BOOK (1981)


Rewind book: Midnight's Children

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 4:39pm

Midnight's Children
by Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape

"I was born in the city of Bombay … once upon a time." And so begins Midnight's Children, one of the English language's great works of contemporary fiction, written by a strange, brilliant and complex author who, for the best part of his career, has pursued the twin principles of free speech and artistic expression - often at a price.

The trouble started in 1989, the year Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against the Anglo-Indian writer for what was perceived to be a slight on the Prophet Mohammed and Islam as depicted in his novel The Satanic Verses, which had been published the previous year. The intense, Booker prize-winning author became an international news item and a wanted man overnight.

Eight years before, in 1981, the situation was markedly different. Rushdie was the darling of the media world, having impressed with this fantastical tale of a young man born at the precise moment of India's independence and with it the violent partition of the country.

Part magic realism, part historical fiction, the story is held together by many harsh contrasts: secularism and religion, old and new, East and West, India and Pakistan. The narrator and protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is no normal child. With his cucumber-like nose and fierce blue eyes, he is one of 1,001 "midnight children", all of whom possess magical powers. For Saleem it is the ability to hear other people's thoughts.

The weight of history bears down upon the young boy, whose arrival is heralded by the media as an extremely significant moment in the unwritten history of the new India. Saleem takes the story back to Kashmir in 1915, and the meeting between his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, a doctor, and his future grandmother, Naseem.

Having recently returned from secular, enlightened Europe, Aadam begins questioning his core beliefs; his praying rituals, once second nature, become almost pointless in this new age. In many ways this is Rushdie exorcising his own demons.

The rest of the novel is thick on plot and action, with the fairytale adventure spanning countries and decades - ending with the most fateful prophesy of all.

Rushdie has always embodied the archetypal victim of his own creations, not only facing criticism from the literary press but having lived with a knife dangling over his head for his whole career. And that seems to be how he likes it.

Oliver Clasper