Jonathan Cape, 1981, 446 pages
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.
So, how did what is technically a fantasy novel win the 1981 Booker Prize and the "Booker of Bookers" in 1993 and 2008?
Salman Rushdie points out in the introduction that while Midnight's Children is often viewed as a fantasy in the West, in India it was received as a historical fiction. And in truth, it is of course both. There are elements of Midnight's Children that are most certainly fantastic -- namely, the premise, that each of the 1001 children born on the stroke of midnight within the borders of the newly-independent India are born with a supernatural power. But these magical gifts and the strange way in which every historical event in post-colonial India echoes an event in the narrator's life are treated as unremarkable things (except perhaps by the narrator himself) and the tone of the book, and the structure of its plot, is very much that of a literary historical novel, not a fantasy. So, this is how you get "magical realism," that label by which Booker Prize winners can escape being tainted by association with elves, dragons, and mutant superheroes.
Midnight's Children starts with a plot beloved by Bollywood movies: a baby born to wealthy Muslim parents is switched at birth with a baby born to impoverished Hindus. The first-person narrator, Saleem Sinai, is the Hindu-born child who grows up as a Muslim child of privilege. He spends the first third of the book narrating events that happened before he was even born, starting with his grandfather, a physician who gave up religion but never quite became an atheist, and his grandmother, a lovely young woman whom his grandfather only saw, pre-marriage, through a seven-inch aperture cut in a sheet through which he was permitted to examine her on his increasingly frequent doctor's visits. Then comes his parents and their somewhat less interesting story, and finally Saleem himself, and the tale of how he was switched at birth in the hospital on the moment of India's independence.
The book proceeds like this -- a bildungsroman about Saleem, the son of a prosperous Muslim family. Saleem is a normal boy at first. He plays with his friends, tolerates his little sister (dubbed "the Brass Monkey"), tries to earn his parents' approval, and discovers, at about age nine, that he can read minds. And he's not alone.
...having for the moment exhausted this strain of old-time fabulism, I am coming to the fantastic heart of my story and must write in plain unveiled fashion about the Midnight Children. Understand what I'm saying. During the first hour of August 15, 1947, between midnight and 1 a.m., no less than one thousand and one children were born within the frontiers of the infant sovereign state of India. In itself, that is not an unusual fact, although the resonances of the number are strangely literary. At the time, births in our part of the world exceeded deaths by approximately six-hundred eighty-seven an hour. What made the event noteworthy -- noteworthy, there's a dispassionate word if you like! -- was the nature of these children, every one of whom was, through some freak of biology or perhaps owing to some preternatural power of the moment or just conceivably by sheer coincidence (although synchronicity on such a scale would stagger even C.G. Jung), endowed with features, talents, or faculties which can only be described as miraculous.
1001 children were born in India on that date between midnight and 1 a.m., but by the time Saleem's
Every one of them has a supernatural gift, but the closer to midnight the child was born, the stronger the gift. Those born close to midnight have powers that might qualify them as "superheroes": flight, alchemy, teleporting through mirrors. Those born close to 1 a.m., at the end of the hour, have abilities that are little more than sideshow talents, like the two-headed boy who can speak every language spoken within India, and the girl who can multiply fish.
Saleem, playing the role of Professor Xavier, wants them all to do something... important and meaningful. He's kind of hazy on the details, because he's nine. But over the next two years, he keeps pressing the other Children of Midnight to join together for some vaguely benevolent purpose. They debate and argue and show all the maturity and unification of purpose you'd expect from 581 preteens from across the social spectrum of a nation as ethnically and linguistically diverse as India.
Worse, there is a Magneto to Saleem's Professor Xavier -- the boy who was switched with him at birth, the boy who should have grown up in Saleem's wealthy Muslim household but instead grew up in the slums of Bombay. He is the other boy who, like Saleem, was born at the stroke of midnight, and he calls himself Shiva.
Saleem is basically decent and well-intentioned but completely lacking a backbone. After his early efforts to unite the Children of Midnight and being slapped down by the much harder and more worldly Shiva, he basically lets the tide of history carry him where it will, while bemoaning the fact that India's history resonates with him and so his fortunes rise and fall with that of the country. Conveniently, this means nothing is ever his fault, as he explains in not quite so many words every time he does something cowardly, stupid, or just acts like a passive schmuck.
Saleem is no Professor X, and Midnight's Children is no superhero novel. There are no superpowered battles: the final confrontation between Saleem and Shiva is extremely one-sided and anti-climactic, and the only one of the Children besides those two who has a named part is Parvati-the-witch. Most of the novel is taken up with the melodrama of Saleem's extended family, juxtaposed with Indian history, through the 70s. So the "magical realism" label really does seem to fit -- it reads, for the most part, like a personal chronicle interspersed with social and historical commentary, oh, and there just happen to be a few people with magical powers wandering around.
Rushdie's prose is very colorful, sometimes funny and sometimes full of Shakespearean melodrama (intentionally so, because it is all in the voice of Saleem Sinai, whom we learn, over the course of his tale, sees himself as existing at the center of the universe and afflicted with all the Shakespearean melodrama that history can throw at him). It is full of clever metaphors and similes, and humor that ranges from bitter political satire to bawdy and scatological. There are inconsequential little details all over the place, some of which may strike the reader as the author merely being cute, but most of them turn out to have relevance eventually.
In the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition, Salman Rushdie has the last word concerning Indira Ghandi. He did not treat the former Prime Minister kindly in Midnight's Children (to continue the X-Men analogy, he basically cast her in the role of Henry Peter Gyrich), and she was not happy about it. She sued him -- picking out a single sentence that her lawyers thought would be actionable in a British court. Rushdie and his publisher agreed to remove the sentence. The parts about her being a tyrant who had thousands of people tortured, murdered, and sterilized stayed in. And in his introduction to the anniversary edition, Rushdie, of course, describes the sentence that was expurgated.
Verdict: Of interest to a wide cross-section of readers -- those who are interested in Indian fiction, those who like historical epics, those who like family melodramas, and those who like mutant superheroes. Well, maybe not so much the last group, even if technically there are mutant superheroes in the book. This is not a fast-paced read and action is infrequent, and there are many, many minor characters to keep track of. I found all the little stories-within-the-story entertaining, so if you don't mind a slightly meandering literary style with tons of minor subplots, it's probably the best Indian historical literary fantasy about mutant superheroes you'll ever read.
I did not read this for the books1001 challenge, but it is on the list of 1001 books to read before you die, and I think it deserves its place there.