Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children (1981).

June 6, 2007

Midnight’s Children“Mr. Kemal, who is the thinest man Amina Sinai has ever seen, sets off with his curiously archaic phraseology (derived from his fondness for litigation, as a result of which he has become infected with cadences of the law courts) a kind of chain reaction of farcical panic . . .”

Trying to summarize a book by Salman Rushdie in a small paragraph to start a blog article discussing it is just futile. This is due to the multiple competing topics that one could claim to say one of his books is “about.” Midnight’s Children is no exception and may even be the epitome of his layered and complex storytelling. I will take the overt metaphor from the book though, and make the claim that it is about India, but only with the reservation that this is only one of many themes and in a story about fractured land, fractured people, and fractured plots. In fact this is probably to simple. Thus I could also be very happy claiming that it is about fractures. What I won’t do is attempt to tell you what happens in any detail as it would bog down the legal analysis. Instead I will write from the oh so academic stand point that you the reader have already read the book (and if you haven’t you should) and commence with the legal analysis forthwith.

My reading of the novel is that Rushdie presents the law as a magically real experience that attempts to define and control man but in the end causes postmodernesque fragmentation and fracturing instead. This is a theme that I think can be traced throughout Rushdie’s work, but this is my initial foray into this little project so what I present below is more formative than anything else.

Saleem Sinai is Rushdie’s overt metaphor for the state of India, and was born at the exact moment that India gained independence from Great Britain. This can be seen as an initial jumping off point for Magically Real Law. At this moment India became India again, and not the British Colony of India. The magically real aspect is that this is treated as a birth, but does anything new actually exist, are the people suddenly different? Or instead is it simply that the legal matrix has shifted? Rushdie’s answer, I think is that it is only a legal matrix, which attempts to create a concrete existence for the people.

As is proper, we learn of the birth of India, but we must first look at the history. Rushdie examines Ghandi’s attempt to defeat the British domination with silence, the British counter of the Rowlatt Act (against political agitation), and Martial Law regulations. These are battles that are occuring not so much between peoples as between legal frameworks. That is not to say that people aren’t affected, indeed they are highly affected in that the law helps to support culture. The metaphor for this can be found when Methwold insists that those that buy his estate live like the English until the exact moment of Independence. In doing this he forces his culture, through a contract, upon the Indian Families that move into to his estate. Not only do they must absorb his culture, but they must also absorb his law. The contract is probably based on the British model, as is the property law that supports it. The larger picture is that after the British leave, the remnants of their legal order doesn’t, and those remnants may not support the underlying culture of the people as well.

The theme again arises in light of the partition of Pakistan from India. It was all occupied by the British, but upon independence there were two countries with competeing views. These two regions, before the British colonization had not existed as any sort of nation state, yet afterwards they had embraced the idea of nationalism. This is a very real thing, but its basis is ephemeral. Time even was suceptible to it as the clocks in Pakistan “would run a half an hour ahead of their Indian counterparts.” These partitions and borders, while real and enforced are only magical divisions and do not reflect the actual layout of the culture and the population. Furthermore they are suddenly Western nation states, thus creating the need for a large legal net as opposed to micro legal systems.

Much of this partition is drawn along religious lines, with India becoming a secular state and Pakistan becoming a Muslim state. But this partition can’t hold up under its own terms, because of the deep religious currents in India. We find this when Ahmed’s assets are frozen by the government because he is a Muslim. It is fought in the courts but only won by bribes, which further exposes contradiction within the law, which is meant to be secure and final. As Nehru consults astrologers for his 5 year plan for his secular state, the legal system for the people becomes just as malleable and susceptable to non legal argumentation. Hindu’s and Muslims clash, but they now clash under the framework of a Western legal tradition. Later in the book, there is an attempt to reorganize India into states of Languages, an analysis of this would follow the same sort of reasoning.

The magically real partioning on the territories then becomes magically real in Saleem who feels himself literally fracturing into pieces. What Rushdie has achieved is showing the consequences of the law on the person or body. The fracture is more than legal, more than mental; it is a physical affliction to the people and the culture. This physicality is repeatedly shown in the main character of Saleem.

Saleem describes his existence in India as one of an “infinity of alternate realities,” but in Pakistan where truth is what the law says it is he is beset with and “infinite number of falsenesses.” The differences in the two cultures can be explained by the differences in the law. Secular law allows for possiblity, whereas theocracy allows only for the binary of truth an falseness. When the law enforces this binary the truth becomes magically real as it is supported by an item that is also magically real (if you accept that the law is a magically real structure i.e. that it comes from nowhere yet we accept it as a solid and binding force). The dichotomy between the two exhibits exactly this point. If the law were a real thing it would be substantially the same in each country, instead the law is created in reaction to the presence or lack of religion exposing the law’s preoccupation with rule and its lack of concern with justice.

These are just really initial thoughts and formulations on a somewhat perfunctory read of the novel. It should be noted that legal themes run through out. On can find criminal law, contract law, family law, tax law, immigration law, and probably scads of other items throughout. Each of these in turn can probably have this idea applied to it and be used as a way of exposing weakness in the system.

Salman Rushdie