A long story that could not (would not) be cut short

To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.
[- Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.]

Isn’t it ironic that, while reading a book manifestly about memory, my brain has so clouded over that I cannot remember  the exact moment when it came to be in my possession? All I can reliably determine is that P made me a gift of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children a very long time ago. Our names are spelled out in full on the title page, that’s how I know it was quite a long time ago. My estimate for the time is 2007, a now-faraway year of innocent beginnings when, among other things, our most cherished stories began to enter our conversations.

That’s a long time to finish reading a book, wouldn’t you say? Well, it certainly is the longest I have ever taken to finish a novel. It took some time for me to get hooked. There was a false start in 2009, and then another in 2010 until something clicked inside my head and I began to realize that the book’s strange prose was a result of Rushdie’s devious imagination writing a novel in several Indian languages that repeatedly went peekaboo though the curtain of English words. So it was that, in my inertial frame of reference, Aadam Sinai’s gigantic nose bled three drops of blood in 2009, and then it bled again in early 2010. Saleem and Shiva and the children of midnight were born in late 2010, and the saga of nose-and-knees lodged itself in my head, never to leave. I’ve packed the book on my travels, read it on airports and airplanes, and in hotel rooms across three continents if not four, yet it became like that other great book One Hundred Years of Solitude; a book that grew stranger in the telling, grew pages on the right even as I pushed more pages to the left, a book with no end in sight.

It wasn’t just because I am a slow reader. It wasn’t at all because I was frustrated with the book, as P. said of some friends who were undone by the frequent and recursive flashbacks. Indeed, I thrive on flashbacks, and wallow in nostalgia and have been chastised for that more often that I care to admit. It was that my head became too full of thoughts, too consumed by words, too awed at their power, too full of memories that weren’t my own, just too full to breathe properly unless I set the book down for a bit. Midnight’s Children is a novel about India’s recent history – a history with which I have a layered but inconsistent familiarity, an epoch that began from before independence up until the dark days of the Emergency, which was lifted in 1977. The novel was published around 1980, and that fact is one reason why the Emergency figures so prominently in the last quarter of the book – the scars were deeply felt, even as Rushdie was writing the story.

… and whispering through the wall came the tale of their undoing, the tormented cry of children who had lost their magic: she had cut it out of us, gorgeously with wide rolling hips she had devised the operation of our annihilation, […] now fishes could not be multiplied nor base metals transmuted; gone forever, the possibilities of flight and lycanthropy and the originally-one-thousand-and-one marvelous promises of a numinous midnight.

As was the case with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which spun a rambling but delicate yarn through 1950’s India, I was simultaneously reading a novel and reliving a past – a past that I didn’t live myself, but which lives in me through the experiences, traditions and customs of the people and places in whose midst I grew to adulthood. It was an India that has, for the most part, stopped existing; blown away by globalization, software and the resultant sudden – if uneven – prosperity. We used to be a subcontinent of mutinies both external and internal, of struggles against the British Raj, of wars against China and Pakistan, of the bleakness wrought by the Emergency. Today, there is freedom and relative peace with the neighbors and the battles of citizens are internal: Each election renews a Faustian bargain with the future, through a choice between a largely corrupt, secular but ineffectual Left and a less corrupt, somewhat effective, but fundamentalist Right. Rushdie’s story weaves masterfully through the extrema of India’s history, and it is given an incredible – nearly impossible – immediacy by Saleem’s deep conviction that he, Pied Piper of the midnight children, was ultimately to blame for India’s fate.

In that mood of inebriated reading, the novel morphed in 2011 from being a story that wouldn’t end, to one that I did not want to end. I began to ration my reading, making sure to stop at the slightest sign of tiredness, or whenever the story switched it’s powerful gears through space and time and three newly created countries which were previously one. P must surely have wondered in our conversations about how long I was taking with this: but she remained patient and didn’t spoil the story for me. This year, the book wound to its vivid and fatalistic climax – from the Sunderbans of Bangladesh to the ghettos of Delhi to the seedy nightclubs of Mumbai (via Benares), while Indira Gandhi’s Emergency broke Saleem as comprehensively as it broke India. A story that stays with you, stays out of your bookshelf for so long, has to affect your daily life – it could not be otherwise. I read the denouement in a weird schizophrenic state, alternating between a suffocating horror at its events and little paroxysms of laughter at the relentless wit of the narrative. It wasn’t just literary mischief (though there is plenty of it), it was that these linguistic games amplified everything in the novel – the mounting despair; the unexpected happiness of long-awaited reunions; the bristling, snarling yet ultimately futile anger at the murder of hope.

I finished the final chapter in early October after having read the story for more than three years. Much has happened since P gifted me the book. We had long phone calls on many lonely nights; visited each other and each other’s families; argued a lot and patched-up a lot; learned things about ourselves and each other; and even got married (at midnight, no less).  Last week, when the book ended, we talked about it some more, and she expressed the desire to read it again. My thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the novel were not quite incoherent, but I became aware of two aspects about realizing that I have finished a great novel. First, there is an implicit admission that I am emotionally wiped out and will need a recovery buffer before I pick up a novel again; Second, I know that it is going to be difficult for the next book that comes along to enthrall me in the same way. So, a great novel is often followed by a longish drought. That is probably what I shall experience for some time: A bit of emptiness in the wake of Midnight’s Children. It is probably just as well.

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The polyglot novel

The trouble with the phrase magic realism, is that when people use it, they tend to hear the magic and not hear the realism, whereas in fact one of the things about going to the world of García Márquez is that you discover he is telling the truth. He is not exaggerating; he is understating. And that’s really what I thought about India. You can’t tell the truth about India; it’s too weird; nobody would believe it. So, these books which people call fantasies are actually mild understatements of the truth.. [Salman Rushdie]

My last few weeks have been spent in the vicious unyielding grip of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – Sweet irony and  bitter romance, horror and history, fountains of blood and stains of mercurochrome all mixed together in this tour de force of magical realism. I am reading slowly now, not wanting the story to end, and not wanting to forego one of the magical aspects of consuming this novel:  the impression that it is written simultaneously in English, Urdu, Marathi, Hindi, Sanskrit and host of other languages that I cannot guess. This is a story about my country and culture, and I sense an incommunicable pleasure in swimming through it; a conspiratorial feeling of being in on the writer’s mischief. Because of this, the plot – intricate as it is – throws unpredictable flashes in all directions and lodges itself more vividly in my head.

For I smile to myself repeatedly during this book. My smiles, some of them happy giggles, others pursed and wry, and still others sad and unexpressed, have to do with knowing suddenly that the strange “fool from somewhere” is actually “pagla kahin ka”, and “dung-lotus” refers to a goddess who grew out of Vishnu’s navel in a colorful Indian myth. “Really truly?”  puts me in mind of a letter in my closet, full of pain and love; And “hot chana hot” takes me back to smoke-filled gas-lamped evenings on Indian railway platforms with the hiss of steam engines and their sore throat whistles. I have become aware of only a few of Rushdie’s turns of phrase. Being unschooled in Sanskrit and Urdu, and having stayed away from the day-to-day collision and collusion of Indian languages and subcultures for more than a decade, I may have missed some of the landmines embedded in his dense prose. (I note joylessly, that if the novel’s many-tongued expertise extends to choice gutter language, then my familiarity with Hindi and Marathi swear words and their oddly musical English translations has remained  unsettlingly fine.).

Quite by chance, I came across a 1989 interview of a young Christopher Hitchens – hale and hearty and no less articulate – talking about The Satanic Verses, and the fatwah that drove Rushdie into exile. I recommend the entire interview for a sense of that politically charged time, where the Ayatollah’s power was seemingly in its last throes, and as if to say that he wasn’t finished, the religious despot saw fit to let loose a messianic bounty hunt for the infidel writer’s head. But, in the context of my current reading experience, the following extract was surprisingly a propos:

…Rushdie is a genius with language, … but there is a difficulty which if you are starting the book today, you should bear in mind. He’s got an absolutely magnificent ear, and his ear is brilliant at catching the nuances and the turn of people who speak in Indian or Pakistani subcontinental English. He is fantastically good at this, makes almost poetry out of the prose … Unfortunately, that is not very well understood here [The United States] as it is in England, there aren’t that many people from the subcontinent in America…

This makes me wonder about some of the translations that I have read. How far and how deeply have I understood them, beyond the structure suggested by their plot, and beyond their English approximation? How much of the music, playfulness, taboo, triumph and defeat from the original language has seeped – or been assiduously woven by a perspicacious translator – into the English version. It is true, especially of the great novels, that their themes are universal and on that account they profoundly affect readers of all stripes, but I cannot help but wonder what I may have lost because of my ignorance of the local. I think of the perceived contrast between the books of García Márquez which I loved immediately and devoured as if in a feverish trance versus Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum which – after the unforgettable beginning of Joseph Koljaiczek’s refuge under a four-skirted Kashubian peasant girl – I could admire but not come to love. How much does it have to do with my – however minimal – familiarity with Spanish as opposed to my complete ignorance of German language and culture? Perhaps this is another post on another day. Or perhaps, a second reading of The Tin Drum is in store.