Longevity is the real prize for which writers strive, and it isn’t awarded by any jury. For a book to stand the test of time, to pass successfully down the generations, is uncommon enough to be worth a small celebration. For a writer in his mid-70s, the continued health of a book published in his mid-30s is, quite simply, a delight. This is why we do what we do: to make works of art that, if we are very lucky, will endure.
As a reader, I have always been attracted to capacious, largehearted fictions, books that try to gather up large armfuls of the world. When I started to think about the work that would grow into Midnight’s Children, I looked again at the great Russian novels of the 19th century, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, Dead Souls, books of the type that Henry James had called “loose, baggy monsters”, large-scale realist novels – though, in the case of Dead Souls, on the very edge of surrealism. And at the great English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, Tristram Shandy (wildly innovative and by no means realist), Vanity Fair (bristling with sharp knives of satire), Little Dorrit (in which the Circumlocution Office, a government department whose purpose is to do nothing, comes close to magic realism), and Bleak House (in which the interminable court case Jarndyce v Jarndyce comes even closer). And at their great French precursor, Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is completely fabulist.
I also had in mind the modern counterparts of these masterpieces, The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Adventures of Augie March and Catch-22, and the rich, expansive worlds of Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing (both too prolific to be defined by any single title, but Murdoch’s The Black Prince and Lessing’s The Making of the Representative from Planet 8 have stayed with me). But I was also thinking about another kind of capaciousness, the immense epics of India, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the fabulist traditions of the Panchatantra, the Thousand and One Nights and the Kashmiri Sanskrit compendium called Katha-sarit-sagar (Ocean of the Streams of Story). I was thinking of India’s oral narrative traditions, too, which were a form of storytelling in which digression was almost the basic principle; the storyteller could tell, in a sort of whirling cycle, a fictional tale, a mythological tale, a political story and an autobiographical story; he – because it was always a he – could intersperse his multiple narratives with songs and keep large audiences entranced.
I loved that multiplicity could be so captivating. Young writers are often given a version of the advice that the King of Hearts gives the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when the Rabbit becomes confused in court about how to tell his story: “‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on until you come to the end; then stop.’” It was inspiring to learn, from the oral narrative masters of, in particular, Kerala in south India, that this was not the only way, or even the most captivating way, to go about things.
The novel I was planning was a multigenerational family novel, so inevitably I thought of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and, for all its non-realist elements, I knew that my book needed to be a novel deeply rooted in history, so I read, with great admiration, Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel. And, because it was to be a novel of Bombay, it had to be rooted in the movies as well, movies of the kind now called “Bollywood”, in which calamities such as babies exchanged at birth and given to the wrong mothers were everyday occurrences.
As you can see, I wanted to write a novel of vaulting ambition, a high-wire act with no safety net, an all-or-nothing effort: Bollywood or bust, as one might say. A novel in which memory and politics, love and hate would mingle on almost every page. I was an inexperienced, unsuccessful, unknown writer. To write such a book I had to learn how to do so; to learn by writing it. Five years passed before I was ready to show it to anybody. For all its surrealist elements Midnight’s Children is a history novel, looking for an answer to the great question history asks us: what is the relationship between society and the individual, between the macrocosm and the microcosm? To put it another way: do we make history, or does it make (or unmake) us? Are we the masters or victims of our times?
My protagonist, Saleem Sinai, makes an unusual assertion in reply: he believes that everything that happens, happens because of him. That history is his fault. This belief is absurd, of course, and so his insistence on it feels comic at first. Later, as he grows up, and as the gulf between his belief and the reality of his life grows ever wider – as he becomes increasingly victim-like, not a person who acts but one who is acted upon, who does not do but is done to – it begins to be sad, perhaps even tragic. Forty years after he first arrived on the scene – 45 years after he first made his assertion on my typewriter – I feel the urge to defend his apparently insane boast. Perhaps we are all, to use Saleem’s phrase, “handcuffed to history”. And if so, then yes, history is our fault. History is the fluid, mutable, metamorphic consequence of our choices, and so the responsibility for it, even the moral responsibility, is ours. After all: if it’s not ours, then whose is it? There’s nobody else here. It’s just us. If Saleem Sinai made an error, it was that he took on too much responsibility for events. I want to say to him now: we all share that burden. You don’t have to carry all of it.
The question of language was central to the making of Midnight’s Children. In a later novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I used the acronym “Hug-me” to describe the language spoken in Bombay streets, a melange of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi and English. In addition to those five “official” languages, there’s also the city’s unique slang, Bambaiyya, which nobody from anywhere else in India understands. Clearly, any novel aiming for readability could not be written in Hug-me or Bambaiyya. A novel must know what language it’s being written in. However, writing in classical English felt wrong, like a misrepresentation of the rich linguistic environment of the book’s setting. In the end I took my cue from Jewish American writers such as Philip Roth, who sprinkled their English with untranslated Yiddish words. If they could do it, so could I. The important thing was to make the approximate meaning of the word clear from the context. If Roth talks about getting a zetz in the kishkes, we understand from context that a zetz is some sort of violent blow and kishkes are a sensitive part of the human body. So if Saleem mentions a rutputty motor car, it should be clear that the car in question is a ramshackle, near-derelict old wreck.
In the end I used fewer non-English words than I originally intended. Sentence structure, the flow and rhythm of the language, ended up being more useful, I thought, in my quest to write in an English that wasn’t owned by the English. The flexibility of the English language has allowed it to become naturalised in many different countries, and Indian English is its own thing by now, just as Irish English is, or West Indian English, or Australian English, or the many variations of American English. I set out to write an Indian English novel. Since then, the literature of the English language has expanded to include many more such projects: I’m thinking of Edwidge Danticat’s Creole-inflected English in Breath, Eyes, Memory, for example, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s use of Igbo words and idioms in Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, or Junot Díaz’s slangy, musical, Dominican remake of the language in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
I found myself in conversation, so to speak, with a great forerunner, EM Forster’s A Passage to India. I had admired this novel even before I had the great good fortune, as an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge, to meet Morgan Forster himself, who was in residence there as an honorary fellow, and was generously and kindly encouraging when I shyly admitted that I wanted to write. But as I began to write my “India book” – for a while I didn’t even know what it was called – I understood that Forsterian English, so cool, so precise, would not do for me. It would not do, I thought, for India. India is not cool. India is hot. It’s hot and noisy and odorous and crowded and excessive. How could I represent that on the page? I asked myself. What would a hot, noisy, odorous, crowded, excessive English sound like? How would it read? The novel I wrote was my best effort to answer that question.
The question of crowdedness needed a formal answer as well as a linguistic one. Multitude is the most obvious fact about the subcontinent. Everywhere you go, there’s a throng of humanity. How could a novel embrace the idea of such multitude? My answer was to tell a crowd of stories, deliberately to overcrowd the narrative, so that “my” story, the main thrust of the novel, would need to push its way, so to speak, through a crowd of other stories. There are small, secondary characters and peripheral incidents in the book that could be expanded into longer narratives of their own. This kind of deliberate “wasting” of material was intentional. This was my hubbub, my maelstrom, my crowd.
When I started writing, the family at the heart of the novel was much more like my family than it is now. However, the characters felt oddly lifeless and inert. So I started making them unlike the people on whom they were modelled, and at once they began to come to life. For example, I did have an aunt who married a Pakistani general, who, in real life, was one of the founders, and the first chief, of the much feared ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. But as far as I know he was not involved in planning or executing a military coup, with or without the help of pepper pots. So that story was fiction. At least I think it was.
Saleem Sinai went to my school. He also lived, in Bombay, in my childhood home, in my old neighbourhood, and is just eight weeks younger than me. His childhood friends are composites of children I knew when I was young. Once, after a reading in Bombay, a man came up to me and said: “Hello, Salman. I’m Hairoil.” He wasn’t wrong. The character of Hairoil Sabarmati, or at least Hairoil’s neatly oiled and parted hair, had indeed been based on him. But he had never been nicknamed Hairoil in real life. That was something I made up for the novel. I couldn’t help thinking how strange it was that my childhood friend introduced himself to me by a fictional name. Especially as he had lost all his hair.
But in spite of these echoes, Saleem and I are unalike. For one thing, our lives took very different directions. Mine led me abroad to England and eventually to America. But Saleem never leaves the subcontinent. His life is contained within, and defined by, the borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a final proof that my character and I are not one and the same, I offer another anecdote. When I was in Delhi to do one of the first Indian readings from Midnight’s Children, I heard a woman’s voice cry loudly as I walked out on to the stage: “Oh! But he’s got a perfectly ordinary nose!”
Forty years is a long time. I have to say that India is no longer the country of this novel. When I wrote Midnight’s Children I had in mind an arc of history moving from the hope – the bloodied hope, but still the hope – of independence to the betrayal of that hope in the so-called Emergency, followed by the birth of a new hope. India today, to someone of my mind, has entered an even darker phase than the Emergency years. The horrifying escalation of assaults on women, the increasingly authoritarian character of the state, the unjustifiable arrests of people who dare to stand against that authoritarianism, the religious fanaticism, the rewriting of history to fit the narrative of those who want to transform India into a Hindu-nationalist, majoritarian state, and the popularity of the regime in spite of it all, or, worse, perhaps because of it all – these things encourage a kind of despair.
When I wrote this book I could associate big-nosed Saleem with the elephant-trunked god Ganesh, the patron deity of literature, among other things, and that felt perfectly easy and natural even though Saleem was not a Hindu. All of India belonged to all of us, or so I deeply believed. And still believe, even though the rise of a brutal sectarianism believes otherwise. But I find hope in the determination of India’s women and college students to resist that sectarianism, to reclaim the old, secular India and dismiss the darkness. I wish them well. But right now, in India, it’s midnight again.… as you join us today from India, we have a small favour to ask. Through these turbulent and challenging times, millions rely on the Guardian for independent journalism that stands for truth and integrity. Readers chose to support us financially more than 1.5 million times in 2020, joining existing supporters in 180 countries.With your help, we will continue to provide high-impact reporting that can counter misinformation and offer an authoritative, trustworthy source of news for everyone. With no shareholders or billionaire owner, we set our own agenda and provide truth-seeking journalism that’s free from commercial and political influence. When it’s never mattered more, we can investigate and challenge without fear or favour.
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