Before I write a wrap-up of my week one’s read-along progress, I have two confessions to make. This activity was first conceptualized with Jo – the UK blogger – and I commenting on a list of books that we wish to have started reading but now collecting dust at our bookshelves. You see, I have Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” for years and have even downloaded a reference guide (as that book is known to be cryptic in nature) ready to have a go with it. That never happens. For reasons beyond my comprehension, I was (still am in a certain extend) convinced that I own a copy of his other book – “Midnight’s Children”. Maybe I do have a copy lying somewhere in my house. Or maybe I have been thinking about reading “Midnight’s Children” for so long that its virtual existence has become closer to my home than, say, a bookstore. On Nov 12, the Friday that this mini-global read-along began, I was frantically searching high and low for my copy of “Midnight’s Children” but it was nowhere to be found. Have I accidentally purged the copy during one of my periodic overly enthusiastic spring cleanings? I hope not. Cursed at my procrastination (to be fair to Jo, this read-along has been announced months in advance) and my wild imagination of this virtually non-existence book, I reserved a copy from our national library. I collected the book last Tuesday but the condition of the book is so poor that had “Midnight’s Children” been as light as, say, a chick-lit, I would still be able to mentally bypass its yuckiness and focus on its content. This book is anything but. So last Thursday evening, I have decided to invest my 6 days worth of lunch money and purchase a copy. I am late for the game and that is embarrassing. But it is better late than never. My errors in my previous narration of my story thus far are purely unintentional – unlike Rushdie’s treatment to the narration of the book, which I am still undecided if his errors are indeed purposeful or accidental or a bit of both.
My second confession is that vocabulary is never my strength. And I have this dislike to guess the meaning of words. In the past, what I would do is to research on every word I did not fully understand and document them into an Excel spreadsheet together with an excerpt of the literature of which that word was used. Alas! I lost the password to that spreadsheet and so in finality, I put that obscure hobby of mine to rest, in peace.
Obsession dies hard, and hence, I crawled through the pages of “Midnight’s Children” looking up all the words that are unfamiliar to me. To be fair, a lot of them are references to the Indian culture – such as pice, hartal, godown, kurta, and the ingredients of food commonly found in India – or to other religions I am not familiar with – such as Hinduism and Islam. And I stopped my progress numerous times to research further on the buildings – such as Chandni Chowk, Red Fort, and Meenakshi Temple (I even took time to admire the images of these buildings) – and geographic locations mentioned in the book as well as the historic background that is foreign to me. Like the Burma Campaign, the Rowlatt Act, and the birth of Pakistan and India. From the historical perspective, the Rowlatt Act enacted by the British has led to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Rushdie tells a story of the same massacre through one character – the grandfather of Saleem Sinai – in a rather comical manner. The body count is close to what has been documented in Wikipedia. Why am I so obsessed with numbers? Because I am mentally prepared on Rushdie’s method in encrypting certain messages in form of numbers. If possible, I would cross reference the numbers to the historical events and attempt verify where those segments of the story are based upon. Still, there are numbers that I am unable to decipher, as of now. Like that 8,420 pie-dogs or 630,000,000 particles of anonymous (for the latter, is he referring to the population of India back then?). And still, there are words that do not exist in the dictionaries, that would take me probably another read to research upon them. I am also intrigued by some of the references to well known Indian stories (not to me of course). Such as Ramayana and Ravana. And when Rushdie briefly mentions the curse Babar has on his son Humayun that all [Indian] schoolboys know, I put down the book and switched to Internet. What is that curse about? I found two possible explanations. Either it is a curse of being appointed as a Maghul Emperor and have to face the betrayal by close relatives (Babar or Babur being the first Maghul Emperor and Humayun as the second). Or more likely, it is related to the Kohinoor diamond that its successive royal owners either suffered untimely death or lost their kingdoms. Now you know how I read this book.
“Midnight’s Children” is divided into 3 books. 647 pages in total (for my edition). Book 1 occupies 161 pages of the entire book. It is a good logical break as far as this 4 weeks read-along activity is concerned. I am still undecided if the next logical break due next week should be the end of book two – 289 pages in total. If you have not started reading with us, I urge you to join us today. This book is a must read, from the literature point of view. I would not have touched it had I not committed to this read-along. I am a turtle reader and aim to complete the race one page at a time. You too can do it!
In book one, Rushdie tells a story through Saleem Sinai who was born on the day when India gained independence, at the stroke of midnight. And through Sinai’s narration, we travel back in time to how his grandfather met his grandmother, how his father met his mother. It is more than a journey through time. It is a journey through Kashmir, Amritsar, Agra, and Bombay; through the old and the new India. Book one is a complete unit that has a climatic ending – a single celebrated event of the birth of a nation and the birth of the main character. The author manages to tell a story of a population of millions through one character. That is remarkable.
Now, back to the read-along activity, my responses to the questions posted by Jo are as follows. As my reading progresses, I may change my mind for the first 5 questions.
1. Saleem describes himself as ‘handcuffed to history’. What do you think that this means, and do you think that this is true of him?
Take it at face value (after reading book one), it means that his destinies are chained to those of his country. He has a strong belief that the events dated all the way from his grandfather’s time have led to his very existence, and would continue to affect his life. In parallel to this, I think Rushdie wishes to say that the historic events dated all the way from Kashmir 1915 have led to India and Pakistan’s independence, and the destinies of these two countries would continue to be chained by Earl Mountbatten’s act of splitting British India in 1947.
2. The prose of Midnight’s Children has a distinctly filmic quality. Why do you think this is, and what would be the implications of making a film of the novel?
It does read like a Bollywood production. Would it work if making “Midnight’s Children” as a film? Personally I think it would be a difficult task. As some of the characters I suspect are used to refer to other neighboring countries or concepts. And the flow of time is extremely fluid in the book. It would be interesting to see how a filmmaker can transform this book into a film.
3. Unlike many novels, Midnight’s Children is not written using a linear narrative. Why do you think that Rushdie uses this technique, and do you think that it is successful?
Thank God the story is not told linearly. Otherwise, it would be rather boring, like reading a history textbook. This style of narration builds a strong linkage between the present and the past. I think that is why.
4. Saleem makes many errors in his narrative – both accidental and purposeful. Why do you think that he does this, and why does he not bother to correct his mistakes?
To be honest, I suspect something is wrong with the narration but I cannot pinpoint in exactitude. That may explain why there are parts that I find harder to follow. But say, if his narrative is erroneous, it is not a surprise. Because any story told in first person form is not to be trusted in totality, compares to a story told in third person form.
5. What is Padma’s role in the novel?
A meta-story, it seems to me. A way to get readers’ involvement with the narrator, Saleem. At times, I found myself saying the exact same thing as Padma. And I giggled.
6. “What is so precious to need all this writing-shiting?” asks Padma (p. 24). What is the value of it for Saleem, do you think?
[Spoiler Warning:] Good question. Consider the fact that the entire book one Saleem spent on narrating does not even come from his true family! It is probably a birth story that he would not have hoped for (like the could-have-been unified India). But since he has fully embrace himself as not only the children of midnight, but also children of time, it would appear to me that the history he inherited is just as important.
7. Saleem often appears to be an unreliable narrator, mixing up dates and hazarding details of events he never witnessed. He also draws attention to his own telling of the story: “Like an incompetent puppeteer, I reveal the hands holding the strings…” (p. 65). How much faith do you put in his version of events?
Not much. That is why I research on the Internet whenever some historic events are being mentioned (for I cannot research on the the fictitious lives of Saleem and his family). Some characters are real, some are not. In any case, that is forgivable. Saleem has not mentioned how his story is based upon (except some photographs). That is the beauty of it all.
8. “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world … do you wonder, then, that I was a heavy child?” (p. 109). Is it possible, within the limits of a novel, to “understand” a life?
Not within a novel, no. But a novel does not need to provide readers all the intrinsic details. The rest of the details are supplied by the readers (that is why I need to research on the Indian / Pakistan / Kashmir history because I have little).
9. Saleem’s father says of Wee Willie Winkie, “That’s a cheeky fellow; he goes too far.” The Englishman Methwold disagrees: “The tradition of the fool, you know. Licensed to provoke and tease.” (p. 102). The novel itself provokes and teases the reader a good deal. Did you feel yourself “provoked”? Does the above exchange shed any light on Rushdie’s own plight since The Satanic Verses?
Teased yes, provoked no. Probably because I do not have a strong opinion on the history and religion of that region? Since “The Satanic Verses” is published after “Midnight Children”, does that mean that Rushdie has foretold the coming of “The Satanic Verses”? I am not sure.
10. How much of the novel, do you think, is autobiographical?
After reading this question, I have found out that Rushdie was indeed born in 1947, the exact year of Saleem’s birth. I have not read book two and three. If Saleem ends up marrying and divorcing and dating a few women of gorgeous quality like Rushdie does in real life, I may be able to give a more confident answer to that.
External Link: Week 2’s Discussion Questions