India’s optimism epidemic dies with the Hummingbird, and after the dogs finish their work, the authorities are unable to identify the assassins, or their pay-masters. Aadam is summoned to the university by Major Zulfikar, Brigadier Dodson’s A.D.C., to write the Hummingbird’s death certificate, and when he is through he is compelled to blow his nose. The Convocation is broken and Rani falls ill, taking to her bed. The Muslim League secretly celebrates the fall of the Convocation, and Aadam endures a terrible bout of constipation—an unfortunate side effect of his “Indianized” diet.
Aadam is compelled to blow his nose after completing the death certificate because he suspects Brigadier Dodson and Major Zulfikar of organizing and ordering the Hummingbird’s assassination. Zulfikar is a Muslim, and since both he and Dodson are in favor of partitioning India, the Hummingbird’s optimism is potentially harmful to their own political agenda. Aadam’s constipation is more evidence of his conflicted identity—his own body is unable to tolerate Indian food.
Saleem’s story continues with Aadam sitting on his “thunderbox”—his personal term for his toilet—considering a laxative. Suddenly, a “cowardly” voice comes from the laundry chest in the corner, and Aadam is so startled that his bowels suddenly evacuate. Rashid has hidden Nadir away in Aadam’s thunderbox room, and he meekly begs for asylum. Aadam silently resolves to hide Nadir at all costs.
Aadam spends so much time on his toilet on account of his inability to tolerate his “Indianized” diet that he has a special name for it, and this is further proof of his conflicted identity. Furthermore, Nadir’s refuge in Aadam’s laundry chest echoes Saleem’s own hiding place in his mother’s laundry chest.
Reverend Mother immediately objects to Nadir’s presence in their home. Thinking of their three daughters, Alia, Mumtaz, and Emerald—collectively known in town as the “three bright lights”—she forbids Aadam to hide Nadir away in their home. Aadam yells, “Be silent, woman!” and proceeds to hide him in the spacious rooms underneath their floorboards. Infuriated, Reverend Mother vows silence, claiming “not one word, whatsitsname, will pass my lips from now on,” and a “rotting” silence soon descends over the entire house.
Once again, Reverend Mother is without a say in the running of her own home—the space that she has fiercely claimed as her territory. Aadam makes a one-sided decision to allow Nadir into their home and then silences his wife in a display of his power. Not to be outdone, Reverend Mother enforces her own power through silence. Rushdie’s use of the word “rotting” to describe this silence reflects the scope of Reverend Mother’s power and her ability to make her family miserable.
Major Zulfikar comes to call on Aadam to “tie up a few loose ends.” He is suspicious of Nadir’s disappearance after the Hummingbird’s assassination, and he assumes that the silence in Aadam’s house is a sign of mourning. As Nadir hides beneath his feet, Major Zulfikar falls in love with Emerald and silently vows to marry her. Alia begins seeing Ahmed Sinai, a young, divorced merchant. Reverend Mother is sure that Ahmed intends on marrying Alia and she distrusts him, but because of her vow of silence, she is unable to voice her concerns. The silence of the Aziz home unnerves Ahmed, and the question remains unasked.
Nadir is a “loose end” as far as Zulfikar is concerned, and he is a presumed threat to the Muslim League as long as he is alive and unaccounted for. Reverend Mother’s refusal to warn Alia of her distrust for Ahmed Sinai because of her vow of silence is evidence of her selfishness. She is perfectly willing to risk her daughter’s happiness and allow her relationship with an undesirable man in the name of keeping her vow and maintaining her power.
Mumtaz, Aadam’s favorite daughter, takes to silently caring for Nadir in the basement, and while they never speak, she tends to his every need. Reverend Mother, who possesses witch-like powers, begins to invade her daughters’ dreams at night to spy on them and learns that Emerald has fallen in love with Major Zulfikar. When she invades Mumtaz’s dreams, however, Reverend Mother finds that her daughter has fallen in love with Nadir, who soon asks Aadam for Mumtaz’s hand in marriage.
Mumtaz tends to Nadir as a service to her beloved father, but even she refuses to speak, and Reverend Mother’s witch-like abilities are further evidence of her power. Emerald’s love for Major Zulfikar is sure to add more stress to their lives. After all, if they are to marry, it will be impossible to keep Nadir a secret, and Aadam is sure to be held legally responsible for harboring a wanted man. This is further complicated by Mumtaz’s feelings for Nadir.
Saleem’s story skips to 1943, and his grandfather’s home is still in the grips of Reverend Mother’s silence. Aadam tries to convince Nadir that he is no longer in danger, but Nadir refuses to believe him. While Reverend Mother stays silently locked in her room, a lawyer and a mullah (a Muslim schooled in Islamic theology and sacred law) provided by Rani arrive in Aadam’s living room. In a secret ceremony, Mumtaz and Nadir are married. The basement is converted into a comfortable living space—a makeshift palace Nadir refers to as “Mumtaz Mahal”—and the newlyweds begin their lives together.
By this point, Reverend Mother has not spoken for an entire year, and she shows no signs of wavering. She is opposed to Mumtaz and Nadir’s marriage, but her desire to exercise her power again keeps her silent. Interestingly, despite Aadam’s aversion to religion, he still arranges for a mullah to preside over his daughter’s marriage, again highlighting the cultural significance of religion in even a secular life. Nadir’s reference to the basement as “Mumtaz Mahal”—a play on the Taj Mahal, a Mughal emperor’s gift to his favorite wife—is a reflection of his deep love for her.
Mumtaz begins a “double life.” She continues to attend university during the day, pretending to be her parents’ single daughter, learning the “hallmarks” of life, “assiduity, nobility, and forbearance,” but at night, she is Nadir’s wife, and he “loves his wife as delicately as a man ever had.” Mumtaz’s time in hiding with Nadir is the happiest time of her life. The two spend countless hours playing hit-the-spittoon, using a beautifully ornamented spittoon given to them as a wedding gift by Rani, who is now dying. Reverend Mother continues her angry silence and begins to grow fat, her “unspoken words inside her blowing her up.”
Mumtaz’s formal education reinforces her domestic duties and her expected dedication to men in Indian society. She is taught the hallmarks of a good wife, not any real marketable skill or scholarship, and this perpetuates the subordinate position of women to men. However, Mumtaz loves Nadir and she happily fulfils this traditional role, which is echoed in the couples love for the traditional, Old India game of hit-the-spittoon.
Saleem’s story again skips to 1945, to the very day that atomic bombs are dropped on Japan. Rani has since died, turning so pale and white that she could not be seen in her sheets. Mumtaz too falls ill, and Nadir fears that she may have pneumonia. Worried, Aadam gives Mumtaz a thorough exam and is shocked to discover, after two full years of marriage, that his daughter is a virgin. Aadam runs to the living and tells the whole family of his findings. Reverend Mother, breaking her three-year silence, asks Mumtaz if it is true; she nods.
Rani’s illness that turns her skin white is symbolic of the whitewashing of Indian society secondary to British colonialism, and Saleem again makes note of a world event that fails to affect Indian life. Aadam’s “thorough” examination of Mumtaz is a violation of her privacy and her body, although he views it as his right as a patriarch—Mumtaz is only afforded the privacies that Aadam allows.
As Mumtaz defends Nadir, insisting that a good marriage does not depend on sex, Reverend Mother unleashes three years of pent-up silence, blaming Aadam for bringing Nadir into their home and allowing this sham marriage. As she yells, Emerald suddenly stands up and runs out of the door, directly to Major Zulfikar’s office, and tells him that Nadir is living in her father’s basement. Zulfikar is still searching for Nadir after the Hummingbird’s assassination, and he is eager to find him. As Zulfikar storms the basement with the assistance of fifteen men, Reverend Mother consoles a heartbroken Mumtaz, “Women must marry men,” she says, “not mice.”
Again, Rushdie implies that sex is not the sole indicator of a successful marriage, but Reverend Mother disagrees. To her, Nadir’s impotence is a direct indication of his lack of masculinity and his failure to be real man. A sexless marriage is after all a childless marriage, and this goes against tradition. Emerald sees this has her chance to finally out Nadir to Zulfikar, and in doing so, hopefully secure her own marriage to a real man. Without these extreme circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that Reverend Mother’s three-year vow of silence would have lasted much, much longer.
Major Zulfikar finds the basement empty, and the only trace of Nadir is a letter left for Mumtaz, which reads, “Talaaq! Talaaq! Talaaq!”—translation: I divorce thee. I divorce thee. I divorce thee. Zulfikar is enraged.
Nadir’s letter to Mumtaz is a legally binding divorce within Islamic society. As a man, Nadir has the power to dissolve his own marriage simply by speaking (or writing) “I divorce thee” three times. As a woman, Mumtaz is not afforded this right, and she is not permitted to object.
Major Zulfikar agrees not to press charges on Aadam for harboring Nadir if he agrees to allow him to marry Emerald. Aadam agrees, and his youngest daughter is set to be married. Alia, however, continues to wait for Ahmed to propose.
Major Zulfikar is able to marry Emerald only because he blackmails Aadam. Aadam knows that if he refuses Zulfikar, he will likely be charged with harboring Nadir.
In January 1946, Zulfikar and Emerald are married, and at the wedding, Ahmed falls in love with a very depressed Mumtaz, much to Alia’s dismay. Ahmed and Mumtaz are married by June, and Ahmed changes Mumtaz’s name to Amina. “Time for a fresh start,” he says, “Throw Mumtaz and her Nadir Khan out of the window.” Amina agrees, and they begin their life together.