Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Speaking Volumes: In Midnight's Shadow

(Blog neglect plus backed-up posts= blogger overload. At some stage I'll get around to posting the old stuff, but I figured I'd start archiving the more recent work.)

(Published in the Business Standard, July 2008)

There wasn’t much surprise when Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Best of Bookers—for the second time—last week. The shortlist included works by Nadine Gordimer, Pat Barker, J G Farrell, Peter Carey and J M Coetzee.

Those who voted in the public poll did so with a slight sense of déjà vu, for Rushdie had won the first Booker of Bookers for the same book in 1993; it’s a bit like handing out the same gong twice, or like presenting a re-Nobel Prize.

What the second Booker of Bookers really accomplished was to shed some light on the process of how a book becomes an enduring classic. In 1981, when Midnight’s Children won the Booker—this would be the plain vanilla version of the prize—Rushdie was seen as a fierce young talent with a pile of unpublished books in his drawer and a work of equivocal merit behind him.

Grimus, his first published work, hadn’t done that well and remains a literary curiosity—though this early, science fiction-influenced work, still has its admirers and was a pointer to the sometimes alarming erudition that Rushdie would summon throughout his literary career.

But Midnight’s Children, though it drew puzzled reviews in the UK, captured the imagination of Indians and some of the more attentive reviewers in the US fairly soon. Rushdie’s central conceit was the perfect metaphor for a nation still looking back at Independence and Partition. His protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is born (like Rushdie himself) in 1947, and along with those born on or close to midnight on August 15 of that year, possesses certain talents. Saleem is a telepath; the boy with whom he’s accidentally switched at birth, Shiva, possesses extraordinary fighting skills. Saleem’s fortunes mirror those of a changing India, and he and midnight’s other children are threatened by the figure of the Widow, whom most readers had no difficulty recognizing as the figure of Indira Gandhi in the Emergency years.

It’s just as hard to assess the impact that Midnight’s Children has had on Indian writers as it is to imagine Indian literature without this book. The novel has its detractors: Amit Chaudhuri attacked the “loose, baggy monsters” that it spawned in its wake. It also has its imitators, those who have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to carry off Rushdie’s swashbuckling brand of magical realism or to create equally large, “holdall” novels where everything of importance about India can be crammed.

For my generation of readers, Midnight’s Children gave us a voice that had been either constrained or limited previously. From the publication of the first Indian novel in English—Bankimchandra’s Rajmohan’s Wife—writers had struggled with what might be called the “salad” problem. Struggling to find the words to describe the dish created by a Bengali housewife from vegetables plucked in her garden, Bankimchandra came up with the term “garden salad”, though the very English image that conjures up is nowhere near the reality of the Indian dish it describes.

A few writers—R K Narayan, Raja Rao—had found a way out, deploying simple, almost artless language that allowed them to duck the problems of depicting accent and cadence. A good eight years after the publication of Midnight’s Children, a writer like Shashi Tharoor would feel free to employ his very Stephenian English to rework the Mahabharata into his The Great Indian Novel. But Rushdie’s English in Midnight’s Children was deliberately, exuberantly over-the-top. Saleem ‘Piece-of-the-Moon’ Sinai, “handcuffed to history”, switched back and forth from Indianisms to lyrical flights of almost classicist English—in exactly the same way that most Indians do when we speak.

Some have suggested that Midnight’s Children has survived because of Rushdie’s personal, and growing, fame, his second life as a celebrity. But that’s a facile interpretation. The difference between Midnight’s Children and a worthy, but now little-remembered work like Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea (Booker winner, 1978) is that the former continues to generate new readers. Each generation reads Rushdie very differently, perhaps; but none can bypass him, can ignore this blaring, audacious and triumphant early novel.

If this remains true in another 20 years, I suppose we’ll have to put our hands together for Rushdie and Saleem Sinai yet again in 2028, presuming they win some future Absolutely The Best of the Bookers. To paraphrase Rushdie, sometimes the legend really does outstrip reality.
 
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