Magic Realism and New Historicism in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie, one of the most renowned writers of Indian Diaspora, settled in England, shot into fame through his magnum opus, Midnight’s Children. He was born to an affluent Muslim family in Bombay on 19 June 1947. He grew up in Mumbai and graduated with honours from King’s College, Cambridge. Settled in England, Rushdie’s literary career started with his first novel, Grimus, which was a poor seller. With the publication of his second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), Rushdie’s fame spread world-wide and the subsequent novels Shame (1983) and The Satanic Verses (1988) made him one of the best contemporary novelists in the world. The allegorical novel The Satanic Verses enraged Muslim fundamentalists including Ayatollah Khomeini who issued a fatwa sentencing Rushdie to death. Midnight’s Children won for him Booker of Bookers prize in 1993. In 2008 it was selected as The Best of Bookers. Midnight’s Children is also the only Indian novel on Time‘s list of the hundred best English-language novels since its founding in 1923.
Rushdie uses the narrative style of magical realism in which myth and fantasy are blended with real life. Midnight’s Children and Shame are examples of magical realism. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary define magic realism as, “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction—called also magical realism” (“magic realism”). It is a narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. Magic realism is characterized by an equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. It fuses lyrical and, at times, fantastic writing with an examination of the character of human existence and an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite. The term was coined first by German art critic Franz Roh in 1925, and Alejo Carpentier first described its current usage in the prologue to his book, El reino de este mundo.
Midnight’s Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. In the temporal sense, Midnight’s Children is post-colonial as the main body of the narrative occurs after India becomes independent. The narrative framework of Midnight’s Children consists of tale which Saleem Sinai recounts orally to his wife-to-be Padma. This self-referential narrative recalls indigenous Indian culture, particularly the similarly orally recounted Arabian Nights. The events in Rushdie’s text also parallel the magical nature of the narratives recounted in the Arabian Nights (Stewart).
Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Midnight’s Children, opens the novel by explaining that he was born at midnight on 15th August, 1947, at the exact moment India gained its independence from British rule. He imagines that his miraculously timed birth ties him to the fate of the country. He later discovers that all children born in India between 12 AM and 1 AM on 15th August 1947, are gifted with special powers. Saleem thus attempts to use these powers to convene the eponymous children. He acts as a telepathic conduit, bringing hundreds of geographically disparate children into contact while also attempting to discover the meaning of their gifts. In particular, those children who are born closest to the stroke of midnight possess more powerful gifts than the others. Shiva of the Knees, Saleem’s evil nemesis, and Parvati, called “Parvati-the-witch,” are two of these children with notable gifts and roles in Saleem’s story.
Saleem has to contend with his personal trajectory. His family is active in this, as they begin a number of migrations and endure the numerous wars which plague the subcontinent. During this period he also suffers amnesia until he enters a quasi-mythological exile in the jungle of Sundarban, where he is re-endowed with his memory. In doing so, he reconnects with his childhood friends. Saleem later becomes involved with the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay’s “cleansing” of the Jama Masjid slum. For a time Saleem is held as a political prisoner; these passages contain scathing criticisms of Indira Gandhi’s overreach during the Emergency as well as what Rushdie seems to see as a personal lust for power bordering on godhood. The Emergency signals the end of the potency of the Midnight Children, and there is little left for Saleem to do but pick up the few pieces of his life he may still find and write the chronicle that encompasses both his personal history and that of his still-young nation; a chronicle written for his son, who, like his father, is both chained and supernaturally endowed by history.
Now, nearing his thirty-first birthday, Saleem believes that his body is beginning to crack and fall apart. Fearing that his death is imminent, he grows anxious to tell his life story. Padma, his loyal and loving companion, serves as his patient, often sceptical listener.
Reena Mitra writes on the trajectory of the novel thus:
Midnight’s Children is a literary response to a series of real life situations that have been cleverly fictionalized through allusions, disguised as well as direct, to the country’s recent as well as not so recent past. The novel has an epic sweep covering about six decades in the history of the Indian subcontinent. Book One covers the time from the Jallianwala Bagh incident to April, 1919 to the birth of the protagonist, Saleem, on 15 August, 1947; Book Two extends up to the end of the Indo-Pakistan war in September, 1965, and Book Three envelops the period up to the end of the Emergency in March, 1977, and includes the Bangladesh war as well. (2)
Midnight’s Children can also be considered as a new-historicist novel. The critics of the post-modern period apply the term ‘new historicism’ to interpret literary texts. The term ‘new-historicism’ was coined by the American critic Stephen Greenblatt, whose book Renaissance Self Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare (1980) is usually regarded as its beginning. Peter Barry in his book Beginning Theory has given a simple definition of the term new historicism as “it is a method of the ‘parallel’ reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period” (172). It means that new historicism refuses to privilege the literary text; instead of a literary ‘foreground’ and a historical ‘background’ it envisages and practices a mode of study in which literary and non-literary texts are given equal weight and constantly inform or interrogate each other. Typically, a new historical essay will place the literary text within the frame of a non-literary text. Greenblatt juxtaposes the plays of the Renaissance period with ‘the horrifying colonialist policies by all the major European powers of the era.’
When we say that new historicism involves the parallel study of literary and non-literary texts, the word ‘parallel’ encapsulates the essential difference between this and earlier approaches to literature which had made some use of historical data. These earlier approaches made a hierarchical separation between the literary text, which was the object of value, the jewel, as it were, and the historical ‘background,’ which was merely the setting, and by definition of lesser worth. Barry is of opinion that “the practice of giving ‘equal weighting’ to literary and non-literary material is the first and major difference between the new and old historicism” (174). Barry continues to write:
The appeal of new historicism is undoubtedly great, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, although it is founded upon post-structuralist thinking, it is written in a far more accessible way, for the most part avoiding post-structuralism’s characteristically dense style and vocabulary. It presents its data and draws its conclusions, and if it is sometimes easy to challenge the way the data is interpreted, this is partly because the empirical foundation on which the interpretation rests is made openly available for scrutiny. Secondly, the material itself is often fascinating and is wholly distinctive in the context of literary studies. . . . Thirdly, the political edge of new historicist writing is always sharp, but at the same time it avoids the problems frequently encountered in ‘straight’ Marxist criticism: it seems less overtly polemical and more willing to allow the historical evidence its own voice. (177)
At the fictional level, Midnight’s Children depicts the events and experiences in the lives of three generations of the Sinai family. The account begins with their day in Srinagar and follows their passage through Amristar, Agra and Bombay to Karachi from where Saleem alone returns hidden in the basket of Parvati, the witch, only to experience the terrors of the Emergency that had been imposed in India.
When one analyses the novel one finds three major aspects of Rushdie’s use of history in the book: (i) the commingling of autobiography and narrative, (ii) the striking breach of chronology and (iii) the search for identity and the meaning of life (Mitra 3).
In the novel, there is a frequent forward or backward shift in time that makes it difficult to trace the proper sequence of events in the life of the protagonist. At the very outset, after having given the date of his birth, the narrator somersaults to his thirty-first birthday. He then dives deep into the past only to return to the present, and then to embark upon the future.
In the words of Reena Mitra:
This marked-break in chronology in the novel reveals the author’s intention of giving not a record of events in order of their occurrence but of projecting the basic historical truth as interacting with and affecting the life of the individual, that is chiefly, the author himself as represented by the protagonist. On the one side, we have Saleem’s personal life, and, on the other, corresponding to this is the life and history of the nation. The story traces the various events in the life of the central character that synchronize with major happening in the recent history of India. The parallel that is worked out, though strained at times, is designed to allow an understanding of the individual’s life in terms of historical forces. (4)
Regarding the break in chronology in the novel, it is clear from the very beginning that the author never had in mind a sustained biological account of the life of the hero or a record of historical events in order of time. In the novel, on the one side we have Saleem’s personal life, and on the other, corresponding to this is the life of the nation. Mitra writes:
The story traces the various crises in the life of the protagonist that synchronize with the major events and movements in the history of modern India. The Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, the Quit India Movement, the role of Muslim League, the post-Independence riots, the Five Year Plans, the re-organization of the states in India, the language agitation, the Chinese aggregation, the theft of the sacred relic from Hazrathbal mosque, the war with Pakistan, the independence of Bangladesh, the Emergency and other historical landmarks. (12)
After that, every major event in Saleem’s life is linked with some incident in the life of the nation. Saleem returns to India after a period of exile in Pakistan. In a fit of anger, Saleem resolves to give the nation the right to choose a better future, for he looks upon the country as “not only my twin-in-birth but also joined to me (so to speak) at the hip, so that what happened to either of us happened to us both” (Rushdie 385). At this critical moment in the life of both, Saleem and the nation, the pace of history accelerates and there are a number of synchronous events on either side. Shiva’s “explosion” (Rushdie 410) into the life of Saleem at the magician’s ghetto coincides with India’s surprising nuclear capability demonstrated with the first nuclear explosions in the deserts of Rajasthan on 18th May 1974. The marriage celebrations of Saleem and Parvati synchronize with the Republic Day festivities in the country and from then onward the parallels drawn between the life of the protagonist and that of the nation continue through Laylah Sinai (Parvati). The moment Laylah enters labour room, Indira Gandhi is found guilty of malpractices in the previous elections. Laylah’s son, Aadam Sinai is born on 25th June 1975, the very day Emergency was imposed in India. He too, like Saleem, is “mysteriously handcuffed to history” (Rushdie 420) and his fortunes are inseparably linked with those of his country. His distress caused by tuberculosis is suspected of having “something darkly metaphorical” (Rushdie 422) in it. It seems to be manifestation of his connection to history. In the words of Rushdie, “. . . in those midnight months when the age of my connection-to-history overlapped with his, our private emergency was not unconnected with the larger macrocosmic disease, under whose influence the sun had become as pallid and diseased as our son” (422). And then Saleem is arrested and imprisoned. He loses his freedom and he loses with it his silver spittoon swallowed by bulldozers to sever him from “the last object connecting me to my more tangible, historically verifiable past” (Rushdie 432).
The midnight children are a magic realist device emphasising the continued struggle to come to terms with identity within the polarities of the post-colonial. They are, by virtue of their midnight birth, ‘children of the times,’ as Rushdie has asserted, as much as magical creations. This freedom, at the end of the text, is described as being ‘now forever extinguished,’ and there is a sour irony inherent in Saleem’s thoughts that the children ‘must not become . . . the bizarre creation of a rambling, diseased mind.’ Rushdie implies that Saleem’s generation has failed to consolidate the possibilities inherent in independence. The possibility exists in each passing generation of midnight children, who are the children of each successive era. Each generation, as Saleem muses, will erase the presence of a previous generation that has not yet learnt to define a stable and solid sense identity. The individual voice is swamped by the creeping progression of time and history: nevertheless, the text’s conclusion is open ended. There may be no such thing as a single national identity in the contemporary world, where media and communication link cultures and countries: there is perhaps an interchange of cultures, to varying degrees, between all countries. This delicate ambiguity is emphasised in the final sentence of the text, which links magic with realism, the individual with history, the individual and regional identity and self-assertion with the magnet of the universal. Rushdie weaves a text that fuses tradition and current cultural influences to create an open-ended post-colonial discourse (Stewart).
The novel draws to a close around 15th August 1978 and ends in a mixed note. In the words of Florence D’Souza:
. . . Saleem’s hypersensitive nose inhales mixed smells—on the one hand, “the excitement of the coming Independence Day,” and on the other “more tarnished perfumes: disillusion, venality, cynicism” (MC 457). His analysis is dispassionate: “…the nearly thirty-one-year-old myth of freedom is no longer what it was. New myths are needed; but that’s none of my business” (MC 458).” (51)
Fantasy is consciously used as a device or a method by many postmodernist novelists. Rushdie has used fantasy ingenuously and admirably in Midnight’s Children. He believed that fantasy could be used as a method for producing intensified images of reality. In the words of Madan M. Sarma:
In Midnight’s Children Rushdie, in fact, presents intensified images of reality as he sees it in the Indian sub-continent in the decades preceding and following India’s independence. The disparate materials pertaining to those times of political upheaval, popular upsurge, growing optimism, and chaotic developments that often bordered on the fantastic could not have been woven together by any other method but that of fantasy. (54)
Rushdie is able to question the contents of colonial power and ideology by accepting an international medium and code, through which he can subvert the very identities of the colonizer. Soumyajit Samanta is of opinion that Rushdie
. . . turns back the table right back on the colonial power by accepting the fluidity of cultures and identity in his very person as well as his multiple fictional selves. History becomes a process, a fluctuation of meaning where the cultural signified, though not lost, is made and remade on the transnational scene. If the colonial powers have tried to reshape history (exemplified well in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) Rushdie again succeeds in rewriting history and politics by positioning and freeing the colonial subject from racial domination and imperialism. Rushdie’s texts, therefore, engage themselves with the particular historical realities presented by the postcolonial scene by offering to explain how and why the postcolonial writer might be able to defy historically determined relationships of racial dominance as well as cultural subordination. (116-117)
The colonizer had encroached the colonized’s history and deprived him of his political position in that history. Rushdie through his novels has brought a revisionist attitude to history in re-positioning the postcolonial subject in the panorama of the world. He has thus proved unique in freeing the colonial subject from the colonized’s possession and domination of history and politics.
Barry, Peter. “New Historicism and Cultural Materialism.” Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Ed. Peter Barry. London: Manchester University Press, 2002. 172-178. Print.
D’Souza, Florence. “Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children: A Reappropriation of India’s Recent Past.” Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Ed. Reena Mitra. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd., 2006. 1-36. Print.
“magic realism.” Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 15 October 2009.
Mitra, Reena. “Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’: History and fiction as Co-ordinates in Search for Meaning.” Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Ed. Reena Mitra. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd., 2006. 1-36. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Picador, 1982. Print.
Samanta, Soumyajit. “Redefining History: Rushdie’s Novels as Literature of Subversion.” Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Ed. Reena Mitra. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd., 2006. 1-36. Print.
Sarma, Madan M. “Midnight’s Children: Fantasy as Matrix.” Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Ed. Reena Mitra. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd., 2006. 1-36. Print.
Stewart, Nicholas. “Magic realism as Post-colonialist Device in Midnight’s Children.” Web. 15 October 2009. <http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/SchoolofEnglish/imperial/india/rushdie.htm.>.