I might have bitten off more than I could chew with this month’s selections for the Read the World project. I chose India as my country, reserved or ordered the books of my choice…and realized too late that India, having a long history, had equally long books. The history book alone has eaten up most of my time. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was definitely not a small book. But I made it through.
Saleem, the protagonist, tells the story from over 60 years in the future by starting with his grandparents, how they met and married. By the time Saleem fully enters the story, it’s August 15, 1947 at exactly midnight and the moment of his birth. It happens to also be the moment that India and Pakistan were partitioned. So Saleem is the exact age of the new India. Because of this remarkable birth moment, he (and others who were born at the same time or within the next hour) is awarded with a magical power.
Saleem goes through a lot. He finds out he isn’t exactly who he always thought he was, moves to Pakistan with his family, experiences the deaths of those he loves, loses his memories, has a child, gets married, and etc. He’s telling this entire story in a pickle factory that he runs at the age of 31.
Okay, so although there’s a mystical element to this book, this story is really about the lives of Indians from about 1900 to 1980. These people were part of British imperialism, became their own country, and went to war. It’s a lot for any people to have to go through, let alone in a relatively short period of time. Saleem’s life parallels that of his countrymen, and through his eyes we begin to understand an entire nation (or two) of people.
Because the truth is, Indian life and culture is amazingly complicated (I’m starting to understand this as I read through the country’s 5,000-year history). It’s a menagerie of different castes, religions, politics, boundaries, cultures, and—inevitably—clashes between the West and the East. It’s like a giant Gordian knot of humanity that you’re trying to unravel, only finally coming to the understanding that it’s impossible to understand and organize it. And I love to organize things, to turn chaos into order, so this was a particularly hard lesson for me to learn. I finally just held on and enjoyed the story.
There’s a lot to enjoy. Rushdie creates thoroughly real characters, so well-rounded and interesting that you expect them to walk off the page. He’s funny and irreverent and lyrical; it’s an irresistible combination. The story is entrancing and takes you on a wild ride through India, Pakistan, and back again.
I think what I learned the most was that to truly understand one person, we must understand everything that created him:
“To understand just one life you have to swallow the world.”
“I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”
So based on this, how can we ever righteously judge just one person? It’s almost impossible.
This book tells a story of a forgotten, beat down, abused people (who, in most cases, beat down themselves and each other). It’s beautiful and touching. If you have any interest in Indian history and life and nothing on your must-read list, consider giving this book a whirl. At the least, it’ll give you an exciting read.
(Because did it really have to be that long?)