Born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India’s independence, the life of Saleem Sinai is permanently handcuffed to the history of his nation. Narrated by a thirty year old Saleem to his partner and colleague Padma, Midnight’s Children charts the story of his life throughout the tumultuous history of India’s journey to independence and partition and beyond.
Starting with his grandfather’s return to the Kashmir region of India in 1915, Saleem counts down the history of his family and of his nation, migrating across time and across India until the story converges on the moment of his birth in Dr Narlikar’s Nursing Home in Bombay on 15 August 1947.
Heralded by prophecies and the press as the chosen child of midnight, Saleem, already overwhelmed by the expectations laid on him, discovers he is imbued with the special power of telepathy, and is able to connect with each child born in the midnight hour of 15 August 1947. Using these powers to converse with the other children, each in possession of their own supernatural powers, Saleem develops the Midnight Children’s Conference, through which we see many of the problems faced by the growing Indian nation.
The cultural, linguistic, religious and political differences faced by such a vastly diverse nation are shared by the 1,001 children of the midnight hour, most notably Saleem who’s every action seems to alter the course of Indian history and development. As a young child he encounters the language riots, sparking their future war cry with a childish song he sings to marchers. Later he is present as his uncle General Zulfikar arranges the 1958 coup against the Pakistani government and ushers in a period of martial law across the country.
At the age of 15, on the word of his father Ahmed Sinai, Saleem’s sinuses are operated on, stripping him of his telepathic powers, but leaving with an extraordinarily acute sense of smell. Shortly afterwards his family leave Bombay and migrate to Karachi, Pakistan where his sister Jamila becomes a singer known as the ‘Voice of the Nation’. As a confused Saleem confesses his love for his sister, she is repulsed, refusing to see him ever again. When war breaks out between India and Pakistan, Indian bombs kill Saleem’s entire family except Jamila, and during the air raids Saleem hits his head on the family's ever-present silver spittoon, erasing his memory entirely.
Still repulsed by her brother's confession Jamila arranges for Saleem to be conscripted into the army. Here he uses his keen sense of smell to lead his fellow soldiers away from the heat of battle to the mystical Sundarban Jungle where he is re-endowed with his memory following a bite from a snake. After the war, he comes across Parvati-the-witch, one of the Midnight's Children, who recognizes him from the Conference, and he is taken under the her care at the Magician’s Ghetto in Delhi.
Saleem later encounters the Indira Gandhi-proclaimed State of Emergency and her son Sanjay's "cleansing" of the slums as Government forces attack the ghetto and Parvati is killed. Along with all the other remaining Children of Midnight Saleem is held as a political prisoner during the Emergency and is sterilised to prevent reproduction. This is narrated during passages which contain scathing criticisms of the Emergency regime.
Returning to Bombay, Saleem smells chutney and is reminded of his childhood. Tracing the factory where it is made he finds it is run by Mary Pereira, his old nanny. Finally settling here Saleem begins his own pickling process, chronicling the tumultuous history of a life entwined with the birth of a nation.