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On September 9, 1962—at the exact moment that India’s
defense minister decides to use force, if necessary, against the
Chinese army—Amina receives a telegram saying that Ahmed has suffered
a “heartboot.” She announces that, after four years in Pakistan,
the family is returning home to Bombay. Upon seeing her broken husband,
Amina becomes determined to help him recover. During Ahmed’s recovery,
the two gradually begin to fall in love with one another.
On October 9, as India prepares for war with China, Saleem reconvenes
the conference. The children greet one another excitedly as if they
are at a family reunion. Six days later, as India faces an unprovoked
attack by China, the children begin to turn on Saleem, blaming him
for Shiva’s absence and chastising him for having sealed off a part
of his mind. On October 20, as the Indian army is badly beaten by
Chinese forces, the children launch a full-scale attack against
Saleem for his secrecy and elitism. During the next month, the children
leave him, one by one.
After its initial defeat by the Chinese army, India experiences
a new optimism, believing the defeat of the Chinese to be near at hand.
At the same time, Saleem’s perpetually congested sinuses become
completely blocked. As the war between India and China draws closer,
Saleem’s sinus problems grow worse. On November 20, news of India’s
defeat by the Chinese dominates the news. The papers proclaim, “Public
Morale Drains Away.” The next day, the advancing Chinese army halts
its progress, and Saleem’s parents take him to the hospital to have
his sinuses cleared. After the operation, Saleem discovers that
his connection to the children has disappeared along with the congestion
in his sinuses.
Amina convinces Ahmed that they should move to Pakistan
and join her sisters, and they sell their house on Methwold’s Estate
to the Narlikar women. On their last day in Bombay, Saleem takes
the letter from the prime minister, the newspaper photo, and an
old tin globe and buries them on the property. The family arrives
in Karachi on February 9. Soon afterward, Jamila begins her singing
career, while Saleem enjoys the pleasure of being able to smell
for the first time in his life.
Saleem’s nose can now detect emotions, feelings, and lies,
as well as smells. Saleem’s sense of smell has become so acute that,
upon arriving at Karachi, he can smell his aunt Alia’s bitterness
and hypocrisy. Living with his aunt in the shadows of a mosque at
the center of Karachi, Saleem explores the city on his Lambretta
scooter. Ahmed decides to build the family a new home and has the
land consecrated with the brine and umbilical cord from Saleem’s
Still emotionally attached to Bombay, Saleem finds himself unable
to feel at home in the overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. Ahmed buys
a towel factory, names it after his wife, and declares that someday
he will produce the most famous towel in the world. Soon after,
Major (Retired) Alauddin Latif comes to hear Jamila sing. Saleem
and Jamila nickname him Uncle Puffs. Uncle Puffs becomes a fixture
at the house and makes Jamila a famous singer. He keeps her face
hidden from her audience, however, claiming that a horrible accident
has disfigured her face. Jamila performs behind a curtain, which
has a single hole for her lips.
Jamila becomes the most celebrated singer in Pakistan,
and Saleem confesses that he was in love with her. He demonstrated
his affection by bringing her fresh, leavened bread from a secret
Catholic nunnery. Sullen and melancholy, Saleem spends his days
riding his scooter, taking in the city’s smells. His fondness for
profane smells brings him to Tai Bibi, who claims to be, at 512
years old, the world’s oldest whore. Saleem finds Tai Bibi irresistible,
because she can take on the scent of any person. While trying out
a series of smells on Saleem, she finds one that particularly affects
him. Saleem realizes that she’s taken on Jamila’s scent and runs
out of Tai Bibi’s house.
General Zulfikar’s son, Zafar, becomes engaged to a prince’s daughter
from Kif. The prince also has a son, Mutasim, who is well known
for his looks and charm. At Zafar’s engagement ceremony, Jamila
Singer performs, and Mutasim, who has yet to see her face, immediately
falls in love with her. After hearing her sing, Mutasim takes Saleem
aside and, after asking Saleem to describe his sister, tells Saleem
that he has a love charm for her. Saleem tells Mutasim to hand him
the charm, then creeps into his sister’s bedroom and gives it to
her himself. He confesses his love to Jamila while pressing the charm
against her palm. The charm works briefly, but Jamila is ashamed
and horror stricken, even though she and Saleem share no blood relation.
Saleem realizes that even though he and Jamila are not truly related,
they are still brother and sister. Saleem reflects that the difference
between his Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence was the difference
between an infinite variety of alternatives and an infinite number
When Saleem returns to India, he once again finds the
details of his personal life closely mirrored in the events of national
politics. Amina learns of her husband’s “heartboot” just as the
public learns of India’s intention to use necessary force against
China. As Saleem notes, both of these revelations will end with
an eviction, as China boots out the Indian troops and Saleem’s parents
boot him out of India. India’s defeat in the war metaphorically
drains the country of its optimism, just as Saleem’s operation literally
drains his congested sinuses. In addition to the rhetorical similarity,
the narrative also implies that Saleem, in losing his ability to
communicate with the midnight’s children, becomes drained of hope
and optimism along with India. His seemingly personal loss resonates
across the entire country, since the Midnight’s Children’s Conference
represented India’s potential future.
Back in Pakistan, the country’s religious dogmatism confronts Saleem.
His life in Pakistan becomes riddled with hypocrisies and ironies.
His aunt Alia, who once loved Ahmed, greets them effusively while
inwardly seething with bitterness and resentment. Despite Pakistan’s
reputation as the “Land of the Pure,” Saleem manages to discover
the world’s oldest whore living in Karachi. The newly devout Jamila
secretly yearns for leavened bread made by Catholic nuns. Finally,
Ahmed attempts to consecrate his home’s building site with his son’s
umbilical cord and afterbirth—which, as we know, may or may not
actually belong to Saleem.
Throughout the novel, Rushdie remains intent on dismantling the
false veneer of faith, exposing and exploring the essential human frailties
and complexities that lie beneath. In Pakistan, Saleem actively
resists that nation’s self-proclaimed purity. He seeks out the profane
and wretched and, in the end, flouts a sacred social taboo by falling
in love with his own sister. Jamila, on the other hand, becomes
the embodiment of the passive and devout believer. However, because
we have already witnessed Jamila’s growth and development, not to
mention her forceful and magnetic personality, we know that underneath
the ever-present veil remains a complex individual. Jamila’s love
for the unleavened bread represents a seemingly minor transgression,
but it highlights the fact that religious purity cannot completely
efface an individual’s character or desires.
Throughout the novel, romantic love has remained noticeably absent
or, at the very least, elusive. Often unrequited—and when it is
requited, just as often erroneous and unfounded—romantic love has
a played a complicated and frequently contradictory role in the novel’s
development. Saleem blames his parents’ newfound love for the destruction
of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference, just as his love for his
sister ironically destroys the intimate connection they once shared.
For Saleem, every act of love seems inevitably to carry an act of
destruction with it, a connection that speaks as much to the complicated
intentions behind each action as it does to a larger, universal
claim about love’s cataclysmic potential. At the same time, unrequited
love continues to play a dominant role in shaping the lives of the
characters. From Mutasim’s and Saleem’s failed courtship of Jamila
to Zafar’s never-consecrated marriage, love extracts a heavy toll.
Alia, after a number of years, remains burdened by anger and jealousy
at having been denied Ahmed’s love, while Jamila, shrouded in purity,
remains unable to accept it.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Midnight’s Children!