Midnight’s Children: A Book Review

A friend of mine asked me why I’ve never written a book review. I mean, I write movie reviews all the time, so why not review books as well?

It seems like a valid question, doesn’t it? But as I sit at this keyboard, I realise how difficult this task truly is. Why, you ask? To understand that, all we need is to look at the difference between a movie and a book.

A film is something of a finished product. It is written first and then given life through actors, music, set design, cameras and whatnot. What you see is what the director of the film wishes you to see. There could be multiple interpretations of everything but in the end the image before you is someone else’s. When it comes to a book, however, it all changes. After all, what is a book but a collection of words?

Words – one of the most powerful of all forces in this world. Words can change histories, affect futures and alter the present or basically, change time itself. Words can give new meaning or snatch that meaning away in an instant. Words can take you on a journey into worlds you’ve never seen. That journey, sometimes, can be in a place a lot closer than you could imagine. But even as I say this, you feel it don’t you? All of us have. It’s a particularly intense experience, having words seep from a page into your mind and play games within. That’s what words do. They form images, emotions, experiences within us and show us things we never knew we could see.

And yet, those images are our own. No matter how vividly an author may describe something, the images he or she may form will always be coloured with our own self, our own understanding of what he or she has written. A lot of us have read Harry Potter, yet the face of Harry as he exists within our head would be fundamentally different in each and every person’s mind. It’s quite amazing, if you ask me, one of the most magical things about reading. It is also why reviewing a book becomes so difficult because, if you think about it, you’re reviewing your own mind. THAT is what scares me.

I am pretty sure this isn’t a revelation for most people who read this. It is probably accepted fact and taken in stride as they belt out beautifully written reviews one after the other. However, since this is my first, allow me my little ‘light-bulb’ moment as I write my first book review.

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Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, is quite a heavy read, there’s no simpler way to say this. There are so many elements at play here that it becomes easy for a person to lose himself or herself. But the moment you do so, you find yourself awash in a complex, purposefully messy and ultimately beautiful story. And isn’t that what it is all about?

The book is about Saleem Sinai, who was born on the midnight of India’s independence and shares a fate uniquely entwined with that of his country. He discovers that he shares a telepathic connection with a thousand and one other children who were born at the same time that he was. This connection and his remarkably eventful life form the novel that won Salman Rushdie the ‘Booker of Bookers.’

I have to begin with the story here because, after everything else, this is what it truly is, this book; a beautifully woven tapestry of characters, places, emotions and magic. That’s a lot of adjectives but I truly have no other way to describe how I felt while I read it, meticulously, line by line. So let begin at the beginning of my praise i.e. at the narrator himself.

Saleem Sinai establishes himself to be an extremely unreliable narrator. One would expect the story, hence, to be one that is ambiguous in nature and in many places it is. There are moments where he speaks about his experiences and you feel that tug of disbelief. Could this really have happened? But read another fifty pages and suddenly that moment is mentioned again, in a new light. It serves to provide you with an extremely satisfying experience. Plot details that seem irrelevant and more than a tad self-indulgent are left unresolved only to be picked up in places we couldn’t imagine. These threads are then woven together, further, into the fabric of this story. Every path that the book takes means a separate journey and I for one, loved on being each one of them.

It would be understandable, though, for many to find themselves a little too lost. My own father, for instance, felt that this book was going nowhere and felt like an old man just rambling about his life. I couldn’t disagree with him more but I could empathise. One could say that it’s one of the flaws in this book, if one were being overly cynical. I stand by the view; however, that story does not necessarily need to go somewhere to take you on a journey. It’s one of the many things Rushdie nails.

It stands to reason, then, that I should move on to the two other most wonderful parts of the book. Its characters would be the first. I could write paragraphs and paragraphs about how deliciously complex each and every person in the book is. The story talks about four generations of the Sinai family, with every generation coming with its own baggage. The baggage is emotional, but in many cases turns out to have historic significance as well. One of the primary themes in this book is the way emotions permeate into everything that we do, making the characters all the more interesting.

Pickles made by Saleem’s aunt taste of guilt and jealousy. The fabric of clothes exudes hostility. These are a few examples of how Rushdie uses emotions and objects in a magically unreal fashion to portray feelings that would otherwise be difficult to put in words. One can almost imagine Saleem eating mango chutney that tastes like guilt and hate. What’s even better is how I, while reading, could taste it as well.

The second, and probably most, wonderful part of Midnight’s Children has to be the sheer scale and audacity of the images it provokes within our minds. One travels from the valleys of Kashmir to the streets of Bombay to the hustle and bustle of Karachi and finally, to my home state of New Delhi (including all the places in between). Using a heady mixture of emotions, detail and historic parallels, Rushdie concocts a brew (or should I say, pickle) for each place that we are in. Each is distinct in flavour, stands apart in appearance and the more you read the more you find yourself immersing in the flavours of that brew. It fills you from top to bottom, and you marvel at the knowledge that Rushdie has created such an intense experience through mere words.

I mention historic parallels a lot, and frankly, I felt that to be the real backbone of this book. The visuals, character and the story may be what we see and enjoy, but it’s these little allegories that truly draw us in. I spoke about characters that are detailed and complex and here, Rushdie presents the 1001 children of midnight as a representation of diverse and populous country that is India. It’s hard to miss. I praised the visual detail, like the final scene, for instance, and that too is accentuated with visual metaphors of an old nation crumbling to dust while a new one rises. Beautiful.

I haven’t even begun to talk about the various, extremely personal themes, that Saleem struggles with. Questions of identity and purpose are posed with answers that create even more questions. Living a life whose vicissitudes are intertwined with an entire country’s Saleem struggles to find meaning in anything that he does. It becomes difficult for him, and even us, to determine whether he serves as nothing but a mirror for the country he was born into, or does he have some individuality as well? Do the fates that weave yarns for India do the same for him as well, thereby linking him to her fate and robbing him of anything he could call his own? Sigh, even as I write these words, I find myself going back to the book and how grandly, yet deftly, it handles all of these elements.

Midnight’s Children is a must read for anyone who believes that a good story does not NEED to have any particular form or structure. A good story just…is. For those who do not subscribe to this belief, it becomes doubly important for them to read and experience. I can’t honestly tell anyone what to do, being a reviewer and not a salesman, but I do feel responsible for sharing this magnificent experience with others. So, let this be a suggestion. If you could find it within yourself to give this one a try, it would be great and I am sure you would find yourself content with all that you have read; almost like you were always meant to read it.

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