There is something about slums from one’s birthplace. They grab you by the balls and do not let you go. Slums of Bombay, Colombo, wherever. In Midnight’s Children the new film by Deepa Mehta based on Rushdie’s booker of bookers, when Saleem returns home once again (an Indian by way of London and Yale) to a razed slum looking for another midnight’s child and steps into the glaring ochre sunlight of Maligawatte flats in Colombo (well it seemed like Maligawatte, what used to be and is still arguably a slum) the brilliant light grabs you by all the veins that run in your body and shakes you awake from merely being the constant other to just being – in full living colour and glorious warmth. I knew at that moment I’d be irrecoverably homesick when I stepped out of the cinema. I knew my heart was stolen and soon to be broken to bits at the end of all this.
Until recently one of the secret shames of my existence despite several efforts was that I never got to finish Midnight’s Children. Some distraction or other would turn up leaving the book unread and abandoned. I blamed it on the print because I had bought the book second hand and really the font and the lousy paper sucked. When I knew that the film was coming soon I did not wish to fail once again. I ran out and bought a better edition with better font and dove in. Rushdie makes you work and it’s not an easy read as most masterpieces are. Even more thrilling was that the film was shot in Sri Lanka (India did not give the producers permission) and presumably mostly in Colombo and vicinity though I have no accurate inside information as to locations.
It was crafty of Rushdie to bring out his what I have started to call “his fatwa book” (more on that once I finish it) Joseph Anton at about the same time as Midnight’s Children the film. He was an ad man after all in his earlier life. Advertising the kissing cousin of marketing. I had no clue until the spring shower of publicity for Joseph Anton suddenly hit the world that Rushdie was writing about himself and what happened to him in those dark days and when it all came together it brought me back full circle. Thing is around the time that Rushdie got hit by the fatwa I too entered a fatwa of my own. I had just arrived in a new country and I had fled a dysfunctional marriage and the horrific battle over a child had just begun; I was far from home in Toronto’s concrete jungle – beautiful, long braided and brown, and entirely unmoored and utterly homeless. And often away from my child. Being constantly misjudged, misread and mistreated by the patriarch. And then the fatwa happened. I greatly identified with Rushdie’s loss.
It was a time when South Asian writers were hot property and I was so thrilled. Seth had just written A Suitable Boy and soon Roy would win the booker. Romesh Gunasekera and his Reef and with Mistry to follow with his masterpiece a Fine Balance. Not that my circumstances were the same by any stretch, but the greater canvas of Rushdie’s circumstances was universal. Betrayal, loss, an epic imprisonment without being jailed. An unreal unreality. In an interview from those days’ Rushdie when asked to describe his situation he said though not exactly in these words – that it was like when Alice walked through the looking glass. I can still hear the words ring in my ears.
At the time I had not read Midnight’s Children but I read his other books as the fatwa dragged on. Shame, his essays, the Moore, Ground, East West, etc. I carried this shame around with me for decades leaving the great book unread though hearing it discussed ad nauseam even. The message was clear that Rushdie in midnight turned the English literary cannon on its head. His run on sentences that ran for paragraphs; the constant peppering (chilli peppering!) of the English language with Hindi words left unexplained without any glossary; to hell with who may or may not understand it with an easy arrogance and cocksureness that a whole generation of South Asian readers and writers took a hold of and ran …. all the way to London, Toronto, New York, San Francisco and wherever else they wanted to be or thought they were geographically or in their own minds. It was the personal politics of Rushdie. It infected multitudes and made us find new feet and shed bright Colombo slum ochre light by way of Bombay on our otherness by way of London, New York, Paris and Toronto; turning it to the here and now in all our brown turbaned and unturbaned bangra dancing dangly earring shawl and sari waving and curry smelling glory.
I think it was around this time, and slap me on my wrist if I am wrong, when Mississippi Masala and all these masalas got to be whatsshisname — hits! Remember old Denzel Washington getting laid with a nice Indian girl in Mira Nair’s film. Contemporary South Asian art was coming out of our ears in the West like the monsoon in India. You don’t have to agree with me but Rushdie put all of them in Parvati’s basket and she said abra-ka-dabra and voila – we were on fire! South Asian writers, artists, film makers. Mehta and Nair. And Bandit Queen was part of these times based muchly on Mala Sen’s book. And Seema Biswas the Bandit Queen in the film returns in Midnight as Mary with echoes of Mother India.
In those days it was very fashionable to talk about magic realism a la Rushdie or Castonada. The thing was to me this new otherness and walking through the looking glass was all a magic nightmare. What literary critics labelled magic realism was at times a filter to frame the world that the outsider in their midst left behind. To come to the west having left it all behind in Colombo, Bombay or wherever makes it all a magic and unreal dream from which you keep getting woken up over and over and over again like Saleem going back home again and again in the book. To different homes. So Rushdie was almost like a comet in my new immigrant nightmare sky trying to help me make sense of the ground that had been pulled off from under my feet.
I learned to shift parts of my brain physically to different places where I had never been to; to see things I had never seen — some of it very hard to bear or indeed bare to the world. And in the early nineties PEN hosted Rushdie here in Toronto under heavy security and Bob Rae our then provincial premier and this City embraced him. I was so proud of my City. And these events galvanized the rough and hard path I sought to tread anew. A Sri Lankan woman who had just left her husband and run off to seek her own world. And there were the constant separations from my young son probably not too different in age from Rushdie’s. Rushdie had his mullahs and I had a husband I thought I had walked away from. Those days of constant struggles and battles just to be allowed to be a mother. The constant questioning of my conduct having strayed from the path of the good wife in a role written by my so called culture. The everyday challenges to me having strayed from the role set down for me threatening even my existence not having followed and acted out the script written for me by someone else; and the pawn was my son. When separated you find ways to stay connected (there was no face book those days not that it would have helped) and I always found a way like Parvati, to dance a metaphorical dance of life to be alive to be open in my mind and heart to the whole world to be fed and nurtured by it. So I may then in turn feed and nurture my son. Rushdie too I am sure missed his son Zafar terribly.
Rushdie wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories while in hiding during the Fatwa. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful comic tale set in a fantastical world, his first book after The Satanic Verses. And here is its dedication:
Z embla, Zenda, Xanadu:
A ll our dream-worlds may come true,
F airy lands are fearsome too.
A s I wander far from view
R ead, and bring me home to you.
A book for a son. Haroun meant the world to me and I read the whole book to my son during our fatwa of sorts. The fatwa that he hopefully did not notice but likely did – sadly. The fatwa that I tried to banish without much success and which followed me around like a monster.
When Joseph Anton came out and as it lapped on the shores of my consciousness it woke me up to those days when the world turned upside down for me as I watched Rushdie’s world crack. Somehow there was an unintended comfort in being in the shadow of it all; that strange and horrendously unreasonable things happen when people don’t understand your personal belief system. When how you live upsets others you will be beaten down, betrayed in the ugliest possible way and the things that are sweetest and nearest to your heart will be dragged away from you. Midnight the film is a glorious event on its own but to have an accounting of sorts or indeed a squaring of accounts of sorts of the fatwa years brought me full circle and the celebration of that accounting is Midnight the film. And I dove into the novel. Rushdie messing with my head and dragging me kicking and screaming, sometimes dancing, sometimes greedy through this phantasmagorical trip through the plans, rants and hopes of different folks seeking their little tiny little place in that ochre sunlight in a dusty slum where home is most precious as that is where it is most fragile.
No this is not a film review. I sat down to write one but this is no mere film. It is as Rushdie said in an interview only a cousin of the book. I worried as I waded deeper and deeper into the novel and swam in the Sunderbhans of its pages as to how Mehta could possibly make any rhyme or reason of this book cinematically given the novel’s many complex layers and myriad taps of story water. I was also getting possessive of the pictures I had painted in my head. The pictures in my head of the Methwold estate, burning shoes, Evie’s bicycle, the magical laundry cupboard and the smell of unwashed linen, of Amina Senai, Padma’s pickle jars, the room from which Saleem narrates, they were all mine alone and I feared I’d lose them if Mehta’s vision clashed with my imagined reality. The novel had worked its magic on me. The antidote the anti-snake oil to homelessness – it took me home. That home we create in our minds and that which Saleem finds over and over again because he is a seeker. A good man. Look and you shall find.
What would Mehta do with the black mango scene. Would there be a half hour scene of the Sunderbhans and in my mind I placed the scene squarely in Apocalypse Now in its river scenes. Will the film be four hours long with an intermission for ice cream. What I most feared was the black mango scene, I admit. Will I spend every other scene in the company of Padma and pickle jars. And would Jamila be a girl Billy Bunter because I had created her as such in my head. I will not go into the scenery of the black mango because I don’t want to be thought of as “the moving type.” The film was also a trip home given it was filmed in Sri Lanka.
We were lucky when Rushdie attended a special screening and reception in Toronto recently and the whole family attended. It was almost sacred to see the man face to face, see the film and also to be in Colombo somewhat cinematically. I had him sign our copy of Haroun and when Arjuna saw it after likely decades he recollected happily how I had read the book to him and how I had even given different voices to the different characters. He remembered like yesterday never ever to be forgotten.
And now to the film. I was still reading the last few pages of Midnight hours before the film but mercifully I did not finish it. The film was magic especially as the book was fresh in my mind. Real magic. I sat there in the plush and packed Varsity cinema and was taken on a magic carpet ride giving life to the book and its characters and places. The sweet lilting music of Indian English spoken mostly by Indians and some Sri Lankans even. The young Saleem vulnerable and cho chweeth. The three sisters Amina, Mumtaz and Alia, are very real and stepped right out of the book. The most endearing is Dr. Aziz whose germs of idealism are spawned through the generations through Amina and then Saleem. Yes, the good breed. The enigmatic self-centred and beautiful Emerald. Saleem played by Satya Bahbha reminded me of a younger Lawrence Olivier in his craft. Magnificent. He is currently my favourite movie star, not Brad Pitt (well he never was), and Jeremy Irons has grown old. Satya Bahbha and the young Saleem played by Darsheel Safary carry the core of the film. Jameela played by none other than Sharmila Tagore’s daughter Soha Ali Khan is a jewel lighting up the film.
Mehta draws two songs from a somewhat dated Bollywood; one in the twist scene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLDVLlvCU8SVbMvw6p5JNet86SPBf1qNPs&v=lokpohoCyF8&feature=player_embedded)which is an absolute delight and the other in an important and utterly joyous celebration in the slum where the magic people and Parvati dwell. The music is beautiful as are the other songs. I can’t wait for them to end up on youtube to make my midnight playlist.
There are many poignant and powerful moments in the film and its magic carpet ride; one being the aforementioned slum scene when I was hit by a serious case of homesickness although I thought I had been cured of it a decade ago; then there is that poster of the old Raj Kapoor film (with Nargis) Mother India in the café where Amina secretly meets with her first husband and shares tea cup kisses. Mother India who then is mirrored in Mary. Mary, Saleem’s true mother. I realized then that Rushdie was in a way paying homage or more likely playing with a certain virgin birth. India’s virgin birth – Saleem Senai.
Before I close let me tell you – Deepa Mehta is mother India and Rushdie is father India. They’ve birthed magic. Read the book and then see the film in a cinema on the huge screen in the darkness is the best advice I can give you. But my other child who had not read the book adored the film and was crying through the last half of the film. Moved in wonder, terror and in the end happiness. We will see it again soon, freshly read.
The jewel colours and the sets are beautifully subcontinental. The slums are real and visceral. No hint of any imitation film set in this film. The film is a jewel box that you can eat with green chutney. The cast is perfect and the children of midnight scenes are magic – like magical midnight tea parties except without the party and without the tea. But here’s the thing. My son who read Midnight and wrote a review of it for school may be a decade ago had one complaint — that the film underplayed the children’s conferences. He felt the book’s centre were the children’s conferences although I didn’t feel that way at all. But may be he is right. My child, now a man, saw the book through the children of midnight who grounded him and held his hand in the reading. I saw the book through Saleem’s loss and to me Saleem is the centre of the film and Saleem is the guide. Arjuna’s complaint is not a complaint but a testament to the children of midnight.
We have all come full circle and we are all the richer for it. And today the film opens in Toronto and many other Canadian cities. Go see it. Its going into my jewel box of films to be kept very close to my heart.