The present article was conceived as know-how for students in development of skills of reading and interpretation of creative prose. Yet, the circulation of the piece was unacceptably limited – the privation which the task of getting a closer view at Salman Rushdie’s in modern literature hardly deserves; hence this attempt at attracting the attention of wider audience.
The other point of proposing the material for publication, is its total independence from the existing critical material on the matter: at the period of its writing several years ago, the prospects of getting a closer view at the matter were rather limited – the fact that in my opinion, increases the merits and positive aspect of the article as the proof of diverse approaches to the text when compared to the scope of the present-day studies.
The Bridge across the Time-river
Rushdie’s name is universally associated with the drama of his life. But our present work concerns his novel which was written and published before his notorious “Satanic verses”, considered blasphemous by the Iranian religious leader and for which Rushdie’s life is under constant threat and his existence is that of a fugitive.
Salman Rushdie’s second novel, published in 1981, immediately won an international acclaim. “Midnight’s children” was remembered and mentioned in context with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” – the fact which signified the highest praise to a young author.
Rushdie’s literary aspirations were justified with Rushdie’s immense knowledge, reasoning and cool mind. He realized that putting all stakes on the exotics could be proven only in case of some short piece. A big novel always requires the use of the proper amount of the intellectual material and creativity in the form of the work. These elements provide a long-standing impression and interest of the reading public and general audience. Rushdie presents a vast panorama of colorful life in India with exotic characters. He reveals the points that cause an unyielding attention and interest of the international readers – even of those, who are very far from the social and psychological atmosphere of the novel.
Discussing the novel is a complicated task due to a number of its characteristic features and qualities. It takes a lot of concentration to present a sufficient account of the themes of Rushdie’s creative prose. The main feature of the book is its multifaceted structure. Practically, the author does not leave any aspect of life and literary technique untouched. The matters and problems of modern life are intermingled and merged with themes that deal with history and elements of mythology.
This type of parallel vision and comparisons of the modern developments with the historical evolution of India requires a whole set of approaches to the plot, and the tradition of ancient Indian literature and rich folklore helps a great deal. Still, the types of details we mentioned cannot be considered decisive in the rating of the novel and writer. Something else is still needed apart from mastery and literary technique. That decisive element is the general idea and concept of the book, and the material that makes a novel.
The plot of the novel is symbolic: three generations of the Sinai family become the focus of attention. The youngest of the characters – Saalem Sinai - is shown of the same age as the newborn statehood of his ancient motherland.
The oncoming conflicts are easily predictable, due to the specter of various characters given from the very first pages. The difference between the protagonist of the Book One – Aadam Aziz, his wife, Padma and the boatman, Tai – is apparent from the beginning of the story. Padma and Tai must be viewed as the tradition bearers, while Aziz belongs to the category of those few dedicated youths whose life becomes a picture of confrontation of two alien cultures. The development of the plot proves that those who personally introduce changes and become a symbol of innovations are doomed to endless conflict and personal drama.
From the beginning it becomes clear that the ancient traditions and culture of India cannot merge or integrate with English ways and life style, and the chances of a few integrated personalities to introduce European lifestyle into Indian society remain theoretical. At this point, the notorious saying - “East is East, and West is West” – appears justified.
Rushdie merges the Indian tradition of unraveling the narrative - with modern literary approaches to the matter. We are supposed to consider several layers of the novel: the chronological succession of facts that happen with the grandfather and grandson is displayed. The said implies parallels and details that interpret life and reality in context with mythology. The likeness of the main hero to the popular image of God Ganesh – a kid with an elephant head, acceptable to Hindu mentality – is decisive in understanding the idea of the narrator. Identifying him with Ganesh is a tribute to the folklore tradition: he was to be mentioned at the starting point of a long and turbulent history. The life of the protagonists – whether Sinai family, or symbolic protagonists, i.e. the country itself, India or Pakistan or Kashmir – introduces a central idea of the novel. Ganesh was the god of wisdom and prudence, also of good luck, invoked at the beginning of a journey [in the novel it signifies a narrative], or when commencing important work. Ganesh was also mentioned at the beginning of sacred writings because he was the legendary scribe of the Hindu epic – Mahabharata.
Symbolically, the nation itself is a protagonist, with its motherland that became a battleground for its own children. The amount of lapses and ill fate of the nation is almost endless. There are moments when we believe that the whole story is grim, with a sad ending. So, a new Ganesh-figure is summoned as the hope of the optimistic chance and continuation.
Dealing with various layers of the plot is not merely complicated. It also requires an unyielding source of artistic vision, to provide the book with the obligatory element of the masterful lightness and flexibility.
All these elements Rushdie has in abundance, and they are always underlined as the major factor of his literary fame. First of all, he is a brilliant storyteller. He has an inbred skill of keen observance. Equally good is his ability of psychological analysis and sense of humor. These qualities made his work a serious literary event.
Rushdie’s complex vision unites various details and aspects of events. Correspondingly, his passages and sentences reveal several sides of reality. His explanations of facts are deep, interpretations of events - illuminative. At the same time, they are often merged with parody or ironic vision of life.
His style and sentences may sound exotic and Oriental, but at the same time, we can also find the elements of modern approach and mind. His style may appear very urban and remind the prose of other European writers, the works that deal with typical western social problems and describe the character of some average clerk. Still, humor is never missing: “a man whose short sight obliged him to take life one step at a time, which gained him a reputation for thoroughness and dullness, and endeared him to his superiors by enabling them to feel well-served without feeling threatened”.
The examples of Rushdie’s irony are many, and they differ in style: “She has vivid pictures of hell. It is as hot as Rajputana in June and everyone is made to learn seven foreign languages…” or it can be just a game, where he merely plays with words - “The film was an eastern Western”.
Introducing another level to the plot and narrative gives a chance to provide a distant and critical view on the developing conflict and characters. This aspect of storytelling corresponds to the national tradition. From that particular angle, Rushdie makes a parody on the literary criticism: ‘but what verses! Not one rhyme in page after page! …” “A modernist, then?”… “Yes.”… “Never mind about that; art should uplift; it should remind us of our glorious literary heritage!”… ‘I do not believe in high art, Mian Sahib. Now art must be beyond categories…”
Rushdie is a master of fantasy. He can make up a situation and pieces and create a meaningful part of the novel where the rational logic of European tradition can fail. Introducing the elements of the cosmic vision of the universal unity, Rushdie widens the horizons of narration. He creates effective scenes where simplicity of the situation reveals the deep proofs of the mystic philosophy mixed with the everyday existence. The logic of the people shows that no detail should be considered irrelevant to the matter. “According to legend… - Mian Abdullah owed his downfall to… a peacock-feather fan, despite Nadir Khan’s warning about bad luck. What is more, on that night of crescent moons… they both saw it through glass. “These things matter,” the betel-chewers say. “We have been alive too long, and we know.” But people’s reasoning can be also presented as sober opinion. The sorrow is felt in reflections about the destructive role of human beings as regards to land and nature: “In any war, the field of battle suffers worse devastation than either army.”
Rushdie propounds that transformations are natural. But they always bring losses, disillusionment and betrayal, which make life painful and hard to bear. The story is rich with the changes: periods of cloudless and happy spells give way to the dark and sinister events. The period of the country’s transition and dramatic changes terribly affects personal lives, brings dramas and sufferings. Yet, Rushdie describes the details of destruction and fatal mistakes as if in accordance with the Indian idea of Shiva – god of destruction and renovation. So, we have to perceive the force and greatness of ancient culture in this aspect and context.
The most impressive point on the issue of contrast between old and new, is the essential and sharp change of the relationship between Tai and Aadam Aziz after his return from the Heidelberg University. Tai, an old Kashmir boatman, represents adherence to the untouched beauty of the country and its traditions. The love and care that Tai felt towards the young boy before he left for his studies in Europe, immediately turns into a kind of animosity that transforms Tai’s relationship with his former friend. For him, Aziz epitomizes the idea of foreign culture, and foreign signifies alien and hostile to the native. Tai appears too strict in the matters of national and cultural identity. He does not allow any amount of concession or compromise with the changes, the “fashionable innovations” – like western principles and school of medicine. Tai’s grudge spreads from the European-school professionals, like Aziz – to the objects and things, too, that is associated with the exotic profession and the novelties. A German pigskin bag that Aziz brought from Heidelberg, Tai considers incompatible with the notion and obligations of the “true believer” that his former young friend was supposed to be. His anger grows and he becomes capable of subversive intrigue against Aziz, initiating a campaign against the transformed “newcomer”. This part presents a detail that corresponds to the style of social novel with political conflict; besides, it also proves Rushdie’s tendency to link the elements that are distant and apart.
Tai’s image is also interesting because it implies a particular compositional function of the “folk streak” in the prose. This element does not signify only the commitment to traditional norms and ethics. It also introduces several irrational aspects and mysterious details that represent the still undisclosed potential of the nation to defend it. More solemn and mysterious appears a tragic detail with Aziz’ German female friend who suddenly drowned in the delta. This episode is viewed as a grave premonition. The place of the accident Tai had earlier disclosed to his little friend as a magic spot of bad luck and death for women and all kinds of strangers and foreigners. Tai’s words are realized, and the death of the German woman becomes a grim proof of secrets of life or fate.
Rushdie believes that the style of the novel requires presenting certain phenomena inconceivable for human society. Like Garcia Marquez, he suggests that the centuries-old roots of irrational and mysterious forces are still strong in molding the national mentality. The technological and scientific achievements appear absolutely insignificant in the process of establishing the driving principle of life and fate of separate individuals.
Therefore, Rushdie underlines the decisive influence of the past and cultural traditions on the present and successive generations. This opinion is rather popular and merely sharing it cannot make a writer famous. Rushdie’s talent and strong point is seen in his ability to develop the known facts and enrich them with his modern understanding and vision of facts. He often links the past with contemporary views and his interpretation and logic connect the distant opinions like bridges of reasoning. After giving its due to the traditional opinions, he introduces another aspect based on his own – and general cultural experience. He shows that personal fate may contradict even the conditions provided by birth and family. The importance of physical parenthood as a concept is diminished in ‘Midnight’s Children”. The elders fail to mold the future life and career of their offspring. Even worse: they die even without knowing the genuine nature of their children, and leave the knowledge to others who take part in the further development of the sole individuals. Rushdie makes here a philosophical conclusion about the split between the personal spiritual development and the role of genetical belonging. In setting of genetical versus spiritual and circumstantial, the writer puts forward the unperceived processes of Life in general.
At the same time, the literary taste never betrays him and he tries “to dissolve” the important ideas and issues in the easier text of mundane topics and routine. Rushdie’s interest of the essential philosophical problems is often presented as if matter-of-factly, in the dialogue: “I can find out any damn thing! But does it spread to the blessed or divine, too?” - “There isn’t a thing I cannot know!” The answer concerns things and matter, but not processes or events, or persons or individuals. Both these phrases undermine the idea of strong human mind that is capable to deal with the problems which life and existence provides. This is the major philosophical resume of the author who makes this point from the conceptual bridge that he creates in mind to unite the past and the present.
Rather often the paradoxes of the story appear sarcastic towards the reader, but they are balanced with some unexpected twist or logical observation. We are supposed to attribute this manner to the national tradition in art and esthetics. It can be defined as a conscious shift to another theme with the purpose to achieve an objective idea about the general process and a concrete event. As a dedicated constant listener, Padma conveys the eternal image of women who pass the truth and history from a generation to another, like it was with Reverend Mother.
Making a female character a key figure to personify memory, Rushdie almost immediately switches to another tone of self-parody. His irony is limitless, the same as grotesque exaggeration: “the hidden purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 was nothing more nor less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth”.
Sometimes Rushdie's humour is directed at the reader and he ironically describes the comic angle of the process: «I have tried to keep my sorrows under lock and key, to prevent them from staining my sentences with their salty, maudlin fluidities». Still, the overwhelming attitude at the unrealized expectations pushes the protagonist to the philosophical speculations. He tries to clear up the reality to himself: «we are too close to what-is-happening, perspective is impossible, later perhaps analyst will say why and wherefore, will adduce underlying economic trends and political developments… only subjective judgments are possible». And since at the end of the book the pessimistic mood is felt more frequently, he adds: «I am coming to the conclusion that privacy, the small individual lives of men, are preferable to all this inflated macrocosmic activity». Such attitude is of the protagonist, of course. In due course, the author's humor is heard again in the phrase: “People are like cats, you can’t teach them anything”.
Rushdie perfectly balances the sudden enigmatic changes in human fate – with the details of life that make the story a mixture of documentary facts with the traditional folklore manner of fantasy. “To enter the perfumed garden, leaving behind the pitiful world in which a father could not hope to pay his debts and also feed nineteen children” – reminds a kind of fairy-tale plot about an encounter of a weird dervish with a poor orphan-girl. But Rushdie never lets his literary taste to overplay and he moves back to reality with another ironic phrase.
Unusual is an episode of Salem’s affair with an urchin girl. Portraying a skinny latrine cleaner, Rushdie describes her appearance as fairly as he describes other women of higher social stance and position: “she had very nice teeth and … saucy over-the-shoulder glances”. At the same time, this description also corresponds to the truth of her position at the bottom of the social ladder. Sinai’s affair with her is presented as the indiscriminate approach to the facts of life and changes in fate.
The unity of being and existence in general, is an important point of Rushdie’s world outlook and his concept of life. Rushdie describes a mystic picture that implies the sense of mutual awareness of terrified people and wild nature of human beings and of plants and creatures: “their bodies covered with three-inch-long-leeches… full of blood… exploded on their bodies… being too greedy… Blood trickled down the legs and on to the forest floor; the jungle sucked it in, and knew what they were like”. The roots that suck blood in the earth and learn about the intruders sound strange for the mind of European reader but their image corresponds to the Indian mentality and cosmic vision.
Loading the passage with diverse aspects and themes corresponds to that type and style of the world outlook. The following naturalistic scene shows people frightened by diarrhea. This is a conscious and ironic scene comparing the irrational force and wisdom of the nature with the imperfect human consciousness and capacities. In view of that scene, speaking of a rational human society, or social consciousness and self-awareness seems out of question.
The horrible scenes of war are shown in the rich tradition of European prose. The style is descriptive, laconic and reserved. The details, although naturalistic, are presented with the sense and principles of literary taste. The narrative concerns also the paramount idea of human dignity. The following passage is probably the best part written about the atrocities of war: “…so I carried what was now only half of a boy (and therefore reasonably light) up narrow spiral stairs to the heights of that cool white minaret, where… red ants and black ants fought over a dead cockroach…[on the] concrete floor.” Rushdie presents here the philosophy of Life as an Endless Battle of Species. Looking down at historical panorama of Life and Past – from his position inn the Present, Rushdie makes a parallel in the struggle of men and ants. Both – people and ants – share the basic characteristics. Both of them are incapable to solve their problems without bloodshed and sacrifice, because a concept of reason and mind is missing in view of the vital issues. The latter observation is prompted by the very next sentence: “Down below, amid charred houses, broken glass and smoke-haze, antlike people were emerging, preparing for peace; the ants, however, ignored the antlike, and fought on.” Even more is to be said here: each species have their own special destiny and fate to fulfill and complete.
This “view from the bridge” above the flowing time-stream displays another important point of the writer. If fate must be considered decisive, the present historical realities appear aimless and futile. And indeed, quite a few events and changes in the present history of the country appear contradictory. This observation fits also the traditional view of Hindus on a life cycle and repetition of the crucial moments: “Like Gautama, the first and true Buddha, I left my life and comfort and went like a beggar into the world”.
This sentence, in its turn, suggests that Rushdie also shares the idea of archetypes. Salem’s alter ego, Shiva, comes to the mind in the first place. On the other hand, he appears rather bookish, in spite of some details that show his growth – from a boy with difficult childhood – to a fearsome figure and notorious seducer. The plot appears rather too balanced in the details where he is involved. This means that selected details, including the characters and facts, do not seem sufficiently motivated by the developments of the conflict. What makes Shiva's character somewhat sketchy is his principle to break off any relationship with his innumerable spouses after they become pregnant. The only explanation for such behavior can be fear and inability to display normal human feelings. The feelings and expectations of pregnant would-be mothers and their future children do not count for Shiva.
The long passages of present-day history develop bitter experience and thoughts. Sincere and patriotic feelings appear romantic and unrealistic: «my dream of saving the country was a thing of mirrors and smoke». After it, historically wise sound the words: «But I shall only describe, and leave analysis to posterity». Later, there are many cases when Rushdie expresses his conviction that reality can be judged only from the distance. The concept of distance implies not only time that forms the priorities of the story and life. The bulk of the narrative and plot also helps to establish the true value of the ideas and story.
The historical issue is also interesting from another point of view as well. Rushdie presents examples that prove that the level of consciousness is unchanged in the country with strong historical traditions; therefore, the lack of essential changes in the fates and story appears logical.
Rushdie often uses an effective literary manner, creating pictures that introduce a very different note to the immediate moment. In the episodes with banal or conventional elements of life, Rushdie brings in strange and unexpected faces. As a result, the reader deals with the multi-tone picture where the national wedding becomes surrealistically adorned with the masked Japanese tourists, and we face a mixture of colorful and enigmatic elements that hint at some undisclosed mystery.
Surrealistic attitude can be traced in many parts of the book. The birth of young Salem Sinai continues the Ganesh theme in the novel: if father had a huge nose resembling an elephant-child-god Ganesh, his son has big flapping ears. Another interesting detail about the baby-Ganesh-figure is that he never utters a word in the remaining part of the prose. The baby-god's silence signifies submissive waiting for the further proceedings and developments brought by providence. His silence can be also interpreted as the unrevealed developments in the fate of its motherland India.
But even these interpretations often cannot be enough when dealing with Rushdie's prose. «The long-suppressed sounds of his babyhood flooded up behind his lips, and he jammed his mouth shut in fury» - the sentence hints at the secret processes still left undisclosed to the inquisitive eye and mind of Rushdie. Even in the scenes where some conflict is clarified, Rushdie prefers to point at an unconsidered aspect – as if to repeat the unexpected ways of life.
Rushdie's hints always respond to his concept. The final image of the protagonist is a parody on a concept of hero: “nine-fingered, horn-templed, monk’s-tonsured, stain-faced, bow-legged, cucumber-nosed, castrated, and now prematurely aged… a grotesque creature… with one good ear and one bad ear I head the footfalls of the Black Angel of death.” On the surface, this is a parody of a hero and can be explained as Sinai’s defeat. But Rushdie also warns against passivity and hopelessness: “when a man loses interest in new matters, he is opening the door for the Black Angel.” So, instead of interpreting Sinai’s grotesque appearance as a discredit to the idea of the hero, we get the notion of unyielding spirit and belief in the developments – in spite of the hazards of life.
This is the spirit that the narrator brings into the final part of the novel that deals with the social problems; it makes Rushdie's prose different from the relative topics described by other authors.
Rushdie special gift is language, of course. This gift is effectively displayed in the episode of the government attack against beggars and slums. He recreates the grotesque atmosphere and the unfairness of the conflict and abstract power through phrases and official language worked out by the government propaganda. The state has no intention and means to solve the problem of poverty in the country – and is not going to acknowledge its true attitude to the problem. To hide its immoral attitude towards impoverished citizens, the government uses a special language of euphemisms and formal definitions. The «civic beautification programme» appears a sudden attack at the poor and the scene is described richly and colourfully.
The most memorable is the scene with the group of young government clerks and officials who are described in a particularly impersonal and abstract manner. They are a breed of identical mechanical dummies that implement orders without any consideration for human feelings. Their features are a collective mask of standard expression, the face deprived of understanding and compassion. Their sole function is fulfilling orders without questioning or considering the fairness of their ruling force. What makes the scene even more grim and depressing is the feeling of repetition. Rushdie shows the attitude of rulers against the people under rule. We see the same obedient behaviour of a category of society who is ready to fight its own kin - in order to guarantee its own well-being and career. The impression we get from the scene is the constant presence of the oppression and evil. This is another important element of Rushdie's opinion of life.
This scene also relates to the ancient story of pitilessness and violence: «sterilization is being performed!». The scene inflicts the idea of inferiority; it suggests the impossibility of further growth and fertility for the breed of poor. At the same time, this scene has also an allusion to the tradition of romantic vision of the world in the context of literary traditions: «here is Picture Singh rallying the magicians to his side, waving a furious umbrella, which had once been a creator of harmony but was now transmitted into a weapon, a flapping quixotic lance».
Rushdie revives also the memory of Arabic classic - «The Fairy-tales of 1001 nights»: «and he leaps, the knees of the war hero fly through the air, closing like jaws around my neck, knees squeezing the breath out of my throat, I am falling twisting but the knees hold tight». This detail is direct repetition of the scene from «Sindbad's travels» with a malicious dwarf who slyly enslaved Sinbad.
Rushdie's literary mastery is characterized with his manner to transform the majoring motif of the scene into another aspect with different theme. His descriptions and characteristics are crucial from the point of view of their compositional and conceptual function in the novel.
The logical connection of the ideas with the themes involved proves that all the scenes are intrinsic part of the complete panorama of the novel. «I do not know whether Shiva, he left her to the bulldozers… the machines of destruction … the city was being beautified, and if there were a few deaths, if a girl with eyes like saucers and a pout of grief upon her lips fell beneath the advancing juggernauts». Another piece of surrealistic detail follows: « the machines of destruction, rushing to the scene, found only parrots and sun-dials.» And again: «Follow the river… young gymnasts in white loincloths…perform one-arm push-ups…the place of funerals, at which holy fire can be purchased from the keepers of the flame, past floating carcasses of dogs and cows – unfortunates for whom no fire was bought, past Brahmins under straw umbrellas… dressed in saffron»
Generally, we interpret the multitude of contrasting details as Rushdie's belief in the unifying principal of universal connections.
History and reality in the novel are shown as endless and depressing scenes of sufferings. Their repetitiveness suggests the idea of the doom of the thousands of people, almost the nation itself. People are perceived insignificant because of the eternal repetition of their fate. Rushdie stresses that their faces reflect not individuality but hopelessness – and it becomes Rushdie's evaluation of the state of social consciousness and historical moment as well. The vast panorama of reality that he creates becomes a vivid scene of turbulent feelings, hopes and disillusionment – with voices «shredded by the constant, keening expression of their grief».
Emotional approach to the matter molds Rushdie's principle of revealing the metaphysical aspect of reality. It concerns the contemporary political issues and historical figures. Since, according to him - life represents an unyielding struggle of the opposing forces, Rushdie presents the proofs of that. That makes him present the role of Indira Gandhi in the modern history in a rather naïve metaphysical manner. Rushdie makes significant a detail of the former prime-minister's appearance – the black-and-white colour of her hair - the decisive element in the evaluation of her role in the fate of his native land; so he mentions her as «the Madam, the Widow with the party-coloured hair».
In general, «Midnight's Children» resembles a melting-pot of history and individual fates. It is brimful of drama, illusions, and sorrow and laughter. And the most dramatic part belongs to Rushdie who feels himself standing on a bridge above the stream of his personal history, memories and Time.
Index of literature
«Midnight's Children» is a vast panorama of a family history on the background of historical changes in their motherland. The political confrontation between India and Pakistan creates a difficult atmosphere for people to live in peace. The novel is extremely interesting in the unique blend of distant Oriental culture and psychological portraits of the main heroes. The great achievement of the author is that he creates the deeply human images – and the features that make them attractive, are to be found irrespective of their religion. Rushdie proclaims the priority of universal human values that provide people with dignity.