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Midnight's Children

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Midnight's Children
Midnight's Children cover
Author(s) Salman Rushdie
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Publication date April 1981
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 446 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 022401823X (first edition, hardback)

Midnight's Children is a 1981 novel by Salman Rushdie. It centres on the author's native India and was acclaimed as a major milestone in postcolonial literature.

It won both the 1981 Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the same year. The book was later awarded the 'Booker of Bookers' Prize in 1993 as the best novel to be awarded the Booker Prize in its first 25 years. Midnight's Children is also the only Indian novel on Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels since its founding in 1923.

Plot introduction

Midnight's Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, a telepath with a nasal defect, who is born at the exact moment that India becomes independent. Saleem Sinai's life then parallels the changing fortunes of the country after independence.

Characters in "Midnight's Children"

  • Saleem Sinai - The protagonist and narrator, Saleem Sinai is a telepath with an enormous and constantly dripping nose, who is born at the exact moment that India becomes independent. He is constantly referred to as the nose in the book, from the prophecy made about him "knees and nose."
  • Jamila Singer - Saleem's sister, named Jamila Sinai at birth, nicknamed the Brass Monkey during her childhood. She goes on to become the most famous singer in all of Pakistan.
  • Aadam Aziz - Aadam Aziz is a doctor and the father of Amina Sinai, or Mumtaz. He has many children with Naseem Ghani, and struggles with questions of the existence of God throughout his life.
  • Tai - A boatman, Tai is a friend of Aadam Aziz. At times he demonstrates his ability to predict the future and, while most people consider him insane, he in fact makes several insightful remarks, the most important of which is his advice to Aadam Aziz to "follow his nose."
  • Naseem Ghani - Naseem Ghani is the daughter of a landlord and the mother of Amina Sinai, or Mumtaz Aziz. She is a dramatic and strong-willed character who possesses a lot of power in her relationship with her husband Aadam Aziz. Later referred to by Saleem as "Reverend Mother".
  • Ghani the landowner - Naseem's father.
  • Padma Mangroli - Saleem's lover and, eventually, his fiancée, Padma plays the role of the listener in the storytelling structure of the novel.
  • Oskar and Ilse Lubin - German anarchist friends of Doctor Aziz.
  • Alia - The sister of Amina Sinai, or Mumtaz, Alia suffers from a lifelong love for Ahmed Sinai, whom her sister Mumtaz marries. Her resentment toward her sister manifests itself in the meals she cooks, and therefore affects those who eat what she prepares.
  • Mumtaz - Mumtaz, the sister of Alia, has her name changed to Amina when she gets married. Rushdie repeatedly describes Amina Sinai as "assiduous" in her wifely efforts. By sheer willpower, she forces herself to love her husband Ahmed Sinai. However, during her marriage to him she also has an affair with Nadir Khan, to whom she was married for two years in her youth, although they never consummated the marriage.
  • Hanif - Saleem's uncle Hanif is a screenwriter who enjoys some fame in his youth, but who grows disillusioned later in life with Bollywood and the superficiality of the film industry, and commits suicide. Husband to Pia, a former actress and eventual joint petrol-pump proprietor with Naseem (her mother-in-law).
  • Mustapha - Saleem's uncle, the brother of Mumtaz, marries Sonia.
  • Emerald - Saleem's aunt, the sister of Mumtaz, marries General Zulfikar.
  • Mian Abdullah - (Also known as the Hummingbird) A pro-Indian Muslim political figure, who dies at the hands of assassins.
  • Nadir Khan - Mumtaz's first husband, Nadir Khan is the Hummingbird's personal secretary. After the Hummingbird's assassination, Nadir hides in the Aziz household for a few years, where he has a relationship with Mumtaz.
  • Rashid the rickshaw boy - A boy who informs Doctor Aziz that Nadir Khan needs a place to hide.
  • General Zulfikar - The husband of Emerald, who is involved with Pakistani political events.
  • Lifafa Das - A peep show street man who leads Amina to seer.
  • Shri Ramram Seth - A seer Amina visits while pregnant.
  • William Methwold - An Englishman from whom the Sinais buy their house in Bombay. One day before selling his estate, Methwold invites Wee Willie Winkie and his wife, Vanita to perform for him. At one point he sends Winkie out to fill a prescription of his, and seduces Vanita, resulting in Vanita becoming pregnant. It is Methwold, then who is Saleem's biological father.
  • Ahmed Sinai - Saleem's father and Amina's husband.
  • Wee Willie Winkie - Shiva's father and Vanita's husband.
  • Vanita - Saleem's biological mother, who dies during labor.
  • Mary Pereira - A midwife and servant, who switches Shiva and Saleem at birth.
  • Doctor Narlikar - A Gynecologist and businessman.
  • Evie Lilith Burns - Saleem's American childhood sweetheart.
  • Sonny Ibrahim - Saleem's neighbour and friend.
  • Joseph D'Costa - Mary Pereira's lover, who is politically radical.
  • Shiva - A boy who is born at the same moment as Saleem. They are switched at birth, and Shiva possesses an amazing ability to fight. Shiva is the knees in the prophecy of "knees and nose" and is the possessor of abnormally large knees.
  • Parvati-the-witch - One of midnight's children, and a friend (and wife)of Saleem.
  • Homi Catrack - A man who has an affair with Lila Sabarmati and is subsequently murdered by Commander Sabarmati.
  • Lila Sabarmati - Commander Sabarmati's wife, who is shot, but not killed, by him for having an affair with Homi Catrack.
  • Commander Sabarmati - The husband of Lila Sabarmati who shoots his unfaithful wife and murders her lover.
  • Alice Pereira - Mary's sister, who works for Ahmed Sinai.
  • Uncle Puffs - Jamila Singer's agent.
  • Tai Bibi - A 512-year-old whore who Saleem visits.
  • Farooq, Shaheed, and Ayooba - Saleem's fellow soldiers in the Pakistani army.
  • Sonia - Mustapha's wife
  • Durga - A wet nurse for Aadam Sinai and a succubus to Picture Singh.
  • Aadam Sinai - Saleem's son. (Shiva's biological son)
  • Picture Singh - A snake charmer and a friend to Saleem.

Major themes

The technique of magical realism finds liberal expression throughout the novel and is crucial to constructing the parallel to the country's history. It has thus been compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

The narrative framework of Midnight's Children consists of a tale -- comprising his life story -- which Saleem Sinai recounts orally to his wife-to-be Padma. This self-referential narrative (within a single paragraph Saleem refers to himself in the first person: 'And I, wishing upon myself the curse of Nadir Khan. ...'; ' "I tell you," Saleem cried, "it is true. ..."') recalls indigenous Indian culture, particularly the similarly orally recounted Arabian Nights. The events in Rushdie's text also parallel the magical nature of the narratives recounted in the Arabian Nights (consider the attempt to electrocute Saleem at the latrine (p.353), or his journey in the 'basket of invisibility' (p.383)).

The novel is also an expression of the author's own childhood, his affection for the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) in those times, and the tumultuous variety of the Indian subcontinent. Recognised for its remarkably flexible and innovative use of the English language, with a liberal mix of native Indian languages, this novel represents a departure from conventional Indian English writing. Compressing Indian cultural history, "Once upon a time," Saleem muses, "there were Radha and Krishna, and Rama and Sita, and Laila and Majnun; also (because we are not unaffected by the West) Romeo and Juliet, and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn" (259), Midnight's Children chronological entwines characters from India's cultural history with characters from Western culture, and the devices that they signify -- Indian culture, religion and storytelling, Western drama and cinema -- are presented in Rushdie's text with postcolonial Indian history to examine both the effect of these indigenous and non-indigenous cultures on the Indian mind and in the light of Indian independence.

The foundations of religious authority are a central concern in the novel. As with Judaism and Protestant Christianity, Islam's authority resides in scripture and rests on the belief that its words come directly from God (Allah). Saleem Sinai, the novel's narrator, seems to want to appropriate some of the Islamic tradition's authority while at the same time questioning its legitimacy. Comparing himself to Muhammad, the vessel through whom the Quran is believed to have been dictated by Allah, Saleem claims to have heard "a headful of gabbling tongues" (p. 185), and, though he was initially perplexed and "struggled, alone, to understand what had happened," he later "saw the shawl of genius fluttering down, like an embroidered butterfly, the mantle of greatness settling upon [his] shoulders" (p. 185). Saleem's use and abuse of scriptural authority, by turns playful, blasphemous, and reverential, points to his (and Rushdie's) desire to unsettle some of the easy dichotomies that individual people as well as entire cultures use to make sense of themselves.

Literary significance & criticism

From its publication in 1981, Midnight’s Children has become a standard work on university syllabuses and has enjoyed an international readership that catapulted its author almost overnight to the very forefront of world authors. It was awarded the 1981 Booker Prize, the English Speaking Union Literary Award, and in 1993 it was awarded both the James Tait Prize and the Booker of Bookers Prize. (This was an award given out by the Booker committee to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the award.) In 2003 the novel was adapted to the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It has been compared in its scope and execution to works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Like them, Rushdie’s novel presents an encyclopaedic exploration of an entire society through the story of a single person. It is able to do this, in part, by merging with the novel form a number of non-Western texts such as the Sanskrit epics, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata and, most consciously (and not unproblematically) The 1,001 Nights.

The novel ran into some controversy for its open criticism of Indira Gandhi, India's then prime minister, and the Emergency that she imposed on the country.

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