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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.
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.
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