The first thing Nazneen notices about Karim is that he has a stammer in Bengali. His English is perfectly fine. She also notices that his arms are strong, and that his skull under his shaved hair is pleasing to look at. He tells her that his uncle owns the sweatshop she’s been sewing for. The next time he comes to see her, Nazneen still has five hems to finish. She has also forgotten to cover her hair. Ahmed is sweaty from running. He’s stolen a box of leaflets from a group of men on the estate. She tells him that if they were in their country, someone would have helped him flee the men. This is his country, Ahmed says. He predicts that the men, a gang that goes by the Lion Hearts, will get what’s coming to them. Then he compliments her on her sari, saying his mother once had one just like it. Nazneen messes up a hem and has to fix it.
Karim is, at first glance, everything that Chanu is not. He is young, handsome, and passionately devoted to a cause. Follow-through is his specialty. Nazneen is instantly attracted to him. This is clear when she forgets to cover her hair. His noticing her sari is another indication that Nazneen is entering a new stage of her life. Karim’s stammering in Bengali hints that, unlike Nazneen and Chanu, he is much more comfortable with British culture than he is the culture of his ancestral home.
After Karim leaves, Nazneen sees that the leaflets are flimsy, black and white things, stapled down the middle. They contain a quiz: “Are you a good Muslim? Twenty ways to tell.”
Nazneen takes her faith and its practice very seriously. This quiz hints at a more flippant, Westernized approach to religion.
Chanu, or driver 1619 as he is known at Kempton Kars, often works nights, and evenings in the apartment are more relaxed when he’s away. The girls do their homework in front of the television and Nazneen sews, mentally adding up the money she has saved and stowed in secret places around the apartment. She plans to send most of the money to Hasina. The rest she will use to buy little things for Shahana like shampoo and clips for her hair.
It is Chanu’s presence in the house that often gets in the way of Nazneen and the girls’ comfort and contentment. In his absence, Nazneen has dared to do something she never thought herself capable of: making her own money and saving some of it for herself. Her sewing work is liberating her at least partially from some of the stricter tenets of purdah.
Sometimes Chanu works all night and Nazneen makes sure to have food prepared for him when he returns in the morning, famished. He has grown philosophical and, for the most part, at ease with his new position in society. He is no longer striving to be a big man. He wants only to make money. Then, like the British who invaded Bangladesh, he plans to take all that money with him when he leaves. When he reads, though, he grows more passionate, telling the girls that it was the Muslims who saved the work of Plato and Aristotle from being erased during the so-called Dark Ages. He plans to introduce his daughters to Islam. Then he will move on to Hindu philosophy and Buddhism.
While Nazneen acclimates to life in London, Chanu turns his sights on Bangladesh. His dreams of being a big man have been replaced with one goal: to make enough money to take his family home. As Dr. Azad predicted, he now has full-fledged “going home sickness,” but for Chanu it seems not to be a sickness at all. Work and his pride in Bangladesh’s storied history have restored him to himself.
Nazneen is in her daughter’s bedroom, trying to tidy it. Shahana is furious. She says she won’t go—she’ll run away instead. Bibi says she wants to stay with her sister. Nazneen tells them not to be silly. They must wait and see what God wills. She thinks for one disorienting moment that she will make the decision herself—she will take care of the girls. She feels powerful at first and then like she might vomit. Bibi asks her if she wants to go. In response, she tells them the story of her birth, of how she was left to fate. Shahana is not satisfied. The story isn’t an answer, she says, but Nazneen replies that it’s her answer.
Nazneen’s new-found independence hits a snag when she considers that her future and her daughters’ futures could be in her hands. The thought of fighting both fate and Chanu and staying in London while he moves back to Bangladesh is so alien and overwhelming that she is sick for a moment. Answering her daughters’ queries with her birth story is a stalling technique; it shows that she is not yet ready to decide.
Nazneen is beginning to lose her memory of Gouripur. It is slipping from her and only comes back in dreams. One night she dreams of Mumtaz and her mynah bird. Rupban tells Mumtaz she is foolish to waste her affection on a bird that will someday fly away. Mumtaz jokingly tells the bird it is bad. “Go away,” she says, but it doesn’t fly away, and Mumtaz and the bird become inseparable. A table arrives in the village and the elders gather, smoking on pipes and sipping cups of tea. A woman’s scream pierces the air. It is Mumtaz—her bird’s neck is broken. It doesn’t get the chance to fly away.
The mynah bird represents the possibilities open to a person who, like Nazneen, is born in a poverty-stricken nation. Sometimes families remain together and unbroken, making the choice to remain in one place. Sometimes they part and are never reunited again. The saddest outcome is when someone desperately wants to flee to another land but does not have the opportunity. This kills the spirit.
Nazneen wakes from the dream and gets up to sew. She’s working on a pile of sequined vests in need of zippers. Having finished three, she takes one to the bathroom and tries it on. When she closes her eyes, she is in the arena, sliding across the ice. A man is with her. Like Karim, he wears a gold chain. She takes the vest off. The sequins are cheap. They look like fish scales.
The dream has disturbed Nazneen and reminded her that she has desires of her own. The vest is a chance try on life as a different person, a glamorous ice skater with Karim as her partner. But the attempt fails, as it’s only a cheap imitation.