour de force. It has won plaudits for its author, Salman Rushdie, from critics throughout the Anglo-Saxon world and has been awarded the prestigious Booker Prize. Rushdie has been compared, at different times, to Gunter Grass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose influences, openly acknowledged, are evident in Midnight’s Children. Saleem Sinai, the semi-autobiographical narrator and central figure in the book, has definite affinities with Oskar in The Tin Drum; and it would not be difficult to find the Latin American equivalents of the sub-continent’s generals in Autumn of the Patriarch. However, these analogies are not of prime significance. Danzig/Gdansk and Macondo are not Bombay.
Rushdie’s work provokes comparisons not only with Grass or Marquez, but with other writers who have made India their subject. The reason this has not been done so far is because English critics and commentators have tended to downplay the politics of Midnight’s Children. Whether this is the result of guilt, embarrassment, ignorance or a combination of all three is a matter for speculation. What is beyond doubt is that Rushdie’s novel is centrally an attack on clearly identifiable targets: the indigenous ruling classes in South Asia. His book is not simply a pleasing mosaic of everyday life in the South Asian sub-continent. It is a devastating political indictment of those who rule these countries and, by implication, of those who placed them in their present positions of power and privilege. In that sense it is fair to say that the publication of Midnight’s Children marks an important turning point in the relatively short life-span of Indo-English literature.
It is important to briefly recall the evolution of this rather unusual literary tradition. The Thirties and Forties were crucially important decades in India as elsewhere. The rising tide of nationalism, the growth of the Communist Party and the birth of militant trade unionism produced a ferment in the country’s intelligentsia. The formation of the Anti-Fascist League of Writers and the Progressive Writers Association (both bodies were essentially cpi front organizations) helped to channel the anger of writers, poets and playwrights in leftist directions. The foremost exponent of socialist realism in the English language was the Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand, who deliberately confined his scope to writing about those who were well below the lowest rung of the social ladder. The Coolie and The Untouchable exemplify his politico-literary project. Further south in Madras, V.K. Narayan was beginning to produce novels that were the polar opposite of Anand’s. Narayan wrote semi-mystical social comedies of village life in Southern India, whose cumulative impact was to idealize Hinduism and the Indian village. His formula appealed only a
The ideological heritage of the raj has often been talked about, but rarely analysed in detail. Imperialism wove a powerful web which sought to imprison the consciousness of those whom it oppressed. It instilled a self-hatred based on race and colour that redoubled the discriminations of caste society. The natives were ‘taught’ to regard the white skin as a mark of superiority. True, this was not simply a case of ideological aggression. White ‘superiority’ was backed up not simply by Kipling—the ‘hireling minstrel’ of British imperialism—and the hordes of missionaries who descended on the colonies like parasites, but by material strength and privileges. When sections of the oppressed did challenge this myth they were ruthlessly put down. Scott’s quartet of novels facilitate our knowledge of colonial racism, but shy away from discussing its illegitimate offspring: even today in India the Northerners regard the Southerners as inferior because of their slightly darker complexion. Moreover this phenomena is largely restricted to three distinct, though interrelated layers of South Asian society: the ruling classes, the civil service and the Army. All three are direct descendants of the raj. This deformation is the extreme opposite of Anglo-American racism which is widespread amongst the underprivileged layers of the white population and is cynically exploited by a heartless governing class.
The very process of ‘midnight’ (India and Pakistan obtained their independence at the stroke of midnight, hence the title of Rushdie’s novel) was determined by a concordat between the departing colonial power and the two nationalist parties. (It is worth noting that both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League were set up on the initiative of Englishmen.) A reading of Scott is thus useful if one wishes to explore the parentage of ‘midnight’s children’.