December 16, 2017
Nehru, Rushdie, Midnight's Children
On this day in 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. Salman Rushdie would get the title for his second novel from the speech India's Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered in the first minutes of the new day:
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we will redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance....
Nehru would not have had the utterance of Midnight's Children in mind. Rushdie was born in Bombay two months earlier, but his exuberant, tell-all hero -- "Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon" -- was born "handcuffed to history," and fated to yank its chains:
I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it's important to be more . . . On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment....
Midnight's Children won the 1981 Booker (and the "Booker of Bookers," a special prize given in 1993 to commemorate the award's quarter-century), but Indira Gandhi was offended enough by its political satire to sue, and win. When she visited London for a festival of Indian culture, someone in Margaret Thatcher's office did not know this, and invited Rushdie too. Rushdie phoned Thatcher's office to explain why he'd better not attend, but apparently this, like the book, did not get through to the Prime Minister. The following day, with a stony-faced Gandhi at her side, she praised Rushdie and Midnight's Children glowingly.
Recently, a stage version of the novel, scripted by Rushdie, premiered at the RSC's Barbican Centre. The play was originally conceived by Rushdie for television; this project fell through at the last minute, when India refused permission for on-location shooting.