Victim into Protagonist? 'Midnight's Children' and the Post-Rushdie National Narratives of the Eighties

Article excerpt

Midnight's Children as a Breakthrough

The 1981 publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was a watershed in the post-independence development of the Indian English novel, so much so that the term "post-Rushdie" has come to refer to the decade or so afterwards in which a wave of novels appeared by established as well as by young writers that were clearly influenced by Midnight's Children.(1) Unashamedly self-centered, Rushdie Is novel celebrates the creative tensions between personal and national identity, playing up and playing with both their polarity and their unity, recognizing, like its protagonist Saleem Sinai, that if the individual is "handcuffed to history" whether he likes it or not, he can make a virtue out of that necessity. Sparks fly between the private and public realms, making artistic fireworks where there had previously been deadening dichotomies. Midnight's Children neither denies nor seeks to transcend polarities, but embraces them as artistic method, rejecting nothing, celebrating the resulting chaotic multiplicity, even if it crushes the protagonist himself into a billion pieces. MC brings heresies into the open and transforms them into prophecies. What had been the Indian English novel's problems now suddenly became its trademarks.

The number of new Indian English novelists published throughout the 1980s testifies to MC's tremendous influence, not merely on superficial would-be imitators (of which there were several), or on the metropolitan demand for Indian fiction (which was considerable), but also on the fundamental conception of the national narrative. My central claim in this essay is that Midnight's Children enacted a discursive reconfiguration of the relationship between Self and Nation. I seek to demonstrate how it did so, and also why and how it opened up new spaces for a new crop of writers in English. Midnight's Children declared that there were as many equally valid versions of Indian identity as there were Indians. This concept proved to be very liberating for many Indian English writers, allowing them to break the polarized stalemate between Self and Nation that had caught the Indian English novel in a kind of ideological and artistic holding pattern for two decades. The eighties and nineties have been distinguished by an Indian English literary explosion as writers have found themselves free to speak in a multiplicity of voices and write in a multiplicity of modes.

When Midnight's Children was published in 1981, winning that year's prestigious Booker Prize (and subsequently, the prize for the best of 25 years of Bookers), it was hailed both in and out of India as a literary masterpiece, and almost immediately became a kind of benchmark against which both writers and readers began to assess new novels. But it has become virtually impossible to look back at MC from the late nineties without seeing the novel through the filter of the events of the past 15 years. It is hard to remember, or even to acknowledge, the enthusiasm with which its publication was greeted in India--not because of its politics (there were always quarrels with that), or because of the accuracy of its representation of Indian history (it did not even pretend to that), but because of its exuberance of language and style, its combination of hilarious comedy and scathing political satire, its triumphant over-confidence, and, not least, its very success. When Rushdie toured the country in 1983 in a "triumphal homecoming," hundreds of people flocked to see him.(2) At the British Council in Delhi, fully 700 people arrived at a reading where no more than 300 had been expected and the organizers had to set up loudspeakers on the lawns outside.(3) According to a 1988 article in the Indian weekly, Sunday, "copies of pirated editions [of MC] flooded the pavements before the paperback edition reached India."(4) In 1984, Shyamala Narayan wrote: "Publishers claim that the novel has sold 4,000 copies in hardcover, and 45,000 in paperback (in addition to the pirated editions); these sales figures are unprecedented for an Indian-English novelist. …