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’.
‘Reality’, writes Salman Rushdie in his book, ‘can have metaphorical content. A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one
Before commenting on the accuracy or otherwise of this counterposition it is worth drawing attention to the two-part structure of the novel. The first half is essentially a recreation of the past. Grandfather Aadam Aziz returns home after studying medicine and Lenin’s What Is To Be Done at Heidelberg. He leaves behind a German lover and companion, Ilse Lubin, and is soon embroiled in a traditional arranged marriage to the daughter of a rural notable. His first glimpse of this bride-to-be is through a hole in a sheet. Ilse comes to visit him in India, hears of his new love and drowns herself in the still waters of Srinagar’s Dal Lake in Kashmir. Here, at the very start of the novel, is a symbolic rendering of a theme that will recur: modernization is fighting a losing battle. Father Ahmed Sinai is the protagonist of another symbolic event. We see him purchasing an Englishman’s mansion in fashionable Bombay in an area previously reserved for the ‘pink conquerers’. This image stays with us throughout the novel: the houses, offices, uniforms, attitudes, style and manners of the raj are being usurped by a new ruling class. This class has grown up in the shadow of the colonialists, but has been permitted to observe its betters from a distance; now cossetted, now rejected, it is ready and waiting to step into the shoes of its former rulers. Even its most urbane and cultured spokesmen speak an unfamiliar jargon. ‘Long years ago’, declares a tearful Jawaharlal Nehru as the clock chimes the twelfth stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, ‘we made a tryst with destiny. . . .’ His sentiments are comprehensible to the poorest and humblest citizen, but the language in which he chooses to communicate with the masses is English. In neighbouring Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah addresses hundreds of thousands of illiterate peasants, many of them unversed even in Urdu and confined to speaking their own dialects, in English! As time passes, the veneer of what they have learnt from the English civil servant wears distressingly thin, and then disappears altogether. Rushdie’s description of this important transition period is acute and, at times, comic, if lacking in the power and the anger of the novel’s second part.