Techniques of Magical Realism in Salman Rushdie’s Novel – Midnight’s Children

DOI:  10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-10


Salman Rushdie, a contemporary English author, gained scandalous fame with his novel, Satanic Verses and is widely recognized as a post-colonialist writer. Like other post-colonialist authors, he is influenced by two different cultures and religions. The complexity of Rushdie’s novels can be attributed to his challenging life experiences as an immigrant author. His work greatly has had a significant impact on several Indian migrant writers in the field of postcolonialism. Several critical and theoretical works are based on Rushdie’s ideas.

The novel, Midnight’s Children remains the central text of post-colonialist literature. This novel is Rushdie’s second novel and quite successful: it won the prestigious Booker Prize three times, first in 1981, then in 1993, and finally in 2008, as the best of the best in the 40-year history of the Booker. When asked which book changed his life, Salman Rushdie says it was Midnight’s Children because it gave him the life he always dreamed of - the life of a writer.

In this ambitious novel, Rushdie rejects the British portrayal of India and strives to present the country’s history from the perspective of the conquered nation.  To accomplish this, he uses a magical-realist code, which is one of the characteristics of post-colonialist literature. Magic-realist texts are full of exotic, magical, mythical, and grotesque elements. The use of similar elements is considered a kind of regional alternative and a protest against the Eurocentric classification of the world.

It is worth noting that former British colonies have shown a particular interest in magical-realistic techniques. According to Neil ten Kortenaar, a researcher of African, American and Caribbean literature, “Magic realism is particularly well suited to the handling of materials from the Third World, where colonialism has resulted in the juxtaposition of cultural frameworks with different origins and where uneven development means that different modes of production exist side by side” [Kortenaar, 2002:766].

The term, “magic realism” itself is an oxymoron, which is why it is difficult for the reader to understand. The vagueness of the term leads to ambiguity in research. An interesting definition of the term is offered by the critic Seymour Menton who believes that magic realism is improbable rather than the impossible”. He believes that magical realism causes dreamlike amazement in the reader - at first glance, it deals with the objects of everyday life, but at the same time, it includes completely unimaginable, unbelievable facts [Menton, 1982:412].

Magical realism is a difficult term to define, and critics have different opinions about it. It includes, on the one hand, the realistic experience of literature that describes the events of the world with meticulous accuracy of everyday details and problems. On the other hand, magical realism fills the realistic world with fantastic, extraordinary and supernatural events.

Thus, the term is paradoxical, however, paradoxical juxtaposition of magic elements with the real world gives the genre its identity and greatest aesthetic appeal. First of all, it is necessary to analyse what magic realism is. It is not so easy to briefly establish its meaning because, as Maggie Ann Bowers points out, it is a well-known fact that it is a difficult term to define, and critics have different opinions about it. A number of contemporary post-colonialist and non-Western literary figures use magical realism as a narrative style in their work. Among such authors, Bowers names well-known Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. According to Bowers himself, the term “magic realism” can be used in almost all fields: television, filmography, art and literature. However, focusing on literature, we can consider Magic Realism as “a particular narrative mode, which offers a way to discuss alternative approaches to reality to that of Western philosophy” [Bowers, 2004:1].

According to Nancy Pearl, magical realism is a literary genre. Richard Gehr considers it a sub-genre, and according to Maggie Ann Bowers and Amaryll Chanady, we should consider magical realism as a narrative mode, not a genre [Bowers, 2004:2]. Chanady argues that genre is a well-defined and historically attested form, while the genre is a particular feature of a fictional world that can assign works to several different genres, periods, or national works of literature. According to him, “Magical realism is a literary mode rather than a specific, historically identifiable genre” [Chanady, 1985:16-17]. This distinction also provides a basis for understanding magic realism in various artistic disciplines such as painting, film, and literature. Therefore, defining magic realism, and tracing the genealogy of the term is necessary first in the context of European art, and then Latin and post-colonialist literature [Can, 2011: 16].

Like other magical-realist texts, Midnight’s Children alternates between magic and real stories. The narrative is chaotic, the events of the past and the present are mixed together. Harold Bloom, a famous American literary critic, in his book about Salman Rushdie says about the novel: “Midnight’s Children is an ironic, quirky, but deadly serious critique of quiescence, of withdrawal, of forgetting” [Bloom 2003: 158].

Roger Young Clark, in his dissertation, cites an excerpt from an interview Rushdie gave to a university magazine, in which he says: “Midnight’s Children was conceived as a particular family saga, and then a bomb was hidden under it” [Clark 1996: 75].

It is likely that in this phrase, the author refers to the socio-political situation described in the novel. The main character of the novel, Salem, in this case, represents the allegorical face of India as a whole. His family history is intertwined with all the historical events that unfolded around India: the Indo-Pakistani War, the Pakistani Civil War, India’s declaration of independence, the death of Indira Gandhi and the victory of her new Congress Party in 1971, nuclear weapons testing, riots and bloodshed, China’s aggression, declaration of emergency, etc. The main character of the novel, Salem, tells us the details of India’s recent past, which makes the story realistic, but at the same time, the narrative has an allegorical character. On the one hand, two different narrative codes - realistic and supernatural - and on the other hand, allegoricality presents a kind of difficulty for the reader. In fact, Salman Rushdie virtually conveys the history of India, which he wraps in a magical bandage, one can say that he is rewriting history in a way.

Jennifer Santos cites Michael Rader’s point that in Midnight’s Children Rushdie tries to show that history matters and that it is in fact multi-meaningful. For Rushdie, history is individual and its meaning is determined by the present. If we look more broadly, although history is not logical, nor scientific and objective, it still tells a lot [Santos, 2001:5].

The author introduces the character of a widow in the narrative, who is the prototype of Indira Gandhi. Rushdie describes the widow in the novel as follows: “The Widow sits on a high chair the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's hair has a centre-parting it is green on the left and on the right black. High as the sky the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's arm is long as death its skin is green the fingernails are long and sharp and black. Between the walls the children green the walls are green the Widow’s arm comes snaking down the snake is green the children scream the fingernails are black they scratch the Widow's arm is hunting see the children run and scream the Widow's hand curls round them green and black. Now one by one the children mmff are stifled quiet the Widow’s hand is lifting one by one the children green their blood is black unloosed by cutting fingernails it splashes black on walls (of green) as one by one the curling hand lifts children high as sky the sky is black there are no stars the Widow laughs her tongue is green but her teeth are black. And children torn in two in Widow hands which rolling halves of children roll them into little balls the balls are green the night is black” [Rushdie, 2006: 261].

As we can see, Rushdie criticizes Indira Gandhi’s tyrannical policy, religious demagoguery and violation of human rights in a style characteristic of the magic-realist technique. In addition to creating the face of the widow, Rushdie refers several times to Gandhi in an ironically critical context. Gandhi famously sued Rushdie for defamation but was unsuccessful. The novel was banned in India for describing the Nehru dynasty in the way Rushdie presents it.

To create an unrealistic, magical effect, as already mentioned, a number of methods are used. The author often invokes superstitions, prophecies, curses, etc.  Almost all of Rushdie’s novels contain similar elements. His characters are gifted with the ability to prophesy or see prophetic dreams, and their views of the world are often based on traditional belief systems or superstitions.

Kashmiri boatman, Thai convinces Dr Aziz to always follow his nose: “When it warns you, look out or you’ll be finished” [Rushdie, 2006:14]. The European-educated doctor does not unequivocally deny what Tai said, even though science does not believe in superstitions. And his grandson, Salem is confident in the abilities of Aziz’s nose and every time an important event happens, he emphasizes the reliability of his grandfather’s nose. For example, when we read Salem’s account of the April 1919 massacre in Amritsar, it is clear that he is convinced that his grandfather’s itchy nose is giving him a warning: “It is a peaceful protest,' someone tells Doctor Aziz. Swept along by the crowds, he arrives at the mouth of the alley. A bag from Heidelberg is in his right hand. (No close-up is necessary.) I know he is feeling very scared because his nose is itching worse than it ever has; but he is a trained doctor, puts it out of his mind, and enters the compound” [Rushdie 2006: 37].

Moreover, Salem strongly believes that it was his nose that kept Adam Aziz alive during the events in Amritsar: “The fifty-one men enter the compound and take up positions, twenty-five to Dyer's right and twenty-five to his left; and Aadam Aziz ceases to concentrate on the events around him as the tickle mounts to unbearable intensities. As Brigadier Dyer issues a command the sneeze hits my grandfather full in the face. 'Yaaaakh-thоооо!' he sneezes and falls forward, losing his balance, following his nose and thereby saving his life” [Rushdie 2006: 37].

The events described in the passage are presented so that the reader agrees with the authenticity of the supernatural code and believes that Adam Aziz was saved from death by his nose. Naturally, Salem is not the only Rushdie character who is easily influenced by superstition.

As Ursula Kluwick points out in her book, Exploring Magic Realism In Salman Rushdie’s Fiction, superstitions lead to rumours about improbable cases, and the activation of the supernatural code depends more on the facts from which it arose. In Midnight’s Children after the witches’ ghetto is cleared, there are rumours about mystical events [Kluwick, 2011: 71]: “It is said that the day after the bulldozing of the magicians' ghetto, a new slum was reported in the heart of the city, hard by the New Delhi railway station. Bulldozers were rushed to the scene of the reported hovels; they found nothing. After that the existence of the moving slum of the escaped illusionists became a fact known to all the inhabitants of the city, but the wreckers never found it. It was reported at Mehrauli; but when vasectomies and troops went there, they found the Qutb Minar unbesmirched by the hovels of poverty. Informers said it had appeared in the gardens of the Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh's Mughal observatory; but the machines of destruction, rushing to the scene, found only parrots and sun-dials” [Rushdie,2006: 546].

Phrases like “they said”, “some people said,” according to Kluvik, make it clear that history is based on assumptions and is the result of simple sayings. Phrases containing similar assumptions give the impression that the existence of huts is not a proven fact. In the end, the story about the “moving camp” remains an unconfirmed fact and causes some distrust of the reader, although the unrealistic effect is not violated. The abundance of rumours in Rushdie’s novels creates a sense of unreality, as it remains unclear how reliable this or that information is [Kluwick, 2011: 71].

Also prophecy is related to superstitions, which repeatedly appears in Rushdie’s novels. In Midnight’s Children, Salem’s life was foretold by the seer, Ramrama even before his birth.

One of the most important ways to create magical effects is to introduce magical cause-and-effect relationships into the narrative. When Salem, Ayuba, Shahid and Farooq get lost in the jungles of the Sundarbans, they gradually succumb to the logic of the jungle. They try to see cause and effect in events where there is no basis for it and see the magic in the everyday events of this world. Analysing the fact that they are lost mentally depresses the boys: “Ayooba Baloch cried without stopping for three entire hours or days or weeks, until the rain began and made his tears unnecessary; and Shaheed Dar heard himself saying, 'Now look what you started, man, with your crying,' proving that they were already beginning to succumb to the logic of the jungle, and that was only the start of it, because as the mystery of evening compounded the unreality of the trees, the Sundarbans began to grow in the rain” [Rushdie, 2006: 456].

The connection between Ayoba’s tears and rain is magical rather than causal. It can be said that this is magical realism, where a magical relationship is revealed between seemingly unrelated events.

Another method, according to Kluwick (2011), which is characteristic of magic-realistic techniques, is an animation method, which involves describing inanimate, lifeless objects and concepts in a living form. By bringing things to life, the writer tries to show the reader how unstable and conditional the border between the spiritual and inanimate world is. Animals, people, things are not separated from each other as we imagine. It is these conventional boundaries that Rushdie tries to abolish in his novels. His characters live in a world in which such denominations are almost abolished. For example, after returning from Heidelberg, Adam Aziz perceives the nature of Kashmir alive and realizes that the environment has changed [Kluwick, 2011: 78]. “The world was new again. After a winter's gestation in its eggshell of ice, the valley had beaked its way out into the open, moist and yellow. The new grass bided its time underground; the mountains were retreating to their hill-stations for the warm season. (In the winter, when the valley shrank under the ice, the mountains closed in and snarled like angry jaws around the city on the lake”  [Rushdie,2006: 4].

Such an unusual description of nature blurs the boundaries between living and non-living categories. The surrounding world, perceived by Adam Aziz, is not a fixed fact. Moreover, when Adam Aziz touches his nose to the ground during the prayer, the field attacks him: “On the morning when the valley, gloved in a prayer-mat, punched him on the nose, he had been trying, absurdly, to pretend that nothing had changed” [Rushdie, 2006: 5].

One of the important magic-realistic elements in the book is the Midnight’s Children conference. According to the novel, on August 15, 1947, between midnight and one in the morning, 1001 babies were born in the newly independent country of India, who were found to have strange properties - midnight children were gifted with various supernatural talents: a Kerala girl had the ability to disappear in a mirror, a Goan girl - the ability to breed fish; Children with the ability to transform sometimes turned into wolves and sometimes into the Nilgiri mountains. A boy living near the great waterfall of the Vindhyas could grow or shrink his height at will. In Kashmir, there lived a blue-eyed child, no one could tell if it was a girl or a boy because when he went into the water, he changed his genitals at will. Salem met a girl who could inflict physical wounds on people with her words. The daughter of a washerman from Madras could fly, and the son of a goldsmith from Benares travelled through time, prophesied the future and shed light on past events. Among them, there was a boy whose face was completely blank and expressionless, and he would get whatever face he wanted. He who was born near midnight was given greater talent. Salem and his opponent Shiva are the very children who were born exactly at the midnight performance and surpass others in their abilities. Shiva was gifted with the ability to fight, and Salem, as he says, had the greatest talent - he could look into the heart and mind of a man. The ability of telepathy allows him to enter the minds of others. It turns out that the voice of all India with its different religions and cultural diversity is heard. It can be said that the children born at midnight are the most perfect reflection of India, by showing their different origins and talents, Rushdie presents both the ethnic and religious diversity that characterizes India:  “Children were being born who were only partially the offspring of their parents-the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history” [Rushdie, 2006: 146]. Shiva grew up in a poor Hindu family, and Salem in a rich Muslim family. They belong to two different castes and religions of India.

Rushdie uses the Congress of Midnight’s Children to create a pluralistic and secular version of India on an allegorical level. 1001 children born means as many new, different visions for the country. Despite their supernatural abilities that create magical effects, the members of the Midnight’s Children Conference have utterly realistic desires and specific goals: “However we can help our father-mother, that is what it is for us to do… our country needs gifted people; we must ask the government how it wishes to use our skills”  [Rushdie 2006: 286]. Rushdie himself said in one of his interviews about the mentioned episode: “The idea of the “Midnight’s Children” was, yes, it was about my generation, but I also wanted them to embody the possibility. The idea behind giving them magic powers if they were born in the midnight hour was to say, “Freedom is a magical moment, and here is the potential of that freedom”.

In magical-realist texts, there are often episodes when the author uses both natural and supernatural codes at the same time. A similar episode occurs in Midnight’s Children when Salem tells the story of a beggar girl, Sundari, who was born so beautiful that her beauty blinded not only her mother but also the woman who helped her give birth. The father’s eyes escaped to his daughter and his momentary glance damaged his eyesight. “For some time after that Sundari was obliged to have a rag placed across her face; until an old and ruthless great-aunt took her into her bony arms and slashed her face nine times with a kitchen knife” [Rushdie, 2006: 248].

An important fact for the reader from this episode is the beauty of Sundar’s face. The focus on the grandmother’s arms and the fact that the knife was a kitchen knife and she put it nine times on the girl’s face are insignificant details for the context, but by introducing these details, Rushdie tries to balance the supernatural event - literally the girl’s blinding beauty - and combine it with the real. Mixing the real and the unreal together, the combination is one of the characteristics of the magic-realistic narration.

In addition, Rushdie tries to maintain a realistic line in the magical narrative by including actual places, historical persons, events and works of art. For example, Ayub Khan, whom the main character of the novel, Salem Sinai, meets at his uncle’s house, is a real person, and he was the second president of Pakistan from 1960 to 1969. Also William Methwold, who is Salem’s biological father according to the novel, was an English merchant and colonial administrator in India.

Rushdie not only gives us specific facts and dates, but also mentions a historical event in the text itself, because it is quite possible that for an ordinary reader, just citing a date will not mean anything, and it is less likely to verify its reality during the reading process. The inclusion of historical facts and dates lends credibility to the author and brings the reader back to the real world. In one of the most fantastical episodes of Midnight’s Children, when Salem works as a human dog in the Pakistani army using his magical nose to sniff out the buried, we see an important historical event embedded in an unrealistic narrative: “On March 25th, Yahya and Bhutto abruptly broke off their talks with Mujib and returned to the West Wing. Night fell; Brigadier Iskandar, followed by Najmuddin and Lala Moin, who was staggering under the weight of sixty-one uniforms and nineteen dog-collars, burst into the cutia barracks. Now Najmuddin: 'Snap to it! Actions not words! One-two double-quick time!' Airline passengers donned uniforms and took up arms; while Brigadier Iskandar at last announced the purpose of our trip. 'That Mujib,' he revealed, 'We'll give him what-for all right. We'll make him jump for sure!' It was on March 25th, after the breakdown of the talks with Bhutto and Yahya, that Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman proclaimed the state of Bangladesh” [Rushdie, 2006: 449].

In magical-realist novels, food often has a symbolic meaning. Rahul Krishna Gairola, in his article Food as a ‘Magio-Realist Agent’ in Midnights’s children notes that Rushdie uses food metaphorically as a kind of turning point between the real and the magical. In support of this, he says that food plays a certain cultural role in both a narrow and a global context. Food and its consumption occupy the entire communal space in most third-world countries. Unlike fast food cultures, whose great popularity is due to capitalism in Western countries, food in the southern and eastern states of the USA is a kind of communication tool. In both First and Third World cultures, food is one of the sources of life because it contributes to a basic aspect of human life - vitality. Given the fact that regardless of geographic location, food is necessary for human survival, authors in magic-realist texts use it as an overarching component that everyone has a connection to.

In his article, Food as a ‘Magio-Realist Agent in Salman Rushide’s Midnights’s Children, Rahul Krishna Gairola argues that food acts as a magic-realist agent. In the novel, it is a textual link between “real” historical and “magical” events. The history of post-Partition India has been compressed into sauce jars and put on the shelf. These jars, as Salem tells us, point to the fact that time and history blend together like different spices in a sauce. Rushdie uses food to describe the magical transformation of characters and at the same time, food plays a catalytic role in important political and social events in post-partition Pakistan and India [Gairola, 2012: 45].

Thus, magical-realist texts represent a kind of mixture of historical facts and fairy-tale elements, where past and present, West and East, tradition and modernity stand next to each other. Contrary to the dominant style of rational and coherent imperialism, magical realism combines fantasy and reality, fact and myth, making it an indispensable technique for post-colonialist authors.

Using the supernatural code, and various magic-realist techniques, Rushdie tries to create a realist novel for which the magical effect is a kind of cover. Despite the many magic, unrealistic stories introduced in the story, in which the various elements mentioned above help the author, the realistic side is never lost, and the writer always manages to bring the story back to reality even in the most magical, unbelievable moment. It so naturally replaces real and non-real codes that it does not create a feeling of discomfort for the reader. In some cases, words with magical connotations are woven into the narrative in such a way that it becomes difficult to notice during the reading process.

Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is also outstanding from a structural point of view. In a novel, there are always different side stories developing next to the main story. The narrative is fragmented and mixes events from the past, present, and future. On the one hand, several plot lines, and on the other hand, the opposition of magical and realistic codes gives complexity and at the same time a kind of charm to the novel.


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