This page last revised 21 June 1999
Above: two images of Salman Rushdie
'The formal technique of "magic realism,"' Linda Hutcheon writes, '(with its characteristic mixing of the fantastic and the realist) has been singled out by many critics as one of the points of conjunction of post-modernism and post-colonialism' (131). Her tracing the origins of magic realism as a literary style to Latin America and Third World countries is accompanied by a definition of a post-modern text as signifying a change from 'modernism's ahistorical burden of the past': it is a text that 'self-consciously reconstruct[s] its relationship to what came before' (131). The post-modern is linked by magic realism to 'post-colonial literatures [which] are also negotiating....the same tyrannical weight of colonial history in conjunction with the past' (131).
Before discussing magic realism in Midnight's Children, a brief definition of the term "post-colonialism"as I intend to use it in this essay will aid the clarification of the links made between Hutcheon's theory and the following analysis of Rushdie's text. Ania Loomba argues that post-colonialism is a loose term. She notes that
the prefix "post"....implies an "aftermath" in two senses - temporal, as in coming after, and ideological, as in supplanting. It is the second implication which critics of the term have found contestable: if the inequities of colonial rule have not been erased, it is perhaps premature to proclaim the demise of colonialism. A country may be both postcolonial (in the sense of being formally independent) and neo-colonial (in the sense of remaining economically and/or culturally dependant) at the same time. (7)
Loomba's post-colonialism is a malleable definition which can be applied to Rushdie's text. In the 'temporal' sense,Midnight's Childrenis post-colonial as the main body of the narrative occurs after India becomes independent. However, as will be discussed, Rushdie's use of the cinema in relation to magic realism raises interesting questions in relation to Loomba's 'ideological' sense: India's culture is moulded by indigenous fictions and those of the West.
The narrative framework of Midnight's Childrenconsists of an tale -- comprising his life story -- which Saleem Sinai recounts orally to his wife-to-be Padma. This self-referential narrative (within a single paragraph Saleem refers to himself in the first person: 'And I, wishing upon myself the curse of Nadir Khan....'; ' "I tell you," Saleem cried, "it is true...."') recalls indigenous Indian culture, particularly the similarly orally recounted Arabian Nights. The events in Rushdie's text also parallel the magical nature of the narratives recounted in the Arabian Nights (consider the attempt to electrocute Saleem at the latrine (353), or his journey in the 'basket of invisibility' (383)).
In Midnight's Children, the narrative comprises and compresses Indian cultural history. 'Once upon a time,' Saleem muses, 'there were Radna and Krisna, and Rama and Sita, and Laila and Majnu; also (because we are not affected by the West) Romeo and Juliet, and Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn' (259). At this point Hutcheon's post-modern perspective can be discerned: characters from Indian cultural history are chronologically intertwined with characters from Western culture, and the devices that they signify -- Indian culture, religion and storytelling, Western drama and cinema -- are presented in Rushdie's text with post-colonial Indian history to examine both the effect of these indigenous and non-indigenous cultures on the Indian mind and in the light of Indian independence. It is in this sense, which blends with Loomba's theory as quoted above, that Midnight's Childrenis a post-colonial text, via its presentation and examination of the temporal and cultural status of India as an independent nation. This, as Edward W. Said writes, has been initiated in the text to portray the 'conscious effort to enter into the discourse of Europe and the West, to mix with it, transform it, to make it acknowledge marginalized or suppressed or forgotten histories....[This] is of particular interest in Rushdie's work' (260).
Magic realism can therefore be seen -- as Hutcheon has above been noted to write of the style in general -- as, in the particular context of Midnight's Children, a device binding Indian culture of the past to the contemporary multicultural interface. Rushdie's principle use of magic realism in the text involves the telepathic abilities of Saleem and the other thousand and one children born at the stroke of midnight on August 15th 1947 (the date of Indian independance), abilities that enable them to communicate with each other and in Saleem's case, to read the minds of those around him.
Stephen Slemon writes that 'in the language of narration in a magic realist text, a battle between two oppositional systems takes place, each working toward the creation of a fictional world from the other' (11). If we take this to be the world of fantasy and the world of reality, both factors can be seen to be present and competing for the reader's attention. The fantastic is easily discerned in Midnight's Children. Through it, the realistic makes its voice heard. The thousand and one children point not only towards the fantasy of the similarly numbered Arabian Nights, but also to Rushdie's calculations of the Indian birth rate. He estimated that 'a thousand and one children an hour is roughly accurate' (Durix 18). Furthermore, Rushdie's comments enable the gift of telepathy to be perceived as a magical signifier of the objective reality of contemporary Indian society which makes its impression on the individual psyche.'In a country like India,' Rushdie continues, 'you are basically never alone. The idea of solitude is a luxury which only rich people enjoy....it seemed to me that people lived intermingled with each other in a way that perhaps they don't any more in the West....it was idiotic to try and consider one's life as being discrete from all other lives' (Durix 23). As 'All India Radio,' Saleem's '[t]elepathy' becomes a simultaneously magical and realistic device to signify the 'polyglot frenzy' consisting of 'the inner monologues of all the teeming millions' (Rushdie 168). As Slemon notes, 'the real social relations of post-colonial cultures appear, through the mediation of the text's language of narration, in the post-colonial magic realist work' (12).
'Magic realist texts,' Slemon continues, 'tend to display a preoccupation with images of borders and centres, and to work towards destabilizing their fixity' (13). Rushdie's attempts to achieve this take place within the borders of the cinematic and the cinema screen, a field in which he perceptively examines the effect of the subtle fantasy at play within perceptions of reality moulded by both Hollywood and the Indian film industry. Scattered references to the cinema continually inform the narrative of Midnight's Children. Rashid the rickshaw boy, leaving the cinema, contemplates a film he has just watched, which Rushdie ironically terms 'an Eastern Western' (49). This production is not only a curious hybrid of Hollywood cowboy film and Hindu culture, but also a signifier of the presence of interconnected Western and Indian influences within the post-colonial Indian sphere. The cinematic rendering of the post-colonial presents a benevolent view of the "Bollywood" productions of India: they are representative of a popular Indian medium after independence has been gained, but one which is intertwined with Western "Hollywood" culture. Once again, Loomba's 'ideological' (7) post-colonial sense can be discerned. Mishra notes the rapid growth of the Indian film industy: in 1983, it produced 742 feature films (122).His comments reflect that the status of the cinema in Midnight's Childrenis that of an industry which 'began as a colonial business, and has....never been able to shed its colonial origins' (Mishra 121).
The hybridity of the cinema moulds the individuals who are transfixed by its magical resonance. Saleem's perception of himself in his memory and within his fantastic narrative is shaped by the cinema. Regional events are measured against a medium that exerts a persuasive Western as well as Indian cultural influence. Consider Saleem's comparing events in his life with Hollywood productions: 'would this....young father have behaved like, or unlike, Montgomery Clift in I Confess? (Watching it some years ago at the New Empire Cinema, I couldn't decide.)' (105); 'I may have got all this from an old film called Lost Horizon....'(306). The cinema becomes a further device for Rushdie's magic realism. Films transform the perception of others and their perception of themselves. Consider Inspector Vakeel, who 'leaps into action, swinging up his rifle, shooting from the hip like John Wayne' (147).Once more the magical signifies the composite nature of contemporary Indian culture and society.
After independence has been attained, the Indian film industry becomes a window for the possibility of new investigations and constructions of Indian cultural identity. Said has written that Midnight's Childrenis a 'work based on the liberating imagination of independence itself, with all its anomalies and contradictions working themselves out' (260). Before independence, the regional events of nationalist Indian protest are firmly yoked within a frame that perceives itself as central: Indians appear in a film directed and conceived by the coloniser. The massacre of the Sikhs by Brigadier Dyer's men in 1919 is rendered as if on a cinema screen. 'No close-up,' Rushdie writes, as he "films" the massacre in long-shot, 'is necessary' (35). At the point of independence, the Indian cinematic productions provide a springboard for cultural self-assertion, but this is muted by the presence of Western culture. The two Indian lovers on the cinema screen, forbidden to touch by local culture, transfix the audience who compare them to the Hollywood counterpart.
Rushdie presents the cinematic influence on Indian culture in a joyous manner: there is, however, a simultaneous undercurrent of doubt in his text that criticises the adherence to magical, fantastic fictions -- whether cinematic, oral, Indian, Western, past or present -- and by doing so postulates that there is an objective world of historical events moulding history. Post-colonial culture, with its mixture of the Western and the Indian masks the harsh nature of political and historical events, and by so doing places obstacles in the way of and questions the attainability of a "complete" Indian identity, free both in time, space and culture from outside influences. The irony in the simple song Mary Pereira sings is explicit: 'Anything you want to be, you can be: You can be just what all you want' (Rushdie 127). In simple childlike fantasy, identities can be constructed easily (as in Saleem's case): Midnight's Children presents a nation -- India -- in its infancy, which, like Saleem, enjoys a fantastic tale and sees the magical as omnipresent. Rushdie breaks the magic resonance, in the case of the audience transfixed by the lovers, by the sudden announcement in the cinema of Ghandi's assassination (142 - 3).
This desire for fantasy to comfort an infant nation and culture is perhaps best illustrated in the case of Saleem's uncle, who sits 'pounding out scripts which nobody would ever film....' (241). This is because, in the words of Saleem's aunt Pia, ' "he must write about ordinary people and social problems!" ' (242). The inference is that, whilst this realist style of film making, as typified by Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy(Panther Panchali(1956),Aparajito(1957) and The World of Apu(1959)) (Monaco 444) is critically lauded both in India and internationally, there is no mass demand for realism in a culture whose desire for fantasy marks the nature of its post-colonial identity.
The cinema screen becomes a field in which an examination of the two polarities, 'universalism,' the 'notion of a unitary and homogeneous human nature which marginalises and excludes the distinctive characteristics, the difference, of post-colonial societies,' and difference, which finds 'universalism....disappearing into an endless network of provisional and specific determinations in which even the most apparently "essential" features of human life become provisional and contingent,' (Ashcroft et al. 55) takes place. This is directly implied when Rushdie writes 'Reality[emphasis added] is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems - but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible' (165). Events viewed from a distance are vague generalisations, but as they occur contingently, they can be seen to be made up of complex particles. Describing himself moving closer and closer to a cinema screen, from the back of seats to the front, Saleem considers that '[g]radually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; the illusion dissolves - or rather, it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality....' (166).
Writing that 'the illusion itself is reality,' and thereby acknowledging the hypnotic grip of the magic emitted by the cinema, Rushdie both questions and acknowledges the power of the medium as a component of a hybrid post-colonial Indian culture. As Linda Hutcheon writes, 'In granting value to (what the centre calls) the margin or Other, the post-modern challenges any hegemonic force that presumes centrality, even as it acknowledges that it cannot privilege the margin without acknowledging the power of the centre' (132). She concludes by noting that '[t]he regionalism of magic realism and the local and particular focus of post-modern art are both ways of contesting not just this centrality, but also claims of universality' (132).
The midnight children are a magic realist device emphasising the continued struggle to come to terms with identity within the polarities of the post-colonial. They are, by virtue of their midnight birth, 'children of the times,' as Rushdie has asserted, as much as magical creations (Pattanayak 21). Rushdie, through Saleem, writes that the children can be seen as 'the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our myth ridden nation [myth perhaps referring to the more negative influence of Western as well as Indian fictions]....or as the true hope of freedom....' (Rushdie 200). This freedom, at the end of the text, is described as being 'now forever extinguished,' and there is a sour irony inherent in Saleem's thoughts that the children 'must not become....the bizarre creation of a rambling, diseased mind' (200). Rushdie implies that Saleem's generation has failed to consolidate the possibilities inherent in independence. The possibility exists in each passing generation of midnight children, who are the children of each successive era. Each generation, as Saleem muses, will erase the presence of a previous generation that has not yet learnt to define a stable and solid sense identity: 'Yes, they will trample me underfoot....they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who is not his....'(463). The individual voice is swamped by the creeping progression of time and history: nevertheless, the text's conclusion is open ended. There may be no such thing as a single national identity in the contemporary world, where media and communication link cultures and countries: there is perhaps an interchange of cultures, to varying degrees, between all countries. This delicate ambiguity is emphasised in the final sentence of the text, which links magic with realism, the individual with history, the individual and regional identity and self-assertion with the magnet of the universal: '....it is the privilege of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and be unable to live or die in peace' (463). Rushdie weaves a text that fuses tradition and current cultural influences to create an open-ended post-colonial discourse.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.
Durix, Jean-Pierre. "Salman Rushdie: Interview." Kunapipi4.2 (1982): 17 - 26.
Hutcheon, Linda. "Circling the Downspout of Empire." Ashcroft, Bill et al., 130 - 5.
Loomba, Ania.Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.
Mishra, Vijay. "The Texts of Mother India." After Europe.Ed. Stephen Slemon and Helen Tiffin. Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1989. 119-37.
Monaco, James, ed. The Virgin International Encyclopedia of Film. London: Virgin, 1992.
Pattayanak, Chandrabhanu. "Interview with Salman Rushdie." Literary Criterion 18.3 (1983): 19 - 22.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. London: Vintage, 1995.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.
Slemon, Stephen. "Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse". Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 9 - 24.
Postcolonial Web: This web-site contains comprehensive sections on South Asia, India and Salman Rushdie.
The All Movie Guide: A searchable database of films and directors. Additionally, there are essays on various styles of film-making.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Nicholas Stewart. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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