Before Saleem continues his story, he notes that Padma has been gone for two whole days, following her unreasonable and angry outburst at his implications that she loves him. “Love you,” she cries, “what use are you […] as a lover?” Without Padma, Saleem is lost and lonely, but he will not be kept from his storytelling.
Padma’s insult is a direct reference to Saleem’s impotence. Padma is reluctant to admit her love for Saleem out loud, and she becomes angry when Saleem suggests it. Padma’s insult mirrors Reverend Mother’s insults of Nadir, and both men are considered less masculine because of their inability to have sex.
Saleem’s story jumps to 1956, the year in which the Brass Monkey develops the habit of catching shoes on fire—while others are wearing them. The Brass Monkey, starved for attention in the shadow of a brother who has Prime Ministers sending him letters, has become a problem child. Her manners are poor and she tramples over flower beds, but she is beautiful and builds a fierce alliance with her brother.
Saleem and the Brass Monkey are another reflection of the “unchanging twoness of things,” and the two siblings are polar opposites of each other. For example, the Monkey is beautiful while Saleem is ugly, and while Saleem is kind and agreeable, the Monkey is argumentative and precocious.
Amina, who refuses to hit her unruly child, sentences her to days of silence—a form of punishment which the defiant Monkey ignores. The Brass Monkey, however, has a softer side and spends countless hours talking to birds and cats (dogs, too, until she is bitten by a rabid stray), and becomes the unwilling object of Sonny Ibrahim’s affection.
Amina’s choice of punishment is a reflection of Reverend Mother’s silence. Also, the Monkey’s love for the birds on Methwold’s Manner mirrors that of her grandfather, Aadam’s father, who, in his infirm state, often called to birds.
Despite his own unattractiveness, however, Saleem is the family favorite. He is adored by his father and neighbors, and even Reverend Mother, who tells him, “Just pull up your socks, whatsitsname, and you’ll be better than anyone in the whole wide world!” Saleem doesn’t share his family’s high opinions of himself and, fearing that he will never live up to their great expectations, he takes to hiding in his mother’s bathroom washing-chest, lost under a pile of dirty clothes and towels.
Saleem is constantly the center of attention in his family and on Methowold’s Estate, and their high expectations create an extreme amount of anxiety within Saleem. Even Reverend Mother, in all her unpleasantness, is exceedingly fond of Saleem. He is unsure of his identity and purpose, and he does not feel worthy of their admiration.
At “nearlynine” years of age, Saleem begins to attend a local boys’ school along with the other boys of Methwold’s Estate, including Sonny Ibrahim, Cyrus Dubash, and Eyeslice and Hairoil Sabarmati. Saleem’s friends lovingly refer to him as “Snotnose,” on account of the copious amounts of snot that drips from his humongous and forever-congested nose.
Saleem’s snot, or “nose goo,” serves an important purpose that is about to be revealed. His nasal congestion is his direct link to the other children born at the hour of India’s independence, and his large nose, much like Aadam’s, is a symbol of his power.
Amina begins to grow prematurely old, Saleem notes, “like all the women in our family,” and the Brass Monkey’s poor behavior and Ahmed’s obsession with Narlikar’s tetrapods wears her down. She develops terrible corns on her feet, and “every step is like walking on razor blades.” In her guilt, made worse by Reverend Mother’s cooking, Amina believes her corns to be punishment for her sinful gambling. She begins to take on the worries and sins of the other residents of Methwold’s Estate, and they are strangely compelled to share their problems with her. Even Mary is tempted (but resists) to tell Amina her sins.
Since Amina is unwilling to confess her own sins, she willingly takes on those of others. The premature aging of the women in Saleem’s family is a reflection of their oppression and inequality. Amina is exhausted from caring for her family and ensuring their survival, and like Aadam’s own mother, can do nothing but endure her pain.
During that same summer, the Sinais’ telephone rings most days in the afternoon. Amina, with aching feet, limps to the phone, and each time, after a silence that is just a bit too long, she responds, “Sorry. Wrong number.” Saleem and Monkey are suspicious (of what they aren’t sure) and determined to solve the mystery of the afternoon phone calls.
Like Aadam’s mother’s boils, Amina’s aching feet are a physical manifestation of her guilt for loving Nadir and gambling to save her family. Each time the phone rings in the afternoon, Amina hobbles to answer it on painful feet.
One day, when Amina is out visiting Nussie, the phone rings and Monkey races to answer. On the other end, inquiring about a rental truck, is the “soft and fleshy” “voice of a poet.” The calls continue, and Saleem and Monkey repeatedly dispatch imaginary trucks to different locations. “Doesn’t the guy ever wonder why the trucks don’t arrive?” Saleem questions. The Monkey responds, “Man, do you suppose…maybe they do!”
Nadir Kahn is the “fleshy” and poetic voice on the other end of the telephone, although Saleem and the Brass Monkey know nothing of their mother’s first marriage. The fact that Nadir continues to call when the children answer the phone is proof of his love for Amina and his determination to talk to her.
Later, looking to escape his family, Saleem slips into his mother’s washing-chest. As he relaxes in the dirty laundry, the phone begins to ring. After the usual “sorry, wrong number,” Amina enters the bathroom. Frozen in the washing-chest and fearing discovery, a rogue pajama-cord begins to tickle Saleem’s nose.
Saleem’s hiding place in Amina’s washing-chest parallels Nadir’s own hiding spot in the washing-chest of Aadam Aziz’s “thunder-box room.” Just as the love of Amina’s life sought refuge in a laundry basket, so does her son.
Amina begins to cry and, repeating the name “Nadir” over and over again, starts to sensually caress her body as a mortified Saleem looks on. Suddenly struck with the urge to use the commode, Amina removes her clothes, and as they fall to the ground, she bends over to retrieve them, exposing her large, dark bottom to Saleem hiding in the washing-chest. Just then, an unavoidable “sniff” sends the pajama cord up into Saleem’s substantial nose. Immediately, pain consumes Saleem’s head and a deafening sneeze gives away his treasured hiding spot.
Witnessing his mother’s sexual attention to her own body and her bare backside as she attempts to use the commode is a representation of Saleem’s fall from innocence. He suspects that his mother is thinking about another man, but he is unfamiliar with the name she repeats. Saleem now views his mother in a sexual light, as a woman with desires instead of merely his mother, and he finds it impossible to forget this.
Amina punishes Saleem with a day of silence and, alone in his room, he is bombarded with a head full of incomprehensible voices. The voices soon become clearer, and Saleem discovers that he can control them. He can turn them up or down like a radio, and even isolate certain voices. He begins to believe that they are a holy sign, and he, a messenger of god. He even tells his family (after his punishment is over, of course) that “Archangels have started talking to me.” His parents think him insane (“Oh Saleem, has your brain gone raw?”) and Mary accuses him of blasphemy. Ahmed reaches out and strikes Saleem in the side of his head, deafening his left ear for life.
Saleem’s accident in the washing-chest prompts his telepathy. From the moment he sneezes and is caught by Amina, he hears the mysterious voices of the other children of midnight, although he has not yet made this connection. Ironically, despite not living a religious life and claiming to neither believe nor disbelieve in God, Saleem assumes that the voices are heaven-sent, underscoring the importance of religion in even a secular society. Ironically, as Saleem develops this paranormal sense, Ahmed’s punishment robs him of his external hearing, leaving him alone with the voices in his head.
Later that night, alone with her thoughts, Amina thinks of Ramram Seth and his prophesy. “Washing will hide him…voices will guide him.” In the following days, she asks Saleem about the voices. He lies, claiming, “A stupid joke, like you said.”
Amina knows deep down that Saleem is telling the truth about the voices in his head; however, he lies to her, afraid that she won’t love him if she knows the truth or thinks him mentally ill.