I came to the end of Midnight’s Children, but I’m not even going to try to do a review – it’s such a big book that it’s almost impossible to cover in a review: like hugging a tree trunk when your hands don’t reach together.
The main reason, of course is that the plot is very detailed and there are a lot of characters. And then the various levels of realism – you hit the surreal bits even before you reach halfway, and it gets more and more metaphorical and allegorical as you proceed.
I’d like to quote two more passages that stayed with me though. One is from the end of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Our protagonist has been fighting on the border:
“A nameless morning. Ayooba Shaheed Farooq awaking in the boat of their absurd pursuit, moored by the bank of Padma-Ganga – to find him gone. ‘Allah-Allah,’ Farooq yelps, ‘Grab your ears and pray for pity, he’s brought us to this drowned place and run off, it’s all your fault, you Ayooba, that trick with the jump-leads and this is his revenge!… The sun, climbing. Strange alien birds in the sky. Hunger and fear like mice in their bellies: and whatif, whatif the Mukti Bahini … parents are invoked. Shaheed has dreamed his pomegranate dream. Despair, lapping at the edges of the boat. And in the distance, near the horizon, an impossible endless huge green wall, stretching right and left to the ends of the earth! Unspoken fear: how can it be, how can what we are seeing be true, who builds walls across the world? … And then Ayooba, ‘Look-look, Allah!’ Because coming towards them across the rice-paddies is a bizarre slow-motion chase: first the buddha with that cucumber-nose, you could spot it a mile off, and following him, splashing through paddies, a gesticulating peasant with a scythe, Father Time enraged, while running along a dyke a woman with her sari caught up between her legs, hair loose, voice pleading screaming, while the scythed avenger stumbles through drowned rice, covered from head to foot in water and mud. Ayooba roars with nervous relief: ‘The old billy-goat! Couldn’t keep his hands off the village women! Come on, buddha, don’t let him catch you, he’ll slice off both your cucumbers!’ And Farooq, ‘But then what? If the buddha is sliced, what then?’ And now, Ayooba-the-tank is pulling a pistol out of its holster. Ayooba aiming: both hands held out in front, trying not to shake, Ayooba squeezing: a scythe curves up into the air. And slowly the arms of a peasant rise up as though in prayer; knees kneel in paddy-water; a face plunges below the water-level to touch its forehead to the earth. On the dyke a woman wailing. And Ayooba tells the buddha: ‘Next time I’ll shoot you instead.’ Ayooba-the-tank shaking like a leaf. And Time lies dead in a rice-paddy” (pp-500-501).
The second scene is from an afternoon Saleem spends at the magicians’ ghetto:
“[…] Picture Singh, umbrella-over-head, was striding away towards his hut. Labia-lips, in relief, continued his speech … but not for long, because Picture returned, carrying under his left arm a small circular lidded basket and under his right armpit a wooden flute. He placed the basket on the step beside the Congress-wallah’s feet; removed the lid; raised the flute to lips. Amid renewed laughter, the young politico leaped nineteen inches into the air as a king cobra swayed sleepily up from its home … Labia-lips is crying: ‘What are you doing? Trying to kill me to death?’ And Picture Singh, ignoring him, his umbrella furled now, plays on, more and more furiously, and the snake uncoils, faster faster Picture Singh plays until the flute’s music fills every cranny of the slum and threatens to scale the walls of the mosque, and at last the great snake, hanging in the air, supported only by the enchantment of the tune, stands nine feet long out of the basket and dances on its tail … Picture Sigh relents. Nagaraj subsides into coils. The Most Charming Man in the World offers the flute to the Congress youth: ‘Okay captain,’ Picture Singh says agreeably, ‘you give it a try.’ But labia-lips: ‘Man, you know I couldn’t do it!’ Whereupon Picture Singh seizes the cobra just below the head, open his mouth wide wide wide, displaying an heroic wreckage of teeth and gums; winking left-eyed at the Congress youth, he inserts the snake’s tongue-flicking head into his hideously yawning orifice! A full minute passes before Picture Singh returns the snake to its basket. Very kindly, he tells the youth: ‘You see, captain, here is the truth of the business: some persons are better, others are less. But it may be nice for you to think otherwise.’
Watching this scene, Saleem Sinai learned that Picture Singh and the magicians were people whose hold on reality was absolute; they gripped it so powerfully that they could bend it every which way in the service of their arts, but they never forgot what it was” (p. 556)
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, Vintage.