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Midnight's Children (Rushdie)

Midnight's Children 
Salman Rushdie, 1981
Random House
560 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812976533


Summary
Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.

This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people—a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight’s Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—June 19, 1947 
Where—Bombay, Maharashtra, India
Education—M.A., King's College, Cambridge, UK
Awards—Booker Prize, 1981 (named the best novel to win
   the Booker Prize in its first twenty-five years in 1993);
   Whitbread Prize, 1988 and 1995
Currently—lives in New York, New York


Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a British Indian novelist and essayist. His second novel, Midnight's Children (1981), won the Booker Prize in 1981. Much of his fiction is set on the Indian subcontinent. He is said to combine magical realism with historical fiction; his work is concerned with the many connections, disruptions and migrations between East and West.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), was the centre of a major controversy, provoking protests from Muslims in several countries, some violent. Death threats were made against him, including a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, on February 14, 1989.

Rushdie was appointed Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France in January 1999. In June 2007, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him for his services to literature. In 2008, The Times ranked him thirteenth on its list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945.

Since 2000, Rushdie has lived in the United States, where he has worked at the Emory University and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent book is Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an account of his life in the wake of the Satanic Verses controversy.

Career
Rushdie's first career was as a copywriter, working for the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, where he came up with "irresistibubble" for Aero and "Naughty but Nice" for cream cakes, and for the agency Ayer Barker, for whom he wrote the memorable line "That'll do nicely" for American Express. It was while he was at Ogilvy that he wrote Midnight's Children, before becoming a full-time writer. John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty has criticised Rushdie for not referring to his copywriting past frequently enough, although conceding: "He did write crap ads...admittedly."

His first novel, Grimus, a part-science fiction tale, was generally ignored by the public and literary critics. His next novel, Midnight's Children, catapulted him to literary notability. This work won the 1981 Booker Prize and, in 1993 and 2008, was awarded the Best of the Bookers as the best novel to have received the prize during its first 25 and 40 years. Midnight's Children follows the life of a child, born at the stroke of midnight as India gained its independence, who is endowed with special powers and a connection to other children born at the dawn of a new and tumultuous age in the history of the Indian sub-continent and the birth of the modern nation of India. The character of Saleem Sinai has been compared to Rushdie. However, the author has refuted the idea of having written any of his characters as autobiographical, stating...

People assume that because certain things in the character are drawn from your own experience, it just becomes you. In that sense, I’ve never felt that I’ve written an autobiographical character.

After Midnight's Children, Rushdie wrote Shame, in which he depicts the political turmoil in Pakistan, basing his characters on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Shame won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book) and was a close runner-up for the Booker Prize. Both these works of postcolonial literature are characterised by a style of magic realism and the immigrant outlook that Rushdie is very conscious of as a member of the Indian diaspora.

Rushdie wrote a non-fiction book about Nicaragua in 1987 called The Jaguar Smile. This book has a political focus and is based on his first-hand experiences and research at the scene of Sandinista political experiments.

His most controversial work, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 (see below). Rushdie has published many short stories, including those collected in East, West (1994). The Moor's Last Sigh, a family epic ranging over some 100 years of India's history was published in 1995. The Ground Beneath Her Feet presents an alternative history of modern rock music. The song of the same name by U2 is one of many song lyrics included in the book, hence Rushdie is credited as the lyricist. He also wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories in 1990.

Rushdie has had a string of commercially successful and critically acclaimed novels. His 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown received, in India, the prestigious Hutch Crossword Book Award, and was, in Britain, a finalist for the Whitbread Book Awards. It was shortlisted for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

In his 2002 non-fiction collection Step Across This Line, he professes his admiration for the Italian writer Italo Calvino and the American writer Thomas Pynchon, among others. His early influences included James Joyce, Günter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Lewis Carroll. Rushdie was a personal friend of Angela Carter and praised her highly in the foreword for her collection Burning your Boats.

His latest novel is Luka and the Fire of Life, published in November 2010. Earlier in the same year, he announced that he was writing his memoirs, entitled Joseph Anton: A Memoir, which was published in September 2012.

In 2012, Salman Rushdie became one of the first major authors to embrace Booktrack (a company that synchronises ebooks with customised soundtracks) when he published his short story "In the South" on the platform.

Other Activities
Rushdie has quietly mentored younger Indian (and ethnic-Indian) writers, influenced an entire generation of Indo-Anglian writers, and is an influential writer in postcolonial literature in general. He has received many plaudits for his writings, including the European Union's Aristeion Prize for Literature, the Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy), and the Writer of the Year Award in Germany and many of literature's highest honours. Rushdie was the President of PEN American Center from 2004 to 2006 and founder of the PEN World Voices Festival.

He opposed the British government's introduction of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, something he writes about in his contribution to Free Expression Is No Offence, a collection of essays by several writers.

In 2007 he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he has also deposited his archives.

In May 2008 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Though he enjoys writing, Salman Rushdie says that he would have become an actor if his writing career had not been successful. Even from early childhood, he dreamed of appearing in Hollywood movies (which he later realised in his frequent cameo appearances).

Rushdie includes fictional television and movie characters in some of his writings. He had a cameo appearance in the film Bridget Jones's Diary based on the book of the same name, which is itself full of literary in-jokes. On May 12, 2006, Rushdie was a guest host on The Charlie Rose Show, where he interviewed Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, whose 2005 film, Water, faced violent protests. He appears in the role of Helen Hunt's obstetrician-gynecologist in the film adaptation of Elinor Lipman's novel Then She Found Me. In September 2008, and again in March 2009, he appeared as a panellist on the HBO program Real Time with Bill Maher.

Rushdie is currently collaborating on the screenplay for the cinematic adaptation of his novel Midnight's Children with director Deepa Mehta. The film will be released in October, 2012.

Rushdie is a member of the advisory board of The Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organisation which provides daily meals to students of township schools in Soweto of South Africa. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group representing the interests of atheistic and humanistic Americans in Washington, D.C. In November 2010 he became a founding patron of Ralston College, a new liberal arts college that has adopted as its motto a Latin translation of a phrase ("free speech is life itself") from an address he gave at Columbia University in 1991 to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Satanic Verses and the fatwa

The publication of The Satanic Verses in September 1988 caused immediate controversy in the Islamic world because of what was perceived as an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. The title refers to a disputed Muslim tradition that is related in the book. According to this tradition, Muhammad (Mahound in the book) added verses (sura) to the Qur'an accepting three goddesses who used to be worshipped in Mecca as divine beings. According to the legend, Muhammad later revoked the verses, saying the devil tempted him to utter these lines to appease the Meccans (hence the "Satanic" verses). However, the narrator reveals to the reader that these disputed verses were actually from the mouth of the Archangel Gibreel. The book was banned in many countries with large Muslim communities.

On February 14, 1989, a fatwa requiring Rushdie's execution was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, calling the book "blasphemous against Islam." A bounty was offered for Rushdie's death, and he was thus forced to live under police protection for several years. On March 7, 1989, the United Kingdom and Iran broke diplomatic relations over the Rushdie controversy.

The publication of the book and the fatwa sparked violence around the world, with bookstores firebombed. Muslim communities in several nations in the West held public rallies, burning copies of the book. Several people associated with translating or publishing the book were attacked and even killed.

On September 24, 1998, as a precondition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Britain, the Iranian government gave a public commitment that it would "neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie."

Hardliners in Iran have continued to reaffirm the death sentence. In early 2005, Khomeini's fatwa was reaffirmed by Iran's current spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Additionally, the Revolutionary Guards have declared that the death sentence on him is still valid. Iran has rejected requests to withdraw the fatwa on the basis that only the person who issued it may withdraw it, and the person who issued it – Ayatollah Khomeini – has been dead since 1989.

Rushdie has reported that he still receives a "sort of Valentine's card" from Iran each year on February 14 letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him. He said, "It's reached the point where it's a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat."

A memoir of his years of hiding, Joseph Anton, was published in 2012. Joseph Anton was Rushdie's secret alias.

In 2012, following uprisings over an anonymously posted YouTube video denigrating Muslims, a semi-official religious foundation in Iran increased the reward it had offered for the killing of Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million dollars. Their stated reason: "If the [1989] fatwa had been carried out, later insults in the form of caricature, articles and films that have continued would have not happened."

Knighthood
Rushdie was knighted for services to literature in the Queen's Birthday Honours on June 16, 2007. He remarked, "I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way." In response to his knighthood, many nations with Muslim majorities protested. Several called publicly for his death. Some non-Muslims expressed disappointment at Rushdie's knighthood, claiming that the writer did not merit such an honour and there were several other writers who deserved the knighthood more than Rushdie.

Al-Qaeda has condemned the Rushdie honour. The Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is quoted as saying in an audio recording that Britain's award for Indian-born Rushdie was "an insult to Islam", and it was planning "a very precise response."

Religious Beliefs
Rushdie came from a Muslim family though he is an atheist now. In 1990, in the "hope that it would reduce the threat of Muslims acting on the fatwa to kill him," he issued a statement claiming he had renewed his Muslim faith, had repudiated the attacks on Islam in his novel and was committed to working for better understanding of the religion across the world. However, Rushdie later said that he was only "pretending".

Personal Life
Rushdie has been married four times. He was married to his first wife Clarissa Luard from 1976 to 1987 and fathered a son, Zafar (born 1980). His second wife was the American novelist Marianne Wiggins; they were married in 1988 and divorced in 1993. His third wife, from 1997 to 2004, was Elizabeth West; they have a son, Milan (born 1999). In 2004, he married the Indian American actress and model Padma Lakshmi, the host of the American reality-television show Top Chef. The marriage ended on July 2, 2007, with Lakshmi indicating that it was her desire to end the marriage.

In 1999 Rushdie had an operation to correct ptosis, a tendon condition that causes drooping eyelids and that, according to him, was making it increasingly difficult for him to open his eyes. "If I hadn't had an operation, in a couple of years from now I wouldn't have been able to open my eyes at all," he said.

Since 2000, Rushdie has "lived mostly near Union Square" in New York City. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
This is a book to accept on its own terms.... As a Bombay book, which is to say, a big-city book, 'Midnight's Children is coarse, knowing, comfortable with Indian pop culture and, above all, aggressive.... The flow of the book rushes to its conclusion in counterpointed harmony: myths intact, history accounted for, and a remarkable character fully alive.
Clark Blaise - New York Times


Extraordinary... One of the most important [novels] to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation.
New York Review of Books


The literary map of India is about to be redrawn.... Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.
New York Times


In Salman Rushdie, India has produced a glittering novelist– one with startling imaginative and intellectual resources, a master of perpetual storytelling.
The New Yorker


A marvelous epic.... Rushdie’s prose snaps into playback and flash-forward...stopping on images, vistas, and characters of unforgettable presence. Their range is as rich as India herself.
Newsweek


Burgeons with life, with exuberance and fantasy.... Rushdie is a writer of courage, impressive strength, and sheer stylistic brilliance.
Washington Post Book World


Pure story—an ebullient, wildly clowning, satirical, descriptively witty charge of energy.
Chicago Sun-Times



Discussion Questions 
1. Midnight's Children is clearly a work of fiction; yet, like many modern novels, it is presented as an autobiography. How can we tell it isn't? What literary devices are employed to make its fictional status clear? And, bearing in mind the background of very real historical events, can "truth" and "fiction" always be told apart?

2. To what extent has the legacy of the British Empire, as presented in this novel, contributed to the turbulent character of Indian life?

3. Saleem sees himself and his family as a microcosm of what is happening to India. His own life seems so bound up with the fate of the country that he seems to have no existence as an individual; yet, he is a distinct person. How would you characterise Saleem as a human being, set apart from the novel's grand scheme? Does he have a personality?

4. "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?

5. At the very heart of Midnight's Children is an act of deception: Mary Pereira switches the birth-tags of the infants Saleem and Shiva. The ancestors of whom Saleem tells us at length are not his biological relations; and yet he continues to speak of them as his forebears. What effect does this have on you, the reader? How easy is it to absorb such a paradox?

6. "There is no escape from form" says Saleem (p. 226); and later, he speaks of his own "overpowering desire for form" (p. 317). Set against this is the chaos of Indian life which is described in such detail throughout the book. How is this coherence achieved? What role does mythology play in giving form to events in the novel?

7. "There is no magic on earth strong enough to wipe out the legacies of one's parents" (p. 402). Saleem is speaking here of an injury; but has he inherited anything more positive? Is there anything inherited which aids rather than hinders him?

8. 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?

9. How much affection is there between fathers and sons in Midnight's Children? Why is Saleem so drawn to father-figures? What does he gain from his many adopted fathers?

10. "What is so precious to need all this writing-shiting?" asks Padma (p. 24). What is the value of it for Saleem?

11. "...is not Mother India, Bharat-Mata, commonly thought of as female?" asks Saleem; "And, as you know, there's no escape from her" (p. 404). Elsewhere he speaks of "...the long series of women who have bewitched and finally undone me good and proper" (p. 241). To what extent are women "held for blame" for Saleem's misfortunes?

12. 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?

13. Saleem pleads, "...believe that I am falling apart." (p. 37); he never arrives at a certain image of himself without being thrown into chaos again (e.g. p.164-165). But a child on an advertising hoarding is described as "flattened by certitude" (p. 153). Is there, then, value in uncertainty? What is it?

14. With the birth of Saleem's giant-eared son, history seems about to repeat itself; but Saleem senses that this time round, things will be different. How have circumstances changed?

15. Midnight's Children is a novel about India, and attempts to map the modern Indian mind, with all its contradictions. In your discussions, how much difficulty have you had in addressing the novel from a Western perspective? Is there an 'otherness' which makes it hard to assimilate, or are the novel's concerns universal and easily understood?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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