Padma has finally returned, and she is full of apologies for Saleem. For the past week, Saleem has been ill and delirious. Padma confesses that she recently visited a holy man who taught her to “awaken Saleem’s manhood from its sleep” using a “lusty herb,” which she then secretly mixed into his food. The preparation nearly killed him, but now that he is better, he doesn’t blame Padma for her actions. Although he remains “unmanned,” he is happy to have his companion back.
Of course, Padma is not aware that her preparation could kill Saleem, but it makes an important point. Padma is loyal to Saleem despite his impotence, yet she deceives him and nearly kills him trying to correct it. Her actions pose important questions about the significance of sex and its symbolic role within the text. As a whole, Rushdie’s text argues that sex in a relationship is somewhat overrated, or at least that its absence can be overcome in meaningful ways; however, Padma’s actions suggest otherwise, and she goes to great lengths to fill this void.
Having lost an entire week of writing, Saleem is eager to continue his story. He begins in 1957, as he is nearing his tenth birthday, when, thanks to knocking heads with Sonny, he becomes aware of the existence of the other children of midnight. On the eve of independence, one thousand and one children were born into the new country of India between midnight and one, and each has a supernatural power. Of course, not all survive, and after four hundred and twenty of the children (the number “associated with fraud, deception, and trickery”) die early in childhood, five hundred and eighty-one children remain. With the exception of a set of twins in Baud, all of the children are unaware of each other.
The numbers of children that Rushdie chooses to incorporate into his novel have important connotations. Initially, one thousand and one children are born during the hour of India’s independence, and this references the Middle Eastern folktale One Thousand and One Nights. Additionally, Saleem notes that four hundred and twenty children die, the number associated with trickery, deception, fraud, and this represents the fraud of their magical births. They were destined to be the metaphorical “mirror of India”; however, they were deceived.
The powers of the children of midnight are great and varied. A boy from Kerala can step in and out of mirrors and other reflective surfaces, and a Goanese girl can multiply fish. Some can transform their human figure; there is a werewolf in Nilgiri Hills, and a boy in Vindhyas who can shrink and grow at will. There is even a child in Kashmir who can, by entering water, alter their sex to either male or female, and a girl in Calcutta who can inflict physical wounds with her words.
Saleem’s descriptions of the other children are full of literary references as well. The girl who can multiply fish has biblical connotations, and the werewolf and boy who can shrink and grow brings to mind traditional fairytales known all over the world. The girl who can inflict pain with her words, while not necessarily a literary reference, also relies on the power of words.
Saleem claims that the closer the child’s birth to the midnight hour, the greater their magical gift. In fact, those born in the final minutes and seconds of the hour, according to Saleem, are “(to be frank) little more than circus freaks.” The children born near the half-hour mark are also specially endowed. For example, a girl in the Gir Forest can heal with the laying-on of hands, and a boy in Shillong is incapable of forgetting anything that he has ever seen or heard.
The children of midnight are hierarchical, with Saleem at the top, followed by Shiva, Parvati, and so on, down to the insignificant “circus freaks.” In this sense, Saleem and the other children are the mirror of India—meaning they sideline and marginalize those they believe inferior. Saleem especially takes part in this and fails to recognize it as a potential cause of the Conference’s failure.
The children born at the top of the hour have the greatest gifts of all. A boy born at twenty-one seconds past midnight has completely mastered the art of alchemy by nearly ten years old, and a girl born at seventeen seconds past can fly by simply closing her eyes. Another boy born at twelve seconds after can travel through time. Parvati-the-witch, born seven seconds after midnight in the same Old Delhi slum as the Hummingbird, has been given the powers of the illuminatus, “the genuine gifts of conjuration and sorcery.”
Parvati’s connection to the Hummingbird through the magician’s slum they were born into represent their magical abilities. The Hummingbird’s supernatural humming is explained by his birthplace, and Parvati is a genuine witch, able to conjure spells and incantations. Parvati, however, is a witch of white magic, not black, which firmly cements her as a good witch—and by association a good woman.
Saleem and Shiva are both born at the stroke of midnight; however, Saleem’s power is greater than Shiva’s. Midnight has given Shiva the gift of war; he is, after all, named after the god of destruction. Saleem, however, is given the greatest gift—“the ability to look into the hearts and minds” of others.
The fact that Saleem’s power is viewed as greater than Shiva’s represents the hope for peace and unity that Saleem, and arguably Rushdie, has for postcolonial India. This power has the ability to save them all from Partition.
Meanwhile, in the weeks following Dr. Narlikar’s death, Ahmed sinks deeper into alcoholism and seclusion. He stops coming to the table for meals, and he rarely tells Saleem and the Brass Monkey bedtime stories like he used to. He escapes to his home office each day before anyone else is awake and locks himself away, “the old aroma of failure which had hung about him from the earliest days” permeates from under the door. Despite being constantly drunk, Ahmed cleans up on the stock market, buying and selling long and short, and “in a streak of good fortune comparable only to Amina’s success on the horses,” he manages to turn things around.
The fact that Saleem and the Brass Monkey miss their father’s stories more than any of the other things he no longer does in his drunken and depressed state reflects the importance of storytelling within their lives. Ahmed vacillates between rich and poor throughout the entire story, and in doing so, Rushdie underscores the instability of social class. One day, Ahmed is wealthy, and the next he is poor.
Even in the midst of his winning streak, Ahmed continues to drink. The last of the Coca-Cola girls quit, leaving him without a secretary. Mary convinces Alice to come and work for Ahmed. She has long since forgiven her sister for running off with Joseph D’Costa, and since Alice has “an almost infinite tolerance of men,” it seems a good match.
Money fails to solve all of Ahmed’s problems, and even with plenty of money, he can’t keep a secretary, or any other house servant for that matter. Of course, even Alice’s tolerance of men fails her, and she too leaves Ahmed before the end of the novel.
In a drunken stupor, Ahmed attempts to place a curse on Sherri, Saleem’s mongrel dog—the very same curse he had invented years ago for the benefit of William Methwold. In his intoxicated state, Ahmed believes the curse to be real, and he becomes increasingly upset when the dog fails to drop dead or break into boils. He orders Amina to drive him and the entire family (including Sherri) to Hornby Vellard, the causeway connecting the islands of Bombay, and after walking around a bit, he orders everyone back in the car, except for Sherri. Ahmed leaves the dog behind, and after running behind the car for some time, “she burst an artery as she ran and died sprouting blood from her mouth and her behind, under the gaze of a hungry cow.”
Ahmed’s attempts to curse Saleem’s dog and his lies to William Methwold about his ancestors represent Ahmed’s struggle with his identity in postcolonial Indian society. He is compelled to prove to Methwold just how Indian he is, and in the process, he forgets his true identity. Additionally, Ahmed’s insistence that Amina chauffer him around when he’s drunk, and his attempts to curse the dog just to prove his identity, is evidence of his presumed superiority. He tells Amina what to do and when to do it, and he does whatever he wants to the poor mongrel dog.
Meanwhile, Joseph D’Costa continues to haunt Mary’s dreams, and she begins forcing herself to stay awake. In her sleeplessness, Joseph begins haunting Mary while she’s awake, and she knows the only way to get rid of him for good is to confess her crime. She fails, however, to come clean. Her love for Saleem is too strong, and she is sure that her confession will cause him pain. She continues to keep her sin and guilt locked away in the back of her mind.
Mary’s guilt is eating her alive. She refuses to confess her sin, even to her priest. As long as she keeps her secret, she will never find relief. Joseph’s ghost represents Mary’s punishment for her sins.
On the day of Saleem’s tenth birthday, Amina throws him a party; however, none of the children of Methwold’s Estate show up—except for Sonny and, of course, the Brass Monkey. Sonny gives Saleem a message from Evie Burns: “Tell Saleem he’s out of the gang.” Without his friends, Saleem is left with his parents, the other adults on the estate, and his uncle Hanif, who arrives with his wife, Pia.
Saleem’s friends completely ostracize him on Evie’s orders, and this is too is a reference to colonialism. Evie uses her power to punish Saleem for invading her thoughts. Pia, Hanif’s wife is also ostracized by her family; Reverend Mother disapproves of her acting career and has likewise sidelined her within the family.
Hanif makes himself “excessively unpopular” at the party by loudly yelling, “Elections coming! Watch out for the communists!” Saleem notices that Amina blushes after Hanif’s comment, and she has been mysteriously disappearing lately, supposedly going on “shopping trips.” Saleem, still suspicious of the afternoon caller, remains dedicated to discovering his mother’s secret.
Amina blushes because Nadir now supports the communist cause, and Saleem takes note of her reaction. Hanif’s comment also serves to identity communism as an undesirable political belief in the opinion of Saleem’s wealthy family.