Tag Archives: Midnight’s Children

Meaning of Abracadabra in “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie

MidnightsChildren

Not too long ago, I went to a lecture by Salman Rushdie at the University of North Carolina – Asheville. He was so inspiring that I ended up purchasing a copy of Midnight’s Children (click here to read my thoughts on his lecture). Since I was reading Infinite Jest at the time, it took a little while to get around to it, but I finally did so and finished reading it the other day.

Anyway, the book is amazing and rich in imagery and symbolism. I filled several pages of reference notes in my journal as I worked through the novel. So then the question became: What do I write about? I didn’t want to just write a summary, so I decided to focus on the word “abracadabra,” which is also the name of the last chapter in the book, and share my thoughts on how this word ties in to the overall story.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the etymology of the word, it is Aramaic in origin and roughly translates to something like “I create as I speak.” So the mystical power of this word is that magicians and occultists can use it to conjure or create with the use of a word, similar to the power of the Judeo-Christian god who created all existence from a word (see Genesis).

So here is the passage that I feel is key to understanding what Rushdie is doing on a grand scale with the book.

… yes, and Aadam heard it too, with his flapping ears he heard the rhythm of the magic, I saw his eyes light up as I accepted, and then we were in a third-class railway carriage heading south south south, and in the quinquesyllabic monotony of the wheels I heard the secret word: abracadabra abracadabra abracadabra sang on the wheels as they bore us back-to-Bom.

Yes, I had left the colony of the magicians behind me for ever, I was heading abracadabra abracadabra into the heart of nostalgia which would keep me alive long enough to write these pages…

(p. 519)

At this moment, the protagonist of the story, Saleem Sinai, realizes the mystical power of the written word, that words are magical symbols that can create connections between the past and the present and the future, and that through the use of words, he is creating a mythology that is eternal. These connections, or correspondences, are the building blocks of the myth, because mythology uses symbols to explain things on a grand or cosmic scale. And what I find most fascinating is that what we have here can be described as a meta-abracadabra, since we have Rushdie using the magical power of words to create a story that is a mythology of modern India, but within the story is another story about Saleem using words to write his own myth establishing the correspondences between his life and independent India.

Since I wove in the concept of correspondences, I want to add another quote from the book that elaborates on correspondences.

As a people, we are obsessed with correspondences. Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things, make us clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national longing for form—or perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes.

(pp. 343 – 344)

I firmly believe in the concept of correspondence. All things are connected, and sometimes those connections are obvious, and sometimes they are hidden, as in symbolism. But connections exist all around us, and the power of the written word can help us realize those hidden connections. Abracadabra!

Although this book is rich with symbolism, it is very readable, a terrific story, and has some of the most beautiful use of synesthesia I have ever encountered. I highly recommend reading it. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading engaging stuff.

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Salman Rushdie – Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World

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I have a confession to make: I have not read any of Salman Rushdie’s books… yet. But this will be changing soon. Last night I went to see the author give a public lecture at the University or North Carolina – Asheville, and I have to say, he was one of the more inspiring writers I have had the privilege of hearing speak.

He touched on a lot of current issues regarding politics, social trends, and the role of literature in these changing times. He openly criticized Donald Trump, censorship, and the proliferation of misinformation, or “truthiness,” associated with the internet and the digital age. But there were two themes in his lecture that resonated with me on a deep level: the trend among students to attempt silencing ideas that challenge their established beliefs, and the role of the novel in bringing “news” to readers.

Regarding students silencing ideas, this is something about which I often think, particularly regarding the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) directed against Israel. I have heard horrific stories about professors, speakers, artists, etc., being shouted down, threatened, and silenced on campuses for expressing their support for Israel, all under the guise of support for the oppressed Palestinians. What Rushdie asserted in his lecture is that this is essentially censorship, and it is censorship perpetrated by the group of people who should be most vehemently opposed to the censorship of ideas. Rushdie claims that it is the responsibility of artists and professors to challenge the established beliefs and to open for discussion ideas that are uncomfortable and sometimes contradictory to one’s personal beliefs. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said that students who claim they do not feel safe when forced to consider challenging ideas have no place in a university and should instead be in a pizza parlor, where they will be safely sheltered from having to listen to ideas that contradict their way of thinking.

The other part of his lecture I found fascinating concerned the role of the novel in presenting news to the modern reader. This puzzled me at first until Rushdie elaborated. He claimed that with the demise of print newspapers, the reading public no longer has access to legitimate news sources, that digital news sources have yet to be able to fill that gap. Instead, we get opinions as opposed to reporting. I would counter that print newspapers have historically been biased also, but I could accept that news media has become more opinion-centric as of late. Then Rushdie went on to explain how literature and the novel provide a side of the news that is lacking in usual coverage, which is the human side, the internal aspect of living in an increasingly smaller world. The way we can understand what it is like to be in situations is through literature. He used the example of The Kite Runner which provides a deeper insight into life in Afghanistan than any news story showing explosions and statistics of how many were killed. His words resonated with truth. My belief in the power of art and literature was validated and boosted.

I left the lecture excited to read, to write, and to discuss ideas. I also left with a newly bought copy of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tucked under my arm. And while the book has been temporarily placed on my sagging shelf, I suspect that I will be reading this one before the others that have been patiently waiting for me to open their covers.

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