Midnight’s Children is often compared to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and for good reason. It’s a fantastic exploration of India’s history through the lens of Saleem Sinai, one of the first children born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India’s independence, August 15, 1947. Saleem and one thousand other children born in the first hour of the nation’s birthday are endowed with magical gifts; the closer to midnight their birth, the more powerful their gifts. Saleem, being the first born, has the strongest powers of all and can read minds and communicate with the other midnight’s children.
In fact, the book begins much earlier, telling the stories of Saleem’s family and their roots in Kashmir. The book bounces through historical events, from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to the case of Commander K. M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra, where story is told in fantastical fashion and the character is introduced as Commander Sabarmati. Saleem’s destiny, and by extension his family’s, weaves through these events, from the partition riots to the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti protests. Saleem loses his telepathic powers during an extended stay in Pakistan—his family is Muslim—and gains in its place an enhanced sense of smell, able to sniff out trouble well in advance. Saleem ends up in the Sundarban jungle, using his sense of smell as a guide, and after a supernaturally long period, regains his mental connection and rejoins India’s destiny.
The latter part of the book connects Saleem with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the book is a scathing criticism of the political overreach of the Gandhi administration. Saleem’s powers end as the Emergency ends, his fate is connected with the fate of the nation finding its way. He has a son, not his by blood but the son of his rival, Shiva, the second of the Midnight’s Children and the second most powerful of them all, and his son’s fate is tied with India’s march forward into adulthood.
Midnight’s Children is a book laden with symbolism and mysticism. I read it before but was not clever enough to know and understand its historical allegory. Reading it today, I can only help but wonder what the book’s sequel could look like. The book is a treasure, and as a gateway into understanding the deeply complex history of the world’s most populous nation it serves well.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
Photo by Karthik Chandran on Unsplash