Essay: Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children- Chutney and Pickles by Ramlal Agarwal
In this literary essay, Ramlal Agarwal takes us through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Childrena calling it a saga set in the backdrop of Partition traversing three generations of a liberal Kashmiri Muslim family which moves from Kashmir to Amritsar, to Agra, to Delhi, to Bombay and to Karachi.
Midway through Midnight’s Children, Rushdie, in an aside, wants to know from Padma, his muse, “Can any narrative stand so much so soon?” Padma was stunned by the query but Rushdie does not wait for her answer and plunges headlong into his narrative of so much so soon. He tells multiple stories in multiple styles and walks away triumphantly with the Booker Prize and the Booker of Bookers Prize. The novel received rave reviews. Malcolm Bradbury in The Modern British Novel observes,
“In several senses Midnight’s Children marked a new narrative start. The book turns on the moment of India’s post-imperial rebirth.”
Before Rushdie, the Indian novel in English was hamstrung by the hangover of colonial conscience. But, by the 1960s the colonial clouds cleared and a band of new writers emerged who had acquired extraordinary competence in the use of English language and the confidence to be independent. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children set the trend.
Midnight’s Children is a saga of three generations of a liberal Kashmiri Muslim family which moves from Kashmir to Amritsar, to Agra, to Delhi, to Bombay and to Karachi. It is set in the tumultuous period of Indian history of the three quarters of the 20th century when the cry for Independence was resonating across the sky, Hindu nationalism had begun to dominate the imagination of the Hindu mind and the weakening grip of the British rule over the umpire led to lawlessness and mayhem. The frequent shifting of the family per se is full of pain and pathos but Rushdie does not let it be so. On the contrary, he treats all the characters and events in a playful, derisive, ironic, mock-heroic manner. His portrayals and descriptions are incredibly blown up. For example, Tai, an age-old boatman, is described as having lost count of years and recalls having met lsa, “Yara, you should have seen that Isa when he came, beard down to his balls, bald as an egg on his head.” Rushdie’s description of his mother’s visit to a soothsayer is blown to the limit. Amina Sinai sluggishly riches the upper riches of a huge gloomy chawl, a broken-down tenement building in which Lifafa Das and his three cousins – a bone setter, a monkey dancer and a snake and mongoose man with all their paraphernalia have a small corner at the very top. There, sitting in a small room, is Ramram six inches above the ground. He predicts a son for Amina Sinai, according to his prophecy, “A son, sahiba, who will never be older than his mother land, neither older nor younger! ” The snake and mongoose charmer, monkey dancer, bone-setter and peep show-walla, stand stunned because they had never heard Ramram like this. Ramram continues in his singsong, high-pitched tone,”-There will be two heads and–” The birth of the writer at the stroke of midnight of the 14/15 August 1947 is treated as the birth of Jesus Christ. Right before his birth, a sadhu appears at Buckingham Villa and announces, ” I have come to await the coming of the One. The Mubarak – He who is blessed. It will happen very soon.” The birth of the nation and the birth of the child at the same time are intertwined. The fates of both, work hand in glove. However, the euphoria over the new-born nation and the baby was soon over and conspiracies, intrigue, age-old festering racial hatred and long-suppressed sexual instincts and treacheries began to surface.
Dr. Aziz and Naseem had three daughters – Alia, Mumtaz and Emerald. They attract Nadir Khan, a fugitive from law and sheltered by Dr. Aziz in his godown, Ahmed Sinai, son of a merchant and Zulfikar, a government official. Nadir Khan marries Mumtaz, Ahmed Sinai is drawn to Alia and Zulfikar falls for Emerald. The marriage between Nadir Khan and Mumtaz fails to produce a child. Zulfikar Khan, looking for Nadir Khan, raids Dr. Aziz’s house. However, Nadir Khan escapes from the godown leaving behind a note ‘Talaq, Talaq, Talaq‘. Ahmed Sinai prefers Mumtaz to Alia and marries her giving her a new name – Amina. Zulfikar marries Emerald and poor Alia remains single. Soon Ahmed Sinai and Amina move to Delhi where his godown is burnt by goons. So, he moves to Amritsar and then to Agra and finally to Bombay where he buys the property of Methwold, an Englishman preparing to leave India. In Bombay, Amina gives birth to Saleem Sinai at the fateful moment of India’s Independence. Mary Pereira, the nurse, commits the sin of baby-swapping. She swaps Ahmed- Amina baby with the baby of Wee Willie Winky – Vanita which may be the outcome of Vanita’s affair with Methwold, an Englishman. Since Saleem’s birth is tied with the birth of independence of India the intrigues of Saleem’s birth also suggest intrigues in the birth of independence of India. It suggests that the independence of India may be the baby of its erstwhile rulers. Be that as it may, the story goes on.
Dr. Narliker, who has a hospital on Methwold Estate, tempts Ahmed to start manufacturing tetrapods which were in great demand because of the land reclamation programme. Ahmed Sinai rises to the bait and as per the practice of doing business in Bombay, starts bribing officials. He is caught doing so and is sent to jail while his assets are frozen. Amina takes to betting on horses to manage the household and she hits the jackpot.. She also bribes the judges and manages to unfreeze their property. However, Ahmed’s involvement in tetrapods ruins him and he breaks down. Zulfikar invites him to Pakistan. The family moves to Pakistan where Saleem becomes a Pak citizen and participates in the war of 1965.
In Pakistan, he has a series of misadventures like falling in love with his sister joining the army and getting badly bruised. Fortunately, an Indian woman called Parvati and an Indian soldier called Picture Singh recognize him and arrange for his escape to India in the style of Shivaji’s escape from Agra in a wicker basket. Saleem marries Parvati who adopts Islam. There are all sorts of digressions, which leave the reader completely fatigued. There is talk about magicians, snakes, witches, reminiscences and what not. The narrative reads like the rantings of an unhinged mind buffeted by gusty winds Saleem’s son Aadam Sinai is born on the night of the declaration of emergency. Shiva, the exchanged baby, becomes an arch enemy of Saleem and a Major in independent India.
Finally, Saleem ends up in Mary Pareira’s pickle factory. Pickle stands for the life of Salim. It stands for history. It stands for the novel Rushdie has written. The value of the art of making pickles requires judicious mixing and blending of fruits and spices which Rushdie calls chutnification. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. The chutney that Rushdie makes does not have the unique quality of its constituent elements and also the elements do not blend with other elements without which no chutney that can become a rage, can be made.
Ramlal Agarwal did his M.A. from Mumbai University in 1965 and Ph.D. from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in 1977. Taught English and also served as Principal (1995 to 2000), Chairman, Board of Studies in English, Dean of faculty of Arts, Dr. B.A.M.U., Aurangabad. Reviewed Indian Writing in English for World Literature Today, U.S.A. and contributed articles and reviews to The Times of India, Indian Express, Quest, Youth Times and other national papers and magazines. His work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was published by Sterling Publishers, Delhi (1990). He currently lives at Jalna ( Maharashtra ) and runs an NGO.