27 September 2009
Chapters 1-5 – up to A public announcement
Let me get this straight. As if. 70-odd pages in and, as the narrator often gleefully points out, we haven’t got to his own birth yet. He’s told us, in terms set about with his guaranteed assurances of how significant it is, that he was born at the precise moment that India became independent – and then he flies back 30-odd years to an experience of his grandfather’s. The narrator constantly refers to his contemporary self, writing this history – and to the reaction of ‘Padma’ (who she?) as he reads the drafts to her – so we’ve got a neat mirroring at the start: Aadam Aziz’s story begins as many years before the birth as the narrator’s writing of it comes after.
What we get, at one level, is a family saga. If we’re to believe the narrator – and, obviously, we know we‘re mad if we do – everyone and everything in his family’s history has been tuned well beyond concert pitch, beyond, in one famous incident, the range of human hearing. Aadam Aziz courted his wife-to-be via a sheet with a hole in it over the course of years. That same wife in later life is willing to make such a stand on an absurd matter of principle that she stays silent for years – dragging the whole household into a pit of silence – until, as she sees it, she is proved right. But the first bit of family mythology we’re introduced to is Aziz’s nose. It’s of mythical proportions and it has the almost magical property of being able to sniff out, well, almost anything. The narrator shares this – the nose and its magical properties – so, conveniently, he can sniff out details he couldn‘t possibly know about. Take it or leave it, Rushdie seems to be saying – and we take it because he tells it so well.
Take it or leave it. The narrator compares himself to Scheherazade because he’s desperate for us to want to keep listening. Because… because this isn’t only the story of one man and his family. It’s also the story of India and the terrible things that have happened to it. We know they‘re terrible because our narrator has told us. And shown us, starting a long time before his own birth. There’s the peaceful demonstration Aziz attends (in a professional capacity – I forgot to mention he’s a doctor) and ends up getting covered in blood as an over-zealous British officer orders his force of 50 soldiers to fire their machine-guns into the crowd. This is in an early chapter, roughly at the time when WW1 was happening on a different continent. Later, possibly when a different World War was going on elsewhere, the Hummingbird is cured of what the narrator calls the disease of optimism by being hacked to death with crescent-shaped weapons. The bloodthirsty officer and the dead would-be politician have names that sound real: for all its fairy-tale elements I assume the political events being woven into it are true.
The assassination, as narrated by this storyteller, is embroidered. The Hummingbird’s humming doesn’t help him, but it does eventually reach a pitch that attracts the local dogs, who tear his six assassins to shreds. Which allows Nadir (now there’s a name to conjure with) the rhymeless poet who does not become the narrator’s father, to escape and live under Aziz’s floor for – let me see – three years. He marries Aziz’s black daughter – and doesn’t Rushdie have fun with the prejudices of the Indian middle class – but never consummates it and divorces her as he makes a hasty exit, pursued by the general his young sister-in-law promised never to tell. And whom she marries shortly afterwards, following a long clandestine affair.
Most of the women in this book are nightmares. The Reverend Mother, as Aziz’s wife and the narrator’s grandmother comes to be known, wants to control everybody and everything in her house. If anything or anyone gets in her way she makes everybody’s life miserable – hence the years of silence, coupled with the tactic of starving her husband half to death. Emerald, the daughter who betrayed her own sister’s husband, is just as self-serving. Even Mumtaz, the helpful, obedient black-skinned one, who has no objection to her name being changed to Amina, manipulates husband No. 2 into being almost a clone of husband No. 1.… And don’t even let me begin on the men, who are either venal or idiotic. (I remember a later Indian-based Booker winner, Roy’s God of Small Things, is similarly full of sharks and idiots. Did Rushdie invent this feature?)
What have I forgotten? Partition is on the way, and if Aziz and his wife regard their Kashmiri nationality as separate, well, they can dream on. Muslim and Hindu neighbours quarrel – in fact, two Muslims bully the Hindu householder who lives in the house between them, Muslim-owned warehouses are set alight by a Hindu extremist group, a Hindu street entertainer is threatened by a Muslim crowd…. The entertainer is only rescued from death by the narrator‘s mother publicly announcing she is pregnant. So his life, from before his birth, is enmeshed in the great political upheavals lurking round the corner. The British stomp around with their guns and their lines drawn on maps, and… it’s all going to be a mess – just like this story is presented as a mess of hints and wild goose chases and going off at tangents. But it‘s incredibly engaging, and you feel as if you‘re in the hands of an author who knows absolutely where he‘s going, even while he stirs up the mud to keep us guessing.
Next few chapters – to the end of Book 1
We really can’t believe Saleem Sinai. His big-nosed ancestor isn’t Aadam Aziz, because – wait for it – he was swapped at birth with another Midnight’s child. He’s been misleading us all along, so his mother isn’t his mother, the big boy she’s been carrying isn’t the big boy she takes home and who writes this story… and so on. He reminds us he’s been giving us clues, including (I suppose) Methwold the big-nosed white man, descendant of the founder of Bombay. And we only thought he was spending such a lot of time on him, and his selling up of his house and all that’s in it, to make a smart-arse point about the Anglo-Indians’ unasked-for legacy. It is about legacies, but they go deeper. So to speak. Our narrator has been rogered into existence by a Brit with a hairpiece women swoon over, mistaking a fake for the real thing.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that Saleem wants to imbue every tiniest twist and detail in his story with significance. If anybody else tried it we’d take the piss, but we don’t, because… because he knows we know he’s just showing off. And he knows we know it really is full of significance. This is a polemic about real people and real betrayals and Rushdie is very happy for us to see his real teeth.
There are set-pieces in these chapters as Saleem/Rushdie makes his bitter points through fairytale and outrageous mythologising. There’s a chapter in which his not-mother receives prophecies about her son (or not-son? How should I know?) at the same time, and with a lot of the same elements, as her husband and his cronies fail to deliver money to the blackmailing terrorists. Many-headed monsters feature, in the masks of the blackmailers or as the faces in the city’s ripped backside that the middle classes ‘city eyes’ normally fail to see. There’s Methwold’s sell-off, or sell-out, to Indians who are all too willing to affect Oxford accents and adopt the cocktail hour in scenes that Goodness Gracious Me gratefully ripped off over a decade after this novel came out. And there’s the tick-tock countdown as months become weeks, then days, then minutes and crowds gather and two mothers arrive at the maternity hospital. Mary Pereira, muddled-up Christian (her priest thinks it’s a good idea to pretend Christ is blue, because these Indians are used to blue gods) thinks ‘her’ Joseph would appreciate the swapping of a high-caste baby for a low-caste one; I mention her because she’s almost instantly sorry and offers to be Saleem’s ayah.
Simultaneity, huge historical sweeps alongside family crises…. And all the time the voice. Saleem is a wonderful invention, desperate to tell absolutely everything even though he knows it’s impossible. He expects that the effort is going to break him up into 600-odd million pieces – one for every person in India, obviously – and mourns the fact that his knowledge and his story is as fragmentary as Aziz’s views of his wife-to-be all those years ago and Amina’s fragmentary (but always determined) love for husband No 2. All we ever have is a sheet with a hole, and it doesn’t particularly help when extra holes appear around the original one – as, to Aziz’s horror, the moths get to work. And Mountbatten has drawn his lines, the clock strikes, there’s massive strife breaking out all over the place, and… Saleem and his alter-ego get born. Bring on Book 2.
Book 2, first five chapters – to Love in Bombay
Saleem’s first ten years, almost. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff about his first few months before the narrative jumps ahead to his junior school years… and most of what he tells us is well outside the bounds of plausibility. That’s ok, obviously. We get: Saleem telling us he’s fully aware of everything from the moment of his birth; his benign influence as an infant, allowing his mother to cash in at the races by placing bets on rank outsiders who couldn’t possibly win; later, hearing voices (at first mistaking them for those of angels) which he realises are the thoughts of those around him – a skill which is fine-tuned by an accident when the bumps on his head mesh with the forceps-delivery dents on his friend Sonny’s. And those are only the things I can remember.
Meanwhile there are his family and neighbourhood friends. His father is failing: when his assets are frozen, he complains of freezing testicles – with which he fathers (wait for it) Saleem’s sister the Brass Monkey. She’s a menace, grabbing attention in early childhood by setting her family’s shoes on fire. As you do. Later, as his father’s self-esteem declines further, he begins to fade away, turning pale – as all the businessmen in India gradually turn white. There’s a dark shadow inside him that only the omniscient Saleem knows about. Is it another hole in this novel full of holes? How should I know?
As for his friends: they have nicknames as if they’re in a nightmarish kids’ tv show: Hairoil, Eyeslice, Cyrus-the-great. Later, in Love in Bombay, there’s an Annie Get Your Gun American, a dead shot with an air-gun, who is the one Saleem falls for. But all the love (or whatever it is) is unrequited in this chapter: she loves Sonny, who loves the Brass Monkey, who… doesn’t seem to love anybody. And there’s his alter-ego Shiva, the one with whom he was swapped at birth. He hasn’t featured much so far, but we know he will – and he’s going to be a terror. Shiva, of course, is the god of everything catastrophic.
What else? Set pieces. Saleem, his self-esteem apparently as low as his father’s (despite his conviction that he is already on the way to achieving the greatness prophesied for him), is always hiding in the basket of dirty laundry – where he accidentally overhears his mother, in tears, on the phone to her ex-husband, and where he sees her big bottom as she prepares to have a piss. He’s banned – so he takes to the clock tower instead, and that’s where he first hears the voices, starting with other Midnight’s children. At the end of the Love chapter Saleem crashes a bike into a language parade – and his desperate chanting of a Guajarati jingle sets off the riot that leads to the segregation of Bombay in the way that the rest of India has already been divided into states. And so on: amidst the high-voltage fairytales we get these occasional claims to greatness.
It’s the texture of the narrative that’s the thing. Quite often I find myself lost in a fog of names and events, but it’s ok. Kind of: I mentioned the book to someone recently and said it’s great while you’re reading it, but very quickly it’s impossible to remember details. Maybe it’s just me: I write these diaries because otherwise I forget everything I read fairly quickly anyway. But with Midnight’s Children there’s the additional problem of a narrative which Saleem has already told us attempts to include the whole of India. It’s like a huge mural created by a painter of miniatures: wonderful details, but the whole thing? Don’t ask.
And I’ve just remembered the framing device: Padma, the adult Saleem’s sort-of muse, has had enough of the free way he pillages religious myths for his own purposes, so she’s buggered off. And if she thinks that’ll teach him, she’s wrong: his stories are as steeped in religion as they are in cinema, in the ordinariness of family life, in the cruelties of children. Particularly, he uses religion as part of his self-mythologising: his birth is miraculous (there‘s even a Mary and Joseph), prophecies are made, tributes arrive – such as the letter from Nehru – and the miracles start to happen. And his nose, which in his self-deprecatory moments he calls a cucumber, he almost as often refers to as a mark of his god-like – specifically Ganesh-like – attributes.
Book 2, middle five chapters – to Commander Sabarmati’s Baton
Rushdie goes on becoming more and more ambitious in what he’s prepared to do with narrative. The middle chapter of these five is also the middle chapter of the whole novel, Saleem tells us, and he wants to talk about all the things we might already have noticed about his style. He proclaims his metaphorical purpose – of linking his own life with the history of the new India – from the metaphorical rooftops, blithely admits when his chronology happens not to fit with that of historical fact, seems to be daring us to object to the neatness of the patterning and echoes. At the end of my last entry I compared it to a mural painted by a miniaturist. Now, Saleem/Rushdie actively draws our attention to echoes and chiming juxtapositions – not quite like the repeating patterns in a wallpaper design, but with enough reiterations to force the point that absolutely nothing is random. It’s the old lie we tell ourselves: there is an underlying purpose, there is.
Examples. The first of these five chapters is On my tenth birthday, and several consecutive paragraphs begin with that very phrase; some of the events are personal, some are national/historical – and the repetitions drip-drip-drip us into believing the links. In The Kolynos Kid Saleem loses his identity – his father realises he isn’t his son, and he gets farmed out to his film-maker uncle and his former starlet wife – and as he identifies himself with the 2D advertising hoarding, little details like the cover on the sofa he sleeps on confirm he’s in the Kid’s world now. In Commander Sabarmati’s Baton Saleem spells it out for us that he edits history in order to make it: he cuts up newspaper headlines to send a message to the commander, which leads a murder that causes a national scandal and forces the new India to examine its evolving moral codes. This narrator never undersells his own importance in moulding India’s destiny.
So, big things happening, notably the gradual uncovering of his biological identity: at the point I’ve reached, the ghost of her non-lover is forcing Mary Pereira into a position where she will have to confess to the swap she made at the maternity hospital.
But that’s not the biggest thing. These are the chapters in which Saleem discovers the existence of the other Midnight’s Children. He has fun with the number who were born in the hour following his own birth and Shiva’s: 1001, before over a third of them die in childhood. And he finds out, first, that he can hold telepathic meetings with each of them and next that he can make his own mind into a nightly forum. He lists their fairy-tale – or freakishly monstrous – attributes, shows how they have greater powers the closer they were born to midnight… and gets us used to the idea that Shiva is the cynical capitalist thug to Saleem‘s liberal-minded optimist, And it looks as though Shiva, aged ten, really is the serial killer who appears to kill his victims with the pressure of his all-powerful knees.
After a year or so the forum begins to fall apart: as they grow up the children become disparate representatives of the prejudiced, imperfect Indian cultures they were all born into. Shiva doesn’t care: all he ever wanted was to dominate – and he remains the only one who can keep Saleem out of his head.
What else in these chapters? More than I can list in a paragraph or two, obviously, but…. Saleem’s physical discomforts and mutilations mirror India’s: his ridiculous-looking face resembles the carved-up subcontinent and he is first mocked and then disfigured by a pseudo-Latin American teacher (and don’t even ask me what he is supposed to represent); the early onset of puberty and sexual awareness leads to the loss of his middle finger, the blood test that begins to reveal his true identity and the embarrassing end of the ersatz family life with his uncle and aunt. He doesn’t need to spell it out that India limps from one embarrassment to another as it goes into its second decade.
There’s also the sub-plot of his not-quite mother’s not-quite affair with the man who no longer calls himself Nadir Khan. He witnesses this first as a series of long overheard ‘wrong number’ phone conversations, then as a self-consciously cinematic scene in the Pioneer Café. This is where film extras hang out looking for work and his not-quite mother enacts chastely suggestive kissing scenes with her ex-husband, exactly as Bollywood demands. Rushdie is sometimes as determined as James Joyce in Ulysses – a book I’ve just finished re-reading – to pastiche a style. It‘s not just for the sake of it: the ten-year-old Saleem witnessing all this is as steeped in cinema as he is in Bombay’s assorted religions.
Finally. In the framing sections the adult Saleem is going through his own trials. He’s impotent – a fact we already know though I forgot to mention it before – and Padma, now talking to him again, secretly slips him a concoction that nearly kills him. A woman arrives on the scene – someone Saleem is determined not to introduce to us yet – and helps. And Saleem hasn’t always been impotent: he has a son. Blimey. But… for me the real function of these scenes is to remind us every chapter or so that we are reading a partial, opinionated account from a man who wants us to believe that all personal histories – his, anyway – are as real as any historically verifiable version. Take it or leave it, as he‘s suggested from the start… and, because of the highly-worked crafting that is going into the embroidery of the narrative, we’ll carry on taking it.
Next five chapters – to the end of Book 2
I’m not sure why, but I’ve started to feel a bit bored. There are still marvels and sensations, still a clever mirroring of Saleem’s history with the ever more fractured story of India and Pakistan, but… but I’m not that bothered. Maybe it has something to do with Rushdie’s blasé willingness to slap his characters about like putty or wet clay and mould each of them into somebody different. So the uber-feisty Brass Monkey becomes the devout, acquiescent Jamila Singer; Saleem’s warring (or at best mutually indifferent) not-quite parents become a loving couple at last – the result, partly, of one of those miraculous illness/recovery episodes we get in this novel (not that anything lasts: later, pregnant at 42, his mother ages before our eyes – and not long afterwards a stroke reduces his father to idiocy); his grandfather Aadam Aziz becomes an obsessive anti-religionist following a comedy episode of divine mistaken identity, and ends up dying a miraculously unpleasant death; Saleem himself mutates into a sex-obsessed adolescent….
I feel Rushdie has become like Saleem in the pepper-pots chapter, moving these people around like pieces. Even in a novel about the mutability of fate, politics – let’s face it, the whole of human life – it’s important to have a sense of some kind of continuity. Or, in a novel about the connection between everything and everything else, why (to move the metaphor on) break up characters like pottery and reassemble them as something different?
He does something else, related to this. Some people change, whilst others only appear to. (Brass Monkey/Jamila might in fact turn out to be one of those: it’s hard to believe that particular child growing up into precisely this kind of young adult.) Cyrus-the-great, never a major player, becomes a cult leader through the manoeuvrings of his grasping mother; Mary Pereira’s guilt-inducing ghost turns out, in one crucial scene at least, to be the old retainer returned, leprous and seeking forgiveness (but not before Mary confesses her identity-switching in the hospital); and political leaders, in perhaps the most clunkily obvious of the running gags, turn out to be crooks. All along, Rushdie bangs on about the gullibility of the populace: Cyrus-the-great’s invented background story is taken from Superman comics (which we clever readers spot but those gullible believers don’t); the authorities pretend to find a relic of Mohammed stolen by Aadam Aziz and the Muslims, believing it, turn out to be as gullible as the Hindus; young soldiers believe the nonsense about the perfumed garden they’ll reach if they die in a Holy War…. Despite the contemporary resonance of that last one, it all seems a bit glib to me.
Anyway, Saleem. These chapters are about exiles and losses for him. In the Pepperpots chapter he’s still at the heart of history: he’s present as a coup is planned, present as the president is marched naked from his bed. He’s in Pakistan most of the time as his father finally gives up on the Methwold Estate house and moves to the ironically labelled Land of the Pure. And if he isn‘t present as history is being made, at least there are echoes: on the day that China halts its expected invasion, his parents trick him into a different kind of invasion: once and for all his sinuses are sluiced out and… he loses the last vestige of his telepathic powers. They’d become redundant anyway, up to a point: when he realises he’s been brought up in Shiva’s place he blocks him out of his thoughts – and the others notice and fall away from the forum one by one. Only Pavarti-the-Witch remains when his antenna is switched off… and anyway, as a consolation he gains the sense of smell he first mentioned in one of the earliest chapters, the one that can sniff out more than physical smells. Like his single aunt’s jealousy and… other stuff. Why am I telling you all this?
Other things about Saleem. He fancies his not-quite sister, Jamila Singer, and she is appalled: despite not being related to any of the family by blood, Saleem is never once treated as anything other than a brother or son. (He discovers this love though the good offices – I said offices – of a 512-year-old whore who imitates a smell that drives him nuts – and it’s Jamila’s smell.) And by the end of Book 2 he’s a lost soul, driving his scooter around Karachi (?) while the bombs drop. Only three bombs land, he tells us – not that we believe him, because we’ll understand the symbolism when Book 3 begins (I peeped) – and they kill his family. How we laughed. No bombs drop on Saleem, but he is knocked on the head by the spittoon whose provenance now eludes me. It kills him, sort of, but not quite. Instead, he’s purified, and it’s about time too.
First four chapters of Book 3
Years have passed. Five years, and there’s another war: the two wings of Pakistan are slugging it out and it isn’t pretty. Meanwhile we understand what Saleem’s purification entails: in a Bollywood-style old chestnut plot twist Saleem seems apologetic about – it’s embarrassing – he’s lost his memory. Equally far-fetched – and equally true, he assures us – is his complete loss of the ability to feel anything. He can still have sex, as the young girl who cleans the latrines lets us know, but sensations? Nothing. Rushdie piles on the alienation the reader might feel: not only is the now adult Saleem remote from the world, he’s remote from himself: he often refers to himself in the third person. Finally, he’s distanced from the reader by the cinema-trailer style of the narrative and, as Book 3 goes on, the deliberate credibility-stretching (or credibility-flouting) bizarreness of events.
He’s in the army now, a kind of idiot savant. His talent is olfactory: he’s his unit’s only human tracker dog. He’s also attained a kind of religious status, but accidentally: as the ‘Buddha‘ – which simply means old man – he sits under the tree and attracts awed speculation. Can he really be the brother of the legendary Jamila Singer? And, in a trend that carries on from the later chapters of Book 2, we get ever more of the historical context of his life. I suppose that even when the events Rushdie describes were in the fairly recent past – seven or eight years before the novel’s publication – they weren’t at the front of any Western reader’s mind. (Ok, in about 1982 when I first read it – did I mention that? – they weren’t in the front of my mind.) Now, 30-odd years on, all we’re left with are the brutalities of a dirty war told in that winning way this narrator has: it’s clownish, it’s a given that politicians and generals are entirely without scruples, it’s full of horrors encountered almost routinely.
Rushdie doesn’t push any particular envelopes in describing the atrocities: the squalid politics, the summary executions of civilians, the wholesale rape and murder of women (not necessarily in that order): by the early 1980s this kind of reporting wasn‘t old hat, but it wasn‘t ground-breaking either. What Rushdie does, of course, is to make everything farcical, like a particular kind of agitprop theatre in which the anarchical humour of clowns mutates quickly into something darker. Those guns turn out not to be toys after all.
Does it work? Up to a point. The way Rushdie reveals unspoken-of horrors is like what Vonnegut did 20 (?) years before in relation to the horrors of the Dresden firestorm in Slaughterhouse Five. And like Billy Pilgrim in that novel, Saleem is blown about like chaff by forces too big to imagine. What’s a man to do? He ends up leading the three clowns of his unit on a wild goose chase, away, anywhere – and they end up in a jungle out of a different kind of story where phantasmagorical events give us a picture of the confusion in their heads.
But they get out on a magic tidal wave (records, Saleem finds it necessary to tell us, say nothing of a tidal wave that October). Fine. Except, one by one, the three clowns are killed. Don’t expect authorial compassion from this kind of agitprop author. Instead, he makes the deaths increasingly horrific until the last of the three is torn in two by a grenade. When Saleem carries his top half up a mosque ants start to chew away at the living remains and an open mike carries the boy-soldier’s screams across the city. I’m not sure how Rushdie makes it both horrific and uninvolving at the same time. Maybe this kind of satire never does quite engage the emotions.
Anyway. Saleem needs to be spirited away, sharpish. Luckily he knows a witch (Pavarti-the-witch from the old days), and luckily he bumps into her. And luckily her party piece is making people disappear. Which she does, to have him magically reappear in India…. Unluckily he can’t return her sexual advances: whenever he tries to oblige he sees her face replaced by a horrific version of his sister’s. Ah well. We’ve been in an Indian version of Candide since the start of Book 3, so Saleem continues to be buffeted about. He’s as naïve as Candide, imagining he’s still going to be a mover and shaker – or a shaper, of history – and he goes to the house of his civil servant uncle. He gets somewhere to live, but no entrée into politics. There’s no good news either: he finds out about the deaths of his family all those years before, and mourns for 400 days….
The real movers and shakers are turning out to be the Gandhi family – his description of one of the sons as ‘labia-lipped’ sums up the contempt he always shows when referring to them – and a certain general whose knees are so big they show through the trousers of his uniform. Saleem now is – what? – little more than the hapless witness of cruelties he can do nothing about. Which is a tricky place for any author’s main character to be. What’s Rushdie going to pull out of the hat – or any of the other magicians’ receptacles he’s so fond of in these chapters? Dunno. But Saleem’s refusal to sleep with Parvati-the-witch has led to her face freezing into a permanent pout – and when Picture Singh, the father of the magicians, tries to persuade him to marry her he pretends to be impotent, a fact we know to be true of Saleem the narrator some years later. Oh dear.
A Wedding and Midnight
Saleem’s insistence on his own influence on the great historical sweep of Indian history has long been one of the running jokes of the novel. From early on, his poor memory for actual dates and the order of events has undermined him: it’s as though Rushdie wants to make his narrative as unreliable as Indian-made products – another of the novel’s jokes. What’s become clearer and clearer in Book 3 is that although he has no power over events, he is still a child of his time: everything that happens to him is a result of developments in India and Pakistan – not, he is now beginning to realise, the other way round. The most significant mover and shaker in politics has emerged, and it is a woman: the Widow he has often teasingly mentioned as the begetter of most of his later woes is Indira Gandhi. Saleem/Rushdie gives us a straightforward history lesson about the election fraud she is found guilty of, and the State of Emergency she declares to avoid punishment.
She’s the latest in a long line of women who have shaped his life. He lists all the women we have met in the novel, and now he returns to another one. Pavarti-the-witch, for reasons Saleem decides are all to do with himself (yeh, sure), seeks out Shiva, now even higher up the chain of command in the Widow’s army and a notorious womaniser. There’s a longish section about how the wives of all the high-ups lure Shiva into bed with them, and he gets them all pregnant. Then he dumps them. He’s very happy to get Pavarti into bed, which, according to Saleem, only happens because Pavarti cast a spell on him. She gets pregnant and, as Saleem is convinced she knew he would, he loses interest.
It’s the joke of this chapter that Saleem describes it as though everything Pavarti does is with the sole aim of getting him to marry her: he has convinced her of his impotence, so the only way she can force him to do it is by getting pregnant and getting dumped, literally, near the magicians’ ghetto. Saleem will have to go through with the wedding of the chapter’s title.
[Pause: 3 May 2010. Sometimes you have to take a break.]
Personal and political events are still being linked: As Pavarti arrives at the ghetto people are being tear-gassed all around her as the Widow decides to do something about the protestors. And now dates, which had sometimes been a bit vague, start to become exact again, nailed to national events. On 12th June, as the Widow is convicted of malpractice, and begins the process of wriggling out of it, Pavarti goes into labour. It lasts for 13 days. On 25th June we get another midnight and, simultaneously, Pavarti finally gives birth and the Widow declares the State of Emergency that will lead to the atrocities we’ll hear about in the next chapter.
Of course, the baby isn’t Saleem’s child – but by one of those genealogical contortions this novel is full of, he’s the grandchild of Saleem’s purported parents. And he has ears as extraordinary as the noses of two men: the man who isn’t his real father, and his great-grandfather whose nose-bleed kicked off the whole novel decades ago. I know that Saleem’s nervous guffaws when he sees the huge ears are supposed to remind us of Dumbo – Saleem and Rushdie are fond of American pop culture, as we know – but I’m not sure why. Unless, as Saleem implies over the next few pages, the ridiculous appendages turn out to be a gift, not a liability. And naturally, there’s Indian culture too: Saleem likes to trowel it on. From the loins of the original Shiva and Pavarti sprang elephant-headed Ganesh.
Whatever. In honour of his great-grandfather, the child is named Aadam: a homage to the past and another new beginning…. And we see that the new Aadam really is extraordinary: over the next pages, it isn’t Aadam’s ears that single him out, but the force of his will. He won’t cry, and later he won’t talk… and nothing anybody can do about it will make him change his mind. The child becomes a force of nature that makes Saleem himself feel almost second-rate.
But now we’re getting into the chapter that Saleem doesn’t want to write. It’s full of false starts and sudden refusals at the fence as he lets us know that by any reasonable standards he has things to describe that are impossible to write about. But he does, in the end, and it’s about wholesale politically-motivated sadism. The Widow has Saleem tortured to find out the whereabouts of all the Midnight’s Children, has them all rounded up – and has a team of tame medics remove their testicles or wombs, depending on their sex. (In one gender-swapping case, both.) The motive, according to Saleem, is fear: the astrology-obsessed Indira knows that these people are a danger, wants to stop them and any possible offspring in their tracks….
Before we have time to wonder about offspring that might already have been born, Rushdie whips us to another place quick: Saleem hears that Shiva, alone of the Midnight’s Children, is allowed to get away with a vasectomy because of all his sterling work for Indira. But it’s too late: It’s with a kind of glee that he remembers Shiva’s womanising habits, and that he’s fathered children all over the place. The modesty of the adulterous wives, and the anonymity of the prostitutes Shiva later resorts to, render all the little Shivas untraceable. The symbolism is clear: the Widow can do what she likes to eradicate the spirit of Independence, but it isn’t lying down. In this penultimate chapter, maybe it’s a sign of hope. There are other signs of hope: the woman who put an end to Shiva’s serial adulteries with the middle-class ladies (by telling him they were laughing at him all along) finds him and shoots him dead. Yippee. And the final chapter is called Abracadabra. What’s he going to pull out of the hat? Dunno yet.
Abracadabra – the final chapter
This chapter is even more manically self-referential than the rest of the novel. Saleem takes us back to Bombay, the city where it all started, takes us to hell (not really, but he reminds us as he describes the interior of the Midnite-Confidential night-club that all epic journeys include a visit to the Underworld), reminds us, amongst other self-conscious references to form, of 1001s and draws our attention to the fact that there’s been a chapter for every one of the 31 years of his life so far. And as well as being completely Midnight’s Children-ish, there’s also something of the Victorian novel in its author’s determination to tie up loose ends. So…
…Picture Singh reappears after the upheavals of the State of Emergency, and provides Rushdie with a motive for Saleem to get back to Bombay: to be with Picture Singh for his final snake-charming stand-off with some upstart. Returning, of course, means full circles, and there are constant reminders of what has been lost since childhood. (Some of the ‘where has everything gone?’ moments are surprisingly conventional for such an envelope-pushing novel as this one: I was reminded of ‘My City Was Gone’, a Pretenders song that appeared in 1982. Maybe a lot of 30-somethings were going home after the redevelopments of the 60s and 70s….)
But, crucially, there’s also a whiff of what remains. The smell and taste of a particular pickle take Saleem back through the decades, and he knows it isn’t just any pickle. He goes in search of it, finds out who makes it, goes to see her. It’s another return, this time to Mary Pereira, the woman who did the swapping all those years ago and, as he reminds us, the only mother he has left. So we finally come to understand how Saleem comes to be running a pickle factory throughout the novel’s framing narrative, as we find out who the mysterious woman was whose identity Saleem was so keen to hide in the chapter when he became ill. The pickle-factory gives Saleem another chance to wallow in ‘form’ (a word he uses routinely in this chapter): he has 31 pickle-jars, and all of them contain the chutnified essence of each chapter. All except the last one, and I’ll come back to that….
There are other finishings-off and other beginnings. The baby Aadam, as Saleem has suspected all along, speaks only when he’s good and ready. The word he says is the cabalistic ‘Abracadabra’ and, for Saleem, it signifies the end of the first tranche of Midnight’s Children. And the beginning of the second. The next cohort will know what they want, will not be rendered powerless like their predecessors. What? Optimism, at this late stage in the proceedings?
And Saleem has finally agreed to marry Padma, in spite of -ectomies, on his birthday. But… he keeps the final pickle-jar empty as he decides to tell his own ending in an Independence Day, wedding day, birthday future tense. The cracks that have been getting worse throughout the telling of this story will finally break him up into too many pieces to count. He’ll become nothing but dust and will be trampled underfoot in the celebrations: finally, he has come to see himself as the product of just one of 1001 midnights, and in his final sentence he tells us that none of the children of any of them will be able to live or die in peace. Individuality? Significance? Yes and no.