Appreciating Indian literature isn’t taught in India. Our classics are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Drama is Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. Poetry is Wordsworth and Lord Tennyson, though there is the occasional sprinkling of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Funnily enough, even the translated works are of Anton Chekov or Guy de Maupassant.
That’s ridiculous. Not the least because I feel like I grew up with the notion that Literature-with-a-capital-L must be pre-19th century Europe to count. Everything else was tosh. American literature was an acquired taste (A pity, since The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird are books I will cherish forever). And Indian literature… As Rushdie says in the introduction to his Booker of Bookers winner, Midnight’s Children, an Indian came up to him and said that he could have written this book.
I laugh, but I understand that smug stranger. Midnight’s Children is unabashedly unapologetically unmistakeably India, as no doubt it was meant to be. Padma is instantly recognizable! Of course we know her! When I read the excerpt out loud, I know exactly the tone, the inflection, the exasperation, and so does my (Indian) audience – we laugh and snort and tut as though we’ve rehearsed the scene a million times – and that’s how many all most scenes from Midnight’s Children play out.
Most surprising to me is why Midnight’s Children won the international accolades that it did and why it continues to garner love across borders today. It’s both completely obvious (well-written, compelling characters, funny historical magical) and completely baffling (but it’s so Indian). It’s frightening how ingrained the idea that “our stories” are for “us” is. If a year of reading books from around the world has taught me anything, it’s that “our story” is The Human Story and that “our” experiences are the emotions felt by billions of people around the world! It’s just taken a while for that message to hit home – that my story could be a story that other people could connect with as well; it’s not a one-way street.
So why Midnight’s Children?
I think Midnight’s Children should be taught at schools. Not at the expense of the British classics (or really, Indian classics by British authors); I would be loath to give up Dickens or Wordsworth, but to be studied alongside. The writing is superb. It’s familiar and engaging. The story is told in the same meandering, convoluted and distracted style as grandmother’s tales usually are. The historical context of Independence to Emergency is chilling and a relevant reminder of where we started (with the optimism disease) to what happened (just the disease) to where we are today (is history repeating itself?). And most important, the intentional message that yes, our stories are Literature too.
It reminds me of Adichie’s all-too-familiar experience of how her first stories were “foreign” and her impression that books had to be “foreign” with characters whose experiences she could not personally identify with, to be worth reading or writing about.
My father read my first Rushdie to me as a child. It was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I remember being very amused that the story began with a country with a very ordinary name: “Alifbay”. Amusing because it squished the first two letters of the Urdu alphabet together to create a word. Since the only other thing I remember about the book are the duo “Iff” and “Butt”, it seemed well within character to my little self. Today, it feels like a stroke of genius. If it’s all so ordinary and common, why doesn’t anyone else crack the same bilingual in-jokes as Rushdie? “The Rani of Cooch Naheen” tickles me to no end. If you didn’t know Hindi (or Urdu), a lack of knowledge doesn’t hinder understanding the story, but if you did, “The Queen of Nothing” suddenly popping up in the tale is hilarious!
Midnight’s Children isn’t a breeze to read by any measure. It demands an attentive audience. A novel that weaves such an ornate tapestery of the tale of many lives must be savoured, inhaled, ingested, lived through. It is a web of generations of stories within stories, with Saleem as Scheherazade – the narrator of the tale and also a character in the story being read. In the pickle factory where he lives and writes, he records the various events of his life as different flavours of pickles and chutneys. The novel luxuriates in the myriad fascinating settings of Kashmir, Bombay, Delhi, Pakistan and Bangladesh, packing in an impossible amount of detail, description and story into about five hundred pages. The pickling metaphor makes complete sense. The Children of Midnight are the one thousand and one (another reference to the Arabian Nights!) children born at the same instant as the birth of India and so are irrevocably tied to its fate, or is it the other way around? Blessed (or cursed?) with special abilities (“like the X-men!” exclaimed a friend enthusiastically) of reading minds, controlling destinies, travelling through time, the children’s lives, mainly Saleem’s, are the direct consequence of the happenings in India (or is it India affected by Saleem’s life?). Rich with references to gods old and new, from blue Jesus reminiscent of Krishna to a clever twists in the tale with Shiva-Parvati and interesting observations of the Indian Muslim experience, Midnight’s Children is beautifully wrought by a master storyteller and feels strangely very personal.