Rupban, seven months pregnant with her daughter, Nazneen, goes into labor while plucking a chicken to feed to her husband and his cousins. Rupban lives in the Mymensingh District of East Pakistan. It is 1967 and Nazneen’s life begins in the same way it later proceeds: in uncertainty. Rupban’s sharp screams alarm her husband, Hamid, who grabs a club on his way home from the latrine, convinced a man is murdering his wife. Instead he finds his sister, Mumtaz, tending to Rupban, who is on her feet and in agony, one hand holding the chicken, the other around Mumtaz’s shoulder. Mumtaz sends Hamid for Banesa, the village midwife.
In this opening passage, Monica Ali is setting up the expectation that Nazneen’s life will, like her birth, be characterized by doubt and worry. The date and location of Nazneen’s birth is significant. This is happening only four years before East Pakistan would declare its independence from West Pakistan and become modern day Bangladesh. The partition of Bengal mirrors the many dualities that will crop up later in the novel.
Banesa, who claims to be 120 years old and whose career as midwife includes only seven failures (three cripples, two mutants, one stillbirth, and one human/lizard hybrid that, directly after birth, was buried deep in a forest), declares Nazneen dead. Soon, though, the baby begins to cry and wave her arms. It becomes clear that she is indeed alive, although fragile and weak. Banesa says that God has called the girl back to earth. She then informs Rupban that she has a choice to make: she can either take her daughter to the city, where she will have access to modern medicine, or trust her daughter to fate. Mumtaz wants to take the girl to the city, but Rupban chooses to put Nazneen in the hands of fate, hoping doing so will make her daughter stronger. Banesa, hungry enough to eat the dead chicken and the baby, shuffles off to her own hut.
Rupban’s decision to leave her daughter to her fate might seem, at first glance, to indicate a lack of motherly affection, but it actually signals quite the opposite. Rupban loves her daughter dearly and is convinced that the best way to ensure her safety is to do nothing. It is Rupban’s belief that taking Nazneen to a city hospital would anger God by interfering with the plans he has for his creation.
Hamid returns to inspect his child, who lies sleeping on the bedroll. Rupban gives him the bad news: the baby is a girl. Hamid shrugs and leaves again. Mumtaz comes in with food for Rupban, now convinced that Nazneen, who refuses to eat, is fated to starve to death. Mumtaz is dismissive of such superstition and orders Rupban to eat and get her own strength up. She does so, but Nazneen refuses to eat for four whole days, crying so consistently that she rivals her famously sad mother in tear production. Hamid sees his daughter only once or twice during this period. Mostly, he opts to sleep outside.
Hamid’s casual dismissal of Nazneen is directly related to her gender. Given that she was born two months early and presumed dead, Hamid’s indifference is striking. He obviously would have preferred a boy. Rupban continues to stubbornly insist that nothing special be done for her daughter, and that fate be trusted to save her.
Meanwhile, the entire village comes to visit the baby. Banesa suggests that Rupban try finding a goat for Nazneen to suckle. Rupban waits, helpless, wishing fate would make up its mind one way or another. Finally, on the fifth day, Nazneen clamps her mouth down on Rupban’s nipple with so much force that Rupban cries out in pain.
Rupban’s unwillingness to fight fate nearly ends in her baby starving to death, but Nazneen’s forceful biting of her mother’s nipple suggests that the child has more fight in her than one might have imagined.
Nazneen grows into a wide-faced, watchful girl, in awe of her mother’s patience and grateful to her for her decision to leave her to her fate. Nazneen has been told that fighting against one’s fate can be deadly, so she accepts Rupban’s wisdom and life philosophy, which insists on trusting completely in God’s will. Rupban, Hamid tells his daughter, is a saint. She comes from a family of them. When Mumtaz asks Nazneen if she is glad she came back from the dead, she tells her aunt that she can have no regrets. Everything is up to God. Later, though, when Nazneen is a grown woman with children, a husband, and a lover, she must take action to shape her own future, and the experience is a difficult and painful one, given her upbringing and natural tendency to submit to others.
Nazneen is very much her mother’s daughter; as a child, she finds it easy to trust everything to God. After all, she has no responsibilities, and therefore her actions (or lack thereof) have no real consequences. She grows up in love with her own mythology, charmed by the idea that fate somehow singled her out as special and worth saving. This attitude will come back to haunt her when, as an adult, complications (many of them the result of her passivity) pile up to the point that action becomes necessary.
Hasina, Rubpan and Hamid’s second child, is born three days after Banesa’s death. She is beautiful and stubborn. She refuses to listen to her parents, and, at sixteen, elopes with Malek, the sawmill owner’s nephew. Hamid is furious with Hasina for such a betrayal and spends sixteen days and nights at the entrance to the village, armed with an axe and determined to chop her head off the moment she returns. She never shows, and so he returns to his work, overseeing workers in the paddy fields, a few displays of temper the only signs he lost his daughter.
Hasina is, in many ways, Nazneen’s foil. Nazneen is plain and obedient, while Hasina is beautiful and obstinate. Hasina’s head-strong ways lead her making a love marriage with Malek, which Hamid views as a betrayal. His willingness to decapitate his daughter for daring to elope hints at the extreme sexism of the village culture. No punishment is planned for her groom—only for her.
As submissive as her sister is rebellious, Nazneen agrees to an arranged marriage with Chanu, a much older man who lives in London. Hamid offers to show Nazneen a picture of her intended bridegroom, but she says doesn’t need to see him. She hopes only to be as good a wife to him as her mother has been to Hamid. By chance, though, she does see the photograph and the man is not only old but ugly. He has a face like a frog. Later, while on a walk with her cousins, Nazneen sees a hawk circling above a ruined hut. The hut was damaged by a tornado that recently devastated the village. Nazneen, still in the company of her cousins, considers her future, watching as men look for bodies, burying and burning the dead in turn.
Nazneen continues her pattern of unquestioning acceptance in agreeing to marry Chanu. It’s no coincidence, though, that she sees a picture of her future husband and soon after is drawn to the sight of a bird of prey circling over a hut ruined in a tornado. Nazneen is not yet comfortable with her own feelings; as a child of fate, she believes she has no right to them, and yet she clearly dreads leaving home to marry a man she considers old and unattractive. It is as if her future is being buried along with the dead.
The narrative moves from East Pakistan to the Tower Hamlets housing project in London. The year is now 1985, and Nazneen has been living in London with her husband, Chanu, for six months. Her days are occupied with housework and observing her neighbors, one of whom is a woman covered head-to-toe in tattoos. The tattoo woman spends her days drinking at her kitchen table and throwing her beer cans out the window. Nazneen daydreams about paying a call on the woman, about relaxing with her in her kitchen, but she never makes the effort. She wonders what the point would be. It would make the day pass more easily, but, in the end, it is just another day.
Nazneen is now cut off from everything that was dear and familiar to her. Her fantasies about befriending a strange white woman reveal just how isolated she has become in the six months since leaving Gouripur. Housework is not enough to interest or occupy her, although it is what is expected of her as a wife. At only nineteen, she has already learned to think of the days as unimportant and dull. This fact hints at her unhappiness in marriage.
On this particular day, Nazneen is preparing a lamb curry dinner for Chanu and his physician, Dr. Azad. The dinner is almost ready, so she decides to read some from her Qur’an, flipping randomly to a page containing a passage about everything in the heavens and earth belonging to God and human’s obligation to fear him. The passage comforts Nazneen, who reminds herself that Dr. Azad is nothing compared to God.
The Qur’an verse is a reminder to Nazneen that her role is not only to trust in God but to fear his wrath. Given that she is meekly making dinner for her husband and his friend, it doesn’t seem like Nazneen is in need of such a reminder.
Nazneen likewise takes a great deal of satisfaction in her apartment’s fine furnishings. Even though Hamid was the second wealthiest man in their village back home in Pakistan, he never had anything like the furniture Chanu has provided for her. The rooms are filled with cupboards, tables, cabinets, bookcases, and rugs, and she is proud of her beautiful home. She sets her Bengali Qur’an back on its special shelf next to the Most Holy book (the Qur’an in Arabic) and remembers verses from the book that she used to recite in school. Then she sits down on the sofa and falls asleep, dreaming of home, of walking with her sister through the village, surrounded by fields, birds, and water buffaloes.
Furniture is an obvious indicator of class and status and, as such, Nazneen is understandably pleased with the pretty things that she has been charged with dusting and maintaining—for they suggest that Chanu is a good provider and that he values her. That said, when she dreams, she dreams not of her pretty belongings but of home. There, the beauty cannot be bought from a store. It is, instead, naturally occurring, and Nazneen is not alone but happily nestled in the bosom of her family.
Nazneen wakes and it is four o’clock in the afternoon. She hurriedly begins chopping onions, and, in her haste, cuts her finger. While she runs cold water over the gash to stop the bleeding, she wonders what Hasina is doing now. It is not a new thought. She misses her sister desperately and hopes that Hasina’s decision to thwart fate and elope with Malek not come back to haunt her. Then again, perhaps her elopement was what fate had planned for Hasina.
In this novel about sisters separated not by choice but by chance and temperament, blood represents the ties of family. Naturally, when Nazneen spills her blood, she thinks of Hasina, whose elopement has complicated Nazneen’s ideas of fate. Nazneen no longer feels so certain as to which of life’s events might be preordained
Nazneen considers just how much she can actually blame on fate. It is not as if she can neglect her housework and tell Chanu that it was fate that she not prepare dinner. Wives have been beaten for less. Chanu, though, has never beaten her. He is gentle and kind to her, although she did overhear him telling a friend on the phone that she was not beautiful, that her forehead was too wide and her eyes too close together. In that same phone conversation, Chanu said he was satisfied with Nazneen overall, but that he’d waited too long to take a wife and therefore had to be happy with a less than perfect mate. Nazneen is offended by his criticisms, especially because he is old and fat, but realizes that her expectation that he would be in love with her is a result of her own too-high self-regard.
Fate does not let Nazneen off the hook when it comes to her daily duties, and, indeed, Chanu would be well within his rights as a man of his time and community if he were to hit her for neglecting those duties. As a married woman, Nazneen is held to an impossible standard. She is expected to be not only obedient and skilled in all manner of domestic tasks, but beautiful as well. Chanu, in contrast, is considered a good husband if he refrains from beating her.
The cut on Nazneen’s finger eventually stops bleeding, but she finds herself wondering how long it would take her to empty her finger completely of blood. This thought reminds her just how much she misses people, and the give-and-take of real human connection. Her thoughts drift. She wonders why Hamid did not see her and Chanu off at the airport, and if Chanu will want his corns trimmed again, and what Hasina might be up to. Nazneen goes to her bedroom and stares for a moment at the large wardrobe there. Sometimes she dreams of being crushed by the wardrobe. Other times, she dreams of being locked inside of it and, despite pounding on its walls, never being found again.
In this scene, blood represents the shared humanity of people living in a close-knit community. Nazneen feels connected to no one. Her nightmares about being crushed by or trapped inside the wardrobe hint at the depth of her loneliness. They also suggest that her relationship with her new possessions might be more complicated than originally indicated. Her fine apartment has the potential to become a prison.
Nazneen takes a shoebox from the wardrobe and begins rereading a letter from Hasina, who writes of being so happy in her marriage to Malek she is almost frightened. Like Nazneen, she was taught to fear God, but now she wonders if, in fact, humans were not born for suffering but for fulfillment. She and Malek are living in a block of flats that is three stories high. Malek works for the railway. They have a comfortable home with a bed, three cane chairs, a crate for their pots and pans, and a kerosene stove. Hasina has grown to believe that love is happiness, and she and Malek have love. Her main source of worry concerns whether or not Malek’s mother will forgive them for eloping. She also worries about Nazneen. She thinks of her sister as a princess living in a faraway land.
Hasina’s modest home furnishings contrast directly with Nazneen’s more expensive ones, but it’s clear that fancy furniture does not necessarily equal happiness. Hasina’s blissful accounts of marriage highlight Nazneen’s quiet listlessness. The sisters again act as foils for one another. Hasina’s description of Nazneen as a princess brings to mind images of young women imprisoned in towers, waiting for princes to save them. For the moment, anyway, Nazneen does seem directionless and caged.
Nazneen goes to answer a knock at the door. Mrs. Islam and Razia Iqbal are there, gossiping about a man whose wife has just committed suicide by throwing herself off a sixteen-story building. Nazneen makes tea for the two women, who go on to talk about the latest news about a fellow Bangladeshi immigrant named Jorina. Nazneen considers Mrs. Islam’s place in immigrant London society. When Nazneen first moved to Tower Hamlets, Chanu explained to her the hierarchy of the complex’s inhabitants. Many, he said, are Sylhetis, peasants who would never even think to pick up a book. They were low class back home in Bangladesh and they are low class still. Mrs. Islam, despite the fact that she mixes with the so-called “peasants,” has been deemed by Chanu respectable enough for Nazneen to socialize with.
Nazneen is not completely alone at Tower Hamlets. There is a group of female Bengali immigrants who visit each other regularly. Gossiping together, though, is not the same as forming real friendships, especially when that gossip involves the suicide of an unhappy young woman. Also standing in the way of Nazneen’s ability to connect to people is Chanu’s snobbishness and obsession with status and respectability. His judgements cloud her own, and, as a wife, it is her job to let him think for her.
Jorina, in contrast, is a disgrace, according to Mrs. Islam, who prides herself on keeping purdah (the practice adapted by some Muslim women of keeping themselves separate from men by remaining indoors or fully covered at all times) but not being judgmental about it. Unable to feed herself on her husband’s salary, Jorina has had to go out and find work, and that means she is now spending time with all kinds of people, including Turks, Jews, and Brits. The result, Mrs. Islam says, is that Jorina will end up trading her culture for theirs. There is no other way.
Women in this particular community are given a choice that is really no choice at all: either make ends meet on one salary or seek work and risk being ostracized. In Ms. Islam’s opinion, Jorina, wanting only to support her family, is doomed to lose touch with her Bengali roots. The implication is that women who remain at home are, in a sense, guardians of culture.
Nazneen cannot imagine Jorina’s predicament. She serves more tea, asking Razia about her children and Mrs. Islam about her arthritic hip, nervous about having the necessary time to prepare the important dinner for Chanu and Dr. Azad, who has sway with Mr. Dalloway, Chanu’s boss, and must therefore be given the best treatment. Finally, the two women leave, and Nazneen feels guilty about wishing they would go.