All you need to know about the books you meant to read MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie (1981)

Plot: The Arabian Nights meets Tristram Shandy to produce a fantasia on recent Indian history.

Saleem is born on the stroke of midnight, 15th August 1947: the exact moment of Indian independence.

His life is a fairy-tale. He is raised by rich Muslims who are not his parents. Their son, Shiva, is swapped for Saleem at birth.; he is brought up in poverty, while Saleem is doted upon.

Independence, Partition, politics and internecine war are played out between contemplative Saleem and pro-active Shiva. Saleem's family loses money. Shiva becomes a savage military officer. Shiva impregnates Parvati the witch. Saleem marries her as she gives birth to a child "born to a father who was not a father."

Finally, Saleem is made a political prisoner and is forced to have a vasectomy. Major Shiva, also imprisoned, is shot arbitrarily.

Theme: India seethes with chaos: no moral norms appear to operate and the individual is offered the alternatives of resignation or violence.

Style: The prose is rich and spicy: one moment poetically symbolic it can slide into farce or tragedy.

Chief strengths: One of the few recent novels in English to tackle an enormous theme head on, and emerge triumphant.

Chief weaknesses: Rushdie's love of words teeters into self-indulgence. There are moments when the novel is becalmed in adjectival doldrums.

What they thought of it then: In India, the book was treated with scepticism. The "history" appeared wilfully distorted. The ruling Gandhi family were very cross indeed and Rajiv was one of the first to ban Satanic Verses.

In the UK the book made Rushdie's name. It won the Booker and 32,000 hardbacks were sold.

What we think of it now: In 1993, it was voted the best of the Bookers.

Responsible for: Forcing British readers to contemplate the insularity of British fiction.

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