August 02, 2020
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His Own Mt Sinai

As Midnight's Children celebrates its 25th anniversary, Salman Rushdie recalls its long and painful birth - and the day Indira Gandhi sued him for one sentence

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His Own Mt Sinai
His Own Mt Sinai

In 1975 I published my first novel, Grimus, and decided to use the seven-hundred-pound advance to travel in India as cheaply as possible for as long as I could make the money last, and on that journey of fifteen-hour bus rides and humble hostelries Midnight's Children was born.

It was the year that India became a nuclear power and Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party and Sheikh Mujib, the founder of Bangladesh, was murdered; when the Baader-Meinhof Gang was on trial in Stuttgart and Bill Clinton married Hillary Rodham and the last Americans were evacuated from Saigon and Generalissimo Franco died. In Cambodia it was the Khmer Rouge's bloody Year Zero. E.L. Doctorow published Ragtime that year, and David Mamet wrote American Buffalo, and Eugenio Montale won the Nobel Prize. And just after my return from India, Mrs Indira Gandhi was convicted of election fraud, and one week after my twenty-eighth birthday she declared a State of Emergency and assumed tyrannical powers. It was the beginning of a long period of darkness which would not end until 1977. I understood almost at once that Mrs G. had somehow become central to my still-tentative literary plans.

I had wanted for some time to write a novel of childhood, arising from my memories of my own childhood in Bombay. Now, having drunk deeply from the well of India, I conceived a more ambitious plan. I remembered a minor character named Saleem Sinai, born at the midnight moment of Indian independence, who had appeared in the abandoned draft of a still-born novel called The Antagonist. As I placed Saleem at the centre of my new scheme I understood that his time of birth would oblige me immensely to increase the size of my canvas. If he and India were to be paired, I would need to tell the story of both twins. Then Saleem, ever a striver for meaning, suggested to me that the whole of modern Indian history happened as it did because of him; that history, the life of his nation-twin, was somehow all his fault. With that immodest proposal the novel's characteristic tone of voice, comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous, and with, I hope, a growing pathos in its narrator's increasingly tragic overclaiming, came into being. I even made the boy and the country identical twins. When the sadistic geography teacher Emil Zagallo, giving the boys a lesson in 'human geography,' compares Saleem's nose to the Deccan peninsula, the cruelty of his joke is also, obviously, mine.

There were many problems along the way, most of them literary, some of them urgently practical. When we returned from India I was broke. The novel in my head was clearly going to be long and strange and take quite a while to write and in the meanwhile I had no money. As a result I was forced back into the world of advertising. Before we left I had worked for a year or so as a copywriter at the London office of the Ogilvy & Mather agency, whose founder, David Ogilvy, immortally instructed us that 'the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife,' and whose creative director (and my boss) was Dan Ellerington, a man of rumoured Romanian origins with a command of English that was, let us say, eccentric, so that, according to mirthful company legend, he once had to be forcibly restrained from presenting to the Milk Marketing Board a successor campaign to the famous 'Drinka pinta milka day' which would be based on the amazing, the positively Romanian slogan, 'Milk goes down like a dose of salts'. In those less hard-nosed times Ogilvy's was prepared to employ a few oddball creative people on a part-time basis, and I managed to persuade them to re-hire me as one of that happy breed. I worked two or three days a week, essentially job-sharing with another part-timer, the writer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny. On Friday nights I would come home to Kentish Town from the agency's offices near Waterloo Bridge, take a long hot bath, wash the week's commerce away, and emerge—or so I told myself—as a novelist. As I look back, I feel a touch of pride at my younger self's dedication to literature, which gave him the strength of mind to resist the blandishments of the enemies of promise. The sirens of ad-land sang sweetly and seductively, but I thought of Odysseus lashing himself to the mast of his ship, and somehow stayed on course.

Still, advertising taught me discipline, forcing me to learn how to get on with whatever task needed getting on with, and ever since those days I have treated my writing simply as a job to be done, refusing myself all (well, most) luxuries of artistic temperament. And it was at my desk at Ogilvy's that I remember becoming worried that I didn't know what my new novel was to be called. I took several hours off from the important work of coming up with campaigns for fresh cream cakes ('Naughty but nice'), Aero chocolate bars ('Irresistibubble'), and the Daily Mirror newspaper ('Look into the Mirror tomorrow—you'll like what you see') to solve the problem. In the end I had two titles and couldn't choose between them: Midnight's Children and Children of Midnight. I typed them out one after the other, over and over, and then all at once I understood that there was no contest, that Children of Midnight was a banal title and Midnight's Children a good one. To know the title was also to understand the book better, and after that it became easier, a little easier, to write.

I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India; also to those great Indian novelists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens—Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyper-realistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seemed to grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world. I have probably said enough, too, about my interest in creating a literary idiolect that allowed the rhythms and thought patterns of Indian languages to blend with the idiosyncrasies of 'Hinglish' and 'Bambaiyya', the polyglot street-slang of Bombay. The novel's interest in the slippages and distortions of memory will also, I think, be evident enough to the reader. This may, however, be an appropriate moment to give thanks to the original people from whom my fictional characters sprang: my family, my ayah Miss Mary Menezes and my childhood friends.

My father was so angry about the character of 'Ahmed Sinai' that he refused to speak to me for many months; then he decided to 'forgive' me, which annoyed me so much that for several more months I refused to speak to him. I had been more worried about my mother's reaction to the book, but she immediately understood that it was 'just a story—Saleem isn't you, Amina isn't me, they're all just characters,' thus demonstrating that her level head was a lot more use to her than my father's Cambridge University education in English literature was to him. My sister Sameen, who really was called 'the brass monkey' as a girl, was also happy with the use I'd made of my raw material, even though some of that raw material was her. Of the reactions of my boyhood friends and schoolmates Arif Tayabali, Darab and Fudli Talyarkhan, Keith Stevenson and Percy Karanjia I can't be sure, but I must thank them for having contributed bits of themselves (not always the best bits) to the characters of Sonny Ibrahim, Eyeslice and Hairoil, and Fat Perce and Glandy Keith. Evie Burns was born out of an Australian girl, Beverly Burns, the first girl I ever kissed: the real Beverly was no bicycle queen, though, and I lost touch with her after she returned to Australia. Masha Miovic the champion breast-stroker owed something to the real-life Alenka Miovic, but a couple of years ago I received a letter about Midnight's Children from Alenka's father in Serbia, in which he mentioned a little crushingly that his daughter had no memory of ever having met me during her childhood years in Bombay. So it goes. Between the adored and the adorer falls the shadow.

And as for Mary Menezes, my second mother, who never really loved a revolutionary nursing-home employee or swapped any babies at birth, who lived to a hundred, who never married and always called me her son, she was illiterate, even though she spoke seven or eight languages, so she didn't read the book, but did tell me, one afternoon in Bombay in 1982, how proud she was of its success. If she had any objection to what I'd made her character do, she didn't mention it.

I reached the end of Midnight's Children in mid-1979 and sent it to my friend and editor Liz Calder at Jonathan Cape. I afterwards learned that the first reader's report had been brief and forbiddingly negative. 'The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form.' Liz asked for a second report, and this time I was luckier, because the second reader, Susannah Clapp, was enthusiastic; as, after her, was another eminent publishing figure, the editor Catherine Carver. Liz bought the book, and soon afterwards so did Bob Gottlieb at Alfred Knopf. I quit my part-time copywriting job. (I had moved on from Ogilvy & Mather to another agency, Ayer Barker Hegemann.) 'Oh,' the Creative Director said when I tendered my resignation, 'you want a rise?' No, I explained, I was just giving notice as required so that I could leave and be a full-time writer. 'I see,' he said. 'You want a big rise.' But on the night Midnight's Children won the Booker, he sent me a telegram of congratulations. 'One of us made it,' it read.

Liz Calder's editing saved me from making at least two bad mistakes. The manuscript as originally submitted contained a second 'audience' character, an off-stage woman journalist to whom Saleem was sending the written pages of his life story which he also read aloud to the 'mighty pickle-woman', Padma. All the book's readers at Cape agreed that this character was redundant, and I'm extremely glad I took their advice. Liz also helped me untangle a knot in the time-line. In the submitted manuscript the story jumped from the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 to the end of the Bangladesh war, then circled back to tell the story of Saleem's role in that conflict, caught up with itself at the surrender of the Pakistani army, and then went on. Liz felt that there were too many temporal shifts here, and the reader's concentration was broken by them. I agreed to re-structure the story chronologically, and, again, am very relieved that I did. The role of the great publishing editor is often effaced by the editor's modesty. But without Liz Calder, Midnight's Children would have been something rather less than she helped it to become.

The novel's publication was delayed by a series of industrial strikes, but in the end it was published in London in early April 1981, and on April 6th my first wife Clarissa Luard and I threw a party at our friend Tony Stokes's little art gallery in Langley Court, Covent Garden, to celebrate it. I still have the invitation, tucked into my first-received copy of the novel, and can remember feeling, above all, relieved. When I finished the book, I suspected that I might at last have written something good, but I was not sure if anyone else would agree, and I told myself that if the book were generally disliked it would mean that I probably didn't know what a good book was, and should stop wasting my time trying to write one. So there was a lot riding on the novel's reception, and, fortunately, the reviews were good; hence the high spirits in Covent Garden that spring night.

In the West people tended to read Midnight's Children as a fantasy, while in India people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book. ('I could have written your book,' one reader told me when I was lecturing in India in 1982. 'I know all that stuff.') But it was wonderfully well liked almost everywhere, and changed its author's life. One reader who didn't care for it, however, was Mrs Indira Gandhi, and in 1984, three years after its publication—she was Prime Minister again by this time—she brought an action against it, claiming to have been defamed by one single sentence. It appeared in the penultimate paragraph of chapter 28, 'A wedding', a paragraph in which Saleem provides a brief account of Mrs Gandhi's life. This was it: 'It has often been said that Mrs Gandhi's younger son Sanjay accused his mother of being responsible, through her neglect, for his father's death; and that this gave him an unbreakable hold over her, so that she became incapable of denying him anything.' Tame stuff, you might think, not really the kind of thing a thick-skinned politician would usually sue a novelist for mentioning, and an odd choice of casus belli in a book that excoriated Indira for the many crimes of the Emergency. After all, it was a thing much said in India in those days, had often been in print, and was indeed reprinted prominently in the Indian press ('The sentence Mrs Gandhi is afraid of' read one front-page headline) after she brought her action for defamation. Yet she sued nobody else.

Before the book's publication, Cape's lawyers had been worried about my criticisms of Mrs Gandhi and had asked me to write them a letter in support of the claims I was making. In this letter I justified the text to their satisfaction, except with regard to one sentence which, as I said, was hard to substantiate, as it was about three people, two of whom were dead, while the third would be the one suing us. However, I argued, as I was clearly characterizing the information as gossip, and as it had been printed before, we should be all right. The lawyers agreed; and then, three years later, this one sentence, the novel's Achilles heel, was the very sentence Mrs Gandhi tried to spear. This was not, in my view, a coincidence.

The case never came to court. The law of defamation is highly technical, and to repeat a defamatory rumour is to commit the defamation oneself, so technically we were in the wrong. Mrs Gandhi was not asking for damages, only for the sentence to be removed from future editions of the book. The only defence we had was a high-risk route: we would have had to argue that her actions during the Emergency were so heinous that she could no longer be considered a person of good character, and could therefore not be defamed. In other words, we would have had, in effect, to put her on trial for her misdeeds. But if, in the end, a British court refused to accept that the Prime Minister of India was not a woman of good character, then we would be, not to put too fine a point upon it, royally screwed. Unsurprisingly, this was not the strategy which Cape wished to follow—and when it became clear that she was also willing to accept that this was her sole complaint against the book, I agreed to settle the matter. It was after all an amazing admission she was making, considering what the Emergency chapters of Midnight's Children were about. Her willingness to make such an admission felt to me like an extraordinary validation of the novel's portrait of those Emergency years. The reaction to the settlement in India was not favourable to the Prime Minister. A few short weeks later, stunningly, she was dead, assassinated on October 31st, 1984, by her Sikh bodyguards. 'All of us who love India,' I wrote in a newspaper article, 'are in mourning today.' In spite of our disagreements, I meant every word.

This is by now an old story. I rehearse it here in part because I worried from the beginning that incorporating such momentarily 'hot' contemporary material in the novel was a risk—and by that I meant a literary risk, not a legal one. One day, I knew, the subject of Mrs Gandhi and the Emergency would cease to be current, would no longer exercise anyone overmuch, and at that point, I told myself, my novel would either get worse—because it would lose the power of topicality—or else it would get better—because once the topical had faded, the novel's literary architecture would stand alone, and even, perhaps, be better appreciated. Clearly, I hoped for the latter, but there was no way to be sure. The fact that Midnight's Children is still of interest twenty-five years after it first appeared is, therefore, reassuring.

In 1981, Margaret Thatcher was British Prime Minister, the American hostages in Iran were released, President Reagan was shot and wounded, there were race riots across Britain, the Pope was shot and wounded, Picasso's Guernica went back to Spain, and President Sadat of Egypt was assassinated. It was the year of V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers and Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise and John Updike's Rabbit is Rich. Like all novels, Midnight's Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways which its author cannot wholly know. I am very glad that it still seems like a book worth reading in this very different time. If it can pass the test of another generation or two, it may endure. I will not be around to see that. But I am happy that I saw it leap the first hurdle.

© Salman Rushdie 2006

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