I bought my copy of Midnight’s Children in a book shop in Pondicherry in 2006 during an earnest personal campaign to read things about India while in India — a gesture of a piece with a ladies’ auxiliary “around the world” evenings or literary dos where participants discuss To the Lighthouse and eat boeuf en daube. Before Midnight’s Children, I read A Suitable Boy, and read it while sleeping on trains with my pants tucked into my socks against forward bugs. (This made for evenings of psychic dissonance roughly analogous with reading Edith Wharton on a cross-country Greyhound bus. The difference is that no Greyhound bus depot is as nice as any Indian train station of my limited experience.)
Talking about traveling, particularly the rugged variety of traveling favored by the youth, can so quickly become an exercise in witting and unwitting and halfwitting braggartry about the distance from indoor plumbing, the extreme isolation of one’s guesthouse, and the rustic nobility of one’s hosts, that it usually seems better to avoid the subject altogether. And now that I look back at my charmed early 20s and realize the immensity of the gift bestowed upon me — the gift of going places and seeing things — to even speak of those days seems gauche. Better I should husband my accounts as ready capital for some social moment when my footing is unsure. If I meet you and mention Uzbekistan, what am I wearing? Is it a turtleneck? Is there an odor?
Re-reading Midnight’s Children this summer was such a transporting experience, however, that I am compelled to mention those days on the road, when Saleem Sinai revealed a world beyond the dingy windows of unremitting buses and trains. Dunya dekho, “see the world,” as the dugdugee man Lifafa Das cries, with his postcard peepshow of Indian wonders.
I traveled with two friends, and we dutifully cultivated our up-for-anythingness. In Mumbai, picked up off the street in a routine roundup of foreign faces, we had our hair combed and — with Hungarians, with Kenyans, with Finns — played the Nascar fans of Bollywood’s imagining. We trudged across Chowpatty beach and up the Malabar hill and looked solemnly in the direction of the Tower of Silence, entrance barred the non-Parsi. There in the valley of the shadow of death, we spent our filmi proceeds on Pizza Hut and felt bad about ourselves. We saw Don in the cool movie theater. We sweated and itched through the night in gender-segregated wings of the Salvation Army.
Our strategy was speed and distance, and we were up for anything in New Delhi and Pushkar; Agra and Varanasi; Kerala and Munnar and Madurai. By Bangalore, we were no longer up for very much — that’s when we saw The Departed. In Chennai, we were like limp rags. Throughout our peregrinations, the feeling was not all we had seen, but all we hadn’t. The map was big enough for years of days of train rides and new towns, different holidays and seasons. When you go somewhere new, without the funds to elevate you to the echelon of luxury that is its own country, inevitably there comes a moment when you look around and realize that you have no idea what the fuck is going on. In these moments my Indian book club of one succored me, gave context to the long days of new sights and sounds.
My companions protested when I disappeared into my book at train platforms, abandoning them to the stultifying boredom and endless mini-backgammon of extended travel. I suppose it was bunkum, methodologically speaking, but Midnight’s Children was Lonely Planet and spiritual Baedeker. Pondicherry was all bicycles and sea breeze, but from the pages of Rushdie’s novel I gazed back-to-Bom and imagined what it might have felt like to understand the secret dimensions of those afternoons, “hot as towels,” when we felt tired and bewildered and alone.
We had come to India, in a route that makes us sound much more cosmopolitan then we are, via Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Central Asia I had been astonished and soothed by the discovery of an immense and flexible web of cognate Turkic languages. With middling Turkish, it seemed a miracle to be able to pay a taxi driver, to find Exits and Entrances, to identify the Interrogative Mood, if not the nature of the interrogation. Reading Midnight’s Children, another web asserted itself. From Salman Rushdie I learned about what I now think of as the Janum trail, a Persianate path circling a third of the earth, demarcated by the term of endearment meaning “my life, my soul,” which made its way into every language the Iranic tongue touched. Midnight’s Children was peppered with other words I knew, carried across around the continent in their original Persian or Arabic: words like dunya (world) and hamal (porter), the booze-prescribing Doctor Sharabi (from wine).
Just a few little words, but they packed a wallop. Reading this novel I realized for the first time that language is a map of history, and wondered how it had been drawn. And better than any guide book, Midnight’s Children suggested the extreme variety, the multitudinous tongues and what the anthropologists call “lifeways” of India. Saleem Sinai, he of the classy Lucknow Urdu and the topographical face, who wanders into the language riots, whose mind is a cacophony of children’s polyglot voices–if language is a map, he is the compass rose.
More methodological bunkum, but I’m on the record as getting 70 percent of my history learning from novels. And talk of history! Some greater percentage of Rushdie’s allegories remain obscure to me, but some things are clear: India was chaos, Saleem tells us, and yet its artificial rivening was a profound human tragedy. Across a new line on the map, Saleem’s interior radio can no longer broadcast the voices of his compatriots. In an abandoned battlefield in contested territory, he runs across a talking pyramid, the mutilated remains of his old playmates from the Methwold estate. The tragedies pile up; the people in charge make criminal, monstrous errors.
There’s history on history. The great polymath Sir William “Oriental” Jones went to India and to him was revealed the Indo-European language family, a discovery which would later pave the way for the racialist theories of the blood, the traits and so-called purity thereof. What’s in Saleem Sinai’s blood, besides snake venom and chutney? He’s the the natural child of a be-toupeed Englishman (ba-toupee and be-toupee, if I may venture a modest Urdu pun) and a cuckolding Indian wife; unnatural grandson of German-educated Kashmiri-turned-Indian; faux Mughal (which is really a kind of Turk); soldier in the Land of the Pure. In the words Mary Pereira, a Bombay Goan (“those Anglos,” tuts Saleem’s mother): “Anything you want to be you can be: You can be just what-all you want.” Until Indira Gandhi steals your balls, that is.
Saleem Sinai looks back on his narrative finds his dates don’t add up. I looked through my emails — with ticket stubs and postcards, my only record of the period — and there is one mention of this novel, an unfavorable comparison to The Tin Drum. How can this be? How could I have been so ungrateful after all Midnight’s Children did for me? What else have I gotten wrong in my own recollections, inconsequential as they may be? (Did I even know the word hamal back then? It seems unlikely.)
No matter; I see it all clearly now. Another thing I learned from this transforming novel: To write the past, you “have to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet.”