Magic Reality in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children

With the myriad voices and cultural complexity that is India, Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children stakes claim to the culture, identity, history, and magic that is Indian life. Rushdie takes the English language out of its colonial context and makes it the utterance of Indian masses.  The novel employs English to re-establish territorial domination, to make language and colonial history part of India’s dominion, and to voice India’s truths within its own logical framework. In doing so, the novel challenges the concept of Positivism as the only “proof of reality and refutes the culturally biased label of “magical realism” by illustrating the mysterious, unpredictable, and beautifully strange aspects of life” (Kortenaar 766).  Rushdie shows that the “real” is inherently magical and its incorporation into the novel—part of the reterritorialization of language, logic, and history—is key to reclaiming India’s voice and control over its cultural and historical narrative for past, present, and future generations.

The style or genre of Midnight’s Children has been called “magical realist” but, as so many have countered—including Rushdie himself—that is a ridiculous and even condescending term. Such labeling deems “the magic in magical realism as indigenous and the realism as Western” and marginalizes the literature; it insinuates that western logic is more real than eastern logic, and that there is no magic in reality (Kortenaar 767). The novel is a forceful rebuttal to those assertions. Repeatedly, reality is revealed to be magical and Rushdie shows that to deny that aspect of life is to deny Indian—indeed all human—reality and identity.

In India, daily life and history are filled with inexplicable and incomprehensible events and to gloss over or relate them from a single, narrow viewpoint is both biased and errant. For centuries that is what has been done by western writers to the East; it has been “othered,” and language has been used to rob identity. But now eastern writers are taking the power back through the language once used to oppress and are defining in their own terms personal and national identity and history. In this way Midnight’s Children uses English to show the “marvelous real” of daily life and to question western versions of truth and reality. (Kortenaar 768-72)

As Rushdie reveals throughout the novel, reality in India is magical and its truths must be told in those terms. To begin, India’s topography and culture lends itself to belief in the fantastic—from the majestic peaks of the Himalayas to the tropical teardrop of Sri Lanka; the huge cities and tiny villages where sacred cows wander the streets competing for right-of-way with horn-blaring motorized rickshaws; where Sadhus literally roll their naked bodies across the country to symbolize their rejection of worldly comfort while paanwallahs bark carnival-style from their stalls as red betelnut juice streams from customers’ mouths, staining the walls and ground like fresh blood; where elephants trample villages, drunk on local coconut fenny, and wild tigers roam national parks, the last of their kind on earth.

Further, how one conceives reality is a question of perspective. “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems—but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible,” Saleem tells Padma, “Illusion itself is reality” (189). Hindus believe in Maya—that life is a dream or illusion that we all collectively agree to share. In the novel, Rushdie describes India in the same terms—as a Jungian collective unconscious fantasy where reality is what you make it. With this novel, he creates his version of reality and gives voice to a completely nonwestern (but no less “real”) way of looking at it. For example, Saleem tries to reclaim control of India’s narrative, rejecting the sterile, linear versions of history usually told about India by non-Indians:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date. But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time. (190)

Saleem is questioning accepted versions of historical events and implies that no version is reliable—not even his own. More profoundly, he is saying that events such as Gandhi’s assassination cannot be quantified by a mere linear, “factual” accounting. Like so many tragic events in India’s history, Gandhi’s assassination occurs at “the wrong time,” literally and figuratively; it has such a profound effect on the nation that it cannot be reduced to a mere sequence of events. Here, Rushdie shows the deep philosophical difference between East and West. In the East, time and events cannot be “neatly compartmentalized” as they often are in the West, for they continue to reverberate and color the way all things are perceived.

The novel posits that perception is determined not merely by time, but by one’s experience—that is, what may seem odd to an outsider is not even noticed by one who sees it every day. For example, when Saleem discusses his mother Amina visiting Delhi, he describes her utter amazement at all she sees—in stark contrast to the urban-dwellers who notice nothing unusual. “When you have city eyes you cannot see the invisible people, the men with elephantitis of the balls and the beggars in boxcars don’t impinge on you, and the concrete sections of future drainpipes don’t look like dormitories” (89). In Delhi, Amina Sinai feels like she is surrounded by “many-headed monsters”—the old cliche of the East, where dragons and grotesque monsters have always existed for the West—because she is not habituated to the area.

Here Rushdie is revealing that outside perceptions are often misinformed and that, therefore, “insider” perspectives must be voiced and considered; he is showing that what may seem marvelous or magical to one person is simply a fact of life to another. For Reverend Mother “aeroplanes were inventions of the devil… cameras could steal your soul, and… ghosts were as obvious a part of reality as Paradise” (110). And who is to say that her perceptions and beliefs are wrong? Her daughter, Amina, inherits her intuition and belief in soothsayers, such as Ramram Seth, who accurately predicts her son’s fate. Fighting against colonial propaganda that denies her beliefs, Amina thinks, “Even if we’re sitting in the middle of all this English garbage… this is still India, and people like Ramram Seth know what they know” (110). Again, reality is a question of perspective and it has many definitions.

Throughout the novel, Rushdie pushes the concepts of perception and belief and continually questions what constitutes reality. Speaking about Partition, Saleem’s father says, “It was only a matter of time,” but Saleem wonders at this assumption (86). Time has been an unsteady affair, in my experience, not a thing to be relied upon. It could even be partitioned: the clocks in Pakistan would run half an hour ahead of their Indian counterparts… If they can change time just like that, what’s real any more? I ask you? What’s true? (87) What is real? What is true? That is what Rushdie wants us to contemplate here. He wants us to see the folly of our belief in absolutes. He also wants us to see that reality is full of very bizarre events—especially in India, as Saleem indicates:

There followed an illusionist January, a time so still on its surface that 1947 seemed not to have begun at all… In which the Cabinet Mission… saw their scheme for the transfer of power fail. (But of course it would only be six months until…) In which the Viceroy, Wavell, understood that he was finished, washed-up, or in our own expressive word, funtoosh. (Which, of course, in fact only speeded things up, because it let in the last of the viceroys who…) … In which the Constituent Assembly stood self-adjourned, without having settled on a Constitution. (But, of course, in fact Earl Mountbatten, the last viceroy, would be with us any day, with his inexorable ticktock, his soldier’s knife that could cut subcontinents in three, and his wife who ate chicken breasts secretly behind a locked lavatory door.) (70)

Here Saleem is recounting his version of the countdown to Partition; he is showing the manipulation of events by the colonial government, the inaction of the Indian Constituent Assembly, who failed to control the process, and the malevolent ignorance of Viceroy Mountbatten who could so callously “cut subcontinents in three.” Saleem is describing how this “marvelous real” actuality occurred—one of the multitude of strange events that comprise the “true” history of India.

Not just recent history but ongoing daily events can be perceived as fantastic in India. Saleem tells Padma that the villagers who lived near Reverend Mother all believed that:

she eavesdropped on her daughters’ dreams, just to know what they were up to.” Yes, there’s no other explanation, stranger things have been known to happen in this country of ours, just pick up any newspaper and see the recounting of miracles in this village or that—Reverend Mother began to dream her daughters’ dreams. (Padma accepts this without blinking; but what others will swallow as effortlessly as a laddoo, Padma will just as easily reject. No audience is without its idiosynchrasies of belief). (58)

In this passage Rushdie reiterates the subjectivity of belief and reinforces the idea that reality is what you make it. Deliberately playing on western doubt, Saleem tells us that “there is no proof… not something that will stand up in court” but insists on the truth of Reverend Mother’s extraordinary abilities (58). Juxtaposed to the bloody historical “facts” recounted throughout the novel (the bloody Partition of India and Pakistan, the wars of 1965 and 1971, the forced sterilization and slum eradication campaigns of Mrs. Gandhi, the assassinations of Gandhi, Mian Abdullah, and Liaquat Ali Khan, and the Emergency suspension of civil rights by Mrs. Gandhi) and the description of daily life— from the half-gnawed Parsee hand that slaps Ahmed Sinai across the face as it is dropped by a vulture flying away from the funerary Tower of Silence to the altering of time at Partition—Rushdie shows clearly that Indian life is full of what westerners might consider magical reality.

Rushdie closes Midnight’s Children with an empty jar for the next generation to fill with its own pickles of time. “Thirty jars stand upon a shelf, waiting to be unleashed upon the amnesiac nation. (And beside them, one jar stands empty)” (530). In his novel, Rushdie successfully reterritorializes the English language and reclaims history and identity in Indian terms. But he knows that the real work has just begun, and that it must continue if India is to further define itself and its future. Therefore, Rushdie leaves us with an admonition, with the idea that we must know our histories so that we can own them (and not be doomed to repetition). But he also voices hope. Saleem concludes:

My special blends: I’ve been saving them up. Symbolic value of the pickling process: all the six hundred million eggs which gave birth to the population of India could fit inside a single, standard-sized pickle-jar; six hundred million spermatozoa could be lifted on a single spoon. Every pickle-jar (you will forgive me if I become florid for a moment) contains, therefore, the most exalted of possibilities: the feasibility of the chutnification of history; the grand hope of the pickling of time! (529)

It is no coincidence that Saleem’s son’s first word and the title for his final pickle recipe are both “abracadabra.” With this mystical incantation, which Saleem tells us “is not an Indian word at all” but a “cabbalistic formula,” Saleem and his son claim the magical reality of their lives—using all the language available to them. Just as Rushdie deliberately chooses to write this novel in English, he deliberately chooses a magical, non-Indian incantation for the final pickle recipe and for Saleem’s son’s first utterance.

As the words “abracadabra” are spoken by the baby, Saleem wonders, “Who…does the boy imagine he is?” (529). And that is precisely the point of all these pages: Indians imagining and defining who they are in their own terms—and dreaming big! Through Saleem’s reclamation of discourse and logic throughout the novel, Rushdie claims control of past, present, and future—of the magical reality that is India—and in doing so creates a space for the next generations to add their own chapters. By deliberately reterritorializing the English language, Rushdie redefines realism, showing that his is an equally valid way of looking at the world, and insists that once Indians freely choose their own modes of expression they will become the masters of their own destiny.

 

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