No one can discuss Salman Rushdie without bringing up that infamous, fatuous, fatwa, so I may as well clear my throat now.
The fatwa episode’s significance to present-day relations between Islam and the West (expostulations on which I’ll leave to Christopher Hitchens) has made it the central fact of Salman Rushdie’s life, the pavlovian association in the public conscious. This is a shame, because Rushdie has managed to have a rich career in spite of spending a decade in hiding under threat of death, as a free speech advocate and an excellent and acclaimed novelist. What’s encouraging about Rushdie, though, especially in the latter regard, is how little the reaper’s shadow has changed him. One can see this by looking back to Midnight’s Children, which while technically not his first novel, is widely considered the start of Rushdie’s career as we know it. Many of its themes and tropes are embryonic iterations of what would come later in his fiction, revealing an admirable continuity of character.
One can start with the book’s premise: Saleem Sinai’s birth coincides with the Republic of India’s, linking his fortunes to his nation’s, and gifting him with telepathic powers that put him in touch with hundreds of other children born within that same hour. In this examination of Indian identity as opposed to the west are sewn the seeds of nearly every novel Rushdie has ever written. The Satanic Verses dealt with conflicts inherent in having an Anglo-Indian identity, and Shalimar the Clown illustrated in the fouling of Kashmir the struggle between tradition and the modern West. Even the Enchantress of Florence, set far back in Renaissance times, juxtaposed Mughal India with Machiavelli’s Italy. How better to start a conversation on the East-West relationship than exploring the decades surrounding India’s rejection of Western rule?
Like Rushdie’s other books, the capsule plot description is only in a limited sense what the book is “about,” as far as story goes. A reader expecting straightforward, lean plotting is terribly mistaken. For Rushdie’s yarns freely unspool a variety of narrative discursions. Large sections of The Satanic Verses, which is ostensibly about a building confrontation between two men transformed into an angel and demon, are long-form hallucinations by one of the main character, full stories in themselves. Shalimar the Clown is a ‘whydunnit’ that starts with a brutal murder and then leaps over a half-century backwards, using modern European and Indian history to explain how its characters got where they are.
This device of characters shaped by history who shape it in turn, is a refinement of what’s going on here. Midnight’s Children reaches back a generation or two to just to set up circumstances surrounding Saleem’s and India’s entry onto the world stage. Saleem, who is writing down this story while his body begins to literally crack (a ticking time-bomb that is surprisingly arbitrary considering the character’s bond with the Indian nation), begins not with his birth, but with the upbringing of his grandfather Aadam Aziz. Saleem himself is not even born until page 118. The long-term, longform storytelling presents literally dozens of vibrant characters, impressing on one the joy and fascination he has with living, breathing human beings that continues in the large casts of his fiction today.
In some of these personages can be found the irreverence that would raise Iranian ire a few years after Midnight’s Children’s publication. Aadam Aziz’s struggle and loss of faith occurs at the very beginning of the book in in an interweaving of the Shahada with the whips and scorns of his secular German friends :
”...Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Creation…”—but now Heidelber invaded his head; here was Ingrid, briefly his Ingrid, her face scorning him for this Mecca-turned parroting; here, their friends Oskar and Ilse Lubin the anarchists, mocking his prayer with their anti-ideologies—“…The Compassionate, the Merciful, King of the Last Judgment!..”
There is certainly interest in this material, given Rushdie’s subsequent relationship with Islam, and even more in Saleem’s lament at the changes that his sister, known as the Brass Monkey, undergoes as she becomes an adult:
…the Monkey, once so rebellious and wild, adopting expressions of demureness and submission which must, at first, have seemed false even to her; the Monkey, learning how to cook and keep house, how to buy spices in the market; the Monkey, making the final break with the legacy of her grandfather, by learning prayers in Arabic and saying thema t all prescribed times; the Monkey, revealing the streak of puritan fanaticism which she had hinted at when she asked for a nun’s outfit; she, who spurned all offers of worldly love, was seduced by the loe of that God who had been named after a carved idol in a pagan shrine built around a giant meteorite: Al-Lah, in the Qa’aba, the shrine of the great Black Stone.
One can see in this the mindset that animated The Enchantress of Florence, with its preoccupation with creating a place where a prayer and an argument are the same thing. (The Monkey’s rise to stardom as a singer and the Voice of Pakistan is also a prototype of sorts for Shalimar’s Bunyi Kaul, who becomes a beautiful dancer only to be ruined by her fortune.) But all told, religion is hardly a focal point of the book. As it was just one factor among many that go into defining the Indian subcontinent, partitioned as it was along religious lines, so it is but one of the many elements swirling about Rushdie’s literary confection.
These elements naturally receive expression in Rushdie’s legendary magic realist wizardry. Like The Satanic Verses with its immigrants turned into animals and Shalimar and the Iron Mullah, Midnight’s Children is rife with literalized theme and conflict. An icy husband’s loins are frozen, a reclusive doctor becomes a snake; even Indira Gandhi’s black-white hair part is interpreted as a reflection of the light and shadow sides of the Emergency. Many of these metaphors exist for their own sake, which is not as great a liability as it sounds. That the diversions and fancies of the journey undertaken are to Rushdie more important than the eventual destination, reflects well on his outlook on life.
This does, though, have the unfortunate effect of sidelining the Children of Midnight who, for being the basis of the book’s title, spend a great deal of time in the background. Saleem does not make contact with them until page 259, and only a hundred pages later they almost literally fall of the radar. It’s not until the last few chapters that their significance becomes apparent (the way it comes together is too good for me to spoil). So too does Saleem’s rivalry with his midnight twin Shiva only here come into full bloom. It is perhaps not as developed as the antagonism between Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha of The Satanic Verses, and Boonyi and Shalimar the Clown, but that’s hardly fair. Midnight’s Children as seen here was in many ways a warm-up for the literary exercises to follow. The fact remains it’s a fine exercise in itself, and more vigorous than those engaged in by a great many other writers of note.
Historical 'what ifs' are always an interesting exercise, and we of course will never know what Salman Rushdie would have done or written had the Muslim world not gotten so exercised about The Satanic Verses. But it is likely his output would not have been far removed from what we have today. It would have been easy and understandable had he become embittered by his first-hand experience with fundamentalism. But instead Rushdie has been as always has: a buoyant humanist, yearning to tell us the story of his beloved India and its multiplicity of people, with every trick at his disposal. He has become more direct in his approach to religious violence, but still. That his more recent material flows as easily from his early work as it does, shows he was asking the important questions all along.
Which is, of course, why he was targeted.
*I focus on The Satanic Verses and Shalimar the Clown because they are the Rushdie books I have fully read; The Enchantress of Florence I started before getting sidelined. These are useful, though, in that they are, respectively, the last book Rushdie published before the fatwa, and his two most recent titles.