You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Books
Business Standard

Children of Midnight's Children

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

has just won another facile "best of" poll, but don't let that put you off - it's still a great book.

Among the thoughts that jostled for space in my mind when I heard about Midnight's Children winning a poll to determine the best recipient in the first 40 years of the award's existence was: what is it with this continuing narcissistic practice of bestowing a "Booker of Bookers" award at random intervals?

I mean, it was understandable to a degree when they gave out a similar prize (also to Midnight's Children) on the award's 25th anniversary in 1993. But forty years? What's next "" 45 years? Or even 42, given how the attention spans of readers everywhere are dwindling?

Many will look on this win as a triumph for one of the most important and influential Indian novels written in English. But if, like me, you believe that lists and polls are fundamentally silly and self-indulgent things, most useful for their entertainment value, the news deserves a long eye-roll.

For starters, there is zilch entertainment value in the same book getting the 25th anniversary prize and the 40th anniversary prize. ("This proves once and for all that the novel is dead," I can hear Sir Vidia saying smugly to himself.) Couldn't the shortlisting committee have perversely done something different this year, such as choosing the five best never to have been longlisted for the Booker?

None of this means that I'm trying to put down Midnight's Children. It's a great book, perhaps greater than many people realise, since most of us now tend to think of it not in terms of its own innate quality but in grander, more abstract terms: how it changed the landscape of Indian writing in English, making it possible for a generation of novelists to give shape and direction to their hitherto nebulous dreams; how it won the in 1993.

More than any other Indian novel I can think of, this one has been eclipsed by its own legend, so that it has become difficult to recall what lies within its pages.

The only solution, of course, is to pick it up and read it all over again "" or to read it for the first time "" without being intimidated by the hype. I strongly recommend everyone does this.

Personally, I loved Midnight's Children when I experienced it many summers ago. Along with Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum (a book that Rushdie was deeply influenced by), it was my introduction to the very particular delights of magic realism done well.

But it also happened to be my introduction to the contemporary novel (like many young Indian readers, my 20th-century reading had been so far restricted to the coolly classical style of authors like Maugham or the wit of Wodehouse) and it was a mind-expander.

With the passage of time I've forgotten most of the details of the plot but I remember as if it were yesterday the shiver of delight I felt on reading about Saleem Sinai's grandfather hitting his head against the hard earth as he bent to pray, the drops of blood from his nose solidifying into rubies, the sitting upright again, "brushing diamonds contemptuously from his lashes and resolving never again to kiss earth for any god or man".

The pages that followed changed many of my pre-set ideas about literature forever. Apparently they did the same for many, many other readers.

Magic realism is rarely spoken of in favourable terms now (even many of its one-time champions believe it has outrun its course), but Midnight's Children showed how stimulating the results can be when an accomplished writer who has a firm understanding of the rules sets out to transgress "" or transcend "" them. (For an example of a writer confidently setting out to break the rules without knowing them in the first place, read any randomly selected page of Sidharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's debut novel The Last Song of Dusk.)

This distinction is not always appreciated in a world that sometimes puts undue emphasis on playing it safe altogether; on the unqualified merits of lucidity and on content over form. "Why doesn't he keep it straight and get to the point instead of engaging in all this pretentious wordplay?" is a question I've often been asked by people who dislike Rushdie's writing.

But it's important to remember that his non-fiction "" the essays, the reviews "" is just as clear and direct as his fiction is flamboyant and tangential: as a novelist, he gives himself the freedom to tread a more daring path.

And though there have been missteps in the past few years, Midnight's Children "" along with Shame, The Moor's Last Sigh and, in my view even the underrated The Ground Beneath Her Feet "" are invaluable contributions to the literary landscape of the last two decades.

But to return to my original point, such as it was, "best of" polls and lists are boring things that have the effect of confining a great work. So while I wish Midnight's Children all the best for the 45th Booker-anniversary poll that will no doubt be held in 2013, I also suggest that the committee prepare more interesting lists.

Why not one that includes the most common phrases used about Midnight's Children? Heading this list would be variations on the line "Rushdie set us free/liberated us/showed us how it was possible to write in Indian English."

It's astonishing how many modern Indian writers say this, even the ones whom you wouldn't expect to hear it from. (Speaking to Manju Kapur "" a writer whose own quiet, determinedly realist style couldn't be any more different from that of Rushdie's fiction "" a few days ago, I was startled to learn that she too was hugely influenced by Midnight's Children and had briefly tried writing in a similar vein before realising she couldn't make it work.) "The chutneyfication of English", a phrase favoured by the initial Western reviewers of the book, would run a close second.

Or how about a for the best book about Midnight's Children never likely to be written? The winning entry would be How Midnight's Children Saved the Modern Novel by V S Naipaul "" a reminder that there are limits even to this book's sphere of influence.

First Published: Sun, July 13 2008. 00:00 IST