Saleem continues his story for an eager Padma; but before he does, he quickly recaps how far he has come. He flies through thirty-two years of history and stories, reminding Padma, “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” Ending his summary with Mary Pereira just days before his birth, Saleem says, “all these made me, too.”
Saleem is an accumulation of the stories and people who came before him. To understand Saleem, Padma must also understand William Methwold and Mary Pereira, along with their Western customs and Christianity, as they all have had a hand in shaping who Saleem has become.
Saleem begins on August 13, 1947, and Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus are all “moving into the most ill-favored house of all,” Karamstan. With trouble in the heavens, Earl Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India, prepares to exit the country, and M. A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, is sure his own country will be born a full day before India.
As independence draws near, British India prepares for its first act of Partition through the creation of the new country of Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan is formed a full day ahead of India echoes their self-proclaimed purity and perceived importance over the secular nation.
Amina, terribly pregnant and miserable, takes a fitful nap. As she dreams, Ahmed visits with Methwold in the garden. Waxing nostalgic and short on time, Methwold reminisces about his ancestors “who dreamed the city into existence.” Feeling the need to compete, Ahmed (in an Oxford drawl) tells Methwold about his own distinguished—albeit fictional—ancestors of the Mughal Dynasty, who passed down an ancient family curse, which “hasn’t been used since an ancestor quarreled with the Emperor Babar and put the curse on his son Humayun.”
The lies that Ahmed tells Methwold about his ancestors meant to prove his Indian identity has lasting effects on Ahmed’s true identity. Through telling Methwold this fictional story, Ahmed begins to truly believe that his origins lie with the Mughal Dynasty (Indian royalty for all intents and purposes), and he is unable to distinguish his true identity from his story. In this way, Ahmed becomes his story, and this highlights the power of storytelling.
On the last night before independence, alone in Agra, Aadam Aziz is compelled to open an old tin trunk, which contains old magazines and Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? along with an old prayer-mat and the blood-stained perforated sheet. As he removes the sheet, Aadam discovers that (because Reverend Mother forgot the naphthalene balls) moths have thoroughly eaten it, and the infamous hole, now indistinguishable, is one of many.
Aadam has long since dreamed of a secular state, and with independence, his dream is about to come true. Sadly, the perforated sheet, which serves as a metaphorical symbol of Adam and Naseem’s early love, has not endured the passing of time, much like Aadam and Reverend Mother’s actual love and marriage.
As Saleem counts down the hours until his birth, he briefly acknowledges what others were doing on that star-crossed night. As the Muslim nation of Pakistan is born, Vanita endures “protracted, unproductive labor” at Dr. Narlikar’s hospital, and countless Indians celebrate in Bombay streets. At the same time, Punjabi Indians “wash themselves in one another’s blood” as they war over partitioned land, and Mahatma Gandhi takes a “long pacifying walk.” With twelve hours to go before independence, Amina wakes from a nightmare, and at eight hours, William Methwold arrives at his estate for the last time, stands in the center of the property, and salutes.
As the Muslim nation of Pakistan is metaphorically born, Vanita, a Hindu-Indian woman, finds her own literal labor stalled, and this highlights the social and religious dissent between the two countries. The death of the Punjabi Indians and Gandhi’s non-violent protest further depict the social unrest that is the result of independence and the subsequent Partition, and Amina’s nightmare is another omen of the trouble yet to come.
With six hours to go, the residents of Methwold’s Estate gather in the garden for cocktail hour, and stare disbelievingly at the Englishman who still stands stiffly in the center of the property. Suddenly, a strange and disheveled—yet obviously holy—man wanders onto the estate and claims he has “come to await the coming of the One,” and at that exact moment, Amina yells out in pain.
By this point, Methwold has been standing in the center of the property for two full hours, and he is drawing increased attention as he bids a final farewell to his beloved estate. Like Ramram, the homeless stranger also prophesizes Saleem’s upcoming arrival, along with the significance of his fateful birthday.
Ahmed rushes Amina to Dr. Narlikar’s hospital, where Vanita continues to strain with the assistance of Mary Pereira. In the commotion of Amina’s labor, just as the sun sets on Methwold’s Estate for the last time in British India, William Methwold stands at its center and removes a perfectly parted hairpiece—the very hair that had seduced Vanita. He turns and leaves and is never seen again.
Methwold’s hairpiece is evidence of his deception. The part of him that Vanita finds irresistible is a lie, just as his presence in India is rooted in deception. Methwold claims a desire to better the lives of the Indian people by bringing them European government and Christianity; however, colonization is simply a ploy to gain power and control over the Indian people.
At twenty-nine minutes to midnight, Amina’s labor picks up and Vanita’s drags on. Meanwhile, the Bombay police are hunting through crowds of celebrating Indians looking for a dangerous criminal, Joseph D’Costa. With two minutes to go, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, begins a speech, Amina begins to crown, and Vanita enters the terminal stage of her labor.
Both Amina and Vanita enter the final stage of labor as the Prime Minister Nehru begins his speech, indicating that both babies will be metaphorically connected to India, just as Ramram’s prophecy indicated.
Having paced for hours, Ahmed looks for a chair, and finding one, he carries it back to the waiting room. A few seconds after midnight, Dr. Narlikar bursts into the room and tells Ahmed that he has a son, causing him to drop the chair and shatter his big toe. The loud banging noise draws the minimal staff of the hospital to the waiting room to investigate, and they all fuss about Ahmed’s broken toe.
The independence celebration has caused the hospital to be short-staffed, and the available staff is busy worrying about Ahmed’s toe. They fuss over Ahmed because as a wealthy man, he takes precedence over everyone else, and they neglect Vanita to ensure that his toe is cared for.
With the staff engaged with Ahmed, Mary Pereira is left alone with the two midnight babies, Vanita having finally given birth at the exact same time as Amina. Heartbroken and thinking about Joseph, in “her own private revolutionary act,” Mary swaps the nametags on the cribs, switching rich with poor, and prays, “Love me, Joseph!” A moment later, at three minutes after independence, Vanita hemorrhages and dies, as the hospital staff tends to Ahmed’s broken toe.
Mary’s revolutionary act is a direct reference to Joseph’s communist leanings. Communism encourages the lower class to rise up against the oppression of the upper class, and Mary’s swap of the children is her own attempt at anarchy. In the aftermath, Vanita dies because the hospital staff places more value on Ahmed’s toe than her life.
Three days later, Mary is racked with guilt. Joseph is still in the wind, and he has left Alice too. In an attempt to atone for her sinful secret, Mary quits Dr. Narlikar’s hospital and offers her services to Amina as an ayah, which Amina accepts. The Times of India interviews Amina and takes photographs of Saleem, running them under the headline: MIDNIGHT’S CHILD. She is awarded a scant one hundred rupees. Five days later, on August 20, Nussie Ibrahim gives birth to her own son, little Sonny, who, requiring the assistance of forceps, is left with permanent shallow dents beside each temple.
Mary’s revolutionary act has done nothing to get her Joseph back, and all she has is her guilt. Rushdie’s reference to Mary as the Sinais’ ayah is another example of the lasting effects of British colonialism. Traditionally, an ayah is an Indian nanny employed by British colonizers, and even though the Sinais are not British, they still refer to their nanny as an ayah.