Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

I finished rereading Midnight’s Children almost two weeks ago, but had not yet got around to blogging it until yesterday’s terrible news pushed me into action. It’s good to hear that Salman Rushdie is likely to survive this dreadful attack, but awful that he has been grievously wounded in the course of what should have been a normal professional engagement.

I fear that there are lessons here for anyone involved with organising cultural events; none of us is safe from a determined malefactor. I know that the internal culture of sf conventions is increasingly conscious of security risks, both internal and external. It sucks but it is necessary.

It should also be noted that the risk comes from all extremes. No ideology or belief system has a monopoly on the use of political violence. Christians, Jews, atheists, leftists and right-wingers all use terrorism. Anyone who says that it is a uniquely Muslim phenomenon can go forth and multiply with themselves.

This particular incident is almost certainly rooted in the fatwa pronounced against Rushdie back in 1989 by Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death. I have always suspected that it was an outworking of Iranian politics at the time; the dying Ayatollah wanting to reinforce the place of his regime as a champion of Islam against the West, as the world in general was undergoing revolutionary changes, and therefore picking on a very prominent Westernised Muslim writer as an easy target of opportunity.

The practical effects for Rushdie were devastating even before yesterday. I recommend reading the account he wrote (in the third person) for the New Yorker ten years ago. He makes a very interesting point about the real problem as he saw it:

When friends asked what they could do to help, he pleaded, “Defend the text.” The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, felt that he needed, a more particular defense, like those made in the case of other assaulted books, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Ulysses,” or “Lolita”—because this was a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together.

I don’t feel well informed enough to comment in much more detail. I read The Satanic Verses fifteen years ago and found the critique of Islam pretty mild stuff, at least to what I am used to reading about Catholicism. I hope that Rushdie survives to write more.

My copy of Midnight’s Children was given to me 35 years ago by a dear friend who I have since fallen out of touch with. Opening it again was a return to the better times of that relationship, and I felt a warm glow of nostalgia just from the title page. I enjoyed it over Christmas in 1987, and I enjoyed it again now. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

I am not speaking metaphorically; nor is this the opening gambit of some melodramatic, riddling, grubby appeal for pity. I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug – that my poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage above and drainage below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has started coming apart at the seams. In short, I am literally disintegrating, slowly for the moment, although there are signs of acceleration. I ask you only to accept (as I have accepted) that I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious, dust. That is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.)

This weekend is the 75th anniversary of the Midnight of the title, the moment of India’s independence in 1947. The book is the story of India in the last years of British rule and the first thirty-odd years of independence, and it covers also Pakistan and Bangladesh, because you can’t tell the full story otherwise. We know we are onto a good thing in the second chapter, when hereditary nasal problems prove an unexpected blessing to the narrator’s grandfather during the Amritsar massacre:

As the fifty-one men march down the alleyway a tickle replaces the itch in my grandfather’s nose. The fifty-one men enter the compound and take up positions, twenty-five to Dyer’s right and twenty-five to his left; and Adam 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-thoooo!’ he sneezes and falls forward, losing his balance, following his nose and thereby saving his life.

The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is one of the thousand children born in the first hour of India’s independence, all of whom are endowed with supernatural powers of one kind or another. He is perpetually conflicted about his own identity, unaware that in fact he was swapped at birth with the child of a poorer neighbour. His life loops in and out of Indian (and Pakistani and Bangladeshi) history; his powers prove more a curse than a blessing; the political becomes personal and the personal political. It is tremendously engaging; sometimes funny, sometimes very bleak, sometimes both.

If you don’t know a lot about India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh), as I did not in 1987, you’ll learn a lot from this and enjoy the process. If you do know a bit more, I think you’d still enjoy it. I think the one point that has not aged all that well is that the protagonist is actually not a very pleasant person, especially to the women in his life (who are in general as well drawn as the men), and that gets a bit tiresome. But overall I can see why it was acclaimed at the time and why it remains popular. You can get it here.

This was the top book on my shelves which I had read but not yet written up on line. Next is a much older magical book, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Slumdog Millionaire; and Q&A, by Vikas Swarup

Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2008 and seven others, Best Director (Danny Boyle), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing. The other films up for Best Picture were The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader, none of which I have seen. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to WALL-E.

Slumdog Millionaire is 4th on one IMDB ranking but only 26th on the other, with The Dark Knight, WALL-E and Iron Man ahead of it on both lists. Along with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, those were the Hugo nominees and I saw them all. Weirdly enough I watched Mamma Mia! for the first time also last weekend; apart from the, the only other 2008 film I have seen is The Duchess, based on half a chapter of Amanda Foreman’s book.

For the second time in a row (after No Country for Old Men), I found no credited actors in common with other Oscar-winning films, Hugo or Nebula winners, or Doctor Who; perhaps a bit less surprising in this case, as almost all of the cast are from India and have made their careers there, and the kids in the flashback scenes have in general not become actors now that they have grown up.

It’s a film about a boy from the slums who wins the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. As the film starts, he is arrested just before the final question is asked on suspicion of cheating, and explains his knowledge to a sceptical policeman, once they have finished torturing him, providing a series of flashbacks which tell the story of his life.

So, to start with the bits I didn’t like, as usual. I did not like the torture scenes. What can I say. I am squeamish. It’s weirdly out of tone with the rest of the film. They’re in the book as well, but there is a lot more violence in the original novel, so it’s less dissonant, and also you don’t have to watch it on paper.

It’s probably the least white film to have won an Oscar so far in my watching, but it’s very male. There is one female lead character, Latika, played as an adult by Freida Pinto. Again, the book is better on this – it memorably features a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It reduces Indian society to 1) the struggle of the poor and 2) the dynamic between the protagonist’s Muslim origins versus the forces of nationalism and/or the state, as specifically experienced in Mumbai. That’s an important story of course, but once again the book has a lot more diversity – it is set in New Delhi and Agra as well as Mumbai, and we encounter Indian Christianity, Sikhs, and quite a lot of stupid white people.

And I must say I twitched when the credits flashed up and there was only one Indian name (Loveleen Tandan) among a host of Brits in the senior production team. Somehow this mattered less for Gandhi, which was as much as anything about the relationship between India and the outside world, especially Britain. Slumdog Millionaire purports to be an Indian story about Indian people, but it isn’t.

Having said all that, I did generally enjoy the film. To be grim about it, the interrogation of poverty and social division is a crucial driver of the narrative, and is firm and not subtle. The story starts with the protagonist’s mother being killed in sectarian riots, and life in the slums is vividly depicted.

To be more positive, Dev Patel is great as Jamal, and all of the cast basically glow. I liked the comfortable bilingualism of the script (thanks to Loveleen Tandan apparently). I love quiz shows. I also love the interweaving of narratives where the past unexpectedly informs the present. It’s nice that a crucial plot point depends on The Three Musketeers, a novel which I like more than it really deserves. It looks fantastic and colourful in all the right ways. There is a happy ending. And the music is good.

I’m putting it just above the halfway point in my ranking of Oscar-winners, below It Happened One Night and above Gigi.

Next on my Oscar list is The Hurt Locker, which I have managed to maintain utter ignorance of since it came out (also in 2007, but it won a 2008 Oscar).

As noted above, I read the original book, Q&A, by Vikas Swarup. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

I don’t read the Maharashtra Times. In fact, I don’t read any newspaper. But I occasionally pilfer a copy from Mr Barve’s rubbish bin. It is useful for stoking the fire in the kitchen, and sometimes, when I have nothing else to do, I flip through its pages as a time pass before they are reduced to ash.

Some repetition below because I’ll be posting this section of the blog post independently to Goodreads and LibraryThing, in due course.

The central concept is the same as the film: a boy from the slums who wins a quiz show because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. The book is more violent. It has more sex and more female characters – as noted above, it has a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It’s also a broader look at India and its interactions with the outside world. The protagonist, Ram Mohammed Thomas, can pass as Muslim or Hindu, or indeed Christian; there’s a memorable chapter where he works for an Australian diplomat (the author is himself an Indian diplomat) and another where he makes a living taking tourists around the Taj Mahal. He also looks at the darker side of Bollywood, and of war heroes.

And at the very end there are a couple of pleasing plot twists, which I might have found rather contrived if the rest of the book had not put me in a generally good mood. You can get it here.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

Border poll – the precedents

There is much discussion in Northern Ireland – and in the Republic – on the conditions for a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, or become part of a united Ireland. I’ve been fairly clear in my own mind about this for a number of years. I wrote in 2014 that an Assembly election in which Nationalist parties exceed Unionist parties in either votes or seats, or two non-Assembly elections in a row where that happens, would surely be sufficient grounds for the Secretary of State to call a Border Poll.

I’m also fairly clear – and wrote about this in the Irish Times in 2019 – that for the pro-United Ireland side to win such a referendum requires three things to happen: 1) Brexit working out badly; 2) Unionists continuing to talk only to their own core voters and not to the centre ground; 3) Nationalists coming up with a better offer, especially on health services. The first two of these conditions are close to being fulfilled at present; the third, however, is also necessary and we are not there yet.

But there has been much less examination of where such votes have happened previously. Self-determination referendums and plebiscites are not exactly rare in world history. But it’s pretty unusual for the options to be restricted to a choice of which already existing state you want to be part of. Much more often, voters are choosing between independence, on the one hand, and rule by someone else, on the other. I was myself involved in the two most recent independence referendums to have succeeded, in Montenegro in 2006 and in South Sudan in 2011.

Referendums have their advantages and their flaws, and I’m not really going to go into the merits here, just present the historical detail. I’ll note that (of course) they are a pretty blunt instrument, offering little nuance or reassurance for minorities, and that not every one of these historical votes could really be described as having taken place under free and fair circumstances.

Historically I find the following internationally recognised precedents for a popular vote where the electorate were asked about future sovereignty, and independence was not one of the options. There are (arguably) twenty-one of them. In eight cases, voters chose to remain in the country they were currently ruled by. In ten cases, voters chose a change of sovereignty, though in three of those nine cases the will of the voters was not in fact implemented and they stayed where they were. And in the remaining three cases, the territory was split between the two states who wanted to rule it.

1527: Burgundy. The scholar Mats Qvortrup cites this as a very early example of a plebiscite. Under the 1526 Treaty of Madrid, Burgundy was to have been ceded by France to Spain; but King Francis I of France organised a vote of male property owners in Burgundy, who rejected the Treaty, and Burgundy remained French.

1860: Nice and Savoy. Between 1849 and 1870 there were a dozen referendums on self-determination in Italy, as states voted (usually by huge and dubious margins) to join with the new kingdom, effectively merging with Piedmont in the process known as the Risorgimento. Most of those votes do not count for present purposes, as the choice was between continued independence and Italian rule. However, there is one exception: the price for French support of the Risorgimento, under the Treaty of Turin, was the annexation of the town of Nice and province of Savoy, which had until then been under Piedmontese rule. Two referendums in 1860 ratified the transfer.

1868 and 1916, Danish West Indies; 1877, Saint-Barthelemy. A couple of interesting cases in the Caribbean, where on three occasions, islanders voted on which external power they wanted to be ruled by – the Danish West Indies choosing whether to be ruled by Denmark or the United States, and Saint-Barthelemy choosing whether to shift from Swedish to French rule. In all three cases, the referendum was in favour of change, but the US Senate rejected the annexation of the Danish West Indies in 1870, changing its mind almost half a century later; they are now the U.S. Virgin Islands.

1919-22, post-War Europe. The end of the first world war brought a number of new states into being, none of which chose to ratify their independence by referendum. However, there were a number of cases of border adjustments being made by holding a vote in the disputed territories. Only a minority of these votes resulted in a transfer of sovereignty. Two of them were frustrated, both in 1919, when the Vorarlberg province of Austria voted to join Switzerland, and the Åland Islands off the coast of Finland voted to join Sweden, but in both cases, the result was not internationally recognised and they were compelled to remain under Austrian and Finnish rule respectively.

In 1920, there were five such referendums, three of which resulted in votes to stick with the country they had previously been ruled by. So, in February 1920, the northern part of the German province of Schleswig voted to become part of Denmark – the only successful transfer of sovereignty from a single referendum. But a month later, in March 1920, central Schleswig voted to remain in Germany, and the planned vote for southern Schleswig was cancelled. Later that year, the formerly German towns of Eupen and Malmedy voted to join Belgium in a very dodgy process where there was no secret ballot; East Prussia voted to stay in Germany rather than join Poland; the southern zone of Carinthia voted to stay with Austria rather than join the new state of Yugoslavia. In 1921, the district of Sopron voted to stay in Hungary rather than join Austria.

The biggest and messiest of these referendums was the last, held in Upper Silesia in March 1921, in a situation of violence and vote-rigging from both sides. The vote was 60% for Germany and 40% for Poland; the territory in the end was divided, with both sides getting about half of the population, Germany getting more of the land and Poland more of the heavy industry. (It should be added that intimidation and violence were standard features of these referendums.)

1935, Saarland. In a hangover from the First World War, the Saar Basin Territory (now the Saarland), which had been under international rule through the League of Nations, was given a choice between the status quo, joining Germany, or joining France. The German option won more than 90% of the vote, with the status quo a very distant second. So few voters chose France that I hesitate to include it on this list. It’s a rare case of a referendum with more than two options, not that it made much difference in the end.

1947, India/Pakistan. I find only five more internationally recognised referendums in the last hundred years where voters chose between different countries, without independence being on the table. Two of them were parts of the Indian independence process in 1947, with both the North West Frontier Province and the District of Sylhet voting to join Pakistan rather than India. Sylhet was divided, with a small part of it staying in India and the rest now in Bangladesh.

1961, British Cameroons. There have been a number of referenda and plebiscites in Africa, but in almost every case independence has been one of the options on the ballot (including, as mentioned, Southern Sudan, now South Sudan, in 2011). The only exception that I have found was the former territory of the British Cameroons in 1961, in which the population were given the choice between joining the former French colony of Cameroon to the east, or Nigeria to the west. In 1959 they had already voted on whether or not to join Nigeria, and chose not, or at least not yet. In 1961, the Muslim north voted to join Nigeria, and the Christian south to join Cameroon, and that was what in the end happened.

1967 (and 2002), Gibraltar. The 1967 referendum on Gibraltar’s sovereignty clearly satisfies my criteria for inclusion on this list. It was the result of a talks process between Spain and the United Kingdom, and voters were given a choice between integration with Spain or continued British rule. They chose British rule by an overwhelming majority. In 2002 the government of Gibraltar held another referendum, but I don’t think this counts for my purposes: it was a declarative (and again overwhelming) rejection of unpublished proposals for shared sovereignty between the UK and Spain, without any positive option being on the ballot.

1973, Northern Ireland. It is almost fifty years since voters anywhere in the world were given the choice of which country to be part of, without independence being one of the options, and the last such vote was the March 1973 Border Poll in Northern Ireland. On a 59% turnout, 99% of voters supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, and only 1% voted for Irish unification. I find it interesting that 50-60,000 votes for the Union were cast by people who did not then vote for pro-Union parties in the local council and Assembly elections a few months later.

Next time, the result will certainly be closer.