Lin’s disguise as an American embassy worker is very unlike his normal clothes – a stuffy, itchy suit – and so he’s quite uncomfortable as he and Karla taxi toward the mysterious Madame Zhou’s brothel to put their rescue operation into action. As they drive, Lin reflects on and asks about Karla’s life (he’s learned that she formerly lived with an Afghan named Ahmed, a fact that both fascinates and bothers Lin). They also discuss Madame Zhou, who, by remaining continuously out of sight, has created an attractive aura among the Bombay elite. Karla admits that she loathes Madame Zhou completely. Finally, they near the brothel. Karla hands him some business cards with his “name” printed on them – Gilbert Parker – and they smoke some hashish before entering Madame Zhou’s palace.
They walk through ghastly, ostentatious furnishings until they meet Madame Zhou’s chief assistant, Rajan, who escorts them to a one-way wall, through which Madame Zhou can see them while remaining invisible. Madame Zhou is deeply upset about Karla’s attempt to free Lisa. She questions “Mr. Parker,” throwing him off by asking, “Are you in love?” to which he responds, “Yes.” Madame Zhou surmises that he is in love with Karla, and thus she was able to get him to intervene on Lisa’s behalf. She determines to release Lisa, but not before she speaks German rapidly to Karla. Lin gathers that Madame Zhou is discussing the mysterious fate of Karla’s ex-roommate, Ahmed. Karla is deeply shaken by Madame Zhou’s words. Despite these bumps, however, they are allowed to retrieve Lisa, who eagerly leaves the palace though she behaves very rudely and looks like a strung-out mess. As they leave, the creepy Rajan hands Lin a glamour photograph of Madame Zhou.
Just outside the palace, Lin blows up at Karla and insists that she tell him what Madame Zhou said to make her so upset. Karla refuses to answer and instead flees with Lisa in their waiting cab, inadvertently taking Lin’s clothes with them. Lin is about to run after the cab when he sees a familiar face beside him: that of Nazeer, Khader’s driver. Nazeer insists that Lin come with him immediately, and though Lin is deeply tired and irritated, he realizes that he must go along.
As Chapter Fourteen opens, Lin is at Khader’s home. He has washed his face and feels somewhat refreshed. Khader leads him into a conference room of sorts, where a group of his associates are seated around a table. He introduces these men, some of whom will be very important in the course of the novel: Soban Mahmoud, Abdul Ghani, Kaled Ansari, Rajubhai, Keki Dorabjee, Farid, Madjid, Andrew Ferreira, Salman Mustaan and Sanjay Kumar. After gruff greetings all around, Khader begins the meeting by asking Lin about the Sapna phenomenon. He shows Lin a manifesto printed in English calling for the destruction of the rich by the poor. Lin considers the screed to be silly and fatuous, but the men at the council assure him that Sapna – or his followers – are to be taken seriously indeed. They have gruesomely murdered at least seven people in the last month. Lin says that though he doesn’t know much about Sapna, he thinks that Sapna must have some affiliation with Christianity, as many of the phrases in the manifesto echo Bible verses. Abdul Ghani thanks Lin for his insight but changes the subject, declaring that he finds the “Sapna business” to be very unpleasant.
The men all share a smoke – a very strong mix of hashish and marijuana – and settle into the main business of their meeting: a philosophical discussion of a subject. They call upon Lin to provide the subject, and though he is taken somewhat aback, Lin comes up with “suffering.” Khader approves of Lin’s choice of theme and they begin their dispute. Madjid opens by claiming that suffering is a matter of choice – that one must submit to suffering. Abdul Ghani counters that suffering is a sense of injustice. In unpacking his line of thought he alludes to his pet theory, the hero’s curse, a sense that certain men possess great qualities that lead them to commit desperate acts. The dispute continues, with the men offering several interpretations of suffering, until Khader closes the argument with the claim that “suffering is the opposite of happiness” (298). Lin finds Khader’s definition, and his ensuing explanation, to be clever and compelling, but the definition of suffering that stays with him longest is that offered by Khaled Ansari, a Palestinian, who claims that “suffering is always a matter of what we’ve lost” (301).
Following this discussion, Lin returns to the slum, where he asks Prabaker the question of the night: what is suffering? Prabaker responds, in his simple way, that suffering is merely a word that means “[h]ungry, for anything.”
With Chapter Fifteen comes a total change of pace, as Johnny Cigar wakes Lin in his shelter at two in the morning with the news that a young man, Ameer, has been badly cut in a gang fight and is rapidly bleeding. Because of his criminal reputation, Ameer refuses to go to a hospital, so after some soul-searching Lin decides to try stitching the wound himself (he recalls stitching a bad knife wound once before, in prison, though the resulting scar was very nasty). While several curious neighbors watch, Lin closes and stitches Ameer’s wound without anesthetic.
Just as he is cleaning up, Prabaker rushes in and tells Lin that a friend of his has been jailed. Lin assumes that he means Abdullah and they rush to the jail, where, after bribing a guard, Lin finds the two bear-handlers behind bars. They have been arrested after fighting with fellow bear-handlers who had been beating their bear. Lin soon discovers that the bear-handlers do not expect to be released, nor do they expect their bear (who is also in custody in a separate cell) to be released: they merely wish to do their time in the same cell as their bear. After a bribe, the guard is able to arrange this. Prabaker later retells this adventure to Pavarti, a pretty young daughter of Kumar whom Prabaker is wooing.
After breakfasting with Qasim Ali Hussein and swinging by Karla’s house to fetch his clothes (to no avail), Lin visits Khader in his luxurious garden. Khader asks a surprising favor of Lin – that he assume temporary custody of his nephew, Tariq, and teach the young boy English. Lin is initially resistant, but after Khader discusses his own experience learning English from an older teacher, Lin agrees. Before long, Lin is alone with Tariq. They leave to return to Lin’s home, when suddenly they hear the call to prayer of the muezzin. Tariq insists that they enter a mosque immediately, and when Lin refuses, Tariq runs away. Lin is furious. Tariq soon returns and Lin firmly orders the boy never to run away again. After this scolding, Tariq seems to like Lin quite well.
Chapter Sixteen begins at Karla’s house, where Lin is attempting to retrieve his clothes. Karla is not there, though Lisa is. Tariq, who has accompanied Lin, falls asleep in a chair while Lin and Lisa flirt edgily. Lisa seems to have taken heroin and she is drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. She speaks half-incoherently about various subjects – Hannibal, the strange sexual practices at Madame Zhou’s – and asks Lin if he wants to have sex with her. Finally, the combination of drugs conks her out. Lin searches Karla’s apartment for his clothes, coming across a cryptic reference to Sapna in her writing desk. He also looks through Karla’s journal, where he finds a beautiful poem (presumably one of hers) and copies it on a sheet of paper. After searching her closet, Lin finds his clothes laundered and folded. He wakes Tariq and they leave Karla’s apartment as Lisa sleeps soundly.
On their way back to his shelter, Lin and Tariq are suddenly confronted by a pack of feral dogs. Such dog packs are well known for maiming and even killing travelers, and Lin is suddenly fearful for Tariq’s safety. On Lin’s command, the two retreat to a woodpile, where Lin arms himself with a bamboo pole and beats off attacking dogs one at a time. Tariq is soon forced to fight as well, and though they fight vigorously all looks bleak until Abdullah springs from out of nowhere and beats back the dogs with a metal rod. After danger is averted, they retreat to Lin’s hut and drink chai while Lin reflects on the responsibility of caring for Tariq.
These action-packed chapters dramatize some of the concerns we’ve already seen earlier in the novel. For instance, Roberts’ interest in shifting identities and role-playing comes across strongly in Lin’s adventure at Madame Zhou’s palace. Lin dons a new suit and a new identity for Karla’s sake, masquerading as an official government representative, precisely the opposite of his actual self. For one thing, this shift allows Roberts to show us how comfortable Lin has become in his role as “Lin,” the jeans-and-tshirt slum medic (an identity that is itself a masquerade); in the chapters to come, Lin will drift away from this way of life and into a life of high-stakes crime, a change perhaps foreshadowed by the official-looking suit and tie look.
Karla, by the way, seems more and more mysterious the better we get to know her. She personally knows most of the major figures of power in Bombay, and in the case of Madame Zhou, carries a deep grudge. As the book has progressed, Karla’s role has shifted from simple love-object to tortured “woman with a past.” In many ways, directly and indirectly, she acts as a bridge for Lin into the darker recesses of Bombay. The Madame Zhou episode, while it may seem surreal and even humorous, proves to be massively important in the chapters to follow, and Karla is the character who links Lin to this eerie figure.
Madame Zhou takes the concern with controlled identity to a ridiculous extreme. Her power exists largely as a result of her mysteriousness. No one seems sure of where she is from, of what she looks like – and this lack of surety fuels speculation that she must be from some exotic, aristocratic background, and that she must be beautiful. She is the ultimate, ludicrous representative of the tendency toward secrecy that all of the major characters share. And, arguably, she is the character who benefits most from such secrecy.
Another theme that Roberts rearticulates in these chapters is the importance of family – or, more specifically, of “finding” a new family. Khader, who Lin repeatedly recognizes as a father figure, makes Lin a sort of father figure himself when he charges him with the care of Tariq. Lin initially takes on this burden begrudgingly, angry that he succumbed to Khader’s pressure; at the end of Chapter Sixteen, however, after the ordeal with the pack of dogs, Lin recognizes this early resistance to have been selfishness. He has learned to care for a younger dependant. Thus, though Khader initially proposed the arrangement for Tariq’s benefit (to assist with the young boy’s English), it proves just as valuable for Lin. Part of the duty a father figure, it seems, is to instill a sense of responsibility in one’s son-figure. One must make a father of the son, and Khader seems to appreciate this generational pattern.
These chapters thus develop established themes; if they bring anything new to the forefront, it might be religion. Tariq is an extremely religious young boy, providing a look at an aspect of Indian culture that the novel has not been particularly concerned with thus far. Sapna, too, introduces darker religious resonances. In the sections to come, religion will emerge as a major point of controversy.