The narrator and protagonist of the novel. Born at the moment of India’s independence and blessed with the powers of telepathy and an uncanny sense of smell, Saleem tells his extraordinary life story as his body begins to crumble, an account that significantly parallels the history of postcolonial India. As a narrator, Saleem can be both unreliable and self-centered at times.
Saleem’s grandfather. Aadam is the patriarch of the family, a doctor and skeptic whose loss of faith leaves what he refers to as a “hole” inside of him. Aadam falls in love with his wife, Naseem, after only being allowed to see her through a hole in a perforated sheet.
Saleem’s father. A shrewd businessman who is nonetheless destined for failure, Ahmed spends much of his marriage fighting his wife and his alcohol addiction.
Saleem’s mother, and the daughter of Aadam Aziz. Born Mumtaz, she changes her name to Amina after her marriage to Ahmed. A loving, devoted mother, she inherits her father’s skepticism and her mother’s determination. Despite being married to Ahmed, she is never able to forget her first husband, Nadir Khan.
Saleem’s ayah and surrogate mother. Mary is responsible for switching Saleem and Shiva at birth out of a misguided sense of social justice. In order to compensate for her crime, she dedicates her life to raising Saleem.
Saleem’s archrival. Shiva is born at exactly the same moment as Saleem. While Saleem is raised in a loving, wealthy household, Shiva is raised in abject poverty by a single father. He is blessed with a pair of preternaturally strong knees and an amazing prowess in war. Shiva is named after the Hindu god of destruction, who is also the god associated with procreation.
Read an in-depth analysis of Shiva.
A real witch, and, like Saleem, one of the children born at the moment of India’s independence. Parvati is Saleem’s closest ally as a child and later becomes his wife. Despite her fantastic powers, she is unable to make Saleem fall in love with her and, as a result, embarks on an affair with Shiva that results in a child. In the Hindu religion, Parvati is the consort of Shiva.
Saleem’s devoted caretaker and future wife. Padma is as strong and down-to-earth as Saleem is weak and dreamy. She provides Saleem with a skeptical yet patient audience.
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Saleem’s grandmother, and Aadam Aziz’s wife. After marriage, Naseem becomes known as Reverend Mother, in part because of her religious devotion. As her husband withers away with age, Reverend Mother grows increasingly large and powerful.
Saleem’s biological father. An Englishman, William Methwold seduces women with his perfectly parted hair, which is actually a wig. He owns Methwold’s Estate, a portion of which he sells to Ahmed Sinai. He sees his departure from India as marking the tragic end of an era.
Saleem’s aunt, and a sister of Amina. After Ahmed Sinai rejects her for her sister, Alia harbors a lifelong bitterness and determination to destroy her sister and her sister’s family.
Saleem’s uncle, and a brother of Amina. Hanif was once one of the most promising film directors in India. However, his dream to create art free from melodrama and superstition fails, and, as his career falls apart, he commits suicide.
Amina’s first husband. As a young man, Nadir Khan is the personal assistant to Mian Abdullah, as well as a bad poet. He falls in love with Amina but is forced to divorce her on account of his impotence. He later changes his name to Qasim Khan and becomes a communist.
Saleem’s uncle, and a brother of Amina. Mustapha is the ideal, obedient civil servant. He is so passive, he’s nearly inconsequential—a fate he takes out on his children by constantly beating them until they have no personality left.
Saleem’s aunt, and a sister of Amina. Emerald marries Major Zulfikar and enjoys an opulently comfortable lifestyle. Selfish and self-absorbed, she only reluctantly comes to her sister’s aid.
Emerald’s husband, and an important figure in the Pakistani army. General Zulfikar helps orchestrate a coup against the Pakistani government and makes money by smuggling items into the country. His constant abuse of his son, Zafar, eventually provokes Zafar into killing him.
The son of General Zulfikar and Emerald. Zafar wets himself throughout his life and is ridiculed and abused by his father as a result.
The biological son of Shiva and Parvati-the-witch. Saleem raises Aadam as if he were his own child. Aadam is just three years old at the novel’s conclusion.
A snake charmer, and the leader of the magician’s ghetto. Charming and diplomatic, Picture Singh is Saleem’s closest friend. He is undone by his desire to prove himself the world’s greatest snake harmer.
Shiva’s father. Wee Willie Winkie is a poor man who earns a living by singing for the wealthy families of Methwold’s Estate.
Saleem’s biological mother. Vanita dies during labor.
A violent, tough American girl. Evie is briefly the leader of the children living on Methwold’s Estate, and she is Saleem’s first love.
One of the children living on Methwold’s Estate. Sonny is Saleem’s best friend. He is also in love with Saleem’s sister, the Brass Monkey.
A social radical who later becomes a ghost. Joseph D’Costa’s political beliefs inspire Mary’s decision to switch Shiva and Saleem, and his ghost later compels her to confess her crime.
A high-ranking official in the Indian navy. After learning that his wife, Lila, has had an affair, Commander Sabarmati shoots her, kills her lover, and then surrenders. He temporarily becomes a national hero.
A film magnate, and resident of Methwold’s Estate. Homi Catrack has an affair with Lila, the wife of Commander Sabarmati, and is subsequently murdered by the commander.
The wife of Commander Sabarmati. Lila’s husband shoots her in the stomach for having an affair.
A doctor, and Ahmed’s business partner. Dr. Narlikar devises a scheme for reclaiming land from the ocean but dies before he can implement it.
Mary’s sister. Alice eventually works for Ahmed Sinai and is responsible for Mary’s chutney factory.
Three soldiers assigned to work with Saleem in the Pakistani army. Each one is eventually killed during the war.
An unnamed, unnumbered group of “grossly competent” women who take over Dr. Narlikar’s affairs after his death.
A political figure before independence. Mian Abdullah is the founder of the Free Islam Convocation, an organization dedicated to resisting the partition of India along religious lines.
Naseem’s father. Ghani is a blind, wealthy landowner.
An old boatman from Kashmir. Tai is a mysterious, ancient, and wise figure who remains resentful of the world’s encroachment into his territory until his death.
A prophet who predicts Saleem’s future while Amina is pregnant.