Among the many turning points in the constant remaking of the English novel – the dazzle of Sterne (No 6 in this series); the quieter, witty genius of Austen (No 7); the polyvalent brio of Dickens (No 15); the vernacular brilliance of Twain (No 23), and so on – the appearance of Midnight’s Children in 1981 now stands out as a particularly significant milestone. Salman Rushdie’s second novel took the Indian English novel, revolutionised it by marrying the fiction of Austen and Dickens with the oral narrative tradition of India, and made a “magical realist” (the label was still in its infancy) novel for a new generation. This emergent global readership would find, in a story set in Bombay, a work of contemporary fiction that mashed up tales of east and west into a self-confessed fabrication narrated by the highly symbolic figure of Saleem Sinai, an Indian boy born on the stroke of midnight, 15 August 1947, a boy whose distinctive nose seems like a miniature embodiment of the sub-continent whose history has just taken him prisoner.

Saleem sets out his stall as the narrator in the novel’s third paragraph: “I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow a lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me…” And so, off we go.

Saleem, whom Rushdie inhabits for his own purposes, is a character with many unusual powers, especially a psychic connection to all the other children born as he was, at the very moment of modern India’s birth. An equally important, and sometimes neglected, element of the novel is Rushdie’s angry response to the repressions of the 1970s “Emergency”. With Saleem, the personal and the historical become indistinguishable, and Rushdie makes a further duality when he exchanges his narrator for a second baby, an alter ego who expresses Saleem’s dark side. All this is described in Indian English prose that pulsates between the tumultuous and the fantastic.

A page of Rushdie is a rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry of allusions, puns, in-jokes, asides, and the unconsidered trifles of popular culture. Some readers may find this diet close to indigestible, but Rushdie’s charm, energy and brilliance, with his sheer joie de vivre, justify the critic VS Pritchett’s verdict (in the New Yorker) that, with Midnight’s Children, “India has produced a great novelist… a master of perpetual storytelling”.

A note on the text

The making of Midnight’s Children began, by Rushdie’s own account, when he travelled to India in 1975, a return home sponsored by a £700 advance for his first novel Grimus, a quasi-science fantasy experiment that flopped badly. But his next novel would be different. “I had wanted for some time to write a novel of childhood,” he said in 2005. But it was not until this trip that he began to conceive “a more ambitious plan”. He would take Saleem Sinai, a minor character from an abandoned novel entitled The Antagonist, and link him to the totality of Indian independence by somehow making the history of modern India “all his fault”.

The idea was one thing; the writing would be something else. “I was broke,” recalls Rushdie. “The novel in my head was clearly going to be long and strange and take quite a while to write and in the meanwhile I had no money.” Having briefly been a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather, he now rejoined the agency on a part-time basis, and settled down to write the book he was beginning to call Midnight’s Children, having rejected Children of Midnight as “banal”.

By mid-1979, he was done. The typescript was sent to his friend and editor Liz Calder at Jonathan Cape where, in the best publishing tradition, the first reader’s report was brief, hostile and dismissive: “The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form.”

Thereafter, wiser readings prevailed. The novel was bought by both Cape in the UK and Alfred Knopf in the US. Calder, says Rushdie, saved him from “two bad mistakes”. There was an offstage “audience” character who was “redundant”; and there was a knot in the novel’s time line. Rushdie was persuaded to drop the character, and restructure the story chronologically.

On publication in the spring of 1981, the reviews were good, and the novel’s reception generally enthuiastic. But then, once the book appeared in India, there came the first of the political controversies that have tormented Rushdie throughout his literary career: Mrs Gandhi sued him for a single defamatory sentence about her relationship with her younger son Sanjay. The case never came to court; and eventually the offending sentence was dropped. Now that Mrs Gandhi and her “Emergency” are history, the text becomes less topical, but more timeless. Rushdie himself says that “Midnight’s Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways which its author cannot wholly know.”

In its own time, it has been an acclaimed prizewinner, winning both the Booker prize in 1981, and “the Booker of Bookers” in 1993 and again in 2008. Chosen for the BBCs “Big Read” in 2003, its status as a contemporary classic seems assured. Rushdie himself has written, with appropriate modesty, that “if it can pass the test of another generation or two, it may endure”. Posterity awaits.

Three more from Salman Rushdie

Shame (1983); The Satanic Verses (1988); Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990).

Midnight’s Children is available in Vintage (£8.99). Click here to order it for £7.19