Genre and Technique in Midnight’s Children

There used to be an Aadam in Kashmir once, and then came another in old Delhi. Between them time runs its course, from the grandfather who actually wasn’t to the son who actually wasn’t, back to the great-grandfather who actually was. There is, as there had to be, a comparison inevitable between the two Aadams – as between Saleem and the second Aadam. Dreams are where lies the core of difference. The little Aadam “does not … surrender to dreams” (MNC 217) if an unreliable narrator is to be trusted. But then, if he isn’t to be trusted, then who and what can be? If there’s no trust in him then there is no question of one’s even starting to understand the story because truth itself terminates in a kolynos billboard sized question mark.

The first Aadam had moved between Godlessness and faith, West and East. Saleem went one step ahead to actually moving between being a son and no son, a Muslim/Christian/Hindu variously by his inception/birth/upbringing belonging both to India and Pakistan, legally and illegally. If there’d been one thing common between Dr. Aziz and Saleem (and Ahmad), it was the disease of optimism that affected them at one point or another in their lives; and the disease of (literally or metaphorically) falling apart. The final Aadam is “stronger, harder [and] more resolute” (MNC 217). Saleem had to be cured of optimism with the final excision of hope, and grandpa Aadam, with that of life itself. The little Aadam, it seems, isn’t a dreamer-optimist type. Saleem, on the other hand, had been just the opposite throughout. His mode of narration bears testimony to this fact. From the beginning of his narrative till its end, Saleem uses “Matter of fact descriptions of outré and bizarre, and their reverse, namely heightened, stylized version of the everyday … techniques, which are also attitudes of mind” (MNC 112). In fact, one of the very few striking things visible consistently in the narrative is the facility with which the magical and real/normal events are fused to make one whole, i.e. a shining example of the genre of magical realism: MNC.

To turn a bit theoretical here, magic(al) realism is the genre that does what Saleem keeps doing. Realistic and matter of fact description – never in brackets but always in the open, seldom metaphorically but literally treated – is the hallmark of MNC and of the genre to which it belongs. A rough genealogical line from the Puranas to Marquez & c. to Rushdie’s MNC will prove helpful in understanding the matter better. The Puranas treat the concepts of heaven and hell with detailed, deep and vivid descriptions, a thousand year old humans and flying cities of gold with the same matter of factness that’s given to, say, a sixth standard’s descriptive essay on “The Cow”. The living and the ghosts of the dead, past and present rub shoulders in Marquez’s fiction. MNC clearly belongs to this set of narratives. Not just the narrative style, Rushdie confirms the genre of his text through characterization too. There are many characters who belong at the same time to the world of reality and that of magic, just like the characters in the stories of the Puranas and epics. Tai, the boatman, and later, the ancient prostitute, happens to be a kind of character that walks out of the pages of the Puranas to the pages of MNC. The Tiresias-like Tai claims to be more than a millennium old and his female namesake, at least half a millennium. How can one mistrust their claims when one has to progress in understanding their roles in the progress of the complicated and complex narrative? The veracity and validity of the crucial information they provide to the characters in the tale and to the reader/audience are central to the progress of the plot, e.g. the first Tai’s prophetic pro/ana-leptic knowledge of the exact location of Ilse’s jump into the lake, or the second Tai’s revelation to Saleem and to the readers of his love for his sister?

Aadam Aziz’s growing central (literal for some) hole that atavistically appears in his grandson who’s not. Saleem’s body cracking in a very unreliable manner that’s magical and crucial to the story. Saleem’s insistence till the very last jar/page on the reader’s literally believing in the physical presence of those cracks with nothing metaphorical about them. Naseem’s power to drop into her family members’ dreams. All are essential for the plot, yet magical and very impossible. The Hummingbird – the first conjurer’s powers and his painful end and then, his reappearance in form of a repetition in Picture Singhji makes a first rate material for the magical and not the real part of the narrative. Here we are not going to consider the heavy coincidence (followed by coincidence) of the important events in Saleem’s life-and-times as even remotely magical. Coincidences, after all, are quite acceptable in the realistic tradition. The soothsayer’s prophesy, Amina’s streak of victories on the race course etc. are from the realm of magic, but the word suits perfectly the origin and powers of the midnight’s children. Their powers in direct proportion to the distance between the time of their birth and the stroke of midnight hour is too neat a formula to be repeated in one thousand and one cases – it can’t be anything but magic. Soumitra’s time travelling and Parvati’s witchery, and yes, Saleem’s nose and Shiva’s knees; or, alternatively, Saleem’s impotence and Shiva’s “superpotence” – are all magical yet employed in the matter of fact manner on something that has not been known. Alia’s and Mary’s powers of transferring their emotions to whatever they made, e.g. pickles and sweaters, and Saleem’s power of decoding those encrypted emotions, they are all magical. Another narrative technique Rushdie uses in the novel is self-reflexivity.

The self-reflexivity of narrator-narration (is it purely, precisely, purposedly and exactly that, or extends to the writer?) gets highlighted directly or indirectly through various means at various places. The most common device used here is one of the most ancient and common devices used since the beginning of the history of novels: a direct address to the reader. MNC adds another layer to the fine complexity by being narrated first to an immediate audience Padma, and by its declared intention of being aimed at Aadam, the broad eared son (Ganesh whom Saleem loves) of Siva-Parvati-Saleem-Emergency. Saleem involves the reader – immediate or distant future – fairly or unfairly, actively or passively, definitely knowingly but known or unknown to the reader – with the narrator-narration. He doesn’t refrain even from falling as low as emotional blackmail by employing the psychological trick of reader-narrator identification. His not is imperceptible yet insidious ways are clear in his appeal: “I have not, I think , been good at describing emotions-believing my audience to be capable of joining in; of imagining for themselves what I have been unable to re-imagine, so that my story becomes yours as well” (MNC 150). Thus he hits many birds with one stone, or to bring it closer home: many spittoons with just one jet! The first one mentioned already, the next one happens to be freedom from the meticulous and deeply penetrating psychological analysis of characters, taken to its finest and absurdist levels by the modernist fiction writers. Then, he gets his audience into a Brahmalike (albeit micro-miniature) cycle of dreaming-reimagining. Through this trick of his, he succeeds in making his story that of the reader/audience. He escapes focusssing inward too much, that’d definitely have hampered his narration’s personal-historical intersection. His narrative tends to refer to its narrativeness instead of hiding it, and the matter of factness with which he presents the story of his “undeniably exceptional life-and-times” (MNC 151) adds to the flavor and thus appeal of the story. Moreover, the narrator’s confidence in his primacy and supremacy – a confidence that makes any kind of self-doubt he brings to the story impossible to be taken seriously by the reader. His faith in the centrality of his text in the time to come is immense. It’s a “source-book… Hadith or Purana … for guidance and inspiration” (MNC 151) of those who follow in his footsteps, and naturally so, because his is the first such history of his own turbulent life (and times).

 

Irony is used liberally to make the narration interesting. The narrator’s naïve faith in the existence of some kind of benchmark or centre in life, because he needs it in order to understand life, is the key ingredient of the condiment of irony that he liberally uses in all his thirty pickle jars (plus one chapter). There are times when the shockingly unreal reality confronts him. These are the times utilized to bring forth the ironical and absurd real-unreal duality, because “in a country where truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist …[in Pakistan and India he] was beset by an infinity of alternative realities” (MNC 166). Like the polytheistic Hinduism’s thirty-three crore deities against the monotheistic Islam’s the One, Saleem’s Bombay and Karachi lives too are characterized by the contrast of the availability of an array of possible realities versus unrealities. Ironically, in both the cases, neither does he expect nor get any single reality/unreality. He only gets a plethora of options to choose from, with no criteria to help him select one, or give one precedence over other. His life of varied experiences – some good and many bad (as he’d like the reader to see them) – gives him a hold over reality that one gets only when one has had very strong negative experiences in life, or strong positive ones. Nothing in between will do.

 

Who will mistrust such a convincing and erudite story teller? Even if one starts to disbelieve, Saleem will put his mindset at ease in a soothing manner with his deep psychological talk. He has a special way of convincing that’s more tenacious than the negotiators’ and much stronger than the salesman’s and with thoughts finely and logically structured as the schoolman’s. who else will say: “I told you the truth … Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind” (MNC 226)? In the same breath he redefines the very key word and that too, without raising any kind of suspicion. The last clause that he adds is cause enough to justify the redefinition. Saqleem waxes eloquent in a way reminiscent of some kind of a heterogeneous combination of Coleridge and Blake, with the theoretical grasp of a Williams or Richards. Memory’s truth is a paradoxical kind of a thing, as it has an all inclusive, ever-valid, all over the world permit of creating as many parallel universes it wants. Not only that, it also has the power to travel between those universes it wants. Not only that, it also has the power to travel between those universes and also to show others its travel journal. Every man has his own version of truth as “no same human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own” (MNC 108), except for a short or extended time span in which a man has decided to have faith in someone else’s version, keeping any interference from his own version at bay. How else does one enjoy someone else’s life story? Although there are points in many stories that happen to test one’s limits of credibility as a narrator and that of credulousness as a narratee. One such point comes when the truth about the midnight’s children is revealed or, shall we say the untruth? Saleem asks, “What is truth … what is sanity” (MNC 108)? Another set of questions originate from there. What is the truth of a sane person, and what is that of an insane one? How trustworthy are the sane words of a truthful person, and insane ones? How trustworthy are the insane words of an untruthful person, and sane ones? Jesus’ rising from the grave, asks Saleem, which category does it belong to? Is it sane? Is it true? Do sanity or truth count while one discusses such matters? A sane person’s opposition to such kind of an unbelievable truth will not change the truthfulness or trustworthiness of the same for the believers (literal/metaphorical) in the truth of the Book. “Do Hindus not accept … that the world is a kind of dream … that we see dimly through that dream” (MNC 108)? Well, if they do, who is to prove them wrong? Rather, how can they be proven wrong? It’s an aporetic kind of eternal philosophical problem. How do we know that whatever we see and feel as concrete and true is actually so? How can one trust either senses or reason when both have been proven wrong and highly misleading?

 

Of course Saleem used all the strategies in his control to save his life when he smelled the dangerous scent of the van that’d come to take him to the psychiatrist’s he spoke then. He did the one thing with Padma that he knew he’d been doing with his readers. He used oratory and theology, dropped abstruse and confusing concepts here and there, and finally cowed them into the submission of their inferiority. At the end of the process, he had magnanimity enough to grant: “if you’re a little uncertain of my reliability [(yes we are)] well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing” (MNC 108). Thus was he able to incorporate even those elements in his system that had the power or possibility of challenging it in time to come. In this, he followed, consciously or unconsciously, the assimilationist tendencies of Brahmanism that engulfed even the heterodox sects and religions and made even the Buddha one of Vishnu’s avataras. In a digressive vein similar to Saleem’s it must be mentioned here that the idea of the blue colour of Jesus’ skin that had shocked Mary in her confessionals, the blue colour that would have been easier for the targeted would be converters to visualize as their God’s, as they already had the objective correlative of their Lord Krishna’s skin, was co-opted because the missionaries had assimilated the assimilationist logic of their own mightiest rival religion in Hindustan: Hinduism. Yes, there were other things too, like the languages of the target audience, the bhakti cult and its paraphernalia that Christianity had to assimilate before it could actually become appealing to the masses. Thus does Saleem make converts of his unconvinced readers using an array of tricks and takes them under his control.

 

References:

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [MNC in the text.]

 

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  1. Pingback: Genre and Technique in Midnight’s Children | ChristianBookBarn.com

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