Shattered hopes

25 August 2017

BBC/EMILIE SANDY

Reborn: Saleem (Nikesh Patel) and Parvati (Aysha Kala), the central characters of Salman Rushdie’s classic novel Midnight’s Children which has been re-adapted for BBC Radio 4

Reborn: Saleem (Nikesh Patel) and Parvati (Aysha Kala), the central characters of Salman Rushdie’s classic novel Midnight’s Childre...

“I HAVE promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep.” The quotation from Robert Frost was a favourite of the founder of modern India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and remains on the desk in his office, which is now a museum. But, while Nehru’s life becomes the object of historic interest, the promises are still very much current, and, as we heard in Throwing Out Nehru (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), are broken with increasing frequency.

One of the themes that linked the day of programming to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and partition was how the central promise of Nehru’s new India — a secular, liberal state — has come to be so spectacularly shattered.

In the historian Zareer Masani’s account of Nehru’s legacy, for example, the words spoken by one Indian academic were almost word-for-word identical to those of Midnight’s Children: Salman Rushdie in conversation (Radio 4, Monday of last week): that India was turning into a Hindu Pakistan.

Masani, the son of a prominent opponent to Nehru’s increasingly personalised rule, has no particular reason for nostalgia; but it seems that, in a context of rising Hindu nationalism, Nehru has become, even for the far Left of Indian politics, a figurehead for dissent.

On the publication of Midnight’s Children in 1981, Rushdie was criticised for giving an overly pessimistic account of the history and future prospects of India. Now, he says, the book seems “ludicrously optimistic”. It is a book more respected than loved, a status not helped by its being regularly voted the best of the Bookers; so Ayeesha Menon’s adaptation for Radio 4 is welcome as a reminder of what the fuss is all about.

The hero and narrator of Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai, has unnatural powers: he can, for instance, tune in to the thoughts of his compatriots. While cinematic treatments of Rushdie’s novel have largely failed, radio would seem an entirely appropriate medium.

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Menon has made life easier for us by simplifying the timeline, and by having Sinai maintain a hold on the narrative. The bewildering opening of the novel is thus delivered in comprehensible chunks, and the humour — of which there is much — is not choked.

This is an adaptation that achieves the ultimate goal of such a project: to be both a success in its own right, and an encouragement to have another go at the original.

The voices of real participants in the events 70 years ago could be heard in Partition Voices (World Service, Tuesday of last week). This was not an archive programme; so we were hearing recollections from elderly survivors of a mass migration involving more than ten million people, and which resulted in an estimated one million dead.

We heard in poignant parallel the accounts of an English woman who was charmed by the memory of the servants who lived at the bottom of the garden, and the Indian man who recalls, as a boy, distributing leaflets and throwing petrol bombs — both of them innocents, heading for very different futures.

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