“Afterwards, when the buddha reminisced about the war to his uncle Mustapha, he recounted how he had stumbled across the field of leaking bone-marrows towards his fallen companion; and how, long before he reached Farooq’s praying corpse, he was brought up short by the field’s greatest secret.” – Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude
In this brief essay, being a close reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I will focus on two aspects of authorial craft, first on Rushdie’s use of sentences packed with elements of narrative arc and characterization ala’ the opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, and second, the author’s use of extensive monologue and deep inner conversations reminiscence of the long passages of James Joyce and those writing “streams of consciousness”. This brief essay will employ examples from the 2006 edition of the novel.
Saleem Sinai, Portrait of a child as India
Perhaps the story of the independence of India in 1947 is so painful and even so deadly, so bloody, so violent, leading to the birth of “Medusa-like” creatures of a nation-state primarily East and West Pakistan and later Bangladesh, still leaving Kashmir as a pariah region to be fought over tooth and nail and with guns and nationalistic glory, till today, leading to the India-Pakistan arms race and as oftentimes reported over the decades, the atomic bombs tested in the Kashmir region — in all these the story may have inspired Salman Rushdie to place the burden of storytelling on a child, purposely switched at birth, a freak of a child as chronicled, with a constant runny nose and an ugly one to go with the face, protaganized to lead the “Congress” of children (as in the Indian Congress at its infancy) yet endowed with magical powers not only to see the future but to alter its course. The child-nation — perhaps Saleem Sinai – a Salman Rushdie as I hypothesized — is the nation-state-metaphor of India with the poignancy and tragedy of the inability to breathe life and freedom to the Kashmiris. (pg. 533)
In Saleem Sinai, whose last name carried the semantic nobility of Ibnu Sina or Avicenna (pgs. 348-349) the great Muslim physician and philosopher, lies the authorial license of Salman Rushdie to assume different narrative voices — of the “I”, the “primordial and philosophical; ‘I’”, the “you”, and the “he” and the narrator even calling him as a “Saleem Sinai” as a distant character altogether, whose role as a protagonist is akin to the mythical role of the Greek figure of wisdom persona non-grata and metaphysically-ahistorical-metaphysical-teacher-wanderer, Hermes, or in the Islamic myth of similar theological functionality, the figure of the prophet Khidr who is said to be wiser than Moses or Musa.
In authoring and metaphorizing such characterization of the young yet ageing-post-British India, plagued with uncertainties of multiplicities I sense in literary intonation that Rushdie was sympathetic towards the idea of keeping India as a union, rather than see it partitioned and be broken apart and allow the blood of sectoral and religious violence to color the flag of independence (pg. 503). Saleem Sinai, the boy is a metaphor of a young India with hope yet as he was growing up, as his life became enmeshed and endangered by the complex interplay between nationalism and the fatal excesses of it, became not only disillusioned by the consequences of the events within and even beyond his control, and by the gradual unveiling of the secrets, mostly leading to deadly consequences, of the people he knew as well as he loved.
Saleem Sinai is a victim of history he too was part of its creation, albeit like prophecies, meant to be fulfilled through him a “chosen one”. A poignant moment was when, at the beginning of Book Three, Saleem chose to renounce life, to live in the present, to detest the ideas of memory and to not be historied by history and ideology, and to resort to sit under a tree and become, or at least to be perceived as looking like a “buddha”, directing child-soldiers to search for enemies, mostly vegetarians and Hindus, and annihilate them, in the name of the emerging “Land of the Pure” called Pakistan. (pg. 402-403). The scene was set in a killing field of East Pakistan, circa 1947, a place that gave birth to what is now Bangladesh.
In authoring and giving life to Saleem, Rushdie was engaging in a mode of deep reflection and conjuring a sense of alternate history, although not much was narrated of the horrifying deaths of millions that greeted the independence and partition of India.
Rushdie’s Marquezian moments
In his novel, the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote these opening lines to One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (pg. 1)
Interesting, notably, in this line is the completeness of the narrative arc, with characters-setting-plot all in one, as well as the complexity of the theme that foreshadowed the end of one’s life that began with the act of discovery of a father-son moment-of-joyous-learning to the act of demise of a man-society planned-death scene. I consider this a unique Marquezian moment employing the craft of, though simple foreshadowing, tells a complete story of life and death in one sentence, addressing the philosophical question of Fate and Free Will and the hegemonic-ideologic-matrix of human existence.
Using this example of how authors foreshadow, the following passages will illustrate Salman Rushdie’s use of it in controlling the process of storytelling, especially for a novel as complex and linguistically-hyper-innovative such as Midnight’s Children.
In a similar vein as the Marquezian opening, Rushdie wrote:
“Afterwards, when the buddha reminisced about the war to his uncle Mustapha, he recounted how he had stumbled across the field of leaking bone-marrows towards his fallen companion; and how, long before he reached Farooq’s praying corpse, he was brought up short by the field’s greatest secret (p. 428).
Language is proposed to not only represent reality or to misrepresent it, to construct social and psychological reality depending on what analytical framework one uses to analyze the idea of language — not only this as a notion of reality-constructing thought-formation womb of ideational-to-linguistic device of the self, but also is proposed as the shaper and deconstructor of reality.
Rushdie’s Joycean moments
William Faulkner, Virginia Wolf, and James Joyce are master narrators who employed the literary device of “stream of consciousness”, characterized by the character’s use of internal monologue expressed for the public to read. Joyce was fond of using long sentences to express his inner sensibilities as well as insensibilities. It is a powerful literary device which gives the effect of the reader understanding what’s in the head of the character. A wealth of study linking literary work and its relationship with inner-world inner-workings have been produced, to chronicle the use of this device.
Herein lie the idea of inner language, if framed from the (Lev) Vygotskian point of view, as a universe of inner reality itself waiting to define what is outside. This idea of the inner-outer carnivalesque interplay of language that defines “realities-that-too-are-subjective” can best shed light on the use of “stream of consciousness” as authorial strategy.
In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie oftentimes bring readers into a Time-collapsing-Reality-altering excursion of the inner world of the character.
To exemplify the point of Rushdie’s sub- and supra- consciousness depiction of the voice of the main character, as in one of the longest sentences he crafted, in the novel (pgs. 391-393 and pgs. 479-482), characteristic of the intense inner dialogue of Saleem Sinai the child-nation-memory-narrator of Rushdie’s Bakhtinian-Vygotskian postmodern novel of Hindu-epic proportion.
Other authorial strategies to study
Besides the Marquezian-Joycean moments evident in Rushdie’s story of the birth of India, I propose we study other innovative devices the author used, to make this story not only a cultural-philosophically engaging one but a banquet of linguistic delight with innovative dishes for one to enjoy and in the process see how new words and phrases and sentence-structures are invented, at times breaking away from the standard norms of the English Language teachers of the language attempt to teach to new and novice users. (Here I am reminded of William Shakespeare as the inventor of more than 2000 English words and phrases of which Rushdie was heavily influenced by when asked in an interview)
Among these are: bracketed explanation, erratic but strategic shifting of narrator’s voice (Saleem the ‘buddha’ moment, pg. 425), combined words to signify intensity, usage of foreign words left untranslated, seemingly-hanging-dangling sentences, character’s use of dialect and idiolects (Reverend Mother, Tai the boatman, the three child soldiers and one died as a jihadist, the Daccan scavenging peasant, Eva, etc.), hybridizing food and intense feeling and big emotions (in describing Saleem’s scheming and hypocritical Aunt Alia), use of colors to describe intensity of emotions (scene at the Pioneer’s Café, pg. 238-239) complex and layered metaphorism, and most importantly the infusion of magic into realism to heal the wounds of history (throughout the book, especially at the scene of the congress of the midnight’s children, on pg. 291-294).
In the tradition of what I’d call a Rushdian narratival absurdity and his playfulness-laced-with-deadly criticisms, I discerned, at the novel’s ending, the major shift of voice in which he confessed that in the story, he falsified/fictionalized the idea of the protagonist being switched at birth – after all! This is an irony, not only from the idea of deconstructing the act of authoring itself, but to do a “mega-trick” on the readers, after 500-pages of the novel (pgs. 510-511), tells me one thing: one needs to do a meta-reading of the Midnight’s Children and see the Bakhtinian (“the death of the author” and perhaps his reincarnation next) logic in seeing through Rushdie’s anguish and longingness for peace and philosophy, rather than his warning to others in engaging in the patheticness and pathos of politics. (see Saleem’s final speech to the Midnight’s Children, pgs. 500-502)
These are amongst the key elements of the style worth exploring, making the novel a document of immense value on the creative use and transmogrification of the English language
Elegantly crafted One-Hundred Years of Solitude-like opening passages used as event-shifting-prophecy-crafting narrative-arc markers throughout, useful as page-turners in mid-chapters, the use of extensive one-paragraph passages to capture the cyberneticism and existential moments of the protagonist Saleem Sinai’s shifting, evolving, mutating states of consciousness ala (James Joycean mode) – in a “neurological-fictional-narratival mode”, as I see it – these two are the key elements if style I focused in this brief essay: the Marquezian-Joycean moments in Salman Rushdie’s modern nation-and-narration-self-and cultural-location-postmodern-novel, Midnight’s Children.
I end this brief analysis of authorial craft with a passage emblematic of the theme of the story, of longingness of the conclusion to personal history and to return to the “motherland” or the “fatherland” – a passage conclusive inconclusive, a sartor-resartus, of the tailor retailoring, of doing and undoing, framed by the Marquezian mode, albeit in reverse and in retrospect:
“… and I see that I shall never reach Kashmir, like Jehangir the Mughal Emperor I shall die with Kashmir on my lips, unable to see the valley of delights to which men go to enjoy, or to end it, or both; because now I see other figures in the crowd, the terrifying figures of a war-hero with lethal knees, who has found out how I cheated him of his birthright, he is pushing towards me through the crowds which is now wholly composed of familiar faces … “(pg. 533).
And thus, poetic justice is served when Saleem Sinai meets his nemesis, Lord Shiva reincarnated. When the young India meets the forces of destruction, in a yuga, or a tumultuous period of an illusionary world!
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. (1998). One Hundred Years of Solitude. (New York: HarperPerennial)
Rushdie, Salman (2016). Midnight’s Children. (New York: Vintage International)