Saleem is falling apart, literally cracking “like an old jug” under the stress of his historical birth and his connection to his country. He claims to be breaking into “six hundred and thirty million particles of dust,” and he urgently continues his story. Saleem cooks condiments for a living, preserving jars of chutney and pickles, and he writes his story at night, dedicating his remaining life to the “great work of preserving.”
Saleem is breaking into six hundred and thirty million particles of dust as this is roughly the population of India, further representing his connection to his country. Saleem’s job preserving pickles and chutney mirrors his desire to preserve his own story for posterity, in hopes that his divided country can find some common ground within his message.
Padma is hooked on Saleem’s story, and she has stopped nagging him to eat and sleep. Padma too senses that Saleem’s time is short, and she refuses to leave his side. Saleem remarks on his surprise that she remains so loyal to him despite the fact that he is “unmanned.” Saleem is impotent, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to “hit Padma’s spittoon.”
Padma’s captivated attention of Saleem’s story mirrors that of the King in One Thousand and One Nights, and her indifference to sex is proof of her love for him. Saleem’s questions his masculinity because of his impotence; however, Padma’s acceptance of this suggests that sex is not as important to women as men, or least Saleem, assume.
Saleem’s story flashes back to Agra in 1942, where his grandfather, Aadam, has come down with the “virulent disease” of optimism, begun in the name of Mian Abdullah, also known as the Hummingbird, an Indian politician who creates the Free Islam Convocation, a gathering of Muslim Indians against the religious dogmatism of traditional Islam. Aadam claims that even though he is a Kashmiri and “not much of a Muslim,” he still supports the Hummingbird. Aadam says, “He’s fighting my fight.”
This passage is another reflection of Aadam’s conflicted identity. Despite attempting to break from his own Muslim identity, Aadam still feels connected to the Hummingbird’s fight on behalf of India’s non-traditional Muslims. As religion is such a large part of Aadam’s identity, he is unable to completely break from it, even though he is ambivalent towards God’s existence.
Aadam’s optimism fades in the presence of Naseem, who has morphed into an exceedingly unpleasant woman now referred to as Reverend Mother. In her home, Reverend Mother runs a tight domestic ship, and her command is unchallenged. She continues to resent sex and coming out of purdah, and she has no interest in politics. When Aadam wishes to discuss political happenings, he must go visit his friend, Rani of Cooch Naheen. Saleem notes that as his grandmother begins to age, she repeatedly refers to things and people as “whatsitsname,” a habit, he claims, that worsens with time.
Naseem’s transformation into Reverend Mother represents her dedication to her Muslim religion. Additionally, her unpleasant personality mirrors the loathing she feels for her modern Indian life outside of purdah. Reverend Mother fiercely rules over the domestic sphere because she finds comfort in this traditional role. She is resistant to the idea of a New India, and as such, she refuses to discuss politics. She cares so little for her changing world that she doesn’t even bother to remember the names of things or people.
Saleem tells of an argument ten years earlier in 1932, when Aadam goes behind Reverend Mother’s back and fires their children’s religious tutor because he is “teaching them to hate.” Enraged, Reverend Mother vows not to cook for Aadam until he brings the tutor back. Aadam refuses and stubbornly declines to eat any food, prepared by anyone, until he nearly dies of starvation. Alia, Aadam and Reverend Mother’s “wise child,” suggests that Reverend Mother fake an illness to get Aadam to eat. Her act is successful, and while she recovers from a mysterious pain she refuses to let Aadam examine, he begins to eat.
Saleem’s aside is another reflection of the gender power imbalance within India society. As the patriarch, Aadam refuses to allow his wife to teach her religious beliefs to their children, since her Islamic beliefs don’t align with his own. However, Reverend Mother is not completely powerless, and through her traditional role, she is able to gain the upper hand and punish her husband for disrespecting her and her religion by withholding food.
Saleem returns to 1942, to the Hummingbird’s optimism and the streets of Agra, where old men sit and play hit-the-spittoon, attempting to spit tobacco into a receptacle from increasing distances. Saleem describes an old photograph of Aadam and Rani meeting the Hummingbird, along with his personal secretary, Nadir Khan, who enjoys writing poetry and playing hit-the-spittoon. Saleem tells of the Hummingbird and his strange habit of humming constantly—a hum that would rise and fall in direct relation to his work rate. Nadir shares Aadam’s optimism, and they both oppose the Muslim League, a political party that advocates for the partitioning of India.
Within Rushdie’s novel, spittoons symbolically represent Old India, just like the old men who play hit-the-spittoon in the streets of Agra. As Aadam has abandoned his Muslim faith, he is against the partitioning of India along religious lines, thereby separating Muslims from Hindus, and instead supports the formation of a secular state. The Hummingbird’s political platform rejects Partition, and as such, Aadam supports him over the staunch Muslim League. He also finds an ally in Nadir, whose love of poetry is another echo of storytelling.
With the creation of the Free Islam Convocation, the Hummingbird invents an alternative space for Indian Muslims to unite without the dogmatism and partition talk of the Muslim League, and a second convocation is set to take place in Agra—a stronghold of the Muslim League.
The Hummingbird has made a poor choice bringing the Convocation to Agra. As the city is largely populated by supporters of the Muslim League and Partition, his unifying attempts will not be well received.
As the Hummingbird and Nadir work late at the Convocation offices, a mob of assassins close in. Nadir answers a knock at the door and is met by six masked men in black wielding crescent shaped knives. As the men make their move, the Hummingbird begins to hum at such a high frequency that thousands of nearby dogs ascend the Convocation office and begin ferociously tearing apart the assassins. Sadly, the Hummingbird is already dead, but Nadir is able to escape out of a window, the glass broken from the Hummingbird’s high-pitched hum. Knowing his story is unbelievable, Saleem insists, “It is well known that this is true.”
The Hummingbird’s assassination is a prime example of Rushdie’s use of magical realism. The Hummingbird’s supernatural ability to attract a band of killer dogs with only his hum is clearly farce, yet it successfully represents the very real political upheaval and violence present in Indian society in the years leading up to Partition. This passage also brands Nadir as a coward. Instead of trying to help the Hummingbird, he waits for his chance to escape and save his own life.
Running through the streets of Agra, Nadir hides in a cornfield near Aadam’s house and is discovered by Rashid, the rickshaw boy. Rashid recognizes Nadir as the Hummingbird’s assistant, and Nadir asks Rashid if he knows where he can find Dr. Aziz. Eager to help, Rashid leads Nadir to a door in the side of Aadam’s house, and breaking the lock, shows Nadir inside, swearing secrecy on his “mother’s gray hairs.”
Nadir seeks out Aadam because he knows that he supports the Hummingbird politically. In the Muslim town of Agra, Nadir is sure to find little help otherwise. Rashid, a rare Hindu in a Muslim city, is also willing to help Nadir.