After years of hearing about the Rushdie controversy (which has a habit of popping back up every couple of years or so) I finally decided – and I do not know what finally clinched the decision – that I wanted to read his books, at least one. In fact, now I wonder why all these years I never thought about reading them, even the ones that are not banned.
I cannot now recollect what I was prepared for when I started Midnight’s Children. I surely had some kind of expectation about it. But one week and 647 pages and 60+ years of Indian History later, my original expectations are as blurred as (perhaps) the memories of my infancy.
The book gives us a glimpse into what the Satanic Verses could hold: even if I do not know what “religion-bashing” (to use the phrase a friend employed to explain why the book is banned) could be contained in it, I could form a fair idea from Midnight’s Children. I could perceive who could be offended and why. But I do not want to venture into it: religion after all is a dicey topic, and the Who-talks-about-it part is more important than the What-they-said.
But by God – forget what the plot is about, forget what the author tries to convey about history, geography, politics, mythology or religion (oh, yes one could take offence all over the place) – what totally blew me over was his style: I didn’t know you could write like that! The book defies every (almost) writing rule I have come across, and yet stands firm on its feet. It left me reeling in its wake.
How can you have the first person (I) and third person (he/she) narrative in the same sentence, referring to the same person – for that’s how the narrator, Saleem Sinai, tells us his tale: going back and forth from first to third, and the reader does not even notice when the ‘I’ became a ‘he’, and then became ‘Saleem’ and again back to ‘I’.
And, man, where are the commas, why are they not where they should be? And why is it that I did not even feel odd (after the first such occurrence) that they are not there?
And when did Saleem switch from past tense to present, even while describing the same scene, from the Bombay (or Karachi or Kashmir) of years ago?
What about repeated statements, wandering phrases, incomplete sentences that begin and end in thought-provoking dots… words tumbling and cascading over each other in their mad rush.
And so forth.
The first page of the book left me raising my eyebrows, which could mean anything: I was surprised, but was curious to read more, and a little wary (after all, the author is banned in several countries), perhaps sceptical as well. But after page 4 or 5, I caught myself gaping, astounded that such writing was possible, that it was allowed.
And a little disheartened that I would try to call myself a writer in a world where such writers exist.
Enjoying a book is all about deciding what you care about – the literature, plot, characters, theme, premise, backdrop? What captures your attention inevitably stems from who you are, what you are,where you come from, how you see life, what you expect of yourself. Right after I turned the last page of Midnight’s Children, I took up another book by a good (perhaps, brilliant) author, but the first couple of pages seemed too plain, linear, ordinary, lifeless, that I put it back. I need more time to get past the hangover. I post this before I have second thoughts, Time always dims our first impression and tries to force its own convictions on us.
Students of literature may claim that similar writing styles have been experimented with by others before or after – I do not know. I haven’t come across any. And, as I write this, I am still in a state of shocked disbelief.
I will just say this: after reading 647 pages of Saleem Sinai, my writing can never be the same again.