Salman Rushdie relives magic of 'Midnight's Children'

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NEW YORK -- Thanks to the printed word and the moving image, Salman Rushdie has recaptured the worst part of his life and relived one of the best.

Last fall, the 65-year-old author published the best-selling memoir "Joseph Anton" about his years in hiding that followed the 1988 publication of "The Satanic Verses" and the call for his death by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Mr. Rushdie is now promoting the film adaptation of his breakthrough novel, "Midnight's Children," winner of the Booker Prize in 1981 and one of the most highly praised works of fiction of its time.

"It was cathartic to write 'Joseph Anton,' " Mr. Rushdie said during a recent interview. "And 'Midnight's Children' was the book where I really became a writer."

Much of the world learned about Mr. Rushdie only after "Satanic Verses," which was condemned by the ayatollah and others as blasphemous and made him an author far more talked about than read.

Forced to live under an assumed name, Joseph Anton, he felt as if he had lost control of his own life's narrative. In his memoir, he turns himself into a kind of literary character, referring to himself in the third person, and uses narrative to get his own back.

"Now that time belongs to me," he said. "It's not just something that happened to me."

In the literary community, Mr. Rushdie's had long been an honored name because of "Midnight's Children." More than 500 pages, it's a multilayered narrative about Saleem Sinai, a child born at the very moment of India's independence from Britain, and his terrifying, exhilarating and fantastic adventures that join his story to the story of his country.

Widely regarded as a landmark of neo-colonial fiction, the novel follows Saleem through India's independence and internal conflict, war with Pakistan and the 1970s "State of Emergency" declared by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

It is a journey with a beginning, middle and end, but also one with countless detours and special effects, from powers of mind-reading to a nose with the most profound sense of smell.

"Midnight's Children" was a coming-of-age story for Saleem, and for Mr. Rushdie. Born in India, he had spent much of his 20s working in advertising in London and writing fiction he came to regard as "unbearable amounts of garbage."

His first book, "Grimus," was a fantasy novel that came out in 1975 and was quickly forgotten. (Mr. Rushdie has long preferred it remain so.)

Mr. Rushdie then thought he might try a novel about childhood. The author had been born eight weeks after India's independence and he soon realized the genius of making his character arrive at the moment itself. He "stumbled around" at first, trying to write in the third person, when he decided to let Saleem speak for himself.

"I was shocked. This was a kind of voice I had not heard before," said Mr. Rushdie, who now lives in New York. "I thought, 'What's this?' It was a very garrulous voice and I decided to just run with it. I found his voice and through his voice found mine."

Until now, none of Mr. Rushdie's books had been made into movies, and "Midnight's Children" seemed an unlikely candidate to go first. When Mr. Rushdie first met with director Deepa Mehta, they were supposed to discuss a more recent novel, "Shalimar the Clown."

But Ms. Mehta, whose films include the Oscar-nominated "Water," also asked about the rights to "Midnight's Children." Mr. Rushdie, surprised by her interest, agreed.

"It was instinct," he said. "It was clear from talking to her how much the book meant to her."

He will share any blame or credit. Mr. Rushdie wrote the screenplay ("Deepa twisted my arm"), provided off-screen narration and consulted with Ms. Mehta closely on the production.

"Midnight's Children" runs 140 minutes, but is nowhere close to capturing everything in Mr. Rushdie's book. Instead, Mr. Rushdie and Ms. Mehta agreed on how to condense it -- removing subplots and digressions.

One notable change was the ending. In the movie we hear Mr. Rushdie reflecting on the events over the decades and concluding, with hope, that "they possess the authentic taste of truth, that they are, despite everything, acts of love."

But the novel ends far more darkly. Saleem declares that "it is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace."

"The book was haunted by the darkness of the time of the Emergency and I didn't want to end the movie that way," Mr. Rushdie said during his interview. "I wanted the ending to be a kind of beginning, one that suggests the start of another day."

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