Complex themes of colonialism, magical realism, history and destiny dramatically collide in Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" with "extraordinary power, wit and insight," explains University Professor Edward Said.
Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy welcomed Said to the stage on Wednesday, March 5, for an intimate conversation about Salman Rushdie's work as part of the month long Humanities Festival celebrating "Midnight's Children." The two discussed the cultural, political and social backdrop of Rushdie's major epic of modern India, as well as some of his other celebrated works.
In "Midnight's Children," Rushdie tells the story of India's independence and Pakistan's creation, a convergence of two worlds, pre and post-colonial India, and how, as Said describes "at the strike of midnight [Indians] began their lives with great hopes." Acclaimed as one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century, "Midnight's Children" also demonstrates Rushdie's unique genius in portraying the idea of history as displaced, according to Said.
Protagonist Saleem Sinai is one of 1,001 midnight's children born at the stroke of midnight on India's first day of independence, August 15, 1947. Switched at birth, Saleem is actually a Hindu child raised by wealthy Muslims. The character's life, and his search for true identity, is allegorical to India's search for self through the first years of independence, the partition of India and Pakistan to the rise of Indira Ghandhi, war, and the imposition of martial law. History almost comes full-circle in "Midnight's Children" -- from the oppression of imperialism up to1947, to the suppression of civil rights in 1975.
Said, a long-time personal friend of Rushdie, praised the writer's linguistic style, describing his musical prose as "verbal fireworks." He also highlighted Rushdie's skills as an essayist - particularly citing his esteem for "Imaginary Homelands," a collection of essays from 1981-1991 on racism in multicultural Britain. Said, Bilgrami and the audience debated Rushdie's major influences -- Franz Kafka, Nadine Gordimer, and the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The themes of magical realism, recreating traditions and recasting history, also figure in Rushdie's later works, including the author's most famous novel, "The Satanic Verses." Rushdie, who, according to Said, underestimated world reaction to the book, gave the speaker an advanced manuscript to read. Said poked fun at his regret of losing the original text in a move.
The 1988 tale, which the author claimed in a Time magazine review was "[not] about Islam but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay," brought him a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini and forced Rushdie into hiding. Said believes the author's years of living underground affected the writer deeply. "He felt confusion, denial and anger for the onslaught against "Verses." There was a sense his own people turned against him."
Rushdie's experience with Islam and his political views have "changed over time," concluded Said in a lively audience question and answer period. Debate ranged from subjects as diverse as the crises in Kashmir and the Mideast, to Rushdie's take on the looming war with Iraq.
Political issues in "Midnight's Children" echo Rushdie's continued concerns about the state of the world today, but the novel's major underlying theme is the author's true love for his country. Even if we get the sense that in Rushdie's contemporary India, "colonialism never ends," characters in the novel are aware of the role they each play in shaping India's future.
Edward Said, a professor of English and comparative literature is known as both a scholar of modern literature and theory as well as a scholar of Middle East politics. He also is the author of the groundbreaking book "Orientalism," a seminal evaluation of Western misperceptions of the East (Muslim Orient), which set the stage for post-colonial studies. Other works include the "Question of Palestine," "Culture and Imperialism" and the "Politics of Dispossession."