IT IS THE INDIAN PARADOX that the total absence of protective, humanizing and developing factors somehow does not annihilate or destroy life but that life continues to proliferate and proclaim itself everywhere with stridency, vitality an inextinguishable vigor. It is the earthly reflection of the Indian conception of God as combining the aspects of the Destroyer, the Creator and the Preserver.
Since the subject of Salman Rushdie's novel is the progress of the political juggernaut through the Indian subcontinent -- the juggernaut being literally a religious procession taken through the land in celebration, although said to leave behind a wake of destruction -- one might expect a dark and somber treatise. If is nothing of the sort. One the contrary, Midnight's Children burgeons with life, with exuberance and fantasy. If has the same effect on the eyes and the ears as a magnificient circus performance -- a scene that is brilliant with color, zest, daredevilry and loud bravado. The language is as full and copious as a flood or fire of tremendous proportions. If Midnight's Children is sprawling and untidy, then it shares these characteristics with such natural phenomena. If there are many deaths and acts of destruction in the novel, then every death seems merely to fertilize the Indian soil so that 10 heads spring up in the place of the one that rolled. If the last third of the book reveals a slight dwindling of the creative spring, then this is a part of the great design, for by then Rushdie's hero claims to be "disconnected, unplugged, with only epitaphs left to write" and ends, resignedly: "New myths are needed; but that's none of my business."
Before ending on that elegiac note, Rushdie has painted a full portrait of "India, the new myth -- a collective fiction in which anything is possible, a fable rivalled only by two other mighty fantasies: money and God." He uses the name India for the whole subcontinent and spans the recent history, both told and untold, of both India and Pakistan as well as the birth of Banglasdesh. Yet one hesitates to call the novel "historical" for Rushdie believes -- like Gunther Grass whose work is, one feels, the chief influence here (two of the characters even bear the Grasslike names of Oskar and Ilse Lubin) -- that while individual history does not make sense unless seen against its national background, neither does national history make sense unless seen in the form of individual lives and histories.
Like a Gunther Grass hero, Rushdie's Saleem is a very private person linked willy-nilly to events of national importance -- in his case, by the accident of his birth coinciding exactly with that of the Indian nation, for he is born, along with 580 other babies, on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 while Nehru is intoning his famous peech ("Long years ago we made a trust with destiny . . ."). The history of Saleem's family, which originated in the valley of Kashmir and later migrated to Agra, then to Bombay and finally across the border to Pakistan, is shown in the first third of the book as inseparable from the history of the country -- as indeed any life is. Yet nothing is predictable -- the fantastic and the earthy follow each other about in a comic dance, as do the tragic and the farcical. Rushdie continually plays tricks on the reader. For instance, he switches babies about in the maternity ward on that historic night so that Saleem's ancestors are really not his ancestors although they are of his adopted son. He can also veer off on wild tangents, as in his piece on the influence of hairstyles on the course of history or vision of history as a pickle jar. "To pickle is to give immortality," he says and adds: "One day perhaps the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to the eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth . . . that they are, despite everything, acts of love." Rushdie himself does not lack that indispensable ingredient of the satirist's gift -- the gift of love, of concern and involvement without which his satire would have little meaning and no tragedy.
His hero ends his days soberly as the manager of a pickle factory. Before that he assists in the chaos of modern Indian politics, the destruction of law in Pakistan ("this was the difference between my Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence -- that in the first I was beset by an infinity of alternative realities, while in the second I was a drift, disorientated, amid an equally infinite number of falsenesses, unrealities and lies") and even the blooddrenched birth of Bangladesh. He witnesses the birth of his adopted son at the moment when Indira Gandhi declares a state of Emergency ("and suspension-of-civil-rights, and censorship-of-the -press and armoured-units-on-special-alert, and arrest-of-subersive-elements; something was ending, something was being born . . ."). Naturally enough, the boy is born dumb and makes no sound for the next two years while his home is razed by bulldozers and his fther dragged off to jail along with the 580 other "Midnight's Children" where they are all submitted to operations that go by the name of vasectomy, tubectomy, testectomy etc., but are actually all what Rushdie names "Sperectomy: the draining-out of hope."
Obviously this book is of major interest in Indian readers, and it is tragic to think how unlikely that it will be published, distributed or read in a land that prefers to avert its eyes from the intolerable reality and gaze upon maya, the shimmer of illusion. But Rushdie reminds his readers, "Be fair! No body, no country has a monopoly of untruth" and he quotes from the Urdu piet Iqbal: "Where can one find a land that is foreign to God?" making his book not a national allegory or fable but as universal as the works of Cervantes, Swift, Kafka or Grass.
Midnight's Children will surely be recognized as a great tour de force, a dazzling exhibition of the gifts of a new writer of courage, impressive strength, the power of both imagination and control and sheer stylistic brilliance. Rushdie can write of spring in Kashmir: "After a winter's gestation in its egg-shell of ice, the valley beaked its way out into the open, moist and yellow" and of aged politicians as "pickled in immortality . . . clutching Time in their mummified fingers and refusing to let it move." His language carries one along in full flood, alternately exhilarating and exhausting one -- again, as natural phenomena might -- till gradually one is made aware of its wholly serious purpose, the elegiac tone beneath the farcical surface, the bitterness and the universality of tragedy: the tragedy of individual lives harried and wrecked by history; and of history harried and wrecked by individuals.