Midnight’s Children, By Salman Rushdie

Saleem Sinai was born at midnight, the midnight of India's independence, and found himself mysteriously 'handcuffed to history' by the coincidence. He is one of 1,001 children born at the midnight hour, each of them endowed with an extraordinary talent - and whose privilege and curse it is to be both master and victims of their times. Through Saleem's gifts - inner ear and wildly sensitive sense of smell - we are drawn into a fascinating family saga set against the vast, colourful background of the India of the 20th century.

A note on the text
The making of Midnight’s Children began, by Rushdie’s own account, when he travelled to India in 1975, a return home sponsored by a £700 advance for his first novel Grimus, a quasi-science fantasy experiment that flopped badly. But his next novel would be different. “I had wanted for some time to write a novel of childhood,” he said in 2005. But it was not until this trip that he began to conceive “a more ambitious plan”. He would take Saleem Sinai, a minor character from an abandoned novel entitled The Antagonist, and link him to the totality of Indian independence by somehow making the history of modern India “all his fault”.

The idea was one thing; the writing would be something else. “I was broke,” recalls Rushdie. “The novel in my head was clearly going to be long and strange and take quite a while to write and in the meanwhile I had no money.” Having briefly been a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather, he now rejoined the agency on a part-time basis, and settled down to write the book he was beginning to call Midnight’s Children, having rejected Children of Midnight as “banal”.

By mid-1979, he was done. The typescript was sent to his friend and editor Liz Calder at Jonathan Cape where, in the best publishing tradition, the first reader’s report was brief, hostile and dismissive: “The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form.”

Thereafter, wiser readings prevailed. The novel was bought by both Cape in the UK and Alfred Knopf in the US. Calder, says Rushdie, saved him from “two bad mistakes”. There was an offstage “audience” character who was “redundant”; and there was a knot in the novel’s time line. Rushdie was persuaded to drop the character, and restructure the story chronologically.

On publication in the spring of 1981, the reviews were good, and the novel’s reception generally enthuiastic. But then, once the book appeared in India, there came the first of the political controversies that have tormented Rushdie throughout his literary career: Mrs Gandhi sued him for a single defamatory sentence about her relationship with her younger son Sanjay. The case never came to court; and eventually the offending sentence was dropped. Now that Mrs Gandhi and her “Emergency” are history, the text becomes less topical, but more timeless. Rushdie himself says that “Midnight’s Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways which its author cannot wholly know.”

In its own time, it has been an acclaimed prizewinner, winning both the Booker prize in 1981, and “the Booker of Bookers” in 1993 and again in 2008. Chosen for the BBCs “Big Read” in 2003, its status as a contemporary classic seems assured. Rushdie himself has written, with appropriate modesty, that “if it can pass the test of another generation or two, it may endure”. Posterity awaits.