Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children begins as narrator Saleem Sinai urgently tells the story of his life. Born at the exact moment of India’s independence from British rule, Saleem is inescapably “handcuffed to history,” and his own fate is intertwined with that of his nation. Saleem’s entire body is cracking, crumbling under the stress of “too much history,” and he is slowly dying, disintegrating into “(approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, necessarily oblivious, dust.” Saleem must work fast if he is to tell his story before he dies, and he begins with his Kashmiri grandfather, Aadam Aziz.
Aadam has just returned to Kashmir from medical school in Germany, and he is disillusioned with his traditional Indian life. One morning, while kneeling to pray, Aadam strikes his nose on the ground, and three small drops of blood escape from his nose. From that moment, he vows “never again to bow to any man or god.” Soon, Tai, the old boatman, alerts Aadam to the illness of Naseem Ghani, the daughter of a local landowner. Arriving at the Ghani’s, Aadam finds Naseem hidden behind a large sheet with a small hole cut in the center, and he is made to examine her through the opening. Over several years and many illnesses, Aadam and Naseem fall in love and are finally married, and the two prepare to move to Agra for Aadam’s new university job.
In Agra, Aadam and Naseem are witnesses to Mahatma Gandhi’s hartal and the violence of the British military, and in the aftermath of a massacre, Aadam befriends the Hummingbird, a Pro-Indian Muslim politician who inspires optimism throughout Agra. Aadam also meets Nadir Khan, the Hummingbird’s private secretary, and after the Hummingbird is murdered by assassins, Nadir takes refuge under Aadam’s floorboards, much to the dismay of his wife Naseem, known in her marriage as Reverend Mother. While living under the floor, Nadir falls in love with Aadam’s daughter, Mumtaz, and the two are married, spending three blissful years together underground. Ultimately, it is discovered that Nadir is impotent, and he is forced to divorce Mumtaz, who is left heartbroken. Mumtaz soon remarries Ahmed Sinai, who changes her name to Amina, and the two move to Bombay after she becomes pregnant.
Ahmed and Amina buy a mansion from William Methwold, a British colonist who is preparing to return to London after India’s independence, and they quickly move in, living amongst the Englishman’s belongings and customs. Growing increasingly pregnant, Amina goes into labor on the eve of India’s independence, along with another pregnant woman from Methwold’s Estate named Vanita, the wife of a poor accordionist who entertains the residents on the estate. Both women give birth at the stroke of midnight; however, Vanita dies shortly after, leaving her infant son, Shiva. Alone with the two children of midnight, a midwife named Mary Pereira switches the nametags of the children, effectively replacing rich with poor, in her own “private act of revolution.” In the days following, Mary’s guilt is so severe that she offers her services to Amina Sinai as an ayah to care for her infant Saleem, and she readily accepts. Mary returns to Methwold’s Estate with the Sinais, where she continues to keep her secret for several years before finally blurting it out, a victim of her own guilt.
As Saleem grows, it is clear that he is not a normal child. He grows too quickly, he rarely blinks, and after an accident in his mother’s washing chest, he begins to hear voices, made possible by his large, congested nose. The voices in Saleem’s head are the voices of the other children born during the midnight hour of independence, the “metaphorical mirror of a nation,” who each also happen to be endowed with different magical powers. Saleem attempts to organize the children, creating a forum for them in his mind, but their prejudices get the better of them, and they are unable to band together. Ultimately, it is Shiva who succeeds in dividing the children, and Saleem is left helpless.
Saleem continues to grow and moves with his family to Pakistan. As civil unrest brews leading up to the Indo-Pakistani War, he is again left helpless as bombs from an air-strike kill his family. In the chaos of the bombing, Saleem is hit in the head by an airborne spittoon, causing him to forget his name and identity. Saleem is soon drafted into the Pakistani army and he witnesses unspeakable events, finally running away into the jungle to avoid further violence. When he emerges from the jungle, the war is ending, India is victorious, and Saleem is still not sure who he is. During a celebratory parade, he runs into Parvati-the-witch, a fellow child of midnight who immediately recognizes Saleem. The two fall in love, and when Saleem is unable to father her children, Parvati puts a spell on Shiva, and he soon impregnates her. He quickly loses interest (as he always does where pregnancy is concerned), and Parvati is free to marry Saleem, who has agreed to father her unborn child.
As Parvati goes into labor, civil unrest in India continues and Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minster, declares a state of emergency. Parvati finally gives birth to a son but, sadly, she is killed. At the same time, Saleem is kidnapped by Shiva and dragged in a van, where he is taken, along with the other children of midnight, and forcibly sterilized during Mrs. Gandhi’s sterilization program. Finally, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency ends, and Saleem and the other children of midnight are released from their imprisonment. Saleem soon finds his son and he moves back to Bombay, where he discovers that Mary Pereira is the owner of a local pickle factory. As Saleem finishes the telling of his story, he decides to begin telling his future, and he starts with his wedding to Padma, his companion and audience for the telling of his story. Padma and Saleem are to be married in Kashmir; however, before they are, Saleem finally succumbs to the cracks in his skin, and he crumbles into six hundred million pieces of dust.