On September 9, 1962—at the exact moment that India’s defense minister decides to use force, if necessary, against the Chinese army—Amina receives a telegram saying that Ahmed has suffered a “heartboot.” She announces that, after four years in Pakistan, the family is returning home to Bombay. Upon seeing her broken husband, Amina becomes determined to help him recover. During Ahmed’s recovery, the two gradually begin to fall in love with one another.
On October 9, as India prepares for war with China, Saleem reconvenes the conference. The children greet one another excitedly as if they are at a family reunion. Six days later, as India faces an unprovoked attack by China, the children begin to turn on Saleem, blaming him for Shiva’s absence and chastising him for having sealed off a part of his mind. On October 20, as the Indian army is badly beaten by Chinese forces, the children launch a full-scale attack against Saleem for his secrecy and elitism. During the next month, the children leave him, one by one.
After its initial defeat by the Chinese army, India experiences a new optimism, believing the defeat of the Chinese to be near at hand. At the same time, Saleem’s perpetually congested sinuses become completely blocked. As the war between India and China draws closer, Saleem’s sinus problems grow worse. On November 20, news of India’s defeat by the Chinese dominates the news. The papers proclaim, “Public Morale Drains Away.” The next day, the advancing Chinese army halts its progress, and Saleem’s parents take him to the hospital to have his sinuses cleared. After the operation, Saleem discovers that his connection to the children has disappeared along with the congestion in his sinuses.
Amina convinces Ahmed that they should move to Pakistan and join her sisters, and they sell their house on Methwold’s Estate to the Narlikar women. On their last day in Bombay, Saleem takes the letter from the prime minister, the newspaper photo, and an old tin globe and buries them on the property. The family arrives in Karachi on February 9. Soon afterward, Jamila begins her singing career, while Saleem enjoys the pleasure of being able to smell for the first time in his life.
Saleem’s nose can now detect emotions, feelings, and lies, as well as smells. Saleem’s sense of smell has become so acute that, upon arriving at Karachi, he can smell his aunt Alia’s bitterness and hypocrisy. Living with his aunt in the shadows of a mosque at the center of Karachi, Saleem explores the city on his Lambretta scooter. Ahmed decides to build the family a new home and has the land consecrated with the brine and umbilical cord from Saleem’s birth.
Still emotionally attached to Bombay, Saleem finds himself unable to feel at home in the overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. Ahmed buys a towel factory, names it after his wife, and declares that someday he will produce the most famous towel in the world. Soon after, Major (Retired) Alauddin Latif comes to hear Jamila sing. Saleem and Jamila nickname him Uncle Puffs. Uncle Puffs becomes a fixture at the house and makes Jamila a famous singer. He keeps her face hidden from her audience, however, claiming that a horrible accident has disfigured her face. Jamila performs behind a curtain, which has a single hole for her lips.
Jamila becomes the most celebrated singer in Pakistan, and Saleem confesses that he was in love with her. He demonstrated his affection by bringing her fresh, leavened bread from a secret Catholic nunnery. Sullen and melancholy, Saleem spends his days riding his scooter, taking in the city’s smells. His fondness for profane smells brings him to Tai Bibi, who claims to be, at 512 years old, the world’s oldest whore. Saleem finds Tai Bibi irresistible, because she can take on the scent of any person. While trying out a series of smells on Saleem, she finds one that particularly affects him. Saleem realizes that she’s taken on Jamila’s scent and runs out of Tai Bibi’s house.
General Zulfikar’s son, Zafar, becomes engaged to a prince’s daughter from Kif. The prince also has a son, Mutasim, who is well known for his looks and charm. At Zafar’s engagement ceremony, Jamila Singer performs, and Mutasim, who has yet to see her face, immediately falls in love with her. After hearing her sing, Mutasim takes Saleem aside and, after asking Saleem to describe his sister, tells Saleem that he has a love charm for her. Saleem tells Mutasim to hand him the charm, then creeps into his sister’s bedroom and gives it to her himself. He confesses his love to Jamila while pressing the charm against her palm. The charm works briefly, but Jamila is ashamed and horror stricken, even though she and Saleem share no blood relation. Saleem realizes that even though he and Jamila are not truly related, they are still brother and sister. Saleem reflects that the difference between his Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence was the difference between an infinite variety of alternatives and an infinite number of lies.
When Saleem returns to India, he once again finds the details of his personal life closely mirrored in the events of national politics. Amina learns of her husband’s “heartboot” just as the public learns of India’s intention to use necessary force against China. As Saleem notes, both of these revelations will end with an eviction, as China boots out the Indian troops and Saleem’s parents boot him out of India. India’s defeat in the war metaphorically drains the country of its optimism, just as Saleem’s operation literally drains his congested sinuses. In addition to the rhetorical similarity, the narrative also implies that Saleem, in losing his ability to communicate with the midnight’s children, becomes drained of hope and optimism along with India. His seemingly personal loss resonates across the entire country, since the Midnight’s Children’s Conference represented India’s potential future.
Back in Pakistan, the country’s religious dogmatism confronts Saleem. His life in Pakistan becomes riddled with hypocrisies and ironies. His aunt Alia, who once loved Ahmed, greets them effusively while inwardly seething with bitterness and resentment. Despite Pakistan’s reputation as the “Land of the Pure,” Saleem manages to discover the world’s oldest whore living in Karachi. The newly devout Jamila secretly yearns for leavened bread made by Catholic nuns. Finally, Ahmed attempts to consecrate his home’s building site with his son’s umbilical cord and afterbirth—which, as we know, may or may not actually belong to Saleem.
Throughout the novel, Rushdie remains intent on dismantling the false veneer of faith, exposing and exploring the essential human frailties and complexities that lie beneath. In Pakistan, Saleem actively resists that nation’s self-proclaimed purity. He seeks out the profane and wretched and, in the end, flouts a sacred social taboo by falling in love with his own sister. Jamila, on the other hand, becomes the embodiment of the passive and devout believer. However, because we have already witnessed Jamila’s growth and development, not to mention her forceful and magnetic personality, we know that underneath the ever-present veil remains a complex individual. Jamila’s love for the unleavened bread represents a seemingly minor transgression, but it highlights the fact that religious purity cannot completely efface an individual’s character or desires.
Throughout the novel, romantic love has remained noticeably absent or, at the very least, elusive. Often unrequited—and when it is requited, just as often erroneous and unfounded—romantic love has a played a complicated and frequently contradictory role in the novel’s development. Saleem blames his parents’ newfound love for the destruction of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference, just as his love for his sister ironically destroys the intimate connection they once shared. For Saleem, every act of love seems inevitably to carry an act of destruction with it, a connection that speaks as much to the complicated intentions behind each action as it does to a larger, universal claim about love’s cataclysmic potential. At the same time, unrequited love continues to play a dominant role in shaping the lives of the characters. From Mutasim’s and Saleem’s failed courtship of Jamila to Zafar’s never-consecrated marriage, love extracts a heavy toll. Alia, after a number of years, remains burdened by anger and jealousy at having been denied Ahmed’s love, while Jamila, shrouded in purity, remains unable to accept it.