Anatomy of a hit


Just 11 days to go for the release of Salman Rushdie's memoirs. Here's an essay I wrote about his most popular work of fiction during my stint at Columbia Journalism School

In the summer of 1981, Salman Rushdie delivered a lecture at the India International Centre in New Delhi. The crowd grew so “unexpectedly large that it had spilled out under the trees and loudspeakers had to be set up to broadcast his voice, a voice that everyone present recognized instantly as being the voice of a new age: strong, original and demanding of attention,” recalls Anita Desai in her introduction to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
            Rushdie’s second novel is an arresting allegory for independent India that’s narrated through the life of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – just like his country. He’s endowed with a strong sense of smell, a dripping nose and the ability to teleport himself to wars.
Midnight’s Children is considered the first “Indian” novel because it examined India as a whole rather than being rooted in a particular region.  It gave confidence to future Indian writers that they could write about their country in an English that’s distinctly Indian. It showed publishers in the West that books by Indian writers can be commercial successes. Thirty-one years later, the filmmaker Deepa Mehta is adapting the flamboyant novel into a movie that’s scheduled to release in December this year.
The novel attracted laudatory reviews and commercial success in India when it was published. “It is, in fictional terms, one of the most ferocious indictments of India’s evolution since Independence,” wrote Sunil Sethi in the India Today magazine in 1981. “Salman Rushdie, as a novelist, has chosen his weapons of crucifixion, as few journalists, analysts, soothsayers or historians have or possibly can.” By 1984, the book had sold 4,000 hardback copies and 45,000 paperback editions - substantial figures for an infant publishing industry.
Midnight’s Children closed the Anglicized chapter of Indian writing in English. Rushdie’s predecessors like GV Desani and Mulk Raj Anand depended on Western sensibilities for their success. Desani’s 1948 book All About Mad Hatter was the story of an Anglo-Malay man in search of enlightenment. It created a stir in the literary salons of London rather than the sedate bookstores of India while Anand’s work explored the themes of untouchability. The English poet Anthony Burgess wrote the preface to All About Mad Hatter while EM Forster wrote one for Anand’s book, Untouchables.
The pages of Midnight’s Children opened readers to themes that were never before written about, only experienced. Partition, marginality, abuse of political power and being a Muslim in India bind the pages and the boisterous generations of Saleem Sinai’s family. In doing so, Midnight’s Children followed the path of European and Latin American post-modern literature that mirrored a nation’s progress, in works by such authors as  Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Its success gave a future generation of Indian writers like Mukul Kesavan and Aravind Adiga the confidence to write ambitious novels about India. Kesavan’s 1995 book, Looking Through Glass, is an odyssey through an India gets divided along sectarian lines en route to Independence. Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, touched on themes endemic in contemporary urban Indian discourse: corruption, Hindu-Muslim tensions and an economic rivalry with China.
A contentious element of Midnight’s Children is its prose. Rushdie uses translations of Indian idioms and Bollywood lyrics to make the novel accessible to a wider readership. “His real focus was on Indians speaking in English,” said Amardeep Singh, a professor of Indian literature at LeHigh University. “He showed the world that the language belongs as much to India as it does to the United States and the United Kingdom.” Some critics believe that this was Rushdie’s attempt to make the book appealing to a Western audience. Rushdie himself claimed that he never had an audience in mind for the book. “I didn’t conceive of an ideal reader except perhaps myself,” he said in an interview with the India Today magazine in 1981. “I was trying primarily to write the kind of book about India I would like to read.”
The India of Midnight’s Children was churned in a cauldron fired by the forces of economic liberalization. It gave birth to a new India whose global ambitions and darker realities are now explained by writers like Suketu Mehta, Aravind Adiga and Sonia Faleiro. Their work seems closer to the phrase ‘Indian writing in English’ than Midnight’s Children. “When I teach Indian literature, Midnight’s Children is a tough sell to my students,” said Singh. “They find it hard to accept the novel as Indian. On the other hand, when I mention Suketu Mehta’s book, their jaws drop.” It is important to distinguish that Midnight’s Children is a novel whereas Mehta’s book, Maximum City, is a riveting memoir about contemporary Bombay. Rushdie uses fantasy and magic realism to tell an allegorical story. Mehta, on the other hand, explains how the city of his birth has changed over time.
 One reason why “Indian writing in English” has come to seem antonymous to Midnight’s Children is the novel’s central theme: partition. In the 31 years since its publication, India has seen the birth of a new generation to which Singh’s students belong. They never experienced the trauma of 1947 nor the excesses of Indira Gandhi’s political power. The only bridge that lessens the gulf between these Midnight’s Grandchildren and those years are history books. Another reason why these students disconnect India from Midnight’s Children is India itself. In his novel, India experiences authoritarian rule and fights full-scale wars with Pakistan. The book portrays Indira Gandhi as the root cause of all that plagues democracy in India and suggests that her departure will ensure the country’s progress. Instead, we’ve made more peace with our neighbor than wars and never experienced authoritarian rule. Indira is no longer alive but her departure hasn’t reduced India’s deep social, political, sectarian and regional fissures.
Midnight’s Children, however, set a frame for a future generation of Indian writers who chronicled the chasms of India in their fiction and non-fiction works. Be it Kesavan or Adiga, Faleiro or Mehta, they all write for India and of India. Their works condition the English language to Indian sensibilities and reflect their own experience with the country. Back in 1981, the novelist Clark Blaise wrote “Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.” The last 31 years have proved him right.