“I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date.” And so Saleem Sinai tumbled into our lives, 22 years ago, bearing with him the excess of “intertwined lives events miracles places rumours” that made up Midnight’s Children.
It was a rough labour. The late Indira Gandhi, who appears in the novel as The Widow, and whose imposition of the Emergency is shown as a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight, took Salman Rushdie to court for libel. It was an interesting case — Indira Gandhi made no attempt to ban Midnight’s Children or to challenge the bulk of Rushdie’s portrayal of her, including her schizophrenic hair (snow white on one side, blackasnight on the other).
Instead, Gandhi v Rushdie concerned one line in the novel, which suggested that Sanjay Gandhi had accused his mother of bringing on his father’s heart attack through neglect. Mrs Gandhi won her point; the line was excised from Midnight’s Children. It was a nuanced case, but at that time - despite the black shadow of Emergency — there was room for nuance, in a way that might no longer be possible in today’s India.
There were no import bans on the novel, unlike the back-door ban imposed on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and there are no official bans on the Midnight’s Children film in India. Directed by Deepa Mehta, the film made its debut at the Toronto and Calgary film festivals, and will be shown in 40 countries across the world. At present, it won’t be screened in India, because no distributor has bought the rights.
For my generation, Midnight’s Children carried an electric charge; it was the bridge between RK Narayan’s gentle, sharply observed village world and uncharted urban India. Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie and others in that generation were not just “successful” writers; they were the keepers of an alternate, often subversive, history not found in the official textbooks. For this generation of teenagers, Midnight’s Children (and other Indian novels from that period) are distant from their experience, more revered than read if remembered at all. The film version might have brought the book back to life for today’s students and younger readers.
A popular line of argument suggests that distributors don’t want to touch Midnight’s Children because Indians are sensitive to the portrayal of politicians in popular cinema. But how many people seriously think there’ll be mobs out on the street protesting a film that — in part — criticises the Emergency? If there is indeed a “mob” on the streets defending the reputation of a prime minister widely considered the most undemocratic in Indian history, it will be a bought crowd, paid for by political parties interested in grabbing prime airtime on television.
Bought mobs might be as dangerous as the spontaneous kind, but they are (or should be) much easier to shut down. Indeed, the counter-argument should hold more force: that for a generation in danger of forgetting Indian history and the Emergency, any film or book to offer a reminder is valuable.
The reason why distributors won’t touch the Midnight’s Children film is purely pragmatic. Rushdie is, unfortunately, a symbol of controversy in India — independent of what he might actually say, write or think. Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy was attacked in India — Water had to be filmed outside the country because of protests by Hindu fundamentalists who felt this story of a child widow showed Hinduism in a bad light. “He’s got the Muslims,” Mehta said in a 2011 interview to the Globe and Mail, “and I’ve got the Hindus.”
That combination dropkicks the film into India’s box of oblivion: the place where we put every controversial book, work of art, film or piece of theatre marked too hot to handle. So much of Indian creativity is now for export only, not for consumption within the borders of India.
The absence of Midnight’s Children from the mainstream cinema will call up the usual responses. With Rushdie’s memoir of the plague/fatwa years, Joseph Anton, due to be released on the 18th, many will use these two events as an excuse to pillory him yet again for the crime of going too far with the Satanic Verses. The Verses has, in his phrase, stopped being seen as a book — instead, it has diminished to the point where it is only an Insult and Rushdie only the Insulter.
Midnight’s Children could easily become just that controversial film by that controversial writer. These losses — and a score of similar losses in the last few years — are worse than actual censorship, because they reduce books and writers to cartoon symbols. You lose all of the complexity, the challenge and discomfort, the joy and the exuberance of the act of reading, or watching a film.
If there is one symbol we’re left with, it’s the perforated sheet from Midnight’s Children; the tattered history of Indian contemporary creative life, with fresh new holes and tears punched through the cloth every few months.