"Midnight's Children", the play, by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Feb 2003)
This review appeared in Outlook India magazine in February 2003.
"‘Midnight’s Children’? Salman Rushdie’s book?" my friend in the mid-West asks me. It is the year 2003. I’ve called to wish her on her birthday on my return to the U.S. from London, having seen the play based on Rushdie’s masterpiece. It is a new adaptation for the stage by Simon Reade, Tim Supple and Salman Rushdie himself, based on his earlier adaptation for a television script, originally commissioned by the BBC.
"Yes, yes!" I say, "We all passed around the book in school, don’t you remember?"
Then horrified, "You’ve read it, haven’t you?"
"Yes, I read it. Didn’t care for it, really."
"I’m too much of a Physics-Maths type I suppose," she adds consolingly, sensing my horror across the continent.
Will I now have to add my brilliant friend to my list of simple-minded literalists? Of those-who-didn’t-like-Midnight’s-Children? Of those (I could go on about this) worthy of little other than my withering contempt? Sigh.
Yes, I tell her, I flew across the Atlantic Ocean to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatrical production based on my favorite book.
I arrive at Heathrow airport on the night of February 13th, 2003, the very day tanks and hundreds of troops are deployed there to guard against a terrorist threat. The standoff with Iraq colors every aspect of life. I take a cab to the city, warily eyeing the armed guards along the way.
On St. Valentine’s Day, my friends and I meet at the Barbican Theatre to see Midnight’s Children. I am filled with excitement and trepidation. "They won’t ruin it, will they?" nags a little voice in my heart. But this is the Royal Shakespeare Company, I reassure myself. It’s an international effort: they’ve collaborated with Columbia University and the University of Michigan. They’ve been working on it for years. Four years, to be exact. They won’t botch it. Rushdie himself was involved in the production.
I look through the program, which I have had to pay for. Would it kill them to throw it in for the price of the ticket? I shake my head at the trans-Atlantic difference. In America, the program is always included; in England you always have to pay for it.
I was willing, even eager, to pay for a Midnight’s Children T-shirt. But they had sent them all back for re-printing! Why? They decided to spell "theatre" the American way: "theater." Marketing moves in mysterious ways.
In addition to the usual credits and actor profiles, the program contains a genealogy of the Aziz family. It also has a timeline of the history of India, starting with the Indus Valley civilization (circa 2500 B.C.-1700 B.C.) and ending on August 15, 1978, when Saleem disappears into a crowd. In between are listed critical events in Midnight’s Children and in India’s history.
Lights down: I’m holding my breath.
Midnight’s Children, the play, starts with video footage of Nehru’s historic speech, delivered in 1947, projected on a screen that serves as the back of the stage.
"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom."
On stage, there are two beds, two women in labor, two children born at the stroke of midnight: Saleem and Shiva, the most gifted of Midnight’s Children.
In the foreground, Saleem Sinai, squatting on the floor, starts to tell us his story as plump, muscular Padma sits next to him and listens. The neon lights of Braganza pickle factory are suspended over the stage.
"I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. O spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world."
A momentous speech, juxtaposed with the first few lines of a work of surpassing brilliance. It is only the beginning of the three and a half hour play, and I am overcome. "Get a grip," I tell myself silently.
The projection screen is split by a horizontal and an almost-vertical line. The splits in the subcontinent left us by the departing British? The widening cracks in Saleem Sinai as he struggles to move his story forward? Both, perhaps.
Screen and stage work together to bring clarity to a story that leaps all over time. The screen shows flashbacks and historic footage, while the actors on stage enact Saleem’s ongoing narrative. We see the courtship, through a perforated sheet, of Dr. Aadam Aziz and Naseem Ghani.
They wed, and on their way to Agra, stop at Amritsar. And here it is on the screen, grotesque, chilling: the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of hundreds of peaceful protestors. On stage, an equally chilling scene: Brigadier R. E. Dyer tells his men, "Good shooting. We have done a jolly good thing."
The audience is very quiet. I am an occasional visitor to this sceptred isle, home of India’s former colonizers, and can’t help wondering what this audience must make of this scene. What must they feel in response to depictions of these colonial atrocities? Not the callousness, I hope, of say, Prince Philip, who commented during a 1997 visit to India that the reports of the 1919 Amritsar tragedy were "exaggerated." Of course, he had it on good authority: from Dyer’s son!
But I digress. Padma is key to making this sprawling story accessible to the audience, with her questions and her insistence on an orderly linear narration. "Just tell it straight, mister, I’m listening. The whole saga. ‘Chapter One’ to ‘The End’."
And so he does. Zubin Varla, replete with prosthetic nose, plays Saleem Sinai (also called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer), his stellar performance bringing to my mind the virtuosity of Naseeruddin Shah.
The silver spittoon, encrusted with lapis lazuli, makes its appearance in the salon of the Rani of Cooch Naheen who presides over a hit-the-spittoon contest. (The sight of all that colorless flying spit makes me cringe. I did find the descriptions charming and hilarious in the book, but wasn’t it paan they should have been spitting? Why should that make a difference? But it does….) In the salon, we meet the poet Nadir Shah who will seek refuge in a washing chest, and will marry Aadam Aziz’s daughter Mumtaz. Their loving (though unconsummated) marriage is destroyed when the Aziz family discovers that he is impotent, and that their daughter, after two years of marriage, is still a virgin. Nassem Aziz’s fury is impressive on stage. Nadir flees, divorcing Mumtaz, leaving her free to marry Ahmed Sinai who gives her a new name: Amina Sinai.
"So that’s Amina! That’s your mother!" yells Padma in recognition. "I swear, she’s the best of the bunch!"
Ahmed and Amina Sinai move to Bombay, where Saleem will be born. ("Our Bombay, Padma!") A pregnant Amina goes to see a soothsayer, Shri Ramram Seth, who appears to be suspended in midair. It turns out that he is sitting on a shelf. His prophecy is bewildering: "A son, Amina Begum, who will never be older than his motherland! Newspapers praise him, two mothers raise him! Washing will hide him, voices will guide him! Spittoons will brain him, doctors will drain him! Jungle will claim him, wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will track him, tyrant will crack him!"
On August 15th, 1947, at the stroke of midnight, two children are born. The children are swapped at birth (in a burst of socialistic sentiment) by Mary Pereira: the child of the rich will be raised by the poor and vice versa. Later, Mary seeks employment as baby Saleem’s ayah, to assuage her guilt. In the hour after midnight, one thousand and one children are born, each gifted with unique powers.
Saleem discovers his power when he is a nearlynineyearold: hiding in a washing chest, he sniffs too hard, and in the ensuing nasal distress, starts to hear voices. Telepathy! He can hear the voices of the other children of midnight! Five hundred and eighty one Children, to be precise, of the original 1001 who have survived "malnutrition, disease, misfortune." When he hears the children’s voices, they appear to us on the screen. This is marvelous: we see Parvati-the-witch, Shiva the Warrior, Soumitra the time traveler and dozens of the other children. The Midnight’s Children Conference (the M.C.C!) convened by Saleem is a babel of greetings, thoughts and disagreements, a lively colorful gathering on the screen. Magical!
A cast of twenty actors plays many more characters. A couple of faces were familiar to me. Anthony Zaki (Ahmed Sinai) also played the lead role in Harish Saluja’s fim "The Journey", and the quietly handsome Ravi Aujla (Saleem’s uncle Hanif) performed in "Unsuitable Girls"a play by Dolly Dhingra that I saw in London last year.
Saleem’s sister, the Brass Monkey, transformed in Pakistan into Jamila Singer, (she of the "faultless voice, which at fourteen was the voice of a grown woman, filled with the purity of wings and the pain of exile and the flying of eagles and the lovelessness of life and the melody of bulbuls and the glorious omnipresence of God;") is played by Anjali Jay, who despite an otherwise creditable performance, (sorry to say) cannot hold a tune. In one scene, Jamila starts to sing Faiz’s immortal nazm, "Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang" (Don’t ask me, beloved, for the love I once had for you.) A capella, which could have been lovely, but to my horror, in a jarringly off-key voice.
On screen, we see Saleem’s fantasy of Jamila, not-really-his-sister, as a Hollywood starlet singing "Paper Moon." On another occasion when Naseem Aziz (now the corpulent Reverend Mother) asks Jamila to sing to her, she starts singing the same song again, just as tunelessly, but mercifully, the screen takes over with a flawless recording of the same song. Phew.
Saleem’s eternally-filled sinuses get drained, upon which he loses his telepathic powers. On the screen, the Children flicker, one by one, and disappear. But for the first time, Saleem has a sense of smell. After his entire family is killed by a bomb (all, that is, except Jamila) and he is hit on the head by a flying silver spittoon and loses his memory, this unerring sense of smell is put to use in the Pakistani army. He becomes a man-dog hunting the enemy. And the enemy here is the people of Bangladesh, who seek their independence from West Pakistan.
Saleem, memory-less, leaves the stage, and does not narrate the goings-on in Bangladesh. This makes things quite confusing. The forest of illusions is mystifying. The fantastic events in the forest are meant to drive home what war can do to people’s minds-but unaccompanied by the book’s descriptions of what is going on, a lot is left to speculation, and the scene didn’t quite work for me.
Rescued and restored to memory by Parvati-the-witch, Saleem has more horrors awaiting. There is, after all the Widow, the Emergency, and the forced sterilization program. Saleem chants the horror of this: "The Widow’s arm comes snaking down the snake is green her heart is black. And one by one the children scream and splashing stains of black." Sperectomy, the cutting out of hope. Midnight’s Children, once filled with such promise, rendered powerless.
Saleem finds his way to Braganza’s pickle factory to be re-united with Mary Pereira, now Mrs Braganza! And meets Padma. He arranges pickle bottles, one for each chapter of his life, and speaks of the "chutneyfication of history" through his pickled stories. The phrase gets laughs from the audience.
On his thirty-first birthday, during Independence Day celebrations, fearing Shiva, his nemesis, Saleem Sinai disappears into a crowd. A teeming, noisy crowd, not unlike the crowds that gathered in cities around the world, to say no to war.
Saleem! While your story was being told (again!) at the Barbican on the afternoon of Saturday, February 15th, a million people marched for peace in London. Their voices resonated and met with voices around the world.
"The Sleep of Reason breeds Monsters" said one sign.
"Bush: because democracy is boring" said another.
"Make Love, not War" said another, with a picture of George W. and Tony Blair kissing inside a large lurid heart, the creation of The Daily Mirror for St. Valentine’s Day.
"Not in my name." said others.
And my personal favorite, from America: "How did our oil get under their sand?!"
But these voices are not to be heeded, it seems. Just like your voices, Children! "Hell is other people’s fantasies: every saga requires at least one descent into Jahannum…." That may be exactly where we are all headed.
Saleem, by (what would have been) your fifty-sixth birthday this year, our history may have taken a deadly path. Soumitra, child of midnight, endowed with the gift of time travel may return to show us a canvas of our arrogance, stupidity and inhumanity, colored not just in green-black, but in red-white-and-blue as well.
The sea is blue, the surf is white, the sun is red. His eyes are blue, his face is white, their blood is red. The sand is white, the oil is black, their blood is red. The bills are green, the oil is black, the sand is red. The sand is red, our hands are red, our hands are red.
As Saleem-on-the-screen disappears into a crowd, Saleem-on-the-stage ends his narrative:
"…it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.
"The End" flashes up on the screen, and credits roll. Bravo, Mr. Rushdie! Bravo, Mr. Supple and Mr. Reade!
Salman Rushdie writes, in the introduction to his original 1999 adaptation of his novel for film: "a film brought into half-being by the publication of its screenplay may yet manage, someday, to get itself born." It may. In the meantime, rejoice! It lives on stage.
There are extraordinary security checks at Heathrow airport as I prepare to fly back to San Francisco. But my heart is filled with "Midnight’s Children" and I take it all in stride.
This review appeared in Outlook India in February 2003.
Midnight’s Children was performed in the U.S. in Ann Arbor, Michigan and then in New York City before it returned for a U.K. tour. www.midnightschildren.com