Book 3 Of Midnight’s Children – Wrapping Up Week 4 Read-Along

One month has passed since I have joined my blogger friend and her friends and her extended friends to read Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”.  I can be a slow reader when the topic gets heavy and indeed, I am happy to have completed my reading in time for the closing of this read-along activity.  When did I finish reading it?  The time is important too.  I could have crossed the finishing line on Saturday evening.  But I was too tired.  A fine book like this does not deserved to be rushed through.  So one fine Sunday morning, to the best of my recollection, the moment has arrived.  Hooray!

Instead of reading Author’s note upfront, I saved it to the end, after I have devoured 647 pages worth of literature.  I wanted to read the book with a rather clean slate of mind, and then I look upon his note for validation.  I don’t find “Midnight’s Children” an easy read at all.  I suspect quite a few friends of mine would have said the same.  When I read the author’s note, this bit struck me.

In the West people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.

I am not from the West.  Neither am I from India.  I don’t see it as a fantasy book because I live in Southeast Asia.  Nor do I possess sufficient tradition and background to understand the Indian history.  Had I read it purely from the fantasy perspective, it would have been quite a fascinating read.  Unfortunately, I was unable to suppress my inquisitive mind.  There is so much I wish to learn and understand – the history of India and the rhythms and thought patterns of Indian language.  I could tell you in plain English that in “Midnight’s Children”, the author attempts to tell the history of a nation and the population of hundreds and millions through one character and leaving the readers to imagine the rest.  That was my expectation before I started reading the book.  But nothing beats actually experiencing it and to really understand what it means by that.  In that sense, this book is a masterpiece.  While “Midnight’s Children” appears to lack in entertainment value (the character or characters are hardly lovable, no offence to India as a nation) – most likely due to the fact that I am neither from the West nor from India and I am neither reading it as a fantasy nor a history book – the construct of the plots and the characters and the carefully researched materials that span a few nations, a few decades; putting this concept in writing that is of a high literature value is respectable.

In book three, Saleem Sinai has moved to Bangladesh.  The story is dark, bloody, and gloomy.  Have a brief and closer look into Bangladesh’s modern history, you can see why this part of the book is written as such.  Book three is also the section whereby the historical figure Indira Gandhi is introduced.  Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of the Republic of India for three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977 and for a fourth term from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, a total of fifteen years (taken from Wikipedia).  Now that I have read the brief note on Indira Gandhi and the related historical events, this entire book makes so much sense.  If the main character Saleem Sinai born on August 15, 1947 denotes the metaphor of the birth of a nation, his son born on June 25, 1975 signifies the Emergency – one of the most controversial times in the history of independent India when a state of emergency was declared.  Now you can see why Indians would read this like a history book while the Westerners may read it as a fantasy.  In my personal life, I have enough Indian friends and colleagues that make me wanting to know more about the Indian culture.  Hence the steep learning curve I am willing to endure.

Back to the author’s note, it is evident that some of the characters in “Midnight’s Children” are inspired by Salman Rushdie’s family and friends.  Is this an autobiography?  Although the author was born pretty close to the birth of India (57 days earlier), I still think that Saleem Sinai is India, more than Salman Rushdie.  What do you think?

External Link: Biblojunkie’s Week 3 Wrap-Up

Book 2 Of Midnight’s Children – Wrapping Up Week 2 & 3 Read-Along

I read somewhere that vocabulary defines one’s wisdom.  In the sense that it is a tool – perhaps one major tool – to express oneself.  The more diverse and vast one’s pool of vocabulary is, the more precise one’s idea can be articulated.  It is observed that most adults after leaving school seldom learn new words.  Perhaps ten or twenty new words a year?  That is the reason why I always get excited when I come across a writer who is gifted with the ability to articulate ideas with exactitude.  Even if I have to research on why certain words are chosen for a given context, I am happy to do so.  It affects the fluidity of reading.  But I hope that in my subsequent reading – same author or same book – I would have a much enjoyable ride.  That also explains why I prefer to stick to a certain set of authors.  Salman Rushie is one.

OK.  I survived book two of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”; 313 pages in total.  In book one, I have spent much time catching up on the culture and history of India, Pakistan, and Kashmir.  In book one, I have read the story of Saleem Sinai’s grandparents all the way till the time when Saleem is born – midnight of August 15, 1947 when India has gained independence.  Book two is about Saleem’s childhood, all the way till he is 18.  It is a story mashed up with the history of India and Pakistan.  It is chaotic.  It can be confusing.  The chapter “The Kolynos Kid” sheds some light on how “Midnight’s Children” can be read.  A ‘dualistically-combined configurations’ in connecting the characters literally and metaphorically to the fate of nations.  Specifically speaking, actively-literally, passively-metaphorically, actively-metaphorically, and passively-literally.  What a minute, you may say: What are you talking about?

Combining active and literal mean the actions of the characters alter the course of historical events.  That is to say, these are works of fiction.  Nice and simple.  Passive and metaphorical refer to the socio-political trends and events by their mere existence affects the characters metaphorically.  That means to say one has to interpret a certain plot, usually abstract in nature, in an attempt to decipher which historical incident it derives from.  Passive and literal means that the story of the characters happens against a historical background, which is also the most intuitive to the readers (or so it seems because unfortunately, mixing the four modes makes it confusing to read at times).  The last one is active and metaphorical.  It is the most bizarre of all.  Things that are done by or to the characters are mirrored in the microcosm of public affairs – to be symbolically at one with history.  That is when interpretation can often run wild.  To me, understanding these four modes of dualism helps me understand the book better.

One thing I admire about “Midnight’s Children” is the effort Rushdie has put into the planning of the story.  Often, the ending of the sub-plot or the character is foretold and it is a matter of telling the story in reverse.  Rushdie has even planned out where the middle of the story is to be (titled as “Alpha and Omega”).  I have yet to read the author’s note.  If I could ask Rushdie a question on “Midnight’s Children”, that would be: Did you create the storyline backward?  How did you know that “Alpha and Omega” would be the middle of the book?  Do you have a laundry list of metaphors and what they mean to share with me?! OK.  Three instead of one question.

Out of the 15 chapters of book two, which are written in a diverse style, I enjoy reading the beginning of “At the Pioneer Café” a lot.  Below is an excerpt taken from the last sentence of the first paragraph.  In case if you wonder why it is written that way, the narrating character is having a bad fever.

Now only she and I and no more screams the Widow’s hand comes hunting hunting the skin is green the nails are black towards the corner hunting hunting while we shrink closer into the corner our skin is green our fear is black and now the Hand comes reaching reaching and she my sister pushes me out out of the corner while she stays cowering staring the hand the nails are curling scream and mmff and splash of black and up in to the high as sky and laughing Widow tearing I am rolling into little balls the balls are green and out into the night the night is black …

Back to the read-along that Jo is hosting, do head over to her latest post and read the wrap-up and further discussion questions.  After my week one wrap-up, looking back, I think I may wish to answer some of the questions after I have completed my reading.

Book 1 Of Midnight’s Children – Wrapping Up Week 1 Read-Along

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

Nov 12 – Dec 13: Midnight’s Children Read Along!

Another good reason of why I blog is because I get to meet like-minded bloggers online over time.  Call it mutual support or mutual respect or simply mutual pollination of ideas, I treasure sustained mutual bumping of each others’ websites.  Some last over the years.  Writing can be a lonely affair.  It is always good to have a handful of visible companions while finding my ways in this mental jungle of mine.  Monthly page-views mean little if none translates into a visible dialog, a visible relationship.

OK.  Enough digression.  Long story short, Jo (from UK) and I both need a reading buddy for Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”.  And she has this idea.  Why don’t we  start a read along and in the mist of it, get readers to join us online?  Great idea.  I said on!  Over the weekend, she has come out with a thick business-like e-proposal detailing the logistics and the options for this read along exercise.  Goodness gracious me!  Jo means business.  Even though I fear of reading Salman Rushdie’s novels, I have this urge to grind through it.  Who knows?  I may enjoy the process.

That was back in August.  Since then, 9 other bloggers (together with their respective readers) have joined.  The idea is pretty simple.  Over the read along period between Nov 12 and Dec 13, book club discussion questions will be hosted at her website every week.  You can discuss these questions over at her website or you can express your views in yours and have the link sent to Jo.  She will do the collation and etc.  If you do wish to get your readers of your website to participate, feel free to sign up at her website.


Today, I did a lengthy count (and I can only count the things I can see, such as comments posted in my site).  85% of my active readers are female.  12% are male and the remaining 3% are unknown.  Judging from what I see on the street, in the bookstores, and in the library, I reckon more girls read books than guys do (and wouldn’t you wonder why?).  So, I am expecting A LOT of you heading over to Jo’s website and join us for this read along.  Yes? Of course, I need some guy power too though realistically speaking …

External Link: More details on read-along at Jo’s website.