Sometimes when we hear some famous person’s name, we immediately link that person with some event in history. Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Christopher Columbus and the year 1492. Karl Marx with the age of Communism. But what if one person was linked—almost physically linked—with the fortunes and events of a single nation? That’s the idea explored in Salman Rushdie’s 1981 book Midnight’s Children.
The book’s core chronology follows Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment when the nation of India gains its colonial independence from the British. From that point, the story, narrated by Saleem, provides an autobiographical sketch of his life, regularly linking events and feelings of his own experience with the larger events and feelings occurring nationally within India, Pakistan, and later, Bangladesh. The story concludes in the late 1970s with Saleem unsure if he will live to see his—and by extension, India’s—next birthday.
Saleem isn’t the only Midnight Child. In the book’s universe, the 1,001 native children born during the first hour of India’s independence are linked, to some extent, with the complexities of the nation’s political, religious, cultural, geographical, and historical reality. But Saleem, born exactly at the moment that India was freed from its prior colonial bonds, becomes newly bound to the nation in a way that links him as prime among all the children of midnight.
Midnight’s Children is a fascinating book for what it is. Saleem is more than just a statistical aggregate of Indians. Saleem is India—and his sister just happens to be Pakistan. It is an interesting premise, but for readers not raised in that part of the world, the link between India and one of its citizens is a bit of a stretch. Rushdie goes to great lengths to ensure that the protagonist’s life ties in with all major events in the history of modern India—and it shows. Some of the things that happen to Saleem are so contrived that it reduces the story to some low-grade work of science fiction. While the story does introduce readers to the nations on the Indian subcontinent, it does so in a way that is as complex and hard to deal with as the conflicts between the nations themselves.
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