How Midnight’s Children shaped Indian writing in English
India, the new myth -- a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”
Reading these lines as an earnest, perennially tortured teen litgeek troubled about identity, language, life, I felt a deep truth had been revealed about this land that makes us weep with, both, its deranged cruelties and sublime ecstacies.
It is 40 years since Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was first published and now, well into middle age, I marvel afresh at the energy of the writing, the breadth of the subject, and at the author’s magnificent ambition.
Take this paragraph, since we are approaching the 102nd anniversary of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh:
April 13th, many thousands of Indians are crowding through this alleyway. ‘It is a peaceful protest,’ someone tells Doctor Aziz. Swept along by the crowds, he arrives at the mouth of the alley. A bag from Heidelberg is in his right hand. (No close-up is necessary.) He is, I know, feeling very scared, because his nose is itching worse than it ever has; but he is a trained doctor, he puts it out of his mind, he enters the compound. Somebody is making a passionate speech. Hawkers move through the crowd selling channa and sweetmeats. The air is filled with dust. There do not seem to be any goondas, any trouble- makers, as far as my grandfather can see… Aziz penetrates the heart of the crowd, as Brigadier RE Dyer arrives at the entrance to the alleyway, followed by fifty crack troops… As the fifty-one men march down the alleyway a tickle replaces the itch in my grandfather’s nose. The fifty-one men enter the compound and take up positions, twenty-five to Dyer’s right and twenty-five to his left; and Adam Aziz ceases to concentrate on the events around him as the tickle mounts to unbearable intensities. As Brigadier Dyer issues a command the sneeze hits my grandfather full in the face. ‘Yaaaakh-thoooo!’ he sneezes and falls forward, losing his balance, following his nose and thereby saving his life… There is a noise like teeth chattering in winter and someone falls on him. Red stuff stains his shirt. There are screams now and sobs and the strange chattering continues. More and more people seem to have stumbled and fallen on top of my grandfather. He becomes afraid for his back. The clasp of his bag is digging into his chest, inflicting upon it a bruise so severe and mysterious that it will not fade until after his death, years later, on the hill of Sankara Acharya or Takht-e-Sulaiman. His nose is jammed against a bottle of red pills. The chattering stops and is replaced by the noises of people and birds. There seems to be no traffic noise whatsoever. Brigadier Dyer’s fifty men put down their machine-guns and go away. They have fired a total of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd. Of these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark, killing or wounding some person. ‘Good shooting,’ Dyer tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly good thing.’
Numerous books, scholarly texts, memoirs, reports, whole historical tomes have been written about the terrible event, about colonialism, about the brute force of imperialism. Few are as powerful as this paragraph; none have so dexterously woven together the comic and the horrific, history and the absurd.
This sort of thing had been done before, of course, by Marquez and Gunter Grass, and by Laurence Sterne too as Rushdie himself points out in his recent essay in The Guardian to mark the 40th anniversary.
And much like Anurag Kashyap’s brass band-Emosional Atyachar sequence in Dev D references or Kamal Swarup’s Om Dar-b-Dar (1988), Midnight’s Children drew some of its manic essence from GV Desani’s All About H Hatterr. “Hatterr’s dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language,” Rushdie wrote in The New Yorker.
Shobhaa De, as editor of Stardust, attempting to go beyond that same Englishness in the 1970s, used Hinglish, especially Bombay patois, consciously and widely. But the gossip columns of any era are perishable; great literary fiction is not.
Rushdie used the lingo in this story of a generation born “at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps” and in Nehru’s Tryst of Destiny speech, India awoke “to life and freedom”. But his theme was gigantic; its subject a whole people. The novel’s protagonist and narrator Saleem Sinai, a metaphor for the nation, is born at midnight.
“Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world.”
Rushdie’s great gift is his ability to weld comedy and rude truth. The quality is missing in his first book Grimus and is somewhat diminished in his last one, Quichotte. In Midnight’s Children, long before the fatwa attempted to choke him, Rushdie’s Sinai used language in wonderful and, to the Indian, in familiar ways. At last, the wretched alien language we had struggled with in deference to old Macaulay was finally our own.
“Is it possible to be jealous of written words?”
This 446-page work that will surely outlive its author; the 1981 Booker winner that went on to win the Booker of Bookers (1993), and this tome that Wikipedia has helpfully labelled “Novel, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction, Historiographic metafiction” has become that fearful thing — the standard against which any adventurous, half decent Indian English novelist from the subcontinent measures his work. And finds it wanting.
What about those other favourites, The God of Small Things or A Suitable Boy, and from an earlier generation, Malgudi Days? Why don’t they evoke the same sort of feeling? The first is lush, the writing often overwrought; the second and the last with their deceptively simple world creation are impossible to replicate.
How did Midnight’s Children influence Indian English writing? Some still think they can do a Rushdie, throw in a yaara here and a baap re baap there and come up with a masterpiece. Alas, the result is involuntary pastiche.
What the book really gave Indian authors was the confidence to write for a worldwide readership without bleaching out their ethnicity. It gave them the knowledge that their history, pain, suppurating subcontinental sores, Indian irascibility and cussedness, multilingual madness and postcolonial cultural bastardy was interesting and could be understood (sort of) and appreciated in Chinchpokli or Slough, Munger or Riverdale. And could win a big international literary prize.
Most importantly, Salman Rushdie taught the Indian writing in English that he could be true to himself; he could use the language masterfully without being angrez. And that has led to the continuing efflorescence of Indian English writing.