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A Time To Be Born

With ‘Midnight’s Children’ author Salman Rushdie found his voice. It would become an international cause.

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I tumbled forth into the world

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: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.

So begins Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children, a tragicomedy woven from personal and national history into a vast tapestry that glints with magic. Its narrator, Saleem Sinai, is born the day that the Indian subcontinent is reborn as an independent nation after three centuries of British rule and partitioned into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. “Oh, spell it out, spell it out,” Saleem goes on, urging himself to continue: “at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world.” Saleem is a reluctant narrator, a storyteller trapped between what he wants to say and what he wants to hide. But there’s no hiding this: At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, as fireworks explode outside the nursing-home window, Saleem and India are born together. It’s as plain as the (enormous) nose on his face.

His accidentally historic birth yokes Saleem to his country and to the rest of the 1,001 “children of midnight” born within India’s first hour. But is it coincidence or fate to be born on the date that restores the freedom of India’s precolonial past — but which also ignites a supremely violent present and future? Is it a comic, cosmic accident — or tragic destiny? Over the course of its five hundred pages, Rushdie’s novel churns through the possibilities, charting India’s growing pains through Saleem’s increasingly turbulent childhood and adolescence.

‘Midnight’s Children arrived as a loud, unruly, revolutionary event of a book.’ Above: cover illustration for the first edition of Midnight’s Children.

Midnight’s Children arrived as a loud, unruly, revolutionary event of a book. It was not Rushdie’s debut — his novel Grimus appeared in 1975 to just a ripple of attention — but in this, his second book, he seemed to have found his voice, a distinctive mix of formal prose, rich poetry, and bawdy humor. The linguistic mélange gave his characters irrepressible personalities, especially Saleem, whose early life and education were based on Rushdie’s, but whose voice — “comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous” — was uniquely his own . [1] The novel won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 and pushed the nascent genre of postcolonial literature into the limelight, giving voice to formerly colonized subjects and marginalized groups around the world. In 1993 and again in 2008, the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the Man Booker prize for fiction, Midnight’s Childrenwas named the best of the winners, cementing what one critic has called its “hypercanonical” status as the defining novel of the late 20th century. [2] 

The international success of Midnight’s Children signaled a new receptivity on the part of Western readers to the stories of those who, in the colonial past, had only been written about. The reviews in Britain and the United States, as well as in India, were rapturous. Clark Blaise in The New York Times Book Review memorably noted that the book “sounds like a continent finding its voice.” [3] The novel was a bestseller, and in India — in what Rushdie saw as a mark of great distinction — “the book was so heavily and successfully pirated that the anonymous pirates started sending me greetings cards.” [4] But the novel did not merely present the thirty turbulent years since Partition from the point of view of an Indian witness. In its narrative style, as well as in its themes and preoccupations, Midnight’s Children set itself apart as a new kind of novel; critics have gone so far as to suggest that it inaugurated what we now think of as “contemporary” literature. [5] Western critics embraced its distinctive features — its multiple voices and viewpoints, its mix of “high” and “low” cultural references, its self-referential narrative — as markers of literary quality.

Midnight’s Children became the first in Rushdie’s loose trilogy of novels written during the 1980s that explored the entwined, fraught history of India and Pakistan. After 1983’s Shame, 1988’s The Satanic Verses famously drew down the fury of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who declared a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill the author. The death threat sent Rushdie into hiding for a decade, under the protection of the British government, and turned him from a literary star into a global celebrity — and an enduring symbol of the clash between free expression and fundamentalism. 

Editors: Daisy Florin, Natalie Axton

Fact Checker: Nick Davidson

Copy Editor: Jim Uebbing

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