My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A fictional autobiography of a child born at the moment India became independent in 1947.
And as the child grows up, he feels that the ups and downs of his own life mirror the fortunes of the country. Quite a long time ago I read a novel, A bend in the Ganges, set in the time of India's independence, and from that I knew it was beset by violence. That novel, like this one, followed the history of a family, and how the family was affected by the historical events. But Midnight's Children is no straightforward historical novel. It is surreal. Or perhaps paranormal. Or perhaps magic realism. It aims to show not the mere historical events, but the spiritual significance of them.
And so the children who were born at or immediately after midnight on 15 August 1947 are able to communicate with each other telepathically, and have abilities that science fiction writers of the 1950s used to indicate conventionally with the abbreviation PSI.
It is quite a dense and complex book, and I thought that, like some long and complex Russian novels, it needed a list of Dramatis Personae that one could refer to. There are so many characters that when one finds a reference to something that happened to one of them 150 pages earlier, one needs to reread the earlier incident to remember what happened and who was involved. But that means it is not the kind of book to read once and throw away. There ware things that will become clearer on a second or third, or even a seventh or eighth reading.
But now I have to take it back to the library. A few years ago I tried to read The Satanic Verses by the same author, and couldn't finish it. I found it too boring and confusing. If iot was satire, it was satirising things beyond my experience, which I couldn't connect to. But Midnight's Children reminded me of a song from 50 years ago:
Yesterday's dream didn't quite come true
We fought for our freedom and what did it do?
Now no one can see where they stand.
And fifty years ago, when we sang that song, freedom was still tomorrow's dream, but I knew, back then, that when it came and faded into the past as yesterday's dream, we would know that it didn't quite come true.
Twenty-five years ago I visited Kenya, which had been independent for just over 30 years, as India was at the end of Salman Rushdie's book. Several Kenyans asked me about South Africa, which had then enjoyed about a year of its brand-new democracy, which we had been all excited about, but the Kenyans showed no interest in that. Their questions showed that what interested them most about South Africa was the Mandela divorce, and who would get the money. They could not conceive of a politician who was not in it purely for the money. And 25 years later we have reached the same point in South Africa. And Salman Rushdie shows the spiritual reality of that, as it played out in India.