The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

ONE day in 1976 — I’m no longer cer­tain of the date — a young, un­suc­cess­ful writer wrestling with an enor­mous and still in­tractable story de­cided to start again, this time us­ing a first- per­son nar­ra­tor. On that day, much of what is now the beginning of Mid­night’s Chil­dren was writ­ten. ‘‘ I was born in the city of Bom­bay . . . once upon a time.’’

‘‘ Clock- hands joined palms in re­spect­ful greet­ing as I came.’’ ‘‘ Hand­cuffed to his­tory.’’ ‘‘ Snot­nose, Stain­face, Baldy, Sniffer, Bud­dha and even Piece- of- the- Moon.’’ I can still sum­mon up the feel­ing of ex­hil­a­ra­tion that came over me as I dis­cov­ered Saleem Si­nai’s voice, and in do­ing so dis­cov­ered my own. I have al­ways thought of that day as the mo­ment I re­ally be­came a writer, af­ter a decade of false starts. ‘‘ My clock- rid­den, crime- stained birth.’’

By the end of 1979 I had a com­pleted man­u­script, and the book had pub­lish­ers, the best there were in those days, Jonathan Cape in Lon­don and Al­fred Knopf in New York. Their sup­port en­cour­aged me to think that I might at last have writ­ten a good book, but af­ter the long years of un­suc­cess I was still plagued by doubts. I man­aged to set them aside and plunge into an­other novel, Shame , and thank good­ness I did, be­cause it meant that when Mid­night’s Chil­dren had its first, ex­traor­di­nary suc­cess I did not have to won­der how on earth to ‘‘ fol­low that’’. I had al­ready writ­ten a first draft of Shame by the night of the Booker, and so I had work to do.

Mid­night’s Chil­dren took an un­usu­ally long time to be pub­lished be­cause of a se­ries of un­for­tu­nate events. Cape and Knopf had agreed to print jointly in the USA to save money, and then a printer’s strike be­gan. When that ended, and the book was fi­nally printed, a trans­port strike meant that copies could not be shipped to Lon­don. When the copies fi­nally ar­rived, a dock­work­ers’ strike meant they could not be un­loaded. And so the pub­li­ca­tion date slipped and slipped, and I chewed my fin­ger­nails. I had other wor­ries, too. The Knopf dust jacket was a livid shade of sal­mon pink, in­au­gu­rat­ing the sal­mon- Sal­man prob­lem that would plague me for ever af­ter, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t much care for the Cape cover ei­ther, but when I timidly asked if I could see some al­ter­na­tives I was told grandly that I could not, be­cause that would de­lay the pub­li­ca­tion even fur­ther. ( Pub­lish­ers have since be­come more re­cep­tive to my con­cerns.) It was easy to see the pre­pub­li­ca­tion grem­lins and un­cer­tain­ties as har­bin­gers of a catas­tro­phe to come.

The catas­tro­phe didn’t hap­pen. The things I re­mem­ber most vividly about that won­der­ful mo­ment of first suc­cess are a small lunch in Ber­torelli’s restau­rant in Char­lotte Street at which my ed­i­tor Liz Calder, the book’s early reader Susannah Clapp, a cou­ple of other friends and I cel­e­brated the book’s crit­i­cal re­cep­tion, and a ner­vous, su­per­sti­tious mo­ment, just be­fore I en­tered the Sta­tion­ers’ Hall for the Booker din­ner, when Car­men Callil, then the pub­lisher of Vi­rago, told me I was go­ing to win, which im­me­di­ately con­vinced me I would not. Oddly I re­mem­ber very lit­tle about the UK re­views. The three I have never for­got­ten were writ­ten by Anita De­sai in The Wash­ing­ton Post , by Clark Blaise in The New York Times , and by Robert Tow­ers in The New York Re­view of Books . There was also one mem­o­rable bad re­view. The BBC ra­dio pro­gram Kalei­do­scope had de­voted a great deal of time to my novel, and given it the works: In­dian mu­sic to in­tro­duce it, a read­ing, a sym­pa­thetic in­ter­view with me, and then it was over to their critic . . . who un­re­servedly hated the book. The pro­gram’s pre­sen­ter Sheri­dan Mor­ley kept ask­ing this critic ( whose name I’ve for­got­ten) to find some lit­tle thing to praise. ‘‘ But didn’t you think . . .’’ ‘‘ Wouldn’t you at least agree that . . .’’ and so on. The critic was im­pla­ca­ble. No, no, there was noth­ing he had liked at all. Af­ter the mag­nif­i­cent build- up, this neg­a­tive in­tran­si­gence was de­light­fully, ba­thet­i­cally funny.

Mid­night’s Chil­dren , a book which re­peat­edly uses im­ages of land recla­ma­tion, be­cause Bom­bay is a city built upon re­claimed land, was it­self an act of such recla­ma­tion, my at­tempt to re­claim my In­dian ori­gins and her­itage from my eyrie in Ken­tish Town, and by far the best thing that hap­pened to it, and to its au­thor, was its re­cep­tion in In­dia, where peo­ple re­sponded not to the magic but the re­al­ism; where Saleem’s nar­ra­tive voice felt to many read­ers — as it had to its au­thor — like their own; and where the book was so heav­ily and suc­cess­fully pi­rated that the anony­mous pi­rates started send­ing me greet­ings cards.

‘‘ Happy Birth­day from The Pi­rates.’’ ‘‘ Happy New Year. Best wishes, The Pi­rates.’’ Th­ese, per­haps, were the ul­ti­mate com­pli­ments.

With the pas­sage of time there have in­evitably been some re­vi­sion­ist as­sess­ments. Such crit­ics as D. J. Tay­lor in Eng­land and Amit Chaud­huri in In­dia have de­plored the book’s in­flu­ence — which, ac­cord­ing to Tay­lor, has been ‘‘ al­most en­tirely ma­lign’’, while for Chaud­huri my novel em­bod­ies ‘‘ all that was most un­se­ri­ous about In­dia — its loud­ness, its ap­par­ent lack of in­tro­spec­tion and irony, its pe­cu­liar ver­sion of English gram­mar’’. I don’t much care. I re­mem­ber the day Saleem’s voice first burst out of me, the joy and lib­er­a­tion of that day, and I’m proud of the way that young voice im­me­di­ately at­tracted and still at­tracts a le­gion of younger read­ers — and that, I’m happy to say, will do.

Copy­right 2008, Sal­man Rushdie Sal­man Rushdie’s novel The En­chantress of Florence, long- listed for the Man Booker Prize 2008, is pub­lished by Ran­dom House.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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