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Padma becomes upset at Saleem because he has used the
word love in reference to her. Saleem returns to
his story and describes a painting of Walter Raleigh that hung above
his crib as a child. In the painting, a fisherman points off into
the distance, and Saleem speculates as to what his finger might
be pointing at.
Amina and Ahmed bring Saleem home from the hospital. Saleem is
not a beautiful baby, but he is a large one, with an enormous cucumber
nose and blue eyes that the family assumes came from his grandfather.
The residents of the estate pass him around like a doll, and Mary
and his mother dote on him. Wee Willie Winkie continues to come
to the compound and sing, eventually bringing his son, Shiva, who
has knobby knees and, according to Saleem, will later be saved by
a war. The baby Saleem witnesses all of the compound inhabitants’
private lives—their affairs, fights, and habits. Saleem the grown-up
narrator claims responsibility for almost everything that happens,
including his father’s eventual alcoholism. Feeling neglected by
his wife, Ahmed begins to flirt with his secretaries and curse Amina.
He later embarks on a scheme with his neighbor, Dr. Narlikar, to
reclaim land from the ocean with tetrapods. One day, Ahmed receives
a letter from the government saying his assets have been frozen,
presumably because of his Muslim faith. The news gives him a permanent
chill and sends him to bed, thereby allowing for the conception
of Saleem’s sister, the Brass Monkey.
During the winter of 1948, bad omens appear everywhere.
To make ends meet, the family rents the top floor of the house to
Dr. Schaapsteker, who has spent his life studying snakes. Amina
writes her parents a letter, telling them of their hard luck, and
Aadam and Reverend Mother arrive a few days later. Reverend Mother
takes over the household, and her temperament seeps into the food
she cooks. From this, Amina finds a new, courageous spirit. She
takes the money from her dowry to the racetrack, where she wins
repeatedly. She takes some of the money and pays their neighbor,
Ismail, to fight the government’s freezing of Ahmed’s assets. Saleem
claims that, even though he was just a baby, he was responsible
for his mother’s amazing success at the racetrack.
As a child, Saleem loves to play the board game Snakes
and Ladders. For him, the game perfectly reflects an essential truth:
for every “ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the
corner,” and vice versa. However, the game lacks the ambiguities
that are part of life. Saleem offers Amina’s brother Hanif as an
example of the rule of snakes and ladders. Instead of moving to
Pakistan, Hanif moved to Bombay, to follow his dream of making movies.
He marries a beautiful film star and becomes the youngest film director
in Indian cinema history. On the opening night of his film, however,
the theater manager interrupts the screening to announce that Mahatma Gandhi
has been killed. Amina and her husband run home and board up the
house, terrified that if the killer turns out to be a Muslim, violence
will break out. But the killer is revealed to be a Hindu, and the
family returns to normal, thereby illustrating Saleem’s point that
for every up there is a down, and for every down an up.
Mary, the ayah, and Musa, the longtime house bearer, engage
in a hostile battle. Musa, believing he’s about to be fired, steals
some of the family’s valuables. They catch him before he can escape,
and Musa leaves the house ashamed. Saleem reminds us that Musa will eventually
One night, Mary Pereira sees the figure of a man floating
across the rooftops. The family calls the police. They execute a
sting operation and, in the process, shoot and kill the shadowy
figure. The dead man is revealed to be Joseph D’Costa, Mary’s former
lover, since turned terrorist. Soon after, baby Saleem falls ill
with typhoid. The family expects him to die, until Dr. Schaapsteker
offers a remedy made of snake poison. The poison saves Saleem’s
life, lending Saleem “an early awareness of the ambiguity of snakes.”
The government unfreezes Ahmed’s assets. Saleem’s sister, nicknamed
the Brass Monkey because of the red-gold hair she sports at her
birth, arrives with no fanfare. Saleem closes by noting that his
sister learned from an early age that if she wanted attention, she
would have to make a lot of noise to get it.
Saleem not only claims that he was immediately conscious
and self-aware as an infant but also that he was ultimately responsible
for the events that unfolded during his early childhood. Saleem
has placed himself at the center of his world—his significance confirmed
by a prime minister’s letter, a newspaper photo, and the predictions
of a holy man. At the same time, Saleem is perfectly aware of his
features, particularly his enormous nose, which he willingly describes as
ugly. Saleem’s features, however, are more than just his own: he has
his grandfather’s nose and eyes, and yet he is not biologically related
to Aadam Aziz. He has two birthmarks, which he describes as being
on the west and east sides of his face, and a nose shaped like a
cucumber. His face resembles, to some degree, a map of the Indian subcontinent.
The baby Saleem is already devouring the world with his
gaze, in much the same way that the narrative crams itself with
incredible amounts of data and sensory experience. Saleem takes
responsibility for everything, saying “everything that happened,
happened because of me.” Like the narrative, Saleem struggles to
contain everything within his grasp. From his father’s alcoholism
to the petty affairs of the estate, Saleem wants to claim it all
as his, no doubt in part to fulfill the enormous weight and prophecy
placed on him since birth. He has piled the frustrated desires and
failures of his world onto himself. Rushdie began the novel with
references to Adam and the Garden of Eden, and here he draws parallels
between young Saleem and the Christ child, as both are presented
as magical, redemptive infants whose powers had been prophesied
long before their births. Saleem’s ayah, who represents as strongly
a maternal figure as Amina does, is named Mary, like Jesus’ mother,
and she has a love interest named Joseph, like Jesus’s father. When
Amina goes to the racetrack, the baby Saleem claims to have performed
what could be called his first miracle: he multiplies.
Continuing to make use of myths, religions, and symbols,
Rushdie employs a childhood board game, Snakes and Ladders, to reinterpret
the image of the snake. In the Bible, the devil appears to Adam
and Eve as a snake and tempts Eve to break their promise to God
and eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Traditionally, good and evil,
like snakes and ladders, are seen as opposing and separate forces.
However, in real life, these clear categories become confused, and
the distinction between them can be ambiguous. The fact that Dr.
Schaapsteker could save Saleem’s life by using snake poison represents
the notion that the line separating good and evil is never as stark
or clear as one might like.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Midnight’s Children!