Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bearing Down on _Midnight's Children_ -- Robyn Read

_Midnight's Children_; Rushdie, Salman

Towards the beginning of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, narrator Saleem Sinai shares the story of his maternal grandfather, Dr. Aadam Aziz. In Kashmir, in 1915, Aadam had one special patient—the woman who would become his wife—whose father insisted she only be examined through the opening of a perforated sheet. This sheet takes on metonymic properties for both the novel and storytelling itself, representing the anxiety to know as much as possible, an anxiety agitated by the inevitable limitations of both life and narration. We resort to reading the world around us in fragments.

I first read Midnight's Children at my maternal grandfather’s cottage. The cottage, a former fishing and hunting camp, is comprised of one main cookhouse that has a kitchen and a large open room for socializing, and a handful of smaller dwellings for sleeping. It sprawls across its own small island in the northern part of Georgian Bay, Ontario, and as a result, my family has always just referred to the cottage as ‘the island.’ The island has its own share of perforated sheets, although, to my knowledge, none of them have ever been suspected of having metonymic or metaphoric properties. There are the sheets that cover the furniture during the off-season that are nibbled at by moths. There are the sheets stuffed in a bucket in the corner of the cookhouse, designated for play time, for painting and crafts, with several predictable fissures made by table edges, scissors, and the eager fists of children. There are the sheets set aside in the boathouse for cleaning fish, stained by blood and guts, with punctures left by filleting knives that do, actually, epitomize a certain gratitude: that it was the sheet that caught the tip of the blade and not someone’s flesh. I suppose I even sat on a sheet of sorts to read Midnight's Children in August of 2005, as I spread out one of the many old beach towels that were piled in a laundry hamper for those who wish to lounge in the sun and not catch their bathing suit bottoms or scrape the underside of their thighs on rough lichen and rock. Although, the towel of my choosing could hardly be called perforated—it was just a little rough around the edges.

I sat reading on the rose-coloured shoulder of the island that jutted out over the water, just to the right of the boathouse and dock. It was a good place to watch for kayakers on the horizon, although not a favourite spot for many ever since my aunt one day discovered that her dangling legs provided the perfect ledge for a very large—and, she assures us, altogether quite nasty—water snake. Incidentally, she had also been reading at the time.

Like the perforated sheet, snakes play a certain symbolic role in the book. Snakes and Ladders is Saleem Sinai’s favourite childhood board game, and is described as a game of “morals”. "The game of Snakes and Ladders captures," Rushdie writes, "as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate."[1]

Over the years, I had become accustomed to encounters with garters, water snakes, even the odd Massasauga rattler on the island. But up until that day, I had never seen the animal that approached me while I was reading Rushdie's story.

The island is the one place where it seems we can, at least once a year, get most of my mother’s family to reconnoitre and spend time together. As a result, at a moment when I was just getting into the aforementioned novel, there happened to be quite the crowd gathered outside the verandah of the cookhouse, hooting and hollering, seemingly in my direction. The most likely possibility was that someone had won the Scrabble tournament. Lacking a nose like Saleem’s—that is, one that itches with telepathy—I could not predict what was coming my way. When I finally turned to see what all the commotion was about, what I found was a great, beautiful, and (in comparison to the creatures I had previously encountered on the island) enormous adult black bear bounding towards me.

My mother would tell me that in the fifty years she had been coming to the island, she had never seen a bear. But there would be more visits in the years to come: one would gnaw away at the pole of our weather vane, revealing an interior absolutely infested with red ants; one would be chased away by my grandmother, pot in one hand, video camera in the other; another would sneak through the weeds beside my canoe, fur weighted down with water, appearing more moose-like than anything, quite abruptly terminating the argument taking place between me and the man to whom I am now married. But this was the first bear.

We named her Wilma.

Wilma came to a halt about five feet away from me. What came to my mind was a fragmented narrative all its own: a) a string of obscenities b) a faint (re)collection of a "Globe and Mail" article I had read earlier that week about what to do when in the presence of a bear—“lay flat,” “make yourself appear large,” “stay quiet,” and “yell” had congealed into one thoroughly unhelpful clutter of advice c) an awareness that flooded my mind with warmth and a certain amount of electricity, that this was the image of survival. This being had not only found food and shelter for an entire lifetime, but had done so unseen—or, at least, unseen by the human, seasonal occupants of the island d) I thought about my final Masters Research Project. While I am not proud to admit that I thought about work when panicked, I also realize that, as a burgeoning academic, and consequently hyper-analytical, it’s probably par for the course.

As part of this project, I had written a short story about a young woman plagued by body dysmorphism who believes she is turning into a bear. My supervisor had encouraged me to go to the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo to study bears in a simulated natural habitat. And now, not separated by the bars of a zoo but in the wild together, here we were: woman and bear standing, existing, as the before and after of the transformation that was the very subject of my story.

That is, until Wilma turned away from me and sauntered off in search of a more scaly supper.

My grandmother called out to me “Your shorts still clean?” and my aunt (who was realizing that she was going to have to up the ante on her snake story) joined me in a canoe, and we followed Wilma—at a respectful distance—as she swam across the bay. Wilma enjoyed a meal of plants and fish. My aunt mentioned something about our own lunch. We both grew tired of watching Wilma.

But I believe my encounter with Wilma has a ramification beyond indicating that I had not thoroughly researched my Masters project; or, more optimistically, that one’s work is never done. Meeting Wilma was an opportunity for me to see in person what I previously could only imagine. And also, to realize what a bear has to do with a snake. Or furthermore, what a bear has to do with a perforated sheet... what a sheet has to do with a snake that has to do with a bear that has to do with a sheet. For, as it is with Snakes and Ladders, it’s "no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil."[2]

I wasn’t far into the novel when Wilma interrupted my reading. However, I would go on to discover that Midnight's Children presents the reader with what at first seem to be dichotomies, only to subvert these binaries, and open up the narrative to an infinite number of stories and symbols. The novel is a much more complicated organism than it may first appear: there is never just a balance of good and evil, or animal and human, or symbol and bed sheet, but rather always further possibilities for multiplicity, for hybridity, for plurality—for a complicated cropping of theoretical and literal meaning.

That being said, these sheets, these snakes, these bears, they tend to trick you. It appears as though they are only sheets and snakes and bears. However, there is always the opportunity to read a thing, a being, or an encounter in an alternative way. That is, as long as you’re a quick reader—after all, there’s only so much time before anyone, bear or woman, starts to wonder what’s for lunch.

Rushdie, Salman.
Midnight’s Children.
Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1997.

Robyn Read is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. She contributed to "The Orlando Project", an online history of women’s writing in the British Isles, and, as a consultant for the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), wrote profiles of past participants of the Student Refugee Program. Her creative writing has appeared in "Echolocation" and "Carousel", and her work on Judith Thompson in "Canadian Theatre Review", "Theatre Research in Canada", as well as the books Judith Thompson and The Masks of Judith Thompson.

[1] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, 141
[2] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, 141.

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