I imagined long days of walking followed by idle evenings of reading before bed: my ideal holiday. Certain parts of that sentence have come true: the reality has been long days of walking followed by evenings occupied with popping blisters, washing my sweaty socks in the sink and a cursory calorie intake before collapsing, shattered, into a bed in a room of varying degrees of comfort, cleanliness and insect-population.
In two months of travelling through India, I have finished reading just two books – both of which I began at home before leaving. I read The Age of Kali while Ian read Midnight’s Children then we switched and spent our long walking days comparing thoughts and opinions and: “Have you reached the part where…?”
Midnight’s Children is seven hundred pages of ‘have you reached the part where?’ We both unanimously, unconditionally, loved it. It is one of the most remarkable achievements in literature and storytelling I have ever experienced and both elements are key: not only is the novel an accomplished work of art but its use of an Indian oral tradition and the unique voice of its protagonist, Saleem Sinai, makes it feel as though you’re an awestruck child sitting at the feet of a master storyteller who existed long before you and the beginning of the world.
The tale of two children switched at birth upon the stroke of midnight, whose personal lives mirror and guide the course of the newly independent India’s history, is a tall one: complex and intricate, fantastical, mythological and magical – yet grounded in a very real and often grim reality of true events. It is often described as an example of magic-realism in the vein of One Hundred Years of Solitude but part of me thinks it happened just so. The novel helped me to make sense (a little sense) of this elaborate land and, conversely, India has helped to make sense of the novel: each has lent context and understanding to the other.
Of course, I’ll never understand it all – not India nor the novel, that much I have come to understand. Their histories are so long, elaborate and not my own. Still, I like to walk the long roads, seeing those people and places that could be characters in a Rushdie novel; or reading something in the book and thinking “I’ve been there! I’ve passed that place.” To read a book in the country of its origin, to see the places described in its pages, adds such depth and appreciation to the experience.
From Mumbai’s land-giving tetrapods to the saffron-robed gent on a bench that could be Saleem’s own sadhu; from the ancient and the new that perch upon the other to the old dog that could be the pet abandoned by a djinn-posessed father of a child who is not his own; from the ever-present image of Ganesh who reminds me of the boy with a nose for pickles and people’s deepest thoughts to the curious, intelligent, optimistic children we see every day who could be the children of midnight for all I know. It wouldn’t surprise me. Not now, having been where I’ve been, seeing what I’ve seen.