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Saleem survives the bombing campaign but retains no memory
of his past. When Padma starts to weep for his dead family, he yells
at her to weep for him instead. He describes the events following
the bombing as if he were narrating a movie trailer.
Saleem describes a secret army camp in the hills. An army
officer, Brigadier Iskander, yells at three young recruits to the
army’s Canine Unit for Tracking Intelligence Activity (CUTIA),.
The army has assigned these three teenage boys—Ayooba Balcoh, Farooq
Rashid, and Shaheed Dar—to work with something called the man-dog, tracking
down rebels. Saleem, meanwhile, sits cross-legged under a tree,
holding a silver spittoon in his hand. The recruits have heard various
rumors about the man-dog: that his sister is the famous Jamila Singer,
that he comes from a wealthy family, and that he can’t feel anything
but has amazing tracking abilities. The man-dog is, of course, Saleem
himself. Ayooba, Farooq, and Shaheed nickname Saleem ‘buddha,’ or
old man, which Saleem finds appropriate because of its religious
connotations. Saleem claims that Jamila put him in the army’s care
to punish him for loving her. After months of training together,
Saleem begins to irritate the three boys, especially Ayooba. Irritation
seems to be in the air since, in the eastern portion of Pakistan,
Sheikh Mujib, the leader of the Bangladeshi independence movement,
is agitating to form his own government. Saleem grows fond of the
gloomy, private Shaheed, however. Shaheed’s name means “martyr,”
and Shaheed often has dreams of his own death, in which he sees
a bright pomegranate floating in front of him.
The Pakistani troops assemble on March 15, 1971, and fly
to Dacca along with sixty thousand other troops. At midnight on March
25, the troops march into the city and Saleem leads his team to
Sheik Mujib. As they drive through the streets, they see the Pakistani
troops murdering, raping, and pillaging the town. Ten million refugees
flee from Bangladesh into India. Saleem says the human mind cannot
comprehend this number, despite the news headlines that proclaim
the “biggest migration in history.” Despite all the atrocities they
witness, Saleem and his unit refuse to question orders. Setting
out to track an unnamed individual, they move further and further
out of the city. They commandeer a boat and head down the Padma
River. Saleem reveals to readers that he is leading his companions
on a meaningless chase, since they’re following an imaginary enemy.
He directs them from one place to the next, eventually driving them
into the Sundarbans, an enormous jungle on the border of Bangladesh
and India that is a maze of foliage and waterways.
Saleem admits that no enemy awaits them in the Sundarbans.
No longer able to accept orders, he flees and takes the three boys
with him. As the jungle closes in on them, the group realizes they
are lost. Rain begins to fill the boat, so they pull onto dry land.
Drinking the rain that falls from the leaves, the insane logic of
the jungle infects them. The days pass in a haze. Ayooba sees the
ghost of a man he killed, and the ghost’s fluids drip onto his arm,
paralyzing it. All the men begin to see the ghosts of the people
they have arrested. After the nightmares, they become overwhelmed
by nostalgia, and begin to see images from their past. Saleem, however,
remembers nothing until a poisonous snake bites him in the heel.
After two days on the verge of death, Saleem’s memory
comes flooding back to him. He tells the three boys his entire life
story, but in the end he cannot remember his own name. The ghosts
come back. In order to silence them, the three boys fill their ears
with mud, becoming deaf as a result. The four wander through the
jungle and come across an ancient Hindu temple, dedicated to the
multi-limbed goddess Kali. Inside the temple, four beautiful women
visit them and take them into their arms night after night. Saleem
realizes that they are all growing increasingly hollow and translucent.
They notice four skeletons in the corner, and can see that the temple
is on the verge of falling apart. They flee from the temple and
head back to the boat, where an enormous tidal wave carries them
out of the Sundarbans. It’s October 1971. In the present time, Saleem
notes that no tidal waves were recorded that month.
When Saleem and the boys return, they discover that guerrilla soldiers
led by Mukti Bahini have begun to terrorize the Pakistani Army with
sniper attacks. In a deserted village, the three boys begin to panic.
Saleem, however, can only think about his name and how unfair everything
is. He begins to weep, and Ayooba comes over to comfort him. At
that moment, a bullet zips by and kills Ayooba. Saleem, Shaheed,
and Farooq steal some bikes and begin pedaling. In December, they
arrive at a field outside of Dacca, littered with rotting corpses.
A peasant stands nearby, selling what he has scavenged. He tells
Saleem that India has joined the war, led by a man with enormous,
powerful knees. A bullet whips through the air, killing Farooq.
Saleem stumbles across the field and comes upon a tangled pyramid
of bodies. The bodies are those of Saleem’s childhood friends, Eyeslice,
Hairoil, and Sonny. The latter speaks briefly to Saleem before dying.
Saleem says he believes the war happened in order to reunite him
with his old friends.
In these chapters, Saleem transforms into a half-animal,
half god-like figure. Relieved of his memory, Saleem cannot feel
pain or emotion, implying that a connection to our past represents
an essential part of being human. Saleem spends his days sitting
under a tree, free from the trials of his past, the monklike hairdo
he first adopted as a child giving him an added air of religious
solemnity. Once again, we witness a melding of religious traditions,
as Saleem comes to resemble both a Christian monk and the figure
of the Buddha. Saleem’s new, divine affectation contrasts with the
army’s derisive nickname for him, “the man-dog.” Part beast, part
divine figure, Saleem one again represents the meeting point of
the sacred and the profane. He willfully acknowledges how his life
currently resembles a cheap movie, indulging in that similarity
as he recounts the following events in the style of a movie trailer.
Saleem’s story hardly skips a beat between the two wars,
the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir and the 1971 conflict over Bangladeshi
independence. The central role that politics and warfare played
in the shaping of India and Pakistan’s history becomes increasingly
evident. The violence escalates and grows larger in scale as Saleem
plays the dual roles of witness and active participant in the pillaging
of Dacca. At this point, informing the reader of the factual details
of the military conflict becomes one of the narrative’s clear objectives.
Saleem takes care to list the names of major generals and political
leaders, not to mention the political events occurring in India
at the same time. In these chapters, Saleem’s story becomes equal
parts history lesson and wartime memoir.
Saleem enters the Sundarbans to leave behind what he has
seen and done, yet ironically manages to reclaim his memory there.
The jungle of the Sundarbans is a densely magical place, populated
by voices, ghosts, and apparitions. The massive, mysterious tidal
wave that carries Saleem and his companions out of the jungle seems
a fitting conclusion to the interlude. The snake that bites Saleem
in the heel, thereby restoring his memory, represents the latest
instance of the novel’s snake motif, following Joseph D’Costa’s
snakebites, Dr. Schaapsteker’s life saving venom, and Saleem’s beloved
Snakes and Ladders board game. Snake venom saved Saleem’s life once
before, and now it brings that life back to him. As the young Saleem
noted, the distinction between good and evil, or snakes and ladders,
is always ambiguous. With his memory restored, Saleem can now encounter
his childhood friends. In one of the novel’s more tragic and violent
images, Saleem stumbles across the human pyramid of dying bodies,
comprised of Eyeslice, Hairoil, and Sonny Ibrahim. The bodies of
his dying friends, and the description of Farooq’s death, which
very closely echoes Aadam Aziz’s prayer from the opening chapter,
demonstrate how images of the past can become corrupted and deformed
by the violence of the present. Time and age have only made matters
worse for the former children of Methwold’s Estate.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Midnight’s Children!