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On December 15, 1971, Tiger Niazi, the Pakistani army
officer in charge of the war against Bangladesh, surrenders to his
Indian counterpart and old friend, Sam Manekshaw. Saleem says that
he, in turn, surrendered to an old friend, a girl with saucer eyes.
As Saleem and Shaheed return to Dacca, they once again
witness the Pakistani army’s atrocities. Saleem enters a deserted
house that once belonged to a notary, while Shaheed stands outside
watching the soldiers. Shaheed looks up just in time to see a grenade
heading toward him. It explodes at his midsection, splitting him
in half. Shaheed points to a nearby mosque and asks Saleem to bring
him to the top of it. Once there, a trail of ants follows Shaheed’s
blood and begins to devour him. The mosque’s loudspeaker picks up
his screams, echoing them throughout the city.
As the Indian army advances into the defeated city, a
troop of magicians precedes them. A snake charmer by the name of
Picture Singh travels with the troops, along with Parvati-the-witch,
one of the former midnight’s children. Parvati sees Saleem and shouts
out his name, restoring his lost identity to him and reuniting him
with an old, lost friend. At the same time, Sam and Tiger reminisce
about their old days in the British Army, and Tiger denies rumors
of war crimes. Parvati offers to help Saleem escape from Pakistan
by magically transporting him in her basket. Saleem disappears into
the basket, and while inside he discovers a rage within him, an
anger at all he has seen and had done to him, everything that he
has “blindly accepted.”
Saleem says that the Widow has now drained the anger out
of him, but at that time, his anger was responsible for restoring
his ability to feel.
Twenty-six pickle-jars sit on a shelf, corresponding to
the twenty-six chapters of the novel thus far. Padma suggests, hopefully,
taking a Kashmiri vacation with Saleem.
By the time Saleem arrives in India and stumbles out of
the basket, Indira Gandhi’s New Congress Party holds a two-thirds
majority in the National Assembly. Saleem becomes determined to
save the country. At the magician’s ghetto, which lies in the shadow
of a mosque, an old woman named Resham Bibi tells Saleem to leave before
he destroys everything. However, Picture Singh, as the head of the
magician’s ghetto, declares Saleem his personal guest.
Saleem decides to leave soon after, though, because he
remains convinced that he will play a crucial role in India’s salvation
and feels that his destiny will be impossible to fulfill while living
in the ghetto with Parvati and Picture. He decides to go to his
uncle, Mustapha Aziz, a senior Civil Servant, for assistance. Saleem
admits that he also had a personal, less noble reason for leaving.
In Dacca, Parvati had seen Shiva, driving through the streets in
a tank and decorated as a military hero. Parvati asked Shiva for
a lock of his hair, and Shiva obliged. Parvati felt hopeful that
the meeting was a good sign, and that the three of them would someday
be reunited. Saleem admits that a fear of seeing Shiva again also
prompted him to leave.
When Saleem arrives at his uncle’s house, his uncle’s
wife greets him harshly. Saleem learns that all of his relatives
have died and enters a 400-day mourning period for them. He also
learns that once his sister discovered that he had disappeared during
the war, she turned against the government and began to criticize
it openly. Jamila is never seen or heard from again. Saleem, however,
has a dream in which Jamila returns to the secret monastery where
he used to get her leavened bread. On the 418th day of his stay,
a man whom Saleem believes might be Indira Gandhi’s son comes over
to dinner. Saleem sees a black leather folder in his uncle’s study,
labeled Top Secret and titled “Project M.C.C.” Saleem says he doesn’t
condemn his uncle, and notes that he, too, has been a traitor before.
Saleem says that, although he didn’t know this at the time, the
Gandhi family has acquired the ability to replicate themselves,
and that is why they wanted to impose birth control on everyone
Parvati-the-witch visits Saleem the next day. That evening,
Saleem’s aunt finds him in bed with Parvati and throws them out
of the house. Back in the ghetto, Picture Singh and Saleem discuss
the rampant corruption in the government and in the country. Parvati-the-witch
shows Saleem the full extent of her fantastic magical powers, casting
spells to grow his hair back, erase the birthmarks on his face, and
straighten his bandy legs. However, she remains restless, because
she wants more than friendship from Saleem. Yet every time Saleem
tries to sleep with Parvati, he sees her face transform into a grotesque
version of his sister’s. After repeated efforts, Parvati gives up,
developing a permanent pout on her lips. When Picture Singh suggests
that Saleem marry her, Saleem lies and says that he’s impotent,
thereby wishing upon himself the curse that once afflicted Nadir
Khan and, briefly, his father.
Shaheed’s cry of agony, broadcast over the mosque loudspeaker, comprises
one of the novel’s most chilling and brutal moments. Shaheed’s scream
expresses the narrative outrage at the senseless deaths of thousands
of young men during the Indo-Pakistan war. Shaheed’s name means
martyr, and in the end he does die like a martyr, the shining pomegranate
of his dream transforming into a live grenade and destroying the
lower half of his body. However, Shaheed is unlike a martyr in that
his death proves incidental and capricious, and thus martyrdom itself,
at least in this conflict, is revealed to be an empty notion. His
death serves no purpose and makes no statement—it is merely gruesome,
painful, and tragic. Searching for some dignity and meaning, and
seeking to fulfill the weighty prophecy of his given name, Shaheed
asks Saleem to bring him to the top of the mosque. However, instead
of finding God there, Shaheed finds himself being consumed by greedy
ants. Shaheed’s death gains no nobility in the mosque, and his split
corpse proves no more sacred than the dead cockroach the ants had
previously been feasting on. The mechanized call to prayer—a recorded
voice, which always skips in the same place—reinforces this feeling
of hollowness. Shaheed’s scream, however, is real.
Though he cannot articulate words, the Shaheed’s voice cries out
not only for his own death, but also for the thousands of other
atrocities being committed throughout the country.
After Parvati transports Saleem to the magician’s ghetto,
he ends up living in the shadow of yet another mosque, an echo of
the mosque that loomed over his aunt Alia’s house in Karachi, the
site of his family’s extermination. The combination of this ominous
setting and Resham Bibi’s warnings seems to suggest doom for Saleem. After
leaving the ghetto for his uncle’s house, Saleem makes two startling
revelations. He learns about the death of his family members and
discovers his uncle’s secret folder, labeled “Project M.C.C.” In
addition, a mysterious man comes to visit his uncle—who, despite
being a Muslim, remains a deeply devoted Indian civil servant. Saleem
believes the man to be Sanjay Gandhi, elder son of Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi, though he never manages to confirm his suspicions.
Sanjay was the government official primarily responsible for the
sterilization campaign, a central program enacted during the State
of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi between 1975-1977. When Saleem
sees the man he believes to be Sanjay, he says that the prime minister’s
family had discovered how to replicate themselves. This is a sly
reference to the Gandhi political dynasty, which began with Indira’s
father and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and continued
through Indira and onto Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi. Even today,
the Gandhi family remains hugely influential in Indian politics,
with Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, serving as president of the Indian National
Congress Party, and Rajiv’s children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka
Vadera, politically active as well.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Midnight’s Children!