Three-quarters to the end of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I’m thinking I’ve missed the boat A LITTLE. You know, the one sailing strong on the “smoke and mirrors” theme of truth, the very one dropping anchors of reality in earlier readings.
Why, not so far away in Book One, I recall underlining this passage — only to ignore it in my March write-up:
“True, for me, was from my earliest days something hidden inside the stories Mary Pereira told me. Mary my ayah who was both more and less than a mother; Mary who knew everything about all of us. True was a thing concealed just over the horizon towards which the fisherman’s finger pointed in the picture on my wall while the young Raleigh listened to his tales…I measure truth against those early things: Is this how Mary would have told it?” (p. 87*)
Then somewhere in Book Two, I underlined this passage — which again, by the end of April, failed to make press in April’s write-up:
“”What is truth?” I waxed rhetorical, “What is sanity” Did Jesus rise up from the grave? Do Hindus not accept…that the world is a kind of dream; that Brahma dreamed, is dreaming the universe that we only see dimly through that dream web, which is Maya. Maya.”” (p. 242)
Now comes May’s write-up. And no longer can I ignore the undercurrent of truth versus illusion — the ability of one — any one of us and any of Rushdie’s characters — to discern in total, the falseness and reality of things. I can’t ignore it because it’s EVERYWHERE. As big and bright as a billboard advertising Kolynos Toothpaste, in fact. And to put the cart before the horse — and why not, since Rushdie is fond of doing the same? — is this wonderful observation on truth and false toward the end of this month’s reading:
…in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything becomes possible except what we are told is the case; and maybe this was the difference between my Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence — that in the first I was beset by an infinity of alternative realities, while in the second I was adrift, disorientated, amid an equally infinite number of falsenesses, unrealities and lies.” (p. 373)
So much happens in the second half of Book Two. Dominoes fall. One event crashing into another until little is left standing. All because characters — and Saleem, in particular, who sees himself on center stage — can’t help but reach false conclusions to perceived smidgens of truth — and act accordingly to destructive results.
First, Saleem’s three exiles: the first from his changeling family, the second from India and another from his rich inner world of the children of midnight — the latter, because of a nose job that results in shutting down his inner airwaves but offers in return the power of “sniffing-out-the-truths” (p. 352) in his exterior world.
Second, there is death — death of characters and, as a result, death of familiar ways of living. Too many bodies to count except to say that there is plenty of room on board for the re-appearance of Shiva and Parvarti-the-Witch and whatever other children of midnight might wish to visit in Book Three.
Then, there is rebirth and transformation: Of love between Saleem’s changeling parents and of a shameful true-false love Saleem feels for his sister, the Brass Monkey — who, surprisingly, becomes not only tame and malleable while living in Pakistan, but an overnight singing sensation known as Jamila Singer. Perhaps, most intriguing, is a rebirth of a protective sheet, with one small hole cut in the center — the one used to shield Jamila the Brass Monkey from her adoring public reminds us of another in Book One which shielded Saleem’s “grandmother” from the eyes of her future husband. And really, how can anyone get a sense of the whole truth — of a person place or thing — when peering through a small hole of a sheet?
As usual, I’ve left much unsaid — because, as usual, there’s just too much in Rushdie’s fictional world to point a finger at. But not so ‘as usual’ is this: that unlike the previous two, this third section of reading was tough going. Not because it’s not beautifully told. Or that the pace wasn’t good. Or that the characters had lost their power to charm me. No, if anything, I found myself caring more about what happens to Saleem and his family, as I followed their movements to deal with loose “truths” that have slithered across chapters like a serpent to poison relationships and destroy worlds.
No, the reasons are more difficult to explain. Maybe because some great truth is slithering off the page to become personal. Maybe I feel snake-bit. For like Saleem and company, I realize my bit knowledge of Truth — the one I can see through a small hole in a symbolic perforated sheet — can only help me get at truth but not quite nail it. Suffice it to say that the truth I’ve witnessed unfurl in Rushdie’s story is greater than any one character has yet realized. And that it’s this fuller truth I’ve found exploding off the page into my own life.
If these characters can do and think such horrible deeds in the name of ‘truth’ — small case ‘t’ — and be so terribly mistaken in their one-sided judgments and self-righteousness — then what about me and my own small world? What about any of us? Can we be so different?
Unless of course, I’ve got it all wrong. Yes. Perhaps I’ve stayed with Rushdie in India too long. For I, too, could be “obsessed with correspondence;” of finding “similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things… looking for meaning” revealed “only in flashes.” (p. 344)
Perhaps better minds than mine know where Rushide’s boat is heading. But wherever it docks, I’ve come to accept it will take me a little longer to get there. I’m lagging behind. Passing time and words on the slow boat to China.
Note: All page references relate to 2006 Random House Trade Paperback Edition. For other viewpoints, please follow the link to other reactions of those participating in the read-along.