Book Three: The Buddha, In the Sundarbans
Summary: The Buddha
Saleem survives the bombing campaign but retains no memory of his past. When Padma starts to weep for his dead family, he yells at her to weep for him instead. He describes the events following the bombing as if he were narrating a movie trailer.
Saleem describes a secret army camp in the hills. An army officer, Brigadier Iskander, yells at three young recruits to the army’s Canine Unit for Tracking Intelligence Activity (CUTIA),. The army has assigned these three teenage boys—Ayooba Balcoh, Farooq Rashid, and Shaheed Dar—to work with something called the man-dog, tracking down rebels. Saleem, meanwhile, sits cross-legged under a tree, holding a silver spittoon in his hand. The recruits have heard various rumors about the man-dog: that his sister is the famous Jamila Singer, that he comes from a wealthy family, and that he can’t feel anything but has amazing tracking abilities. The man-dog is, of course, Saleem himself. Ayooba, Farooq, and Shaheed nickname Saleem ‘buddha,’ or old man, which Saleem finds appropriate because of its religious connotations. Saleem claims that Jamila put him in the army’s care to punish him for loving her. After months of training together, Saleem begins to irritate the three boys, especially Ayooba. Irritation seems to be in the air since, in the eastern portion of Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib, the leader of the Bangladeshi independence movement, is agitating to form his own government. Saleem grows fond of the gloomy, private Shaheed, however. Shaheed’s name means “martyr,” and Shaheed often has dreams of his own death, in which he sees a bright pomegranate floating in front of him.
The Pakistani troops assemble on March 15, 1971, and fly to Dacca along with sixty thousand other troops. At midnight on March 25, the troops march into the city and Saleem leads his team to Sheik Mujib. As they drive through the streets, they see the Pakistani troops murdering, raping, and pillaging the town. Ten million refugees flee from Bangladesh into India. Saleem says the human mind cannot comprehend this number, despite the news headlines that proclaim the “biggest migration in history.” Despite all the atrocities they witness, Saleem and his unit refuse to question orders. Setting out to track an unnamed individual, they move further and further out of the city. They commandeer a boat and head down the Padma River. Saleem reveals to readers that he is leading his companions on a meaningless chase, since they’re following an imaginary enemy. He directs them from one place to the next, eventually driving them into the Sundarbans, an enormous jungle on the border of Bangladesh and India that is a maze of foliage and waterways.
Summary: In the Sundarbans
Saleem admits that no enemy awaits them in the Sundarbans. No longer able to accept orders, he flees and takes the three boys with him. As the jungle closes in on them, the group realizes they are lost. Rain begins to fill the boat, so they pull onto dry land. Drinking the rain that falls from the leaves, the insane logic of the jungle infects them. The days pass in a haze. Ayooba sees the ghost of a man he killed, and the ghost’s fluids drip onto his arm, paralyzing it. All the men begin to see the ghosts of the people they have arrested. After the nightmares, they become overwhelmed by nostalgia, and begin to see images from their past. Saleem, however, remembers nothing until a poisonous snake bites him in the heel.
After two days on the verge of death, Saleem’s memory comes flooding back to him. He tells the three boys his entire life story, but in the end he cannot remember his own name. The ghosts come back. In order to silence them, the three boys fill their ears with mud, becoming deaf as a result. The four wander through the jungle and come across an ancient Hindu temple, dedicated to the multi-limbed goddess Kali. Inside the temple, four beautiful women visit them and take them into their arms night after night. Saleem realizes that they are all growing increasingly hollow and translucent. They notice four skeletons in the corner, and can see that the temple is on the verge of falling apart. They flee from the temple and head back to the boat, where an enormous tidal wave carries them out of the Sundarbans. It’s October 1971. In the present time, Saleem notes that no tidal waves were recorded that month.
When Saleem and the boys return, they discover that guerrilla soldiers led by Mukti Bahini have begun to terrorize the Pakistani Army with sniper attacks. In a deserted village, the three boys begin to panic. Saleem, however, can only think about his name and how unfair everything is. He begins to weep, and Ayooba comes over to comfort him. At that moment, a bullet zips by and kills Ayooba. Saleem, Shaheed, and Farooq steal some bikes and begin pedaling. In December, they arrive at a field outside of Dacca, littered with rotting corpses. A peasant stands nearby, selling what he has scavenged. He tells Saleem that India has joined the war, led by a man with enormous, powerful knees. A bullet whips through the air, killing Farooq. Saleem stumbles across the field and comes upon a tangled pyramid of bodies. The bodies are those of Saleem’s childhood friends, Eyeslice, Hairoil, and Sonny. The latter speaks briefly to Saleem before dying. Saleem says he believes the war happened in order to reunite him with his old friends.
In these chapters, Saleem transforms into a half-animal, half god-like figure. Relieved of his memory, Saleem cannot feel pain or emotion, implying that a connection to our past represents an essential part of being human. Saleem spends his days sitting under a tree, free from the trials of his past, the monklike hairdo he first adopted as a child giving him an added air of religious solemnity. Once again, we witness a melding of religious traditions, as Saleem comes to resemble both a Christian monk and the figure of the Buddha. Saleem’s new, divine affectation contrasts with the army’s derisive nickname for him, “the man-dog.” Part beast, part divine figure, Saleem one again represents the meeting point of the sacred and the profane. He willfully acknowledges how his life currently resembles a cheap movie, indulging in that similarity as he recounts the following events in the style of a movie trailer.
Saleem’s story hardly skips a beat between the two wars, the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir and the 1971 conflict over Bangladeshi independence. The central role that politics and warfare played in the shaping of India and Pakistan’s history becomes increasingly evident. The violence escalates and grows larger in scale as Saleem plays the dual roles of witness and active participant in the pillaging of Dacca. At this point, informing the reader of the factual details of the military conflict becomes one of the narrative’s clear objectives. Saleem takes care to list the names of major generals and political leaders, not to mention the political events occurring in India at the same time. In these chapters, Saleem’s story becomes equal parts history lesson and wartime memoir.
Saleem enters the Sundarbans to leave behind what he has seen and done, yet ironically manages to reclaim his memory there. The jungle of the Sundarbans is a densely magical place, populated by voices, ghosts, and apparitions. The massive, mysterious tidal wave that carries Saleem and his companions out of the jungle seems a fitting conclusion to the interlude. The snake that bites Saleem in the heel, thereby restoring his memory, represents the latest instance of the novel’s snake motif, following Joseph D’Costa’s snakebites, Dr. Schaapsteker’s life saving venom, and Saleem’s beloved Snakes and Ladders board game. Snake venom saved Saleem’s life once before, and now it brings that life back to him. As the young Saleem noted, the distinction between good and evil, or snakes and ladders, is always ambiguous. With his memory restored, Saleem can now encounter his childhood friends. In one of the novel’s more tragic and violent images, Saleem stumbles across the human pyramid of dying bodies, comprised of Eyeslice, Hairoil, and Sonny Ibrahim. The bodies of his dying friends, and the description of Farooq’s death, which very closely echoes Aadam Aziz’s prayer from the opening chapter, demonstrate how images of the past can become corrupted and deformed by the violence of the present. Time and age have only made matters worse for the former children of Methwold’s Estate.
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