In February of 1948, all the snakes escape from Schaapsteker Institute, a facility where scientists study snakes and test anti-venom. Rumors spread that a Bengali snake-charmer is to blame; a tall blue man who is Krishna himself, punishing Indians for renouncing their Hindu faith and becoming a secular state.
In addition to the cultural connection between snakes and the Hindu people (snakes are an important in their religion), snakes are also well known for their ability to shed their skin, making them a symbol for transformation. In this same vein, snakes are symbolic of the transformation of Old India into New India after independence.
As the Bombay streets teem with snakes, Dr. Schaapsteker, the eighty-one-year-old man who founded the institute, moves into the top floor of Buckingham Villa. Ahmed’s frozen assets make living difficult, and to help ends meet, Amina allows him to move into the house.
As Ahmed fades deeper into financial despair and alcoholism, Amina begins to the make the decisions that keep their family afloat. Just like her grandmother, Aadam’s mother, Amina is willing and able to assume her husband’s duties to benefit her family.
With Ahmed sinking further into alcoholism and depression, Amina writes her parents for advice and three days later, Aadam and Reverend Mother arrive in Bombay from Agra. Reverend Mother is not impressed with Amina’s city life, and she encourages them all to move to Pakistan. Emerald has already moved there with Zulfikar, along with Alia as well, who is teaching at a Pakistani school.
Reverend Mother is not impressed with Amina’s city life because she sees it as another result of Western invasion and influence. As a devout Muslim, Reverend Mother prefers to live in the Islamic state of Pakistan, and Zulfikar, a long-time supporter of Partition, has wasted no time relocating.
Reverend Mother takes over Amina’s kitchen and begins cooking all the meals. Ahmed makes slight improvements eating Reverend Mother’s cooking (which is “imbued with the personality of its creator), and the same food fills Amina with rage. Mary begins cooking chutneys and kasaundies of her own, into which she stirs her guilt and fear of discovery. Mary’s preserves are delicious, and they counteract the unpleasantness of Reverend Mother.
Reverend Mother cooks her anger into the food that she serves her family, which in turn influences their behavior. Reverend Mother has been perpetually angry since Aadam forced her to exit purdah and her country became secular, and she makes sure to spread her unhappiness around. While this technique is beneficial to Ahmed’s weak health, it only serves to fill a much stronger Amina with anger.
Ismail, despite waiving his own fee, still requires money to fight Ahmed’s case in court, and Amina, now pregnant with her second child, secretly frequents a local horse-racing track to earn money. Using her dowry money, Amina, who knows nothing about horses, places her bets based on the jockeys’ smiles—and wins big. She is, however, fraught with guilt over the sin of gambling, but she nevertheless “fights her husband’s fight.”
Again, much like Aadam’s own mother, Amina upends gender roles within Indian society and goes out and provides for her family while Ahmed is unable to. Amina’s actions dismantle the idea that men alone are capable of providing for their families, and she is empowered by her ability to support herself.
Saleem stops his story to mention his love as a child for the game Snakes and Ladders. He notes that the moral of the game teaches children that for every snake lurking is a ladder to compensate, and likewise, for every ladder, there is the danger of snakes. Moreover, Saleem notes that the game underscores the “unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil.” This metaphor, he claims, is present in his mother’s own story. Despite Amina’s victory at the racetrack, snakes are still waiting to strike.
Saleem’s mention of the game Snakes and Ladders reinforces the fact that Amina and her family are not safe simply because she has solved their financial problems for the time being. Saleem’s note of the “unchanging twoness of things” mirrors the binary nature of colonialism and the subsequent social unrest that it leads to, including the concepts of East and West, rich and poor, and man and woman.
Not all of Amina’s siblings immigrate to Pakistan, and her brother, Hanif, soon moves to Bombay with dreams of becoming a film producer. He marries a beautiful actress, Pia, and stars her in his first film, The Lovers of Kashmir. Hanif’s film becomes an instant classic, in which he invents “the indirect kiss.” Men and women were not permitted to touch or kiss on-screen, and as such, Hanif writes a script in which actors sensually kiss things (such as fruit), instead of each other.
Hanif’s film and the iconic “indirect kiss” play an important role in upcoming events. As Amina sneaks out to visit Nadir, the two share their own indirect kiss, which, of course, is invented by Amina’s own brother. Hanif’s desire to forgo Pakistan in favor of Bombay and his film career is a reflection of his father, Aadam’s, anti-religious beliefs.
As Ahmed and Amina accompany Hanif and Pia to the theater to see The Lovers of Kashmir, the theater manager interrupts the film to alert the crowd to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Hanif quickly whispers to Amina, “Get out of here, big sister—if a Muslim did this thing there will be hell to pay.”
Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian activist and leader of the movement for independence from British rule, was a famous Hindu, and Hanif is concerned about the social unrest that is sure to develop if his assassin is found to be a Muslim.
Once Gandhi’s assassin is proven not to be a Muslim and it is again safe to leave the house, Amina secretly returns to the racetrack. She continues to gamble until her pregnant belly no longer fits behind the steering wheel of the car and she is forced to stay home. At Buckingham Villa, Mary and old Musa are constantly fighting. Musa, resentful that Mary sleeps in Saleem’s room while he is stuck in the servants’ quarters, is offended by her constant prayers and counting of rosary beads, and it is during one such fight that Amina discovers the house has been burgled.
The religious unrest in Amina’s home mirrors the religious unrest of the nation. As Muslims and Hindus fight in the streets, old Musa, whose name is Arabic for the prophet Moses, resents Mary Pereira and her Catholic faith. Mary’s religion is yet another example of European colonialism, as Eastern lands were often colonized in the name of bringing Christianity to “savages.”
The missing silver and gold is soon found amongst old Musa’s things (despite his earlier denials). He is convinced that his constant fighting with Mary is about to cost him his job, and he didn’t want to be put out empty-handed. Amina refuses to press charges, but old Musa leaves Buckingham Villa anyway, and as he goes, he places a curse upon the house.
Old Musa’s curse is an important development in the story. When Ahmed tells Methwold about his imaginary Mughal ancestors, he tells of an ancient family curse. Ahmed’s story foretells the actual curse that Musa places on Ahmed’s home.
In the days following old Musa’s departure, Mary notices a strange figure running around the broken clock tower near Methwold’s Estate. Frightened, Mary and Amina call the police. An inspector arrives and shoots at the dark figure, who ends up being the wanted criminal Joseph D’Costa. The bullet misses just as an escaped snake bites Joseph, and he immediately falls down dead. Mary faints to the ground, and the inspector informs Amina that Joseph has wired the entire tower with multiple bombs and explosives, enough “to blow this hill into the sea!”
Joseph’s death by a snake bite parallels Saleem’s own upcoming experience with snake venom. Of course, Saleem is saved by venom whereas Joseph is killed; however, snakes are associated with immortality and the renewal of life, and Joseph D’Costa’s ghost will live on at Methwold’s Manner, haunting Mary until she confesses her sin.
About the time Amina goes into labor for the second time, Saleem falls ill with typhoid. Aadam treats his grandson the best he knows how, but his Western medicine fails to make the slightest difference, and he fears Saleem will soon die. Dr. Schaapsteker suggests injecting the baby with cobra venom, an intervention known to work. As Aadam injects the poison into his baby grandson, his fever begins to break.
Again, snakes are associated with the renewal of life, and Saleem’s life is saved by the venom. More importantly, however, Saleem’s grandfather, who is a doctor of Western medicine, fails to save his grandson with his modern medicine and instead relies on Eastern “quackery.” This implies that Eastern medicine is more valuable than Aadam initially thought, and that it has a place in modern Indian medicine.
In the commotion of Saleem’s illness, Amina gives birth to a daughter, who comes to be known as the Brass Monkey on account of her red hair. The birth goes largely unnoticed in the excitement of Saleem’s near-death experience and the news that Ismail has finally won Ahmed’s court case.
The Brass Monkey spends much of her childhood in Saleem’s shadow, and her birth is the first example of this. Ahmed, relieved that his legal troubles are over, has no idea how Amina saved their family, and she says nothing, keeping her power a secret.