Reading Buddy Journal: Midnight’s Children

Last week, I started reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children with a “reading buddy” I “met” online.  I “discovered” my reading buddy, Angus, on wordpress, through his blog Book Rhapsody, but started the Reading Buddy activity in another forum.

For reasons unknown to me, he had chosen to read Midnight’s Children to end the year, and since I’ve always wanted to read it (I tried once and got as far as the 2nd page before quitting), I thought, what the heck, I may as well give it another try.

We started reading Midnight’s Children on December 19, and decided to read 3 chapters, or roughly 50 pages a day.  The reading is scheduled to end on December 30, 2011.

My reading is pretty much unstructured;  I read everyday, but the length of time (and pages read) varies, depending on my mood or activities, so I was uncertain if I could read a prescribed number of pages/chapters a day.  Add to the fact that being the holiday season, I expected a lot of distractions (parties, shopping, family get-togethers, being stuck in heavy traffic…).

Surprisingly, I was able to make the quota of chapters everyday, with the exception of two days last week when I put off reading the 3rd chapter for the day ‘til the following day.  It did help that I had two versions of the book – a paperback edition at home, and an e-book version here in the office (which I read when I had nothing better to do, which is, most of the time).

To be honest, Midnight’s Children is not an easy read.  The narrator sets out to tell the world about his extraordinary life, starting with his grandfather.  The narrator, Saleem is quite talkative, and prone to distractions, and getting ahead of himself, so his storytelling is far from being simple and linear.  Though his subject matter – his life, is quite interesting, he tended to ramble on and on about certain things, his narration dangerously bordering on being dragging.

Today marks day 7 of reading (December 24 and 25 not included), and so far, so good, though the first few days were a bit hard for both of us, probably because of the timing, and narration style of the book.

Some general sentiments…

From Angus:

First impression: I cannot focus. I must be tired….

And yes, there are the political and historical parts intertwined with the grandfather’s background. We should anticipate more of these, since this is also the story of India’s birth.

But India isn’t born yet. The narrator is still talking about his family history, which is funny because he feels like he is running out of time. He must have a lot to say.

My thoughts on the first day of reading:

Regarding your inability to focus, do you think it’s really caused by your fatigue? Because I find it extremely hard to focus on this book, even though it is extremely entertaining.

…It’s intellectually witty. As he [Saleem] tells the story of his ancestors, he gets sidetracked, interrupts himself and gets ahead of his story, which I find quirky and funny.  As Padma so aptly comments: “At this rate, you’ll be 200 years old before you manage to tell about your birth.”

Yes, I think it is a very political novel, though, honestly I don’t know much about the history/politics of India – I’m thinking I have to do extra research on that lol.

Is it me, or does this novel remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude?

Day 2:  More comparisons with 100 Years of Solitude and other novels…

Angus:

I find it funny and yes, it’s reminiscent of 100 Years because of the witticisms. And the sheer entertainment. And a bit of that magical realism, what with the super olfactory powers.

But I don’t think everyone can be entertained easily because one needs to expend a certain amount of energy. And of course, it sounds a bit like The Inheritance of Loss.

The sidetrackings can be a bit confusing, but I find these the most entertaining of all. They lend an air of realism. Maybe I just find the family background thing a bit boring? A lot of novels do this, like Middlesex and yes, The Inheritance of Loss. The narrator explains that he has to do it out of… OC-ness?

Oh well, if you’ve noticed, Saleem’s grandparents met during WWI. And then his parents during WWII. The contrast and the coincidence makes us feel that these unions are significant, that they are both monumental to the world and to their own lives.

On the first week of discussion, there were questions as to why Midnight’s Children was given the Booker of Bookers….

Angus:

The Best of the Booker finalists:

(1973) J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur
(1974) Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist
(1981) Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
(1988) Peter Carey, Oscar & Lucinda
(1995) Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
(1999) J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

…Of which we’ve both read only Disgrace by JM Coetzee, which we both disliked to varying degrees…

General sentiments from Day 3:  A realization that we could have skipped the first 7 chapters, because Chapter 8 was more or less a summary of Book 1…And more comparisons to other books in terms of the narrator’s talkativeness….

Angus:

If I were to reread this book, I would start at Chapter 8 (Tick Tock). It’s a recap of the first seven chapters in 2-3 pages. And yes, it’s annoying. And again, I agree with Padma. She may be illiterate, but I think she makes more sense than Saleem.

Saleem is one of the most verbose characters that I ever encountered. His repetitive storytelling, I think, is not appealing. I think Rushdie is using this as some sort of a literary technique, which he is using along with the stream of consciousness technique, which can be very confusing, so that despite the confusion, the story will be planted in the reader’s subconscious.

And when it got to the part where Saleem summarized the family background in a matter of two or three pages, I felt that I understood everything despite the half asleep readings, which makes me feel good about this whole reading.

And despite the shortcomings, at least Saleem got to tell us, and Padma, that he is finally born.

End of Book One and start of Book Two, which is more promising because it’s his real memories that he is talking about and not some unreliable and imagined (I think) memories of his forefathers.

My thoughts on the day’s reading:

I’ve just finished the readings for Day 3! Yes, I agree that one can start reading the book from Chapter 8…the ending of which had a surprising twist. I think it was the first time since reading the book that I was actually really intrigued.

After Saleem’s birth, he mostly talks about his life as a baby, and how his birth is starting to affect India..and the universe (arrogant, much? lol).

The verbosity of the narrator of this book also reminds me of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which is quite interesting, except that it is too wordy…

Day 4:  More comparisons, and Saleem’s character is analyzed a bit….Finally seems like the real story is starting at this point.

Angus:

These are chapters that I like the most so far. I like reading stuff about the narrator’s childhood. It’s most probably why I like David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe I should start reading children’s lit and YA?

But a sad occurrence. Padma left Saleem. Maybe out of exasperation? But still, the narrator continues to mention her in his storytelling (Padma will agree, Padma should hear this, etc.).

The washing chest thing is very interesting. Saleem never fails to describe himself as unattractive, and although burying one’s self in a basket of dirty clothes is but a childish thing to do (nothing remarkable for a nineyearold), there are implications. There’s withdrawal from social activities with the other kids, who perpetually ridicule his cucumber of a nose. I find bittersweet emotions in the act of hiding under dirty laundry.

Bittersweet because amongst the pajama cords and other soiled garments, there is revelation. It is in the company of such things that he discovered his telepathic gift. Which he immediately told his family. Which made his family freak out. Which led him to keep his talent all for his own.

And which, I think, at this point, will keep the balls rolling.

Me:

I’m glad that he finally talked about his telepathic gift in Chapter 11…

When he first got his telepathic powers, he was quite shocked at his parents’ thoughts…to learn that they are more than just his mom and dad – that they are people who also have their secret fantasies and desires.

I think at some point in everybody’s lives, they realize this about their parents. There will come a time a person’s life when he realizes that his parents were “normal” people before they became parents, and that their lives don’t revolve around yours…

Day 5: Wherein we finally hear about the Midnight’s Children and their special abilities…

Me:

Finally, in the chapters for day 5 we hear about the Midnight’s Children…and the start of Saleem’s ‘federation’ of ‘special’ children.

Would it be blasphemous to say that they remind me of the X-Men? LOL.

Angus:

I was just thinking of the X-Men, Saleem being Professor X thanks to those telepathic powers and for getting the midnight’s children together. These are fun chapters.

The discussion during the second week of reading tending to be more serious, focusing on deeper meanings of the story and questioning the Saleem’s authenticity as a 10-year-old narrator…

Me:

Day 6
So…the tale of MCC gets interrupted, once again by Saleem’s real life problems. No matter how amazing the MCC phenomenon is, it is ignored for reality. Isn’t this how the world works anyway?

I like how Saleem (or Rushdie) gets into the readers heads and voices out their thoughts in his narration. Like when he tells the readers: You don’t believe 10 year olds would talk about collectivism vs. individualism, labour and communist issues, etc. I was thinking exactly that, just as Saleem asked.

Angus:

I like these chapters! I felt the same way about the MCC’s train of thoughts. At my age, I seldom think of deeper issues. I am almost thrice their age. Almost. But Saleem is quick to defend himself, a tactic which operates like self-mockery.

I am really curious about the MCC, particularly Parvati, whom Saleem repetitively stresses to be her savior. And the the time traveler, although it seems that he will remain a minor character from hereon. And of course, Shiva, the foil character, the other end of the scale, the epitome of realism, common sense, pragmatism.

The wordplay is really reminiscent of Kiran Desai. Perhaps Rushdie has a huge influence on her? And I have to admit that I am now enjoying this novel despite the rough start.

Day 7:  We question why Rushdie has not been awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature despite being a favorite…

Angus:

Rushdie is a perennial favorite for the Nobel, but as years go on, his popularity, sadly, is waning. The reason being that,  allegedly,”He’s too popular, too predictable.” His contemporaries have already been awarded (Gordimer, Coetzee).

Which brings us up-to-date with today’s discussion, wherein we take notice of the symbolisms within the story…

Me:

As Saleem moves from India to Pakistan, and back again, he becomes, once again, involved (unintentionally)in historical events (Pakistan military coup). When he finally travels back to India, his life and nasal passages mirrors the turmoil that his country undergoes with the invading Chinese forces.

Saleem also feels that it is during these times that his once esteemed position in the family plummets in a downward direction (with the Brass Monkey transforming into Jamila Singer) – and his ultimate downfall, the loss of his “powers” to communicate with the MCC, though the MCC disbanded before he lost his abilities.

You can see that Saleem has always enjoyed being in a position of ‘power’ or privilege, even though he seems humble about it. I think he really resents his parents shift of attention to his sister, and the revelation of her secret talents, which, unlike his, is actually real and praised by others. We can also detect his insecurities through his fear of Shiva discovering their switch at birth, and how he resents the fact that it was really Shiva who the prime minister wrote to, and the symbolic baby born at midnight.

 And from Angus’ point of view:

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in the case of Saleem, shutting out from the MCC for years due to his exile in Pakistan, it is otherwise. The MCC members have lives of their own. They are forming their own principles. Saleem desperately holds on to the midnight conferences, but the children are weeding their own selves out.

This stubbornness he inherited from his grandfather. Which is not really logical because Dr. Aziz is not really his kin, or any of the Aziz members for this matter. So traits are not inherited then?

The seven deadly sins (Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, Sloth) are, I think, sins that most often dwell in us. In Saleem, avarice is knocking on his heart. And his life is crumbling. The thought of Shiva torments and threatens his social standing. The Brass Monkey, now known as Jamila Singer, has already toppled his position in the household. The MCC is forever lost. With these three, he has no way of holding on to some sort of power. And he claims to be disintegrating. Can we say that a deadly sin is keeping him together?

But for every snake, there is a ladder. There is now his sense of smell.

Some additional insights on the readings of Day 7 and discussions about truth and other possible themes of Midnight’s Children…

Me:

I read somewhere in that one of the major themes of MC is the fact that truth is not a fixed, solid thing – and that in using magic, religion, etc. to view the story from different angles means that through those views, fiction and fantasy can also become fact and reality…

…which is also why there is a need for Saleem to always convince Padma that his narration is true…

Angus:

The only important truths are the subjective truths. But why do we have to affirm these? Why does Saleem need to convince the illiterate Padma? To make them more truthful than other truths?

Regarding the theme, I really can’t figure it out. I think it has something to do with the metaphors that Saleem and Shiva represent. The pairing of good and evil. Birth and destruction. How our actions can ripple outwards to create tidal waves.

Me:

Well maybe that is Rushdie’s point…that there is no absolute truth…I don’t know…it was just an analysis I read.

To me, I think Saleem is the metaphor for India (somehow)…

On the recurring theme of optimism in the novel – is it seen in a positive light or in a negative light?

Angus:

Ironically, he writes about too much optimism and yet there are strong themes of death. Since Saleem is India’s twin and Saleem is dying, there is a hint of bleakness in the book. Or perhaps there is hope in death.

Me:

he does write a lot about optimism, but to me, his characters’ optimism is a bit negative…meaning that their optimism always gets them in trouble (if I’m not mistaken). So maybe, in a way, he is a pessimist, making fun of optimists….???

Observations regarding the narrator’s shift from 1st person to 3rd person when talking about his life in the past…

Me:

I’ve noticed that in his narration, lately, he’s been referring to his young self as Saleem. Do you think it’s because as an adult, he no longer sees himself as the same person he was when he was a teenager? It’s like he wants to separate his adult self from his young self, for some still unknown reason…

Day 8 and more unbelievable events in the life of Saleem…We notice that his life resembles a badly written telenovela, or as Saleem puts it, a Bomay Talkie… In these chapters, Saleem has moved to Pakistan, finds himself falling in love with his sister, and finally, turning into a sniffing man-dog for the military…

Me:

Saleem has indeed lead a very interesting life (to say the least)…Now living in Pakistan, he realizes that he has fallen in love with his sister, who refuses his love  (rightly so). The Brass Monkey has now completely transformed into the songbird, Jamila Singer, who becomes a celebrity in her own right.

Book 2 ends with the tragic annihilation of Saleem’s family (except for an uncle in India, and Jamila) from strategically dropped (according to Saleem) bombs in Pakistan. And Saleem becomes miraculously cleansed of all his sins by suffering from amnesia after a silver spittoon brains him. Plus he is numb all over….

Book one starts with Saleem or, as he refers to himself, Not-Saleem, free of his old life, being a man-dog of a special group of military spies trained to search and destroy opposing forces – thanks to his keen sense of smell….

Is it me or are the events in this book becoming more and more unbelievable…??

Angus:

I don’t like these chapters. I was bored with the Jamila Singer chapter, and I thought it was totally unnecessary. I think this is a common occurrence, kids who are not biologically related to the parents falling for their siblings. I think the novel will still be intact if this chapter is torn off the spine.

And I didn’t like how Book Two ended. There’s just a lot of names that I can barely pronounce. It’s loaded with information. But I felt a bit emotional when Saleem told us how his family died. I insist though that the deaths are too contrived. The war is an easy way to wipe out the Aziz clan.

And Book Three is like reading a new book. I felt no connection between the last chapter of Book Two and the first chapter of Book Three. And what the F&H, amnesia? Again, there is self-mockery for the defense, but seriously?

Regarding Jamila Singer and the death of his famiy…

Me:

Well I think the Jamila Singer is just to show how his life was going downhill and how it caused him to be fatalistic…

Well the way he described his family’s death – it was sort of like he was telling the readers what may have happened…but he leaves it to the readers to believe his story or not.

I also feel cheated about the amnesia…it’s sort of like a telenovela..an easy way out – a sort of deus ex machina. But obviously, his memory will return so….

I thought the man-dog part was strange…but funny, in a way….

Day 9:  In the last few chapters of Midnight’s Children, Saleem narrates his involvement in the incredible events of the Indo-Pakistan War, his adventures in the Sundarbans and his last days as a sniffing man-dog.  Toward the end of the war, he finds himself strangely reunited with fellow Midnight’s Children, Parvati-the-witch, and Shiva.

Angus:

Saleem is, yes, a man-dog, hired by the military units to exploit on his super powers, the uber sensitive sense of smell. We are introduced to his new cohorts, Ayooba Farooq Shaheed. Short-lived, but memorable, particularly Shaheed.

I don’t know if Saleem’s smelling powers failed him or if he deliberately led his group into a dense jungle to run away from the ongoing war. This part seems like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And also a bit of James Dickey’s Deliverance. Which brings me to a question: does the deep green of the heart of a jungle brings out the worst fears of humans? Is it the jungle itself, the darkness, or the isolation?

After this jungle episode enters Parvati. Finally, the woman saves Saleem, both from his forgotten identity and from a possible incarceration, I think. I thought this would be a wonderful reunion, what with all the foreshadowing of the two MC’s meeting. But it was just blah. One magic trick, and poof!

And yes, I think my speculation was right, that Saleem is power hungry. He immediately leaves Parvati and the circus gang so that he could go visit his surviving Uncle Mustapha in order to make connections with government officials. Which did not happen due to venomous jealousies. Ousted he was from Mustapha’s household, only to be reunited with Parvati, whom he likes but does not want to marry, because it is Jamila’s face that he sees when they sleep together.

Is it really that? Or is his fear of meeting Shiva the real reason behind his reluctance?

My observations and growing irritation with Saleem…

For me these chapters were the most boring! If you think the incestuous chapter could be removed completely without changing the novel, for me, it’s the In the Sundarbans chapter. Really useless!

Regarding your question about the jungle, I think it’s the fear of the unknown…not knowing what’s lurking within, and also knowing that in an alien place such as the jungle, where beasts rule, there is no way man could win if attacked.

Anyway, back to my rants…..did I mention that I hated these 3 chapters?? More characters that I barely recognized and more political / war events which I can barely follow… And more of that in the last 3 chapters (from what I’ve read so far).

I’m starting to really dislike Saleem. He is obsessed with purpose and destiny. All this time, he feels that because he was born at Midnight, that he is special and that he was born for greater things. Now he has got it in his head to “save” India! How self-centered! As if he and only he holds the key to saving his country. He puts such pressure on himself, because he is really convinced that he is special, which is why he becomes bitter when his “inferiors” become better than him. And whenever his “inferiors” gain a higher status, he has convenient explanations for these too, like magic, so that he won’t be displaced.

Plus he’s always blaming other people for the bad things that have happened in his life…..He never takes responsibility for his actions.  He blames fate for his failures in life and hides behind destiny to justify his life.

Day 10:  The last day of reading…

Me:

What can’t be cured must be endured….

I’m done!! I can’t believe I finished this book in 10 days! Thanks to the Buddy Reading. Without it, I might never have gotten past the first few chapters of this book!

I found Book 3 pretty strange…The story shifted to become very political (as opposed to the rest of the story where politics was only hinted at).

I always thought that Saleem was just obsessed with meaning and purpose and was just paranoid, but apparently the government did round up members of the MMC…but maybe the sterilization program was actually just for the poor, in general…?

I wasn’t sure whether to give this novel three stars or two stars…It was more than OK, but I can’t say I liked it. I think 2 and a half stars would have been more appropriate.

The main reason why I couldn’t appreciate this novel was because I couldn’t really understand it. Yes, it is political – The events in Saleem’s life mirroring the events in India or vise versa…and toward the end, maybe we see Rushdie’s opinion of the Emergency and Indira Ghandi?

All in all, I was a bit disappointed with it, or maybe disappointed with myself for not liking it. Because, after all, how can a novel, by Salman Rushdie, awarded a Book Prize and a Booker of Booker Prize, not be a great literary work?

Angus:

I still do not know how to rate this book. I would have given it four stars if Book Three were engaging. But I found it boring and too political. It feels a little “trying hard”. I do not like how it ended.

And all this time, I didn’t realize that The Widow is India. Did I miss something? Oh well, I do not wish to backtrack, so let it be.

I think Rushdie ran out of tricks. I think he really didn’t know how to finish the novel. I think what he really had as the novel’s foundation is Book Two, which is the best among the three.

And I think the title of the novel is inappropriate.

Further discussions regarding the title, Book 3, the surprising revelations toward the end, and what we would actually rate the novel…

Me:

I know how you feel! First: The title….I was thinking that if you put all the stories about the MCC together, it would probably only make up like 3 whole chapters! The title is really misleading, because like I’ve mentioned before, I really thought this would be more about the MCC and not Saleem’s “life” story.
True also about Book 3 being too political, and about Indira Ghandi being the Widow. I thought that was a stretch ( in terms of the women on Saleem’s life). That was unexpected, and a bit strange, really. Personally I don’t think Indira Ghandi had anything to do with Saleem’s life. It could be just Rushdie’s way of presenting his political views and opinion on The Emergency of India.

I didn’t mind all the background story about Saleem’s ancestors. I think it was interesting. I did like the novel up to the end of Book 3, and up to that point I thought that I would be confident to give it 3 stars. But after finishing it, I really didn’t feel I liked it enough for 3 stars, but I felt that it’s a little above just being “OK”.

So, really, I feel comfortable rating it with 2 and a half stars.

Me:

Honestly, I think by the end of Book 2, my brain was already turned off and I was reading the book on “auto-pilot.”

Angus:

Probably the best thing about Book Three is Ayooba Farooq Shaheed. But this group is more of a distraction. Oh well

Final thoughts on the guilt one feels for not liking an award-winning novel.  When everyone raves about a particular book you were not crazy about, you tend to ask yourself:  “was it just me….?”

Me:

You know, I can’t rant about this book enough.

I was just so disappointed and frustrated with this book. Sometimes I even blame myself for not liking it more than I should. Other than you, I don’t think I know anyone who didn’t like it. Everyone just raves about it…

I keep thinking…it won 2 Bookers, for god’s sake, so who am I not to like it…? You know what I mean?

But I’m kinda glad that you weren’t too crazy about it either…at least I’m not the only one LOL.

Angus:

That’s the problem with award winners. The reader feels that he should like them just because. I sometimes feel that I didn’t really undestand an award winner when I don’t like it. But really, readers have different perceptions that affect their appreciation of a book, so let us not feel bad for not being crazy about such books.

But yes, we can’t help not feeling that way, hahaha. At least it’s not a two or one star.

Me:

Well I was tempted to give it 2 stars, actually…

I feel the same way you do when I don’t like an award-winner…I just feel that maybe I didn’t understand it well enough….

I just feel sometimes that it’s such a waste to exert so much effort into reading a book, if you don’t at least try to understand it.

Oh well….sometimes I just don’t get it. Or maybe I do get it, I just didn’t feel what the author wanted me to feel.  I really don’t know!

And that concludes our reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the last book I read in 2011.

Next up:  2666 by Roberto Bolaño…

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10 thoughts on “Reading Buddy Journal: Midnight’s Children

  1. It was great to read through this! I honestly don’t know anyone else who has even attempted to read this book. Anyone in my life who even knows of it’s existence kind of balked when I told them I was reading it. I’m really glad I’m not the only one who didn’t like it. And you guys are SO RIGHT about feeling obligated to enjoy a book that has received so much critical acclaim and won awards. I also wanted to point out how amazed I am that you guys read this so quickly. It honestly took me 2 years of on and off reading to get through the first half. It just didn’t engage me or capture my interest in any way so I would put it down for long periods of time. I finally decided to power through and finish the second half in about a week or so. So major kudos! You guys are inspiring.

    • Thanks! Honestly, it was a disappointment…and doubly so for me because I actually like Salman Rushdie and liked his other novels. I think my reading buddy helped me out with this one, because if I wasn’t reading this with someone, I probably would have given up on it. You should try that next time you come across a difficult book…reading with someone really does help.

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