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Salman Rushdie was born on June 19, 1947, to an affluent
family in Bombay, India. Rushdie’s birth coincided with a particularly
important moment in Indian history: after nearly one hundred years
of colonial rule, the British occupation of the South Asian subcontinent
was coming to an end. Almost exactly three months after Rushdie’s
birth, Pakistan and India achieved their long-awaited independence
when, at the stroke of midnight on August 14 and 15, respectively,
power was transferred from Great Britain to the sovereign governments
of each country. The period that immediately followed independence
proved tumultuous. Political and social tensions between Hindus
and Muslims caused not only the division of India into two separate
countries—a calamitous event referred to as Partition—but also wide-scale
riots that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The violence
that accompanied independence was a prelude to the multiple wars,
coups, and governmental abuses that plagued the area in the years
The political upheaval and constant threat of violence
that marked the first three decades of independence forms the backdrop for Midnight’s
Children, Rushdie’s most celebrated novel. Like Rushdie
himself, Saleem, the narrator of Midnight’s Children,
is born on the eve of independence, and the events of his life closely parallel
events in the development of both India and Pakistan. Most of Rushdie’s
novels concern themselves, to some extent, with the character and
history of these two major South Asian nations and describe the
various, often violent struggles between different religions, classes,
languages, and geographical regions. In the thirty years following
independence, India and Pakistan fought three separate wars: two
over Kashmir, and one over the creation of an independent Bangladesh.
The wars produced millions of refugees, claimed thousands of lives,
and led to a nearly permanent state of tension between the two countries.
Raised in a well-to-do Muslim household, Rushdie was given
an excellent education. After graduating from the University of
Oxford in 1968, he moved briefly to Pakistan, where his family had
immigrated after Partition, before returning to England to work
as an actor and copywriter. Soon after, Rushdie published his first
novel, Grimus (1975). A blend of science and literary
fiction, Grimus, though generally ignored by critics,
nonetheless marked the debut of a new literary talent that incorporated
myth, magic, and fantasy into his narratives. Six years later, Rushdie
published Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker
Prize in 1981, and was later deemed the best Booker-winning novel
from the first twenty-five years of the competition, earning the
title “Booker of Bookers.” Heralded by critics as an enormous literary
achievement, the novel instantly earned Rushdie comparison with
some of the world’s greatest contemporary writers. However, Rushdie’s
great international fame is mainly owed to his 1988 novel The
Satanic Verses and the controversy that followed its publication.
Muslim religious clerics and politicians deemed The Satanic
Verses sacrilegious and offensive for its harsh, critical
portrayal of Islam and for its less-than-reverent treatment of the
Prophet Mohammed. The novel was banned in Rushdie’s native India
and prompted the theocratic Iranian government to issue a fatwa—a
religious ruling—calling for his death in 1989.
Rushdie spent the next nine years living in secrecy, under
the protection of bodyguards and the British government. Fearful
for his life, Rushdie nonetheless continued to write and publish
books, most notably Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)
and the Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), as well as two
works of nonfiction, The Jaguar Smile (1987) and Imaginary
Homelands (1991). When the Iranian government lifted the
fatwa in 1998, Rushdie was able to enjoy a return to a moderately
normal life and eventually settled in New York City.
Rushdie’s work, and Midnight’s Children in
particular, is often associated with several categories of literary
fiction, including magical realism, postcolonial fiction, and postmodern
literature. His work is often compared to, and admittedly influenced
by, novels like Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum and Gabriel
García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Equally significant as the incorporation of mythical and fantastical
elements into his fiction is Rushdie’s uniquely Indian perspective
on the English language. Rushdie’s novels hum with an eclectic mix
of prose styles, which echo the rhythm and slang of English as it
is colloquially spoken in India. Familiar English words get combined
in new and unusual ways, and long, unbroken sentences run on freely,
sometimes spanning a page or more. The inspiration Rushdie draws
from both ancient and contemporary Indian culture is also notable
in his fiction. Elements taken from traditional Indian mythology
and religion thread themselves through the novel, as do the artistic
conventions of modern Bollywood, the vigorous, populist cinema industry
based in Bombay. In its sheer exuberance and sprawling range of
cultural sources, as well as its attempt to include as much of India’s
vast cultural identity and contemporary history as possible, Midnight’s
Children is as complete a reflection of the life and character
of the subcontinent as any single novel could possibly provide.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Midnight’s Children!