What makes Midnight’s Children an outstanding work is the fact that it has a distinctly existential dimension. One central theme seems to unify all the elements of political fantasy, comedy and surrealism in the novel; this is the over-arching theme of Identity and its plight in a hostile world. Rushdie’s individual, being a migrant one, is eternally in search of identity.
At school, only a few pupils like to study history. At a university, very few students find history to be of any use. This is because we as citizens of India or some other country are sure of our history. Think of the marginalized persons. Ask someone living in no man’s land. Then, we will come to value history correctly. No history, no identity. The numerous ways in which Identity is made to suffer is vividly illustrated in the experiences of the protagonist. Identity is in turn, shown as a sham, as mistaken and confused, subjected to oblivion, fractured, dwarfed and reduced to animal level; as barren, sterile and totally lost. Moreover, since heredity is an essential element in Identity, some of these ordeals are repeated from generation to generation in the narrative that opens with the protagonist’s grandfather and ends with his son.
If the political allegory in Midnight’s Children concerns India, its sister nation, Pakistan, born at the same time, is the subject of Shame (1983). Here again, the political equations are quite clear. The protagonist is Omar Khayyam Shakil, a name which points to the Pakistani belief that it has greater affinities with Persia and the Middle East rather than with neighbouring India, in spite of the fact that a majority of the people of Pakistan are Hindus converted to Islam. He is the illegitimate son of three mothers and a British Officer. This obviously refers to the British Government’s creation of Pakistan out of three Muslim-majority provinces of pre-Independence India.
Many major players in the history of Pakistan during the first three decades of its turbulent life, including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Iskandar Harappa), and Zia ul Haq (Raza Hyder) appear here. The macabre end, in which Omar is killed by his own wife, who has turned into a man-eating beast, and his home destroyed in an explosion, is perhaps a dire warning that a nation born in hatred, and which has, for the most part, lived in an ambience of tyranny, violence and unrest, is bound to end the same way.
Of Shame, Rushdie says, “I am only telling a sort of a modern fairy tale”. But here is a fairy tale with a big difference; it is an inverted fairy tale. In a traditional fairy tale, a frog is transformed into a prince, in the midst of the ringing of wedding bells; in Shame, the process is reversed, with tragic consequences.
Read: Chapter 1
The title, “Shame” suggests another possible dimension of the narrative. The Hindi word “Aurat” meaning woman, comes from an Arabic word, which means: (a) something under a veil, any place of concealment and (b) private parts, genitals; the reference by implication to Woman and Woman’s honour is plain. In all oriental cultures, Woman and Shame are associated in two diametrically opposite ways. First, it indicates a woman’s honour, her decency and modesty. Ancient Hindus, who had a passion for classification, have listed eleven basic traits of woman, including modesty, along with beauty, tolerance, self-effacement etc. In fact, in a positive sense, Shame is associated with the Divine. Idols of Lajja Gauri (Lajja = Shame, and Gauri = Parvati, the consort of Shiva) are still found in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. They symbolized female fertility and were (and still are) worshipped by barren women.
On the other hand, “Shame”, in a pejorative sense, is equated with dishonour, loss of self-respect, humiliation etc. It is this pejorative sense that seems to be emphasised in this narrative of three decades of a country united in a “macabre fellowship of Shame”. Finally, Shame in a sense is also an impressive Feminist document. Sufiya Zinobiya’s transformation into a ferocious beast perhaps suggests that in a country that reduces its women to less than second-class citizens, woman-power will one day arise and slay the oppressor.
The Satanic Verses
Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), brought him considerable notoriety, and devout Muslims found it blasphemous. A fatwa was issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, passing a death sentence on him. In Chapter 53 of the Holy Koran, verses number 19 and 20 refer to Lat, Uzza and Manat, three deities worshipped by pagan Arabs in Mecca. According to a discredited hadith, these verses were followed by a verse glorifying these pagan idols; this verse, written under the influence of Satan, was never part of the Holy Koran.
Rushdie is fascinated by this imaginary incident, and goes on magnifying it – the chapter “Mahound” opens with these pagan deities as daughters of the Devil, “Lat Manat Uzza, motherless girls laughing with their Abba.” The section ends with the Prophet abandoning Gibreel, after bringing him the devil, and Gibreel is left trying to fight against “the three winged creatures.” Rushdie no doubt meant this reversal (the Prophet brings the Devil to Gibreel instead of the angel Gabriel bringing the word of God to the Prophet) as a profound meditation on good and evil, but all he achieves is puerile wordplay which is highly offensive to Muslims.
Read: Chapter 2
The novel opens with an incident typical of Magic Realism: two Indians fall from an aeroplane on to the English coast and land unhurt. They are Gibreel Farishta, a superstar of Indian cinema, and Saladin Chamcha, an Indian emigre. The ensuing adventures of the two Indians in England provide the occasion for the treatment of many subjects, including the problems of Indian immigrants in England, British politics (Mrs Thatcher becomes “Mrs Torture”), Islamic history and theology, and feminism. Both finally return to India to meet different fates. Gibreel, who had earlier won his laurels by playing Hindu gods on the screen (a dig at N.T. Rama Rao, the noted Andhra actor) makes a movie on Prophet Mohamed, and when it is a big flop, he shoots himself. Saladin, suddenly realising that his roots are in India, decides not to return to England.
The names are highly symbolic. “Gibreel”, which is “Gabriel”, represents the angelic (in Islam, Gabriel is the angel who brought God’s word to humankind), and “Farishta” means angel; and “Saladin” recalls Sultan Saladin, whom the Christians regarded as the evil enemy against whom they fought the Crusades. Saladin was a great conqueror. Like him, Saladin Chamcha dreams of conquering his beloved London through the appropriation of all things perceivably British. In a word, Chamcha embodies the spirit of the culturally engineered man, a man English in education and sensibility, but Indian in body and temperament. However, as usual with Rushdie, the symbolism is multi-layered. For instance, “Chamcha” means a “hanger-on”, a flatterer in Hindi. Moreover, his wife’s name is “Pamela Lovelace” a la Samuel Richardson.
Read: Chapter 3
Rushdie is quite self-conscious about his choice of names. In the portions of the novel which did the most to attract charges of blasphemy, he chooses the name “Mahound” for the prophet. “Mahound” was the name which medieval Christian writers used for Muhammad, identifying him with the Devil – Dante, for example, puts him in inferno. Arguably, here we are at the point of convergence between religion and racism. In medieval Europe, the ultimate religious symbol of the devil on earth was Muhammad. And, the ultimate racial symbol of the devil on earth was the Black man. Much later, Rudyard Kipling portrayed the Black colonial as ‘half devil, half child’. Hence, the white man’s ‘burden of civilization’. In short, ‘Mahound’ was a scornful name for the Prophet.
Rushdie writes a whole paragraph justifying his choice: “… has adopted, instead, the devil-tag the farangies hung round his neck. To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn …”.In fact, a detailed consideration of the symbolism of proper names in Rushdie’s novels will take an entire dissertation.
Rushdie is a self-conscious theoretical novelist who has propounded his theory of history. He regards individuals to be linked to history in several ways as he explains in Midnight’s Children:
…I was inextricably entwined with my world…all actions of mine which directly – literally-affected, or altered the course of, seminal historical events…The union of “passive” and “metaphorical” encompasses all socio-political trends and vents which, by existing, affected me metaphorically- ….[xviii]
One final note: the intentionally excessive well-ordered fantasy form is a very important contemporary literary mode. Moreover, Rushdie’s fiction investigates the relations between order, reality and fantasy. You may visit his official site here.
[xviii] Midnight’s Children, 286