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.
Write to Asiaweek at firstname.lastname@example.org