Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Midnight’s Children, opens the novel by explaining that he was born on midnight, August 15, 1947, at the exact moment India gained its independence from British rule. Now nearing his thirty-first birthday, Saleem believes that his body is beginning to crack and fall apart. Fearing that his death is imminent, he grows anxious to tell his life story. Padma, his loyal and loving companion, serves as his patient, often skeptical audience.
Saleem’s story begins in Kashmir, thirty-two years before his birth, in 1915. There, Saleem’s grandfather, a doctor named Aadam Aziz, begins treating Naseem, the woman who becomes Saleem’s grandmother. For the first three years Aadam Aziz treats her, Naseem is always covered by a sheet with a small hole in it that is moved to expose the part of her that is sick. Aadam Azis sees his future wife’s face for the first time on the same day World War I ends, in 1918. Aadam Aziz and Naseem marry, and the couple moves to Agra, where Aadam—a doctor whose loss of religious faith has affected him deeply—sees how protests in the name of independence get violently suppressed. Aadam and Naseem have three daughters, Alia, Mumtaz, and Emerald, and two sons, Mustapha and Hanif. Aadam becomes a follower of the optimistic activist Mian Abdullah, whose anti-Partition stance eventually leads to his assassination. Following Abdullah’s death, Aadam hides Abdullah’s frightened assistant, Nadir Khan, despite his wife’s opposition. While living in the basement, Nadir Khan falls in love with Mumtaz, and the two are secretly married. However, after two years of marriage, Aadam finds out that his daughter is still a virgin, as Nadir and Mumtaz have yet to consummate their marriage. Nadir Khan is sent running for his life when Mumtaz’s sister, Emerald, tells Major Zulfikar—an officer in the Pakistani army, soon to be Emerald’s husband—about his hiding place in the house. Abandoned by her husband, Mumtaz agrees to marry Ahmed Sinai, a young merchant who until then had been courting her sister, Alia.
Mumtaz changes her name to Amina and moves to Delhi with her new husband. Pregnant, she goes to a fortune-teller who delivers a cryptic prophecy about her unborn son, declaring that the boy will never be older or younger than his country and claiming that he sees two heads, knees and a nose. After a terrorist organization burns down Ahmed’s factory, Ahmed and Amina move to Bombay. They buy a house from a departing Englishman, William Methwold, who owns an estate at the top of a hill. Wee Willie Winky, a poor man who entertains the families of Methwold’s Estate, says that his wife, Vanita, is also expecting a child soon. Unbeknownst to Wee Willie Winky, Vanita had an affair with William Methwold, and he is the true father of her unborn child. Amina and Vanita both go into labor, and, at exactly midnight, each woman delivers a son. Meanwhile, a midwife at the nursing home, Mary Pereira, is preoccupied with thoughts of her radical socialist lover, Joseph D’Costa. Wanting to make him proud, she switches the nametags of the two newborn babies, thereby giving the poor baby a life of privilege and the rich baby a life of poverty. Driven by a sense of guilt afterward, she becomes an ayah, or nanny, to Saleem.
Because it occurs at the exact moment India gains its independence, the press heralds Saleem’s birth as hugely significant. Young Saleem has an enormous cucumberlike nose and blue eyes like those of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz. His mischievous sister, nicknamed the Brass Monkey, is born a few years later. Overwhelmed by the expectations laid on him by the prophecy, and ridiculed by other children for his huge nose, Saleem takes to hiding in a washing chest. While hiding one day, he sees his mother sitting down on the toilet; when Amina discovers him, she punishes Saleem to one day of silence. Unable to speak, he hears, for the first time, a babble of voices in his head. He realizes he has the power of telepathy and can enter anyone’s thoughts. Eventually, Saleem begins to hear the thoughts of other children born during the first hour of independence. The 1,001 midnight’s children—a number reduced to 581 by their tenth birthday—all have magical powers, which vary according to how close to midnight they were born. Saleem discovers that Shiva, the boy with whom he was switched at birth, was born with a pair of enormous, powerful knees and a gift for combat.
One day, Saleem loses a portion of his finger in an accident and is rushed to the hospital, where his parents learn that according to Saleem’s blood type, he couldn’t possibly be their biological son. After he leaves the hospital, Saleem is sent to live with his Uncle Hanif and Aunt Pia for a while. Shortly after Saleem returns home to his parents, Hanif commits suicide. While the family mourns Hanif’s death, Mary confesses to having switched Saleem and Shiva at birth. Ahmed—now an alcoholic—grows violent with Amina, prompting her to take Saleem and the Brass Monkey to Pakistan, where she moves in with Emerald. In Pakistan, Saleem watches as Emerald’s husband, General Zulfikar, stages a coup against the Pakistani government and ushers in a period of martial law.
Four years later, after Ahmed suffers a heart failure, Amina and the children move back to Bombay. India goes to war with China, while Saleem’s perpetually congested nose undergoes a medical operation. As a result, he loses his telepathic powers but, in return, gains an incredible sense of smell, with which he can detect emotions.
Saleem’s entire family moves to Pakistan after India’s military loss to China. His younger sister, now known as Jamila Singer, becomes the most famous singer in Pakistan. Already on the brink of ruin, Saleem’s entire family—save Jamila and himself—dies in the span of a single day during the war between India and Pakistan. During the air raids, Saleem gets hit in the head by his grandfather’s silver spittoon, which erases his memory entirely.
Relieved of his memory, Saleem is reduced to an animalistic state. He finds himself conscripted into military service, as his keen sense of smell makes him an excellent tracker. Though he doesn’t know exactly how he came to join the army, he suspects that Jamila sent him there as a punishment for having fallen in love with her. While in the army, Saleem helps quell the independence movement in Bangladesh. After witnessing a number of atrocities, however, he flees into the jungle with three of his fellow soldiers. In the jungle of the Sundarbans, he regains all of his memory except the knowledge of his name. After leaving the jungle, Saleem finds Parvati-the-witch, one of midnight’s children, who reminds him of his name and helps him escape back to India. He lives with her in the magician’s ghetto, along with a snake charmer named Picture Singh.
Disappointed that Saleem will not marry her, Parvati-the-witch has an affair with Shiva, now a famous war hero. Things between Parvati and Shiva quickly sour, and she returns to the magicians’ ghetto, pregnant and still unmarried. There, the ghetto residents shun Parvati until Saleem agrees to marry her. Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India, begins a sterilization campaign. Shortly after the birth of Parvati’s son, the government destroys the magician’s ghetto. Parvati dies while Shiva captures Saleem and brings him to a forced sterilization camp. There, Saleem divulges the names of the other midnight’s children. One by one, the midnight’s children are rounded up and sterilized, effectively destroying the powers that so threaten the prime minister. Later, however, Indira Gandhi loses the first election she holds.
The midnight’s children, including Saleem, are all set free. Saleem goes in search of Parvati’s son, Aadam, who has been living with Picture Singh. The three take a trip to Bombay, so Picture Singh can challenge a man who claims to be the world’s greatest snake charmer. While in Bombay, Saleem eats some chutney that tastes exactly like the ones his ayah, Mary, used to make. He finds the chutney factory that Mary now owns, at which Padma stands guarding the gate. With this meeting, Saleem’s story comes full circle. His historical account finally complete, Saleem decides to marry Padma, his steadfast lover and listener, on his thirty-first birthday, which falls on the thirty-first anniversary of India’s independence. Saleem prophesies that he will die on that day, disintegrating into millions of specks of dust.