Review of 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie, Barbican, London, and touring
'Midnight's Children' is the novel that brought international acclaim to Salman Rushdie 20 years ago. Its literary style, playful use of language and multilayered storyline introduced magical realism to a new audience. Thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company we can now enjoy this on stage. This is the story of Saleem, a young man who was exchanged at birth by a nurse in order to give a new life to a boy born on the wrong side of the tracks. Saleem is the play's narrator, born at the hour of midnight of India's independence. When the story begins he is 32 and sets about telling the story of his birth to his wife, Padma. But the story is much more than his life history, for Saleem's life is entwined with the traumatic story of post-partition India and Pakistan.
As in the novel, the play weaves historical narrative with fiction, fantasy and reality into a theatrical feast. The play vividly brings to life the horrors that marked the subcontinent in the last century: the Amritsar massacre of 1919 that saw civilians mowed down on the orders of a British commander; the butchery of partition on the eve of independence that left a million dead and over 10 million refugees; the endless conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir that has led to two wars between the two countries; and, finally, the East Pakistan War, where India sided with the Bengalis and the subcontinent was partitioned yet again. Indira Gandhi's state of emergency, the suspension of elections, the forced sterilisation programmes of her son Sanjay, and the corruption of Pakistan's political and military establishment are all objects of satire and vilification.
Saleem's family saga is played out against these events. His grandparents migrate from Kashmir at the beginning of the century to Delhi. His parents move to Bombay after the communal riots, and here Saleem is born alongside Shiva, with whom he is exchanged. Saleem grows up in a middle class Muslim household that is secular and liberal, whereas Shiva, left an orphan, turns to crime and the underworld.
Saleem discovers other 'midnight's children', and together they convene a conference to discuss how they will survive in this turbulent, violent society. The fantasy world and the magical powers of this conference seem to cushion Saleem and the others from the horror that is India. However, reality is never too far. When his father discovers that Saleem is not his son he is sent to Pakistan to live with his ambitious aunt and uncle. There he is drawn into the coup that topples the civilian government.
On his return to Bombay he sees his family growing apart. They decide to move en masse to Pakistan in the hope that, as it is a Muslim state, they will have peace and security. However, the 1965 war claims the lives of many of his relatives, and Saleem is enlisted as a scout in the Pakistani army to find Indian soldiers in 1971. The senseless waste of human life is graphically depicted as soldiers on both sides, fearful and mistrustful of themselves as much as each other, slaughter one another in the killing fields of Bangladesh. Saleem is brought back to India where he seeks solace from Parvati, the witch of 'Midnight's Children'. However, during the emergency Saleem is arrested and tortured, and eventually betrays midnight's children, who are arrested and rendered impotent by forced sterilisation. This betrayal symbolises the dashed hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary Indians at the dawn of independence. Midnight's children represented that hope and optimism of a new generation which had to be crushed by the states that emerged after independence.
Using a young British Asian cast, this adaptation is a lively mix of stage action and film footage. It is an energetic and visually powerful production that captures the essence of the novel brilliantly, and one that should not be missed.