On 14th August 1947, the British colonial authorities, bowing to the will of religious pressure groups, partitioned British India to create the state of Pakistan. Then at midnight the same day, India gained independence from Britain. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a boy born on the stroke of that midnight. The stories of India and Saleem then continue in parallel up until the 1970s.
It’s tricky to sum up such a massive multi-layered story, but I think the Beatles might help:
“It’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”
Salman Rushdie’s advice in Midnight’s Children would be:
“It’s a fool who thinks that the world can be brought together by dividing it up.”
The novel opens with an account of the meeting of Saleem’s grandparents. His grandfather is a doctor, who attends a young woman called Naseem, whose protective father only reveals portions of his daughter for examination through a hole in a sheet. The doctor falls in love with each piece of his partitioned patient and ends up marrying what seems to be a complete woman. Certainly, Nazeem seems to be complete in the sense that she knows everything. Her rigid, intolerant outlook accepts nothing beyond the borders of her own point of view. And so, in appearing to know everything, she allows in only a small part of the world. People partition the world because they think within the borders of their outlook everything will be harmonious and consistent. Each example of doubt results in a hardening and shrinking of the borders. Pakistan faces internal dispute by dividing and becoming two countries. Similarly, Nassem’s borders shrink in upon her until she really only has her kitchen and pantry left.
In contrast, Midnight’s Children is not a narrow morality tale. Along with illustrating the destructiveness of partition, the book also accepts that the hole in the sheet has value. There’s the example of a painter who in a futile attempt to include the whole of life in his art made his pictures ever bigger. This is never going to work. An artist has to find the whole in a small part. He has to take a vast sheet and cut a tiny hole in it. So no simple moral there then. You have to allow in things that confuse the picture.
Midnight’s Children is profound and complex, but also light and humorous. This contrariness is what you’d expect from a book that doesn’t believe in bringing people together by driving some of them out. The book invites you in, welcoming human foibles and variety in all its forms. Food recurs often in the book, particularly pickle, which of course is a blend of ingredients left to marinade together. Midnight’s Children is a massive jar of pickle. Tasting it, the diner might well decide that people should live together in the same way.
We live in a time of renewed nationalism, when Midnight’s Children serves as a cautionary tale.