Storytelling in Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’

I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time

Being an Arab, the modes of oral storytelling and the tales of a 1,001 Nights, are concepts I am familiar with. Even though Midnight’s Children relies heavily on the history of India, I found the elements of oral storytelling and magical realism in Rushdie’s novel, captivating. While reading the novel, I realised how Rushdie used the oral tradition of storytelling and magical realism to counter the dominant narratives in India during the State of Emergency in 1975.

Integrating Scheherazade’s 1,001 Nights style of storytelling and magical realism, the protagonist, Saleem, helps his readers understand the importance of storytelling in a nation where dominant narratives are not representative of everyone’s experiences and perspectives on war.

Saleem was born in India on its independence day from colonial Britain on August 15th 1947. He describes his life as ‘mysteriously handcuffed to history’. He says, ‘my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country’ (3). Keen on telling his story throughout his 31 years to pass down to his posterity, he likens himself to Scheherazade from 1,001 Nights.

He says, ‘Nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and a night. I must work fast, faster, than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning’ (4). Since Saleem’s body is starting to deteriorate and ‘crack’, he decides to tell his story despite his fragmented memory and inaccurate record of dates to inform his posterity of his story.

Saleem talks about memory and truth and explains that ‘memory has its own special kind (of truth)’. He emphasises memory’s flaws by saying that it ‘selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but coherent version of events’. (292) Moreover, Saleem doesn’t plan on chronologically describing the events in India. Instead, he aims to describe his ‘memory’s truth’ (292) that also acts as a counter-narrative to the dominant narratives dictated by Indira’s government in 1975. Indira’s government views India as a homogenous nation. Their famous line stating ‘Indira is India and India is Indira (587) resonates with Saleem. Magical realism in the novel counters this sentence by describing India’s homogeneity, by using the Midnight Children as a crucial element in countering dominant narratives.

The novel is named after the 1,001 children born on India’s independence day at midnight. The children possess supernatural powers such as Saleem’s telepathy, Shiva’s powerful and destructive knees, and the powers of other children like teleportation, the ability to change sex, and time travel. The diverse supernatural powers of the children who are scattered all across India, represent its rich diversity. However, one particular child has a stronger effect on Saleem-Shiva.

Shiva and Saleem are switched at birth, which allows Saleem to live an affluent life, while Shiva is subjected to poverty. Saleem and Shiva are counterparts due to their upbringing and magical powers. Saleem is telepathic and encompasses all the Midnight’s Children in his mind since he can speak to all of them and hold conferences with them together. Shiva, on the other hand, is absent from these meetings and instead reinforces the government’s orders to fight for the military. He sends the Midnight Children to be sterilised under Indira’s government in 1975.

Saleem means ‘righteous’ in the Arabic language, whereas Shiva, is named after the Hindu god of destruction. Their names create a parallel which also shadows their involvement with the government. While Saleem strives to create a better India that celebrates its diversity, Shiva fights the children and sends them to be sterilised, ending their bloodline.

Saleem’s telepathic powers give him access to all the voices of the children. While, Shiva reinforces the policies of one homogenous government. This demonstrates how the duality of the two characters can be symbolic of Saleem’s heterogenous India and Indira’s homogenous India.

By incorporating magical realism in this novel, the children’s supernatural powers help draw a parallel between the binaries of multiple narratives and dominant canonical narratives. Therefore, the private events of Saleem are attached to the country’s public events and contrasted to demonstrate how the private events of an individual or a group of people are unrepresented and untold in public history.

Midnight’s Children is a story of India’s history infused with magical realism. However, the component of storytelling despite the flaws and inaccuracy of the narrator’s memory examines the importance of memory and its role in speaking up against dominant historical narratives.

Where turbulent thoughts and structure intersect

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store