10 Fascinating Facts About Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’

It took Rushdie five years to write his second novel, which changed his life ... and got him sued.
Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children.’
Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children.’ / Penguin Random House (book cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

When Midnight’s Children was released in 1981, The New York Times pronounced that “the literary map of India is about to be redrawn.” The book tells the story of Saleem Sinai—whose birth at the exact moment of India’s official independence confers supernatural abilities upon him—intertwined with the post-colonial history of India. And while the book has a lot to say, directly and indirectly, about the state of India, it may be most notable for introducing the authorial voice of Salman Rushdie—alternately ironic, reverential, scatological, and fluently conversant in the language of pop culture.

Salman Rushdie was nearly a child of midnight.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie. / David Levenson/GettyImages

In the novel, a critical role is played by the 1001 “children of midnight” born in the first hour of India’s postcolonial independence. Rushdie himself was born in Bombay less than two months before August 15, 1947, the date India’s independence and partition became official. It’s not hard to imagine the impact the pivotal timing of his own birth had on the books’ intermingling of the personal and historical. As Rushdie once described it, “India is my kid sister.”

Midnight’s Children might not exist without Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus.

Rushdie’s first book, Grimus, was published in 1975. That same year, using a £700 advance from Grimus, the author returned to his birth country in 1975 for what he called a “journey of fifteen-hour bus rides and humble hostelries.” The trip helped revive Rushdie’s plans for a “novel of childhood, arising from from my memories of my own childhood in Bombay.”

The fact that Grimus was panned by critics also played a part in Rushdie’s next novel. “I was very shocked when my first book was received unkindly. It was upsetting,” Rushdie told Harvard Business Review in 2015. “But it was also very helpful, because it made me question all over again what I thought about writing and how to go about it, and start again in a different way. And that led to Midnight’s Children. So maybe it was a mistake I had to make in order to find the writer I had it in me to be.” 

Rushdie repurposed a character from an unfinished novel for Midnight’s Children.

Before Midnight’s Children, Rushdie had written a draft of a novel he called The Antagonist, which he later recalled was “such an obvious pastiche of the mighty Tom [Pynchon] as to be unpublishable.” His trip to India made him remember a character from that abandoned novel, whom he then repurposed for the story that would become Midnight’s Children. Saleem Sinai eventually became an icon in the English language oeuvre of the Indian subcontinent.

“As I now placed Saleem at the center of my new scheme,” Rushdie later wrote, “I understood that his time of birth would oblige me immensely to increase the size of my canvas. If he and India were to be paired, I would need to tell the story of both twins. It was no longer a simple novel of childhood. History rushed in. Then Saleem, ever a striver for meaning, brought the two strands together, suggesting to me that the whole of modern Indian history happened as it did because of him; that history, the life of his nation-twin, was somehow all his fault.”

Rushdie consulted the greats as he was writing.

It took Rushdie five years to write Midnight’s Children. In 2021, he revealed that there was no shortage of classic novels he had in mind as he was thinking about writing the novel: He looked at Russian novels like Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, and Dead Souls; English novels like Tristam Shandy and Vanity Fair; modern classics, including The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Adventures of Augie March and Catch-22; Indian oral traditions as well as epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana and the Panchatantra. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, History: A Novel by Elsa Morante, and Bollywood were also influences.

“As you can see, I wanted to write a novel of vaulting ambition, a high-wire act with no safety net, an all-or-nothing effort: Bollywood or bust, as one might say,” Rushdie said. “I was an inexperienced, unsuccessful, unknown writer. To write such a book I had to learn how to do so; to learn by writing it.”

Rushdie played with language in Midnight’s Children.

The BBC has called Midnight’s Children a “linguistic experiment” in which the author “subverts traditional English.”

In a paper published in a 2008 issue of the journal Transnational Literature [PDF] O.P. Dwivedi took a closer look at Rushdie’s experiment. Not only does the author use words and phrases from Hindi, Urdu, and Hindustani in Midnight’s Children, he does so without including any explanation for Western readers, which adds “an amount of authenticity and credibility to the novel.” Rushdie also makes ample use of existing Indian slang, comes up with his own slang terms (writery, for example, is slang for writing), and creates hybrid words and phrases using Latin and Arabic.

When it comes to English, Rushdie employs deliberate misspellings—like unquestionabel—which, according to Dwivedi, “point[s] to the use of English by Indians in their daily lives.” He creates unusual compounds of words (like blackasnight, for example), and coins hybrid words, including chutnification, which combines chutney—a condiment associated with Indian cuisine—with -ification. The term eventually became a byword for incorporating aspects of Indian into English.

“Rushdie’s numerous experiments with the English language have made Midnight’s Children a highly challenging and complex work of fiction,” Dwivedi writes. “His linguistic experiments in Midnight’s Children, strange and startling at times as they are, have attracted readers and reviewers the world over, and have placed Indian English fiction on a sound footing in the present-day highly competitive literary scene.”

He made two major changes before the book was published.

When Rushdie sent the manuscript of Midnight’s Children to his friend and editor Liz Calder at the UK publishing firm Jonathan Cape, the feedback from one of the publisher’s readers wasn’t exactly glowing: “The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form.” (Future assessments by other readers were kinder.) Cape ultimately acquired the UK rights for the novel, with Alfred Knopf taking the U.S. rights. According to Rushdie, Calder helped him avoid what he called “two bad mistakes”: One was a superfluous character representing the audience, and another an issue with the novel’s timeline. Rushdie was persuaded to get rid of the character and he restructured the novel so the story was told chronologically.

Midnight’s Children seemed to be cursed.

The publication date of Midnight’s Children was delayed several times, according to Rushdie. In a series of coincidences befitting a novel about the unlikely confluence of the personal and the political, the initial printing of the book was delayed by a printers’ strike in the United States; a transport strike led to a delay in copies of the book arriving in England; finally, a dock-workers’ strike set back the unloading of the printed and transported books.

While the image of thousands of copies of a seminal work of 20th century literature rotting away in shipping containers would fit neatly into Rushdie’s ironic worldview, in the long run, labor disputes and the sardonic wit of fate proved helpless in the face of a great book. Midnight’s Children received plaudits around the world. As Rushdie put it in a 2006 reflection (with his characteristic blend of self-effacement and hubris), “If it can pass the test of another generation or two, it may endure.”

The novel changed Rushdie’s life ...

Reflecting in an interview with The Guardian, Rushdie said that “the books that changed my life were books I wrote myself, not books I read.” He had hoped that “a few people who were not friends or relations of mine might read and like” Midnight’s Children, and said he was “completely unprepared for what happened. It gave me the life I had always wanted, a writer’s life, and for most of the 1980s I lived that life with real gratitude and happiness.” 

… And got him sued.

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi. / Edoardo Fornaciari/GettyImages

Three years after the publication of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie and his publisher were sued by Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, claiming defamation based on a single sentence in the novel, which, as Rushdie explained, “repeats a well-known story of the time, which is that [her son] Sanjay had always blamed his mother for causing the death of his father by an early heart attack … his father, Feroze Gandhi, died after his separation from Indira Gandhi. Sanjay had blamed Indira for that and as a result she felt guilty, and she therefore could not deny him anything. This was a story that many people had circulated all over India. It had been often published, and in the novel it is reported as a rumour.”

When he had submitted the novel to his publishers, Rushdie had brought up the sentence, noting that he could not “justify” it, as two of the people in the rumor were dead, and the third could sue. “But I said it has been in the public domain, so I don’t see any problems with it,” he remembered. When Gandhi sued, “That letter saved my life because it meant that the publishers had accepted that as the basis of publication, so they couldn’t repudiate me…”

According to Rushdie, Gandhi wasn’t asking for monetary damages, just that the sentence be removed from future printings. He didn’t really have any objections, as it was “an unimportant sentence, it’s really just background, it has nothing to do with the story … So we had agreed to take that sentence out of the reprints, but then she was murdered. And you can’t libel the dead.”   

Rushdie has called Midnight’s Children “a young man’s book.”

Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, “did wonderful things for me,” Rushdie said in 2015. “It created people’s sense of me as a writer. It made me financially independent. But I don’t write like that anymore. It was a young man’s book. When I started writing it, I was 27 or 28. When it was published, I was 33. … It was a long time ago. The great thing about the writing life is that there’s no retirement age. All you do is write the next book.” Rushdie’s latest, Knife: Meditations on an Attempted Murder—an account of the attack on his life in Chautauqua, New York, in 2022—was published in April 2024.

Read More Articles About Books: