Saleem introduces his companion, Padma, an uneducated and illiterate woman. Padma, whose name roughly translate to “The One Who Possesses Dung,” works as a cook, and she spends much time cooking for Saleem and urging him, unsuccessfully, to eat. Padma is independent and direct, and fiercely loyal to Saleem, who describes her as a “bitch-in-the-manger.”
Like all the women in Saleem’s life, Padma is controlling and independent; however, Saleem continues to exercise power over her by calling her a bitch. Ultimately, Saleem has the upper hand, which he uses to devalue and marginalize Padma.
Saleem continues writing his story, again making reference to Scheherazade. He begins with Aadam and his mother, who resents her son’s visits to examine Naseem. Mr. Ghani has taken to summoning Aadam weekly to assess his daughter’s myriad of minor complaints—such as constipation, an ingrown toenail, and a twisted ankle—and Aadam’s mother believes she is sick only because she is spoiled. She attempts to make Aadam feel guilty for running to Naseem so frequently—and ignoring his own sick mother in the process.
Aadam’s mother—covered in painful boils on account of exiting purdah—senses Mr. Ghani’s plan to marry Naseem and Aadam, and she is not prepared to share her son with another woman. She wants to be Aadam’s first priority. After all, his mother’s sacrifice (made on behalf of her family) is what is making her sick, and Aadam is constantly leaving her, running to the aid of a veiled woman. Aadam’s mother is unable to trust a woman who hides behind a veil.
For three years, as the Great War rages on far away from Kashmir, Aadam falls in love with Naseem through the perforated sheet, despite his mother’s protests. Aadam’s mother is convinced that Naseem’s illnesses are Mr. Ghani’s attempts to marry his daughter to a doctor, but Aadam is helpless. Naseem soon complains of breast lumps and a pulled muscle in her upper thigh, and Aadam must examine these intimate areas via the hole in the sheet. He knows that his feelings are unprofessional, but the perforated sheet has become “something sacred and magical,” and his love for Naseem begins to fill the hole created when he hit his nose on the prayer-mat.
Aadam falls in love with Naseem one piece at a time; however, as a whole, Aadam and Naseem are completely incompatible. Aadam falls under the spell of a partitioned woman, yet in their future marriage, he is unable to love her in her entirety. In this same vein, Rushdie argues against the partitioning of India. Since Aadam falls in love with individual pieces of Naseem, their relationship is doomed to fail. Similarly, a partitioned India is likewise doomed.
On the day World War I ends, Naseem complains of a headache, and Aadam is finally able to see her face through the perforated sheet. When Aadam lays eyes on Naseem’s face, his “fall is complete.” Naseem comments only on the size of Aadam’s nose, and Mr. Ghani smiles, pleased with himself.
Saleem frequently mentions world events in the telling of his story, and this serves to highlight how Eastern societies are sidelined on the world stage. Aadam is not affected by this large-scale war, cementing the East and West as two separate entities.
In the meantime, Tai, the old boatman refuses to bathe or change his clothes. He repeatedly floats his boat past the Aadam’s home, causing the flowers to die, and when the villagers who hire his services ask him to bathe, he tells them to ask “that German Aziz.” The villagers begin to blame Aadam for Tai’s offensive odor, and his business suffers because of it. Aadam begins to believe that Tai is trying to chase him out of town.
Tai’s refusal to bathe reflects the West’s opinion of the East as savage and uncivilized, and this is how he punishes Aadam for becoming Westernized. Furthermore, as over one million Indians were forced to fight on the Western front by British colonizers during WWI, many of whom were killed or injured, Tai’s reference to Aadam as a German carries a highly negative connotation.
Aadam’s father falls ill and dies, and his mother follows shortly after. Ilse Lubin comes to Kashmir to visit Aadam and tells him that her husband, Oskar, was stuck by a car during a protest and killed. Aadam is awarded a job at Agra University, and he sells his family’s home and the gemstone business.
Aadam easily walks away from a home and business built by his parents—one which his mother suffered to save—and this reflects his commitment to his new, modern life, and his rejection of Old India. Oskar’s death foreshadows the price to be paid for Old India’s transition into New India.
Aadam asks Mr. Ghani for Naseem’s hand in marriage, and he is happy to oblige. Aadam runs to tell Ilse the good news but can’t find her. She has taken Tai’s ferry to the part of Dal Lake where foreign women go to drown and is soon found dead. Aadam blames Tai, who quickly falls ill (and refuses to be examined by Dr. Aziz).
The trope of a man asking a woman’s father for her hand in marriage further reflects the patriarchal nature of Indian society. Both Aadam and Mr. Ghani deny Naseem the agency to decide her own fate, and her husband is chosen for her, rather than by her. Tai’s ferrying of Ilse to the deadly part of Dal Lake represents his bitterness towards the West; however, his illness is a reflection of his guilt for playing a part in the young girl’s death.
Aadam and Naseem are married, and the perforated sheet is utilized on their wedding night, providing proof of their union during the consummation ceremony the next day in the form of three drops of blood. Aadam and Naseem begin to ready themselves to move to Agra for Aadam’s new job. As Saleem writes, he recalls finding the perforated sheet in a trunk while searching for a ghost costume as a child. He puts on the sheet, and both Aadam and Naseem respond angrily. Padma insists that Saleem read his story out loud to her as he writes.
Islamic tradition often dictates that marital consummation is publicly confirmed by presenting the wedding-night sheets the next morning. Often hung like a flag for all to see, blood on the sheet is viewed not only as proof of the couple’s sexual union, but also as an indication of a woman’s virginity and purity. Culturally, the sheet is significant to both Aadam and Naseem’s identities, despite their unhappy marriage, and this is evident in their anger when Saleem uses it as a costume.
Saleem flashes back to 1919, where Aadam is in the city of Amritsar. The busy city streets are a far cry from the quiet Kashmiri village, and Naseem is having a difficult time adjusting. Aadam’s nose begins to itch, and he senses something is wrong.
Despite Aadam’s desire to live a modern and more Westernized life, he still suffers from culture shock once he leaves Kashmir and arrives in a large city. Again, Aadam’s nose alerts him to the danger and violence that will accompany India’s continued move towards independence.
Aadam and Naseem are stuck in a hotel in Amritsar because the trains are not running on account of Mahatma Gandhi’s hartal, and Naseem is growing increasingly irritated with the inconvenience. Aadam notices a young Indian soldier taking part in the hartal and comments that the Rowlatt act (which declared a state of emergency in British India) is a mistake. He reflects on his Kashmiri identity, noting that he feels differently than other Indians, and he is unsure if the hartal is his fight.
Naseem’s indifference towards Gandhi’s hartal is evidence of her indifference towards politics and society. She cares nothing about independence, and she sees the suffering of other Indians as an inconvenience. Aadam’s reluctance to join the hartal is evidence of his crisis of identity—as a Kashmiri, he feels disconnected from other Indians.
Meanwhile, Naseem is upset because Aadam has asked her to “move a little” during sex and has told her to come out of purdah. Naseem views her husband’s sexual desires and his support of unveiling as a direct result of his Western education. Angrily, Aadam gathers all of Naseem’s veils and sets fire to them in a garbage can, setting much of the hotel room ablaze. After the fire is out, he tells Naseem to stop being “a good Kashmiri girl” and start “being a modern Indian woman.”
Aadam’s insistence that Naseem perform sexually is, to her, another product of his Western exposure and education. She values Old India and has no desire to move forward. She also values purdah, and unlike Aadam’s mother, is resistant to unveiling for any reason. Aadam’s burning of her veils symbolically represents Naseem’s new freedom and identity as a woman; although, ironically, he gives her no choice and forces this decision onto her.
During the hartal, Aadam remains in Amritsar treating those injured by rioting mobs in the street. He bandages wounds and applies Mercurochrome, which stains his clothes red. Naseem mistakes the Mercurochrome for blood, and when Aadam corrects her, she becomes irritated, claiming that she isn’t stupid and has read several books.
As a doctor, Aadam participates in the hartal in a more indirect way. This allows him to support other Indians without actually taking up their cause completely. Naseem believes that Aadam tricks her with the Mercurochrome on purpose as a way to prove his superior intelligence—he assumes that she won’t know any better and will think him covered in blood.
As public tension rises in Amritsar, Martial Law is declared and Aadam refuses to leave in case more people need his help. He happens upon a peaceful protest, and his nose begins to itch. Brigadier R. E. Dyer arrives at the protest accompanied by fifty troops, and Aadam feels a sneeze forming. As Aadam sneezes, he loses his balance and drops his medical bag, the contents spilling onto the street. Aadam crawls around, attempting to save his equipment, as Brigadier Dyer orders his troops to open fire on the protestors.
As Aadam continues to ignore his nose and its warnings of danger, but his sneeze essentially saves his life. Brigadier R. E. Dyer is one of a few historical characters in Rushdie’s novel, and the massacre in Amritsar is an actual historical event. Indians were enraged by Dyer’s unjustified use of force, and when Britain failed to fully condemn him, it became a turning-point in India’s move towards independence.
As bodies fall dead onto Aadam, the metal clasp of his bag digs into his chest, leaving a severe bruise that Saleem notes does not fade until after his grandfather’s death many, many years later. When the shooting stops and Aadam is able to return to Naseem, he is covered in blood—which she mistakes for Mercurochrome. Naseem faints when Aadam corrects her and tells her it is blood.
Aadam’s nonfading bruise serves as a constant reminder of the massacre and the British Raj (Britain’s rule over India). The fact that Aadam’s bruise does not fade until after his death suggests that he is not truly free of British power until his death.
Saleem notes that his skin is beginning to crack, and he knows that his death is near. He thinks about Tai, who recovered from his mysterious illness only to be shot dead years later while protesting India and Pakistan’s dispute over the territory of Kashmir in 1947.
Saleem’s skin cracks as a result of India’s partitioning and social dissention. As the country metaphorically cracks and separates, Saleem, as the personification of India, begins to literally crack.