Book Two: The Fisherman’s Pointing Finger, Snakes and Ladders
Summary: The Fisherman’s Pointing Finger
Padma becomes upset at Saleem because he has used the word love in reference to her. Saleem returns to his story and describes a painting of Walter Raleigh that hung above his crib as a child. In the painting, a fisherman points off into the distance, and Saleem speculates as to what his finger might be pointing at.
Amina and Ahmed bring Saleem home from the hospital. Saleem is not a beautiful baby, but he is a large one, with an enormous cucumber nose and blue eyes that the family assumes came from his grandfather. The residents of the estate pass him around like a doll, and Mary and his mother dote on him. Wee Willie Winkie continues to come to the compound and sing, eventually bringing his son, Shiva, who has knobby knees and, according to Saleem, will later be saved by a war. The baby Saleem witnesses all of the compound inhabitants’ private lives—their affairs, fights, and habits. Saleem the grown-up narrator claims responsibility for almost everything that happens, including his father’s eventual alcoholism. Feeling neglected by his wife, Ahmed begins to flirt with his secretaries and curse Amina. He later embarks on a scheme with his neighbor, Dr. Narlikar, to reclaim land from the ocean with tetrapods. One day, Ahmed receives a letter from the government saying his assets have been frozen, presumably because of his Muslim faith. The news gives him a permanent chill and sends him to bed, thereby allowing for the conception of Saleem’s sister, the Brass Monkey.
Summary: Snakes and Ladders
During the winter of 1948, bad omens appear everywhere. To make ends meet, the family rents the top floor of the house to Dr. Schaapsteker, who has spent his life studying snakes. Amina writes her parents a letter, telling them of their hard luck, and Aadam and Reverend Mother arrive a few days later. Reverend Mother takes over the household, and her temperament seeps into the food she cooks. From this, Amina finds a new, courageous spirit. She takes the money from her dowry to the racetrack, where she wins repeatedly. She takes some of the money and pays their neighbor, Ismail, to fight the government’s freezing of Ahmed’s assets. Saleem claims that, even though he was just a baby, he was responsible for his mother’s amazing success at the racetrack.
As a child, Saleem loves to play the board game Snakes and Ladders. For him, the game perfectly reflects an essential truth: for every “ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner,” and vice versa. However, the game lacks the ambiguities that are part of life. Saleem offers Amina’s brother Hanif as an example of the rule of snakes and ladders. Instead of moving to Pakistan, Hanif moved to Bombay, to follow his dream of making movies. He marries a beautiful film star and becomes the youngest film director in Indian cinema history. On the opening night of his film, however, the theater manager interrupts the screening to announce that Mahatma Gandhi has been killed. Amina and her husband run home and board up the house, terrified that if the killer turns out to be a Muslim, violence will break out. But the killer is revealed to be a Hindu, and the family returns to normal, thereby illustrating Saleem’s point that for every up there is a down, and for every down an up.
Mary, the ayah, and Musa, the longtime house bearer, engage in a hostile battle. Musa, believing he’s about to be fired, steals some of the family’s valuables. They catch him before he can escape, and Musa leaves the house ashamed. Saleem reminds us that Musa will eventually destroy everything.
One night, Mary Pereira sees the figure of a man floating across the rooftops. The family calls the police. They execute a sting operation and, in the process, shoot and kill the shadowy figure. The dead man is revealed to be Joseph D’Costa, Mary’s former lover, since turned terrorist. Soon after, baby Saleem falls ill with typhoid. The family expects him to die, until Dr. Schaapsteker offers a remedy made of snake poison. The poison saves Saleem’s life, lending Saleem “an early awareness of the ambiguity of snakes.” The government unfreezes Ahmed’s assets. Saleem’s sister, nicknamed the Brass Monkey because of the red-gold hair she sports at her birth, arrives with no fanfare. Saleem closes by noting that his sister learned from an early age that if she wanted attention, she would have to make a lot of noise to get it.
Saleem not only claims that he was immediately conscious and self-aware as an infant but also that he was ultimately responsible for the events that unfolded during his early childhood. Saleem has placed himself at the center of his world—his significance confirmed by a prime minister’s letter, a newspaper photo, and the predictions of a holy man. At the same time, Saleem is perfectly aware of his features, particularly his enormous nose, which he willingly describes as ugly. Saleem’s features, however, are more than just his own: he has his grandfather’s nose and eyes, and yet he is not biologically related to Aadam Aziz. He has two birthmarks, which he describes as being on the west and east sides of his face, and a nose shaped like a cucumber. His face resembles, to some degree, a map of the Indian subcontinent.
The baby Saleem is already devouring the world with his gaze, in much the same way that the narrative crams itself with incredible amounts of data and sensory experience. Saleem takes responsibility for everything, saying “everything that happened, happened because of me.” Like the narrative, Saleem struggles to contain everything within his grasp. From his father’s alcoholism to the petty affairs of the estate, Saleem wants to claim it all as his, no doubt in part to fulfill the enormous weight and prophecy placed on him since birth. He has piled the frustrated desires and failures of his world onto himself. Rushdie began the novel with references to Adam and the Garden of Eden, and here he draws parallels between young Saleem and the Christ child, as both are presented as magical, redemptive infants whose powers had been prophesied long before their births. Saleem’s ayah, who represents as strongly a maternal figure as Amina does, is named Mary, like Jesus’ mother, and she has a love interest named Joseph, like Jesus’s father. When Amina goes to the racetrack, the baby Saleem claims to have performed what could be called his first miracle: he multiplies.
Continuing to make use of myths, religions, and symbols, Rushdie employs a childhood board game, Snakes and Ladders, to reinterpret the image of the snake. In the Bible, the devil appears to Adam and Eve as a snake and tempts Eve to break their promise to God and eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Traditionally, good and evil, like snakes and ladders, are seen as opposing and separate forces. However, in real life, these clear categories become confused, and the distinction between them can be ambiguous. The fact that Dr. Schaapsteker could save Saleem’s life by using snake poison represents the notion that the line separating good and evil is never as stark or clear as one might like.
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