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 > summer special 2000
For the year 2000

The Best Government Reformer
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25 Years  Intro |  Democrat |  Film |  Architecture | Book  25 Years
The Best Book

It is hard to exaggerate the impact that Salman Rushdie's second novel, Midnight's Children, had when it was published in 1981. It won the Booker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, for that year. In 1993 it even won a special Booker Prize as the best Commonwealth novel in English of the previous 20 years. Since then it has entered the canon of modern classics, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. Both Grass and Marquez are Nobel laureates, an honor Rushdie has yet to achieve, perhaps because of the worldwide notoriety he achieved in 1989 when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a death sentence for what were deemed blasphemous statements in his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. That made him a household name, but well before that he had won widespread critical acclaim.

The subject of Midnight's Children is suitably sweeping for Asia's Best Book. The story concerns the fate of two boys born in a Bombay hospital at midnight August 15, 1947, the hour of India's independence. They are switched at birth: Saleem Sinai, raised by a well-to-do Muslim couple, is actually the illegitimate son of a poor Hindu street performer and a departing British colonial. Shiva, the son of the Muslim couple, is given to the poor Hindu. The multi-layered novel places the characters in almost every significant event that occurred in India up until the 1970s.

There were important writers before Rushdie, such as R.K. Narayan. But it was he who largely awakened the world to the power of Indian literature. Others who have scored successes after him — including Arundhati Roy, whose novel The God of Small Things also won the Booker Prize and sold 3 million copies, or Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri, whose collection of stories won the Pulitzer Prize — have been aptly called Midnight's "grandchildren."

Of late, Rushdie has come under a reversionary assessment by some literary critics for overwriting and mysticism, and his 1996 anthology of the best Indian writing in the 50 years since Independence was attacked at home for not giving sufficient due to vernacular writers. Of course, other notable Asian books were published during the period. For example, Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, which set the pattern for numerous Cultural Revolution memoirs. But Midnight's Children is the only one for which the word "seminal" is no overstatement.

— Todd Crowell

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