Giving birth to ‘Midnight’s Children’
One day in 1976 -- I’m no longer certain of the date -- a young, unsuccessful writer wrestling with an enormous and still intractable story decided to start again, this time using a first-person narrator. On that day, much of what is now the beginning of “Midnight’s Children” was written. “I was born in the city of Bombay
“Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came.” “Handcuffed to history.” “Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon.” I can still summon up the feeling of exhilaration that came over me as I discovered Saleem Sinai’s voice, and in doing so discovered my own. I have always thought of that day as the moment I really became a writer, after a decade of false starts. “My clock-ridden, crime-stained birth.”
By the end of 1979, I had a completed manuscript, and the book had publishers, the best there were in those days, Jonathan Cape in London and Alfred A. Knopf in New York. Their support encouraged me to think that I might at last have written a good book, but after the long years of unsuccess, I was still plagued by doubts. I managed to set them aside and plunge into another novel, “Shame,” and thank goodness I did, because it meant that when “Midnight’s Children” had its first, extraordinary success, I did not have to wonder how on Earth to “follow that.” I had already written a first draft of “Shame” by the night I was awarded the Man Booker Prize, and so I had work to do.
“Midnight’s Children” took an unusually long time to be published because of a series of unfortunate events. Cape and Knopf had agreed to print jointly in the U.S. to save money, and then a printers strike began. When that ended and the book was finally printed, a transport strike meant that copies could not be shipped to London. When the copies finally arrived, a dockworkers strike meant that they could not be unloaded. And so the publication date slipped and slipped, and I chewed my fingernails.
I had other worries too. The Knopf dust jacket was a livid shade of salmon pink, inaugurating the salmon/Salman problem that would plague me ever after, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t much care for the Cape cover either, but when I timidly asked if I could see some alternatives, I was told grandly that I could not because that would delay the publication even further. (Publishers have since become more receptive to my concerns.) It was easy to see these pre-publication gremlins and uncertainties as harbingers of a catastrophe to come.
The catastrophe didn’t happen. The things I remember most vividly about that wonderful moment of first success are a small lunch at Bertorelli’s restaurant in London, at which my editor, Liz Calder; the book’s early reader, Susannah Clapp; a couple of other friends and I celebrated the book’s critical reception, and a nervous, superstitious moment just before I entered Stationers’ Hall for the Booker dinner, when Carmen Callil, then the publisher of Virago, told me I was going to win, which immediately convinced me I would not. Oddly, I remember very little about the British reviews. The three I have never forgotten were written by Anita Desai in the Washington Post, by Clark Blaise in the New York Times and by Robert Towers in the New York Review of Books. There was also one memorable bad review. The BBC radio program “Kaleidoscope” had devoted a great deal of time to my novel, and given it the works: Indian music to introduce it, a reading, a sympathetic interview with me, and then it was over to their critic ... who unreservedly hated the book. The program’s presenter, Sheridan Morley, kept asking this critic (whose name I’ve forgotten) to find some little thing to praise. “But didn’t you think ... “ “Wouldn’t you at least agree that ... “ and so on. The critic was implacable. No, no, there was nothing he had liked at all. After the magnificent buildup, this negative intransigence was delightfully, bathetically funny.
“Midnight’s Children,” a book that repeatedly uses images of land reclamation because Bombay is a city built upon reclaimed land, was itself an act of reclamation, my attempt to reclaim my Indian origins and heritage from my aerie in Kentish Town north of London. By far the best thing that happened to it, and to its author, was its reception in India, where people responded not to the magic but the realism; where Saleem’s narrative voice felt to many readers -- as it had to its author -- like their own; and where the book was so heavily and successfully pirated that the anonymous pirates started sending me greeting cards.
“Happy Birthday from The Pirates.” “Happy New Year. Best wishes, The Pirates.” These, perhaps, were the ultimate compliments.
With the passage of time there have inevitably been some revisionist assessments. Such critics as D.J. Taylor in Britain and Amit Chaudhuri in India have deplored the book’s influence -- which, according to Taylor, has been “almost entirely malign,” while for Chaudhuri my novel embodies “all that was most unserious about India -- its loudness, its apparent lack of introspection and irony, its peculiar version of English grammar.”
I don’t much care. I remember the day Saleem’s voice first burst out of me, the joy and liberation of that day, and I’m proud of the way that young voice immediately attracted and still attracts a legion of younger readers -- and that, I’m happy to say, will do.
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