Awarded the Booker Prize in 1981, Midnight's Children is Salman Rushdie's most highly regarded work of fiction, though not his best known. That distinction belongs to The Satanic Verses, the 1988 novel that prompted Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who considered the book blasphemous, to declare Rushdie an enemy of Islam and put a $1.5 million bounty on his head. But in Midnight's Children, Rushdie had already produced a novel that not only risks offending Muslim readers with its treatment of Islam, but also fiercely challenges our understanding of history, nationhood, and narrative.
The foundations of religious authority are a central concern in the novel. As with Judaism and Christianity, Islam's authority resides in scripture and rests on the belief that its words come directly from God (Allah). Saleem Sinai, the novel's narrator, seems to want to appropriate some of the Islamic tradition's authority while at the same time questioning its legitimacy. Comparing himself to Muhammad, the vessel through whom the Qur'an is believed to have been dictated by Allah. Saleem claims to have heard "a headful of gabbling tongues" (p. 185), and, though he was initially perplexed and "struggled, alone, to understand what had happened," he later "saw the shawl of genius fluttering down, like an embroidered butterfly, the mantle of greatness settling upon [his] shoulders" (p. 185). After mentioning Muhammad, Saleem remarks, parenthetically, "(on whose name be peace, let me add; I don't want to offend anyone)" (p. 185). Saleem's use and abuse of scriptural authority, by turns playful, blasphemous, and reverential, points to his (and Rushdie's) desire to unsettle some of the easy dichotomies that individual people as well as entire cultures use to make sense of themselves. But it's not just religion that gets such treatmentRushdie turns his paradoxical gaze on the idea of nation as well.
The first thing we learn about Saleem is that his birth coincided precisely with that of modern Indiamidnight on August 15, 1947. What follows is the intertwined stories of both Saleem and his country, as well as a meditation on the intersection of individual and public lifeor personal history and the historical record. But Midnight's Children proceeds to undermine our assumptions about what constitutes a life story or a nation's history. Saleem frequently pauses to comment on the book he is writing, and in one such instance, he realizes that he has given us the wrong date for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi: "But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time" (p. 190). Is Saleem making fun of the reader who may have trusted him as a truthful chronicler of India's history? Is he making fun of the very notion of a true history of a nation? Perhaps a nation's history is nothing morebut also nothing lessthan the shared personal history of its individual citizens.
If Saleem's history of India raises questions about the enterprise of recording history in general, his refusal to impose a conventional shape on his own story raises questions about how we understand our own lives. For example, when does the story of a life begin? Saleem conforms to convention by beginning his book, "I was born in the city of Bombay - once upon a time" (p. 3). However, by the next page, he has changed his mind about how to begin, telling us, "I must commence the business of remaking my life from the point at which it really began, some thirty-two years before anything as obvious, as present, as my clock-ridden, crime-stained birth" (p. 4). Saleem then introduces Aadam Aziz, whom he calls his grandfather, and whose life Saleem chronicles in some detail. Later in the novel, however, we learn that Ahmed and Amina Sinai are not, in fact, Saleem's parents; rather, he is the product of an adulterous fling between Vanita, a poor Indian woman, and an Englishman. Mary Pereira, a servant of the Sinais, switched him at birth with their son, Shiva. This circumstance could be one of many that prompt Saleem to observe that "there are so many stories to tell . . . so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane! I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well" (p. 4). The timing of his birth gives the impression that Saleem's life is unique, but whose life is not "a commingling of the improbable and the mundane"? Do the fantastic aspects of Saleem's life distinguish him from everyone else, as he seems to believe, or serve to illuminate in unexpected ways even the most apparently ordinary life?
If the vision of India that emerges from Midnight's Children is more a product of the novelist's imagination than the historian's search for truth, what difference should this make in articulating the novel's relationship to our experience of the world it represents? The novel blurs the distinctions we often make between personal and public history. We expect the latter to transcend the individual perspectivea notion which in Midnight's Children comes to seem not only impossible to maintain, but also oppressive. In telling both his own story and that of modern India, Saleem is confined by nothing but the limits of his means. He may be caught in the abstractions and vagaries of language, but the struggle is itself an expression of freedom and an affirmation of the capacity of the writer's voice to shape reality.
Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 into an affluent Muslim family in Bombay. By the age of ten, he knew that he wanted to become a writer. His parents sent him to Rugby School in England when he was thirteen, and he continued his education at the University of Cambridge. Having never felt at home in England, he left after graduation, in 1968, for Karachi, Pakistan, where his family had moved in 1964. He tried to start a career in television, but the censorship he encountered prompted him to return to England.
By 1970, he had become a freelance advertising copywriter in London, writing fiction in his spare time. He published his first novel, Grimusan unsuccessful book parodying science fictionin 1975. But Midnight's Children, published in 1981, won the Booker Prize and catapulted him to instant fame, redeeming his decision to quit the advertising business upon completing the book. It also generated controversy, provoking Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister, to bring libel charges that forced Rushdie to revise the novel and issue an apology.
After another novel and a nonfiction work about his travels in Nicaragua, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses (1988), which brought him far more trouble. Demonstrations around the world and a ban in India preceded a fatwa, or legal ruling, by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that sentenced Rushdie and all associated with the novel's publication to death. The fatwa sent Rushdie into hiding, but he continued to write, publishing a children's book, a nonfiction collection, a short story collection, and another novel, The Moor's Last Sigh (1995). The Iranian government lifted the fatwa in 1998. Rushdie's most recent novel is Fury (2001).