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Bombay 19 June 1947 • Indian novelist, writing in English
|Awarded the Booker Prize in 1981, Midnight's Children is Salman Rushdie's most highly regarded work of fiction, though not his best known. That distinction belongs to The Satanic Verses, the 1988 novel that prompted Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who considered the book blasphemous, to declare Rushdie an enemy of Islam and put a $1.5 million bounty on his head. But in Midnight's Children, Rushdie had already produced a novel that not only risks offending some readers, but also fiercely challenges our understanding of history, nationhood, and narrative.
The foundations of religious authority are a central concern in the novel. As with Judaism and 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). After mentioning Muhammad, Saleem remarks, parenthetically, "(on whose name be peace, let me add; I don't want to offend anyone)" (p. 185). What is the nature of the relationship these passages establish between Saleem and Islam? 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. But it's not just religion that gets such treatment—Rushdie turns his paradoxical gaze on the idea of the nation as well.
The first thing we learn about Saleem is that his birth coincided precisely with that of modern India—midnight on August 15, 1947. What follows is the intertwined stories of both Saleem and his country, as well as a meditation on the intersection of individual and public life, of personal history and the historical record. But Midnight's Children also attempts to undermine our assumptions about what constitutes a life story or a nation's history. Saleem frequently pauses to comment on the book he is writing, and in one such instance, he realizes that he has given us the wrong date for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi: "But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time" (p. 190). Is Saleem making fun of the reader who may have trusted him as a
| truthful chronicler of India's history? Is he making fun of the very notion of a true history of a nation? Perhaps a nation's history is nothing more—but also nothing less—than the shared personal history of its individual citizens.
If Saleem's history of India raises questions about the enterprise of recording history in general, his refusal to impose a conventional shape on his own story raises questions about how we understand our own lives. For example, when does the story of a life begin? Saleem conforms to convention by beginning his book, "I was born in the city of Bombay...once upon a time" (p. 3). However, by the next page he has changed his mind about how to begin, telling us, "I must commence the business of remaking my life from the point at which it really began, some thirty-two years before anything as obvious, as present, as my clock-ridden, crime-stained birth" (p. 4). Saleem then introduces Aadam Aziz, whom he calls his grandfather, and whose life Saleem chronicles in some detail. Later in the novel, however, we learn that Ahmed and Amina Sinai are not, in fact, Saleem's parents; rather, he is the product of an adulterous fling between Vanita, a poor Indian woman, and an Englishman. Mary Pereira, a servant of the Sinais, switched him at birth with their son, Shiva. This circumstance could be one of many that prompt Saleem to observe that "there are so many stories to tell...so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane! I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well" (p. 4). The timing of his birth gives the impression that Saleem's life is unique, but whose life is not "a commingling of the improbable and the mundane"? Do the fantastic aspects of Saleem's life distinguish him from everyone else, as he seems to believe, or serve to illuminate in unexpected ways even the most apparently ordinary life?
If the vision of India that emerges from Midnight's Children is more a product of the novelist's imagination than of the historian's search for truth, what difference should this make in articulating the novel's relationship to our experience of the world it represents? The novel blurs the distinctions we often make between personal and public history, between private spirituality and communal religion. We expect the latter to transcend the individual perspective—a notion which in Midnight's Children comes to seem not only impossible to maintain, but also oppressive. In telling both his own story and that of modern India, Saleem is confined by nothing but the limits of his means. He may be caught in the abstractions and vagaries of language, but the struggle is itself an expression of freedom and an affirmation of the capacity of the writer's voice to shape reality. (from: www.penguinputnam.com)
|ON SALMAN RUSHDIE'S BOOKSHELF|
Arabian Nights: Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night
Anonymous, 14e eeuw
Originating from India, Persia and Arabia, these tales represent the lively expression of a lay and secular imagination in revolt against religious austerity and zeal in Oriental literature. They depict a fabulous and fanciful world of jinns and sorcerers, but their bawdiness, realism and variety of subject matter also firmly anchor them to everyday life.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Laurence Sterne, 1759-1767
Part novel, part digression, this gloriously disordered narrative interweaves the birth and life of the unfortunate 'hero' Tristram Shandy, the eccentric philosophy of his father Walter, the amours and military obsessions of Uncle Toby, and a host of other characters.
James Joyce, 1922
Stylistically varied Homer-parody about the Dublin everyman Leopold Bloom, who emerges as surrogate father to Stephen Dedalus on the day his wife Molly sleeps with another man.
The Tin Drum
Günter Grass, 1959
"Danzig Trilogy": I
A scathing dissection of the years from 1925-1955 through the eyes of Oskar, the dwarf whose manic beating on the toy of his childhood fantastically counterpoints the horrors of Germany and Poland under the Nazis.
A House for Mr Biswas
V.S. Naipaul, 1961
Naipaul follows the fortunes of Mr Biswas, the outsider who refuses to conform to the customs of his grander in-laws whose house he lives in. Finally finding a house of his own, he triumphs over the smaller minds who would repress him.
R.K. Narayan, 1958
Raju's first stop after his release from prison is the barber's shop. Then he decides to take refuge in an abandoned temple. Raju used to be India's most corrupt tourist guide - but now a peasant mistakes him for a holy man. Gradually, he begins to play the part.
The Vendor of Sweets
R.K. Narayan, 1967 (as The Sweet Vendor
While the colourful sweetmeats were frying in the kitchen, Jagun would immerse himself in his copy of the Bhagavad Gita. A widower, Jagan harbours an affection for his son Mali. But even Jagan's patience begins to fray when Mali descends on the sleepy city of Malgudi full of modern notions.
Ovid, AD 8
Ovid's deliciously witty and poignant Metamorphoses describes a magical world in which men and women are transformed - often by love - into flowers, trees, animals, stones and stars.
|BOOKS BY SALMAN RUSHDIE:|
Born at the midnight of India's independence, Saleem is 'handcuffed to history' by the coincidence. He is one of 1001 children born that midnight, each of them endowed with an extraordinary talent.
|WHAT TO READ AFTER MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN?|
THAT RUSHDIE FEELING
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez, 1967
This magical realist novel tells the history of the Buendías family, the founders of Macondo, a remote South American settlement. In the world of the novel there is a Spanish galleon beached in the jungle, a flying carpet, and an iguana in a woman's womb.
A Son of the Circus
John Irving, 1994
Born a Parsi in Bombay, sent to university and medical school in Vienna, Dr Farrokh Darwalla is a Canadian citizen living in Toronto. Twenty years ago he was the examining physician of two murder victims in Goa. Now 20 years later, the doctor becomes reacquainted with the murderer.
Abdelkader Benali, 2002
THE EMPIRE WRITES BACK
Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe, 1958
Portrait of life in a Nigerian village before and after the coming of colonialism.
Double Play: The Story of an Amazing World Record
Frank Martinus Arion, 1973
A politically charged novel about a memorable game of dominoes on colonial Curaçao lays bare a mozaic of adultery and machination.
Maryse Condé, 1995
A retelling of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, set in nineteenth-century Guadeloupe and Cuba.
The Bone People
Keri Hulme, 1984
The story of Kerewin, a despairing part-Maori artist who is convinced that her solitary life is the only way to face the world. Her cocoon is rudely blown away by the sudden arrival during a rainstorm of Simon, a mute six-year-old whose past seems to hold some terrible trauma.
The Buddha of Suburbia
Hanif Kureishi, 1990
Karim Amir, bored with his suburban lifestyle in England, is propelled into the fast lane and introduced to disparate cultures, classes and genders thanks to a disorienting chain of events sparked by his father, a self-proclaimed guru.
[Les honneurs perdus]
Calixthe Beyala, 1996
[Gewaagd leven/ Lijken op Liefde/ Was getekend]
Astrid Roemer, 1996-1998
THE GREAT INDIAN NOVEL
A Suitable Boy
Vikram Seth, 1993
The tale of Lata's and her mother's attempts to find a suitable boy, through love or through maternal appraisal. Set in post-independence India and involving the lives of four families, it is also an explanation of a whole continent faced with its first great General Election.
A Fine Balance
Rohinton Mistry, 1995
A novel set in India during the Emergency: in the tiny flat of the widowed Dina Dalal, two tailors and a young student struggle to put together a new life of sorts amid the crisis, and in the course of doing so encounter a vivid cast of characters.
The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy, 1997
Set against a background of political turbulence in Kerala, this novel tells the story of twins Esthappen and Rahel. Among the vats of banana jam and heaps of peppercorns in their grandmother's factory they try to craft a childhood for themselves amidst what constitutes their family.
Omar Khayyam Shakil had three mothers who shared the symptoms of pregnancy, as they did everything else, inseparably. At their six breasts, Omar was warned against all feelings and nuances of shame. It was training which would prove useful when he left his mothers' fortress (via the dumb-waiter) to face his shameless future...
|The Satanic Verses |
|The Moor's Last Sigh |
|The Ground Beneath Her Feet |
|Shalimar the Clown|
Max Ophuls’ memorable life ends violently in Los Angeles in 1993 when he is murdered by his Muslim driver Noman Sher Noman, also known as Shalimar the Clown. At first the crime seems to be politically motivated – Ophuls was previously ambassador to India, and later US counterterrorism chief – but it is much more.
|The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey|
|Haroun and the Sea of Stories|
|In Good Faith|
|Imaginary Homelands: Essay and Criticism 1981-1991|
|The Wizard of Oz: an Appreciation|
'When I first saw The Wizard of Oz it made a writer of me,' states Salman Rushdie in this nifty little book, an entry in the British Film Institute's Film Classics series. Rushdie weaves critical analysis, personal reminiscences, and behind-the-scenes information into an insightful essay about this well-loved film.
|Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing: 1947-1997|
|Step Across This Line: collected non-fiction 1992-2002|
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, email@example.com
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