Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
One more bouquet for Saleem
The Times of India, Sunday Review, July 20, 2008
As trophies go, the Best of Booker that Midnight's Children recently won wasn't the most compelling. Many felt that there was a sameness to the award title--after all, the book has already been adequately feted with the Booker Prize in 1981 and the prestigious Booker of Bookers in 1993, and further, this new prize had arrived via the rather banal passage of the SMS vote. One even wondered snarkily whether the voters were from the same constituency of tiresomely patriotic Indians who had voted Amitabh Bachchan as Star of the Millennium in the BBC poll and ensured that the Taj Mahal was one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, a racket floated by a businessman in Switzerland.
Since praise for this tour de force novel has long lost its bite through repetition, it was left to the author Salman Rushdie to water the wilting laurel wreath. He did so through a simple pre-recorded acceptance message when he said that it was a wonderful alternative to have his real children (his two sons Zafar and Milan) accept the award instead of his imaginary ones. And with this casual, jokey reference, one was sucked back suddenly and helplessly to the epic world of Midnight's Children, with its array of characters so crazy that they had to be human, its mad plotlines plucked straight from the purple heart of Hindi cinema, and above all, for the readers of this city, its glorious rooting in childhood memory.
George Orwell rightly said that none of our memories come to us virgin, and in this book, Rushdie's Bombay is one that is endearingly tainted by nostalgia. It is a Bombay that he recreates as cosmopolitan and embracing and eccentric and that he always references as different from the Bombay of today where the "political gangs are all Hindu and the criminal gangs all Muslim". This, even though we know that in that unforgiving August of 1947, Bombay was insulated neither from the bigotry and hate nor the consequences of a bloody border freshly drawn. It was a dark place even then, where Gandhi's murderers met and plotted, where Sadat Hasan Manto had to leave his employment at Bombay Talkies because he feared for his safety, where India's best-selling artist Tyeb Mehta saw one man slaughter another because each prayed to a different God. Rushdie is no political ingénue-–in fact, his knowledge of history is remarkable – and so this roseate celebration of a lost childhood is even more touching.
To return to the author's mention of his "imaginary children", while his accomplished pen has given us a whole brood--Virgin Ironpants in Shame, the ultra-fast-growing Moraes Zogoiby in The Moor's Last Sigh, the doll-fixated Prof Solanka in Fury, and Shalimar, the bestotted, psychotic assassin in Shalimar the Clown, it would be safe to say that the character who has really stayed with us, and whom we carry around in our hearts, is his first-born imaginary offspring, Saleem. Saleem Sinai, the snot-nosed, cucumber-nosed. know-all narrator of Midnight's Children, whose life swings between exultation and suffering, for he has been "handcuffed to history", a coupling determined by his time of birth, midnight on August 15, 1947, when "clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting".
For a writer as gifted as Rushdie, and for one who names Dickens as a shaping influence, one of the most disappointing aspects to his writing has been his inability to create memorable characters. In an interview he gave a few years ago to Hari Kunzru, Rushdie said that Dickens placed big grotesque characters against a meticulously observed background, and that he had tried to learn this literary conceit from him. Somehow this has not happened. If one is asked to reel off from the top of one's head, some of his most memorable creations, only those intimate with his books would be able to name names. These characters have not become part of popular discourse the way that personas like Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble, Scrooge or Fagin have, or if one is to cite from popular fiction, the way a Sherlock Holmes or a Dumbledore or even a Mr Goon has. Salmeen Sinai comes close. We experience his pain and share his passion, despite the ridiculous caricature that he is and his infuriatingly jalebi way of telling a story. Perhaps this is because through Saleem's narrative of his family's life -- his parents, grandparents, friends and loves – we come as close as we can to peering into Rushdie's past and the watering hole of his imagination.
Saleem is not Salman (although he marries a Padma) and Saleem's grandfather Dr Aadam Aziz is not him too, but there is a touching prescience at work here. In the opening pages of Midnight's Children, Dr Aziz while bending down on his prayer mat, bumps his nose on a hard tussock of earth. His nose bleeds and his eyes water and he decides then and there that never again will be bow before God or man. "This decision, however, made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history."
Battered by a fatwa and one femme fatale too many, Sir Salman would have some understanding of this.