Legend and Reality in Midnight’s Children

Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts” (MNC 20), says the narrator, and how right he is? What is reality anyway? Is it what one believes to be true or what one knows to be true? What’s it that everyone believes to be true? As far as the concretely experienced physical objects are concerned, people may agree to believe in something that they later decide to accept as reality. The realm of the abstract is so dark that different kinds of people bring different types of lamps to see their worlds. What’s right or just? Is there one definite answer to it: a fool proof , definitive, final answer that all are ready to accept willingly? Reality is a story that is given solidity and foundation by the propagation of the myth of its universality, objectivity and unshakeability. A legend is just another myth – accepted as true at some time in the past – the reality of the past. It lost part of its awe inspiring power and credibility when it slipped from the realm of real to that of unreal. Otherwise, it has all the qualities, barring novelty, of the newer myths: the presently popular paradigm, the legends in waiting. Thus, it can be said that legends differ from reality – only in degree and not in kind (Yes, I am fully aware of a Coleridgean echo here). What we accept as reality – is because of its verifiability in history – becomes verifiable because of the media: print and electronic.

The names of Anderson and Baudrillard flash before the inward eyes (another echo?). Anderson’s remark about the rise of print capitalism coinciding with that of the imagined communities of nations also sheds light on the present unassailable and unchallengeable solid status of the reality. Naturally, not many have actually seen and experienced with their own sense organs (that being no guarantee of their being real) even people like Mr. Obama or Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, they never ask anyone to prove that these two gentlemen either exist or existed at some point of time in the real world. Baudrillard may find it very disturbing. After all he had distrusted the reality of the whole televised Gulf War. As far as he is concerned, Mr. Obama may pretty well be an actor acting out his role in an exact reversal of the whole Jim Carey charade in The Truman’s Show. Who underwrites the real nature of one out of many spectacles? We do, and with no logically justifiable reason. Most of the things about most of the universe exist only in our imagination, that too, based on what we’ve heard from others or seen through the media sources, and have never experienced through our own sense organs. Even sensory experience isn’t fully trustworthy, as the sense organs do dupe one in believing as true and real what actually isn’t. So, Saleem’s statement may be rephrased as: “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence [and many of those things happen to absent from our lives altogether]” (MNC 6). Our very active imaginating/ hallucinating faculties of mind work overtime do so.

Jung’s collective unconscious and Frye’s archetypes were ways to explain the generation and existence of myths – the epistemologically primitive attempts at making the phenomenal world understandable. It was never about thing-in-itself. No, it could never be so “idea”list. It was just to create order out of an apparent chaos in an imitation of what He did in the creation myths. So, legends appeared about heroes who had something of a superhuman or demigod in them. The creators of those characters and stories didn’t see anything unreasonable in their demand from the readers to believe in their creation. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure dome decree” and those underground caves and sunny domes – that “miracle of rare device” was erected with words for the readers to see, experience, believe and wish into existence – into a kind of reality that is more solid and much longer lasting and credible than the quotidian reality of the world.

Rushdie too paints his Xanadu in the fullest detail and the reader animates the legend of Saleem with his own power of imagination and faith. There is no other way for the reader to enjoy it all – it has to be given a life of its own and made more vivid and alive (and real) than what’s generally and normally taken as real. The excess of exact and accurate details sees to it that the reader is gently pushed towards completing the picture, stroke after stroke, as the writer had most probably “intended”. Tai, with his stinking, exaggerating, stubborn, exasperating and heroic ways , is invested with life and reality. He becomes a man of flesh and blood on the pages of MNC. There’s a ritual in Hindu idol worship known as the pran pratishtha. In this ritual a newly bought/ created idol of the deity that is to be worshipped, is invested with life before the actual process of the puja begins. Once the ritual is over and the idol has been animated, it has its own life, and is treated like a living and sentient God-being. Thereafter, it has no relation with the sculptor who created it. neither is it dependent on the will of those who animated it. the same is true in case of the characters of MNC. Once out of the writer’s hands and into the hands of the readers, and, from there, into their minds, they get a life of their own: a life that isn’t terminated at the end of the novel. Depending on their impact on a reader, they live a life beyond and after the pages on which they took birth. They populate the reader’s mind – sometimes active and visible consciously and the other times hiding behind the screen of the unconscious. In Rushdie’s own words, that I appropriate for my own purpose, to use in a very inappropriate and out-of-the-context manner: “We all owe death a life” (MNC 15). Let it be a strong misreading – intended and very much desirable strategically – of the borrowed sentence, that interprets it as some kind of law that asks the reader to give life to death, i.e. to these characters and things that get alive only in the reader’s mind. The virus like, host dependent, self-replicating, self-sustaining, fecund and ever strengthening presence of the other reality in the host’s system is a very funnily serious thing. So, yes, we do owe death a life – again and again, year after year, from the time we start having the ability to get interested in stories, till the time we breathe our last.

The elements of legends enter the everyday(and night ) life in MNC in an abrupt and paradoxical manner. Reader’s credulousness is tested by stretching it to its extreme. Yet, the greed to know what comes next is so much and such that the reader swallows all that gives him an instant, tongue swelling, lip puffing and palate grazing allergy. Rushdie daringly and subtly introduces the nearly impossible so naturally and with such confidence that it becomes very difficult for the reader to say no to such a lavish fare. So what if it is a thing like the Reverend Mother’s entering the dreams of every member of her family – or was it plain intuition? Who cares? The story must go on. The more outlandishly, the funnier it is. Then, the narrator has already mentioned, to allay the doubtful fears and to stoke the self-suspcion of the reader: “no audience is without its idiosyncracies of belief” (MNC 25). What will the reader do now? Now, when his idiosyncracies are not only accepted but also given the centre stage. What else can he do but to do the same with the narrator, i.e. to accept his idiosyncracies and to give them the centre stage? So, with subtle but firmly gripping psychological tactics, the narrator sets the stage for a game of make belief with commandments of its own. The first commandment is: “Thou shalt tell an interesting story”. To do so, Rushdie gets inspired by all great literature it seems, specially the great story telling tradition of Classical Greece, Arabia and India. He casts himself in the mould of the sutradhaar of the Indian stage tradition and is accompanied by his Padma, again an essential part of the same tradition. He is self-consciously emulating Scheherazade’s bid to generate and sustain interest: story after micro-story that make parts of a macro-narrative. Finally, he uses the elements of the Classical Greek epics that have been tested, time and again, and proven to be capable of making good stories, e.g. the descent into the underworld that has percolated to the collective sub/conscious mind of the writing/reading class has been ably employed and developed in the Nadir-Mumtaz episode. The live an abnormal kind of married life under the ground level of Dr. Aziz’z mansion. Oh yes! Who are others, in or out side the narrative, to question their lives when they themselves are happy spitting jets of red and lemon-yellow into the lapis lazuli inlaid spittoon? Well, the society’s strong interfering instinct arises and strongly penetrates whatever Nadir did or couldn’t.

Foucault was right about the society’s instincts about discipline and punishment, and Naseem Aziz – the one piece, solidified jigsaw puzzle of the Kashmiri days – is the oracle at the font of the power to discipline and punish in the microcosm of her mansion. Her powers are not hidden even from the idlers of Agra. She is the alpha of the line of powerful women in Saleem’s life. After her, both in chronology and in strength but not in the overall shaping impact – come Amina-Mumtaz, Mary PAreira, Jamila Singer, Padma, Parvati, Alia, Emerald, Pia and Tai biwi. Yet, the other pole to the Reverend Mother’s presence could only be the Widow who was India. Women, then, were the points at which destiny entered the course of Saleem’s life to change its course decisively. Or was he only hallucinating, fabricating, day-dreaming, or worse, betraying trust all the time? How reliable a narrator Snotnose is? Or Buddha? Or the other avatars of the son of Mr. Methwold/ Wee-Willie-Winkie/ Ahmed/ Zulfikar/ Picture Sighji?

He tends to play tricks with the way he shares facts with the readers. He speaks paradoxically and cryptically when he wants some truth to be hidden behind the mists of utter confusion and ambiguity, so that he can later claim that he neither told lies nor hid anything; that he went on giving clues all along. At least once, he accepted having told a lie (in case of Shiva’s murder in prison that was a product of a cross between his insecurities and his fecund imagination). He also accepts having committed errors in the chronological assignment of events in the narrative. His very anchors in the historical-real time are proven to be wrongly conceived/ believed in at times. Moreover, he tends to look at things strangely and strongly egocentrically. He asks: “Am I so far gone … in a central role?” (MNC 84) His annoyance, anger and hatred know no bounds when Dr. N Q. Baligga “cast doubts on … [his] reliability as a witness” (MNC 30). He makes no pretense of hiding behind the excuse called the omniscience of the narrator. No, he has to talk to the reader/audience. He has to think about them, himself and about the narrative itself.

The metanarrative self-reflexive strain runs through the novel. The narrator’s continuous concern with the process of narration and his complete corruption – or, the façade that he builds of it – of the mimetic conventions surfaces time and again throughout the narration. His history becomes one with that of India’s, and also merges at many points and in many ways with that of all who come into and go from his life. In fact, his strong and deep concern with history far surpasses any other concern of the narrative. The historicity of his story is underlined by the continuous year and dates dropping. For a recreational reader he provides a formidable array of exactitudes that starts in 1915, runs through his life – all the thirty-one years of it. No, he wouldn’t miss anything: the two World Wars, Jallianwala Bagh, the Quit India Movement, the Independence of India and Pakistan followed by all the Indo-Pak wars and the Indo-China war too. The high point of his historical orientation is towards the infamous Emergency. Everything ends on his birthday, the Independence Day. Time is what he plays with all the time: past, present and even future. With his liking for the long-trunked Ganesh, Saleem does even one better than the arch scribe. He gets to tell the story that he writes; the story of which he happens to be the protagonist (let’s not call him a hero as the word has very strong stereotypical and paradigmatic connotations. He has immense powers over time. So much, that he gets to affect the story of his nation, and that of the two neighbouring nations too, in a way. He has power over time and he pours words that congeal over it and trap it, so that he can cut strips of it and preserve it later. Preserve it in chapters, just like he preserves various things in jars: thirty for his thirty lived years and one empty jar, the thirty-first one, for the unknown future that will definitely end in his fission. He thinks about the “chutnification of history, the grand hope of the pickling of time” (MNC 235). The kind of treatment Salem gives his story makes it very much akin to a legend and him to a legendary figure that’s hidden behind the fog of time, while yet in the present time; quite known yet unknowable. Light and grave treatments alternate and finally converge in his perspective of his function – he compares immortalization of his memory with that of the base of his pickles. He is aware all the time, although hidden behind the façade of nonchalance, that there will always be gaps between truth and reality, between what actually happened and what he convincingly and finally makes the reader believe, despite “the shadows of imperfection” (MNC 235) he strives to tell a story that the readers believe in.

References:

 

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan”. Web. 21 January 2008. poets.org. 12 November 2012.

 

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

 

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