It is January 2001, and Hasina is writing from the Dahnmondi district of Dhaka. She tells Nazneen that she has much to thank God for, the first of which is her position in the household of James, whose real name is Jamshed Rashid, and Lovely, whose real name is Anwara Begum. They brought her from the home for fallen women to work in their house as a maid. Their house is richly furnished with expensive wooden furniture and a television and video-playing machine. James and Lovely sleep in the master bedroom. The children, Jimmy and Daisy, have their own rooms as well. There is a guest room whose bed Hasina airs out every day at the request of Lovely. Hasina sleeps in a room next to the kitchen. She has an electric light.
James and Lovely are obviously in a very different class than the people with whom Hasina has been associating. Their home is beautiful, and they have adopted distinctly Western names. Hasina’s room is quite simple compared to the rooms where the family sleeps. The hierarchy is clear: the family resides in the more richly furnished sections of the home, whereas Hasina, the maid, is relegated to what amounts to the servant’s quarters.
The street in front of the house is wide, but plastic bags blow everywhere. Where the street narrows is a rickshaw workshop. The men paint different designs on the sides, usually the Taj Mahal or a mosque, but sometimes peacocks and film stars. Hasina stops to ask about a particularly beautiful face a man is painting. He tells her it is of a beautiful American singer named “Britainy Spear.” She hurries along on an errand she is running for Lovely. Hasina’s duties include caring for the children, cleaning the house, and washing the dishes. A man does the cooking and gardening.
The abundance of plastic bags, as well as the image of Britney Spears on the side of a rickshaw, suggests the artificial lifestyle of the people who inhabit James and Lovely’s neighborhood. American “culture” and values are encroaching on Bangladesh in ways both amusing and poisonous.
Hasina mentions that she has been waiting a long time for a letter from Nazneen. She hopes very much that her words are reaching her.
This suggests a disturbance in Nazneen’s life, which has most likely been caused by the arrival of Karim.
Hasina’s next letter is dated February. She mentions that she has finally gotten Nazneen’s letter. All her others are gone, destroyed in the dark time after her marriage to Ahmed ended. She is glad to hear the girls are doing well and that Nazneen is still having Dr. Azad to her home for dinner. She knows that Nazneen is bored with her routine, but it is Hasina’s opinion that routine and sameness are the biggest blessings in life.
The sisters’ lives seem to have diverged again, with Nazneen entering into a new and exciting relationship with a younger man and Hasina embracing her role as a maid and caretaker of young children. Hasina is beginning to appreciate what Nazneen has grown to take for granted.
Lovely, a former beauty queen, loves to “entertain.” She often finds her children too much for her. Jimmy loves to play with guns and swords, and Daisy follows Hasina around like a duckling. At first Daisy missed the old maid, who was fired for stealing grocery money, but now she is very attached to Hasina. Since Zaid the cook has taken to stacking food in Hasina’s bedroom, she now sleeps on a bedroll on her floor. Zaid sleeps on the kitchen table if he sleeps in the house at all. Lovely worries one of the neighboring families will poach him—he makes the best kitchari in Buriganga. Hasina worries that Lovely is stretching herself thin. Running a household is hard work.
The irony here is almost too much. It is Hasina, not Lovely, who is running the household. Lovely cannot even be bothered to raise her own children. Now Hasina has been deprived of her room, the one with the electric light. Lovely’s main concern is clearly not her kids’ welfare but whether or not she will lose her cook.
When Jimmy and Daisy are occupying each other, Lovely finds time to tell Hasina her problems, and they are many. She worries that her best friend, Betty, is more beautiful than she is, but Hasina assures her this isn’t true. Betty also has a larger house than Lovely and a car and driver at her disposal at all times. Lovely, on the other hand, must wait for her husband to lend her his car and driver, and she doesn’t have an ayah, or nanny, to watch over the children.
Hasina writes to Nazneen of Lovely’s so-called troubles with a straight face and without censure but, having spent the last several years on the street, Hasina knows what real strife is. She knows that Lovely’s problems are really all in Lovely’s own mind.
Lovely also worries that James’s company, Bangla National Plastic, could be in hot water over its production of plastic bags. She thinks people won’t be happy until they’ve all been turned out on the street. Hasina tells her not to be so down. God has provided for her and he will provide for Lovely as well. Lovely says she is sweet. She still fears Zaid will leave then, but Hasina doesn’t think so—he has it too good with Lovely and James. Oftentimes he doesn’t even make dinner. He is too busy attending political meetings. A small, hard man, he practices Kung-Fu while he cooks and watches Kung-Fu movies when Lovely and James go out. Jimmy watches the movies with him. It is the only time he stays still.
James’s company is polluting the environment. They make the plastic bags that assault Hasina when she walks down the street. Lovely is paranoid that a shadowy someone will shut down Bangla National Plastics and that she and her family will be as poor as Hasina was when they “rescued” her from the home of fallen women. It’s obvious that Lovely would not survive on the street, as she can’t even cook for herself.
Jimmy has grown as affectionate with Hasina as Daisy, and Hasina closes her letter by observing to Nazneen that all she ever wanted in life was love, and now it has finally found her.
The love Hasina has found is second-hand. The children aren’t hers—they belong to James and Lovely—but they give Hasina joy.
Nazneen finishes reading Hasina’s letter and puts it away. Razia, dressed in a Union Jack sweatshirt despite the hot weather, has come to visit. Neighbors in the estates are gossiping about Razia and her British habits, but she doesn’t care. She’s much more concerned with the fact that the factory where she’d been sewing has been closed down by immigration authorities. Tariq needs books or he’ll fail his exams. She needs money fast. She is considering borrowing money from Mrs. Islam. Razia does some of Nazneen’s sewing and Nazneen thinks about Hasina and about Hamid’s second wife who came and went without a trace. What happens to such women? She does not tell Razia about Chanu borrowing 50 pounds from Mrs. Islam to buy the sewing machine and computer.
That Razia discards the sari in favor of a Union Jack sweatshirt seems, to many in the Tower Hamlets community anyway, an open rejection of Bengali values in favor of British ones. Razia, though, can’t worry about such matters. She is much more concerned with the very practical issue of supporting her children. Nazneen has her sewing work and Chanu’s cab driving salary to support her, so she is in a more comfortable place financially than Razia, but she is beholden to Mrs. Islam, and that is a distressing place to be.
Karim comes to pick up the vests from Nazneen. While he is there his phone rings—a call from his father, he says. His father was once a bus conductor, but he is now too anxious to work or even leave his apartment. Nazneen makes tea in the kitchen. Karim follows her, and they drink in the kitchen standing up. Nazneen has again forgotten to cover her hair. Karim gets a notification on his phone, alerting him to prayer time. Nazneen invites him to pray in her apartment and he accepts. Watching him move through his prayers makes Nazneen dizzy. It is all she can do not to pray along with him, but that is strictly forbidden. When he is finished, he invites her to a meeting. It is for all Muslims, he says, and they don’t have many older women in the group.
Nazneen and Karim’s relationship is growing increasingly more intimate. The fact that Nazneen has again forgotten to cover her hair suggests that she is distracted and at loose ends around him. It is also taboo and hints at burgeoning sexual attraction. As a woman, she is not allowed to pray along with a man, but her desire to do so is yet another indication that she desires Karim as more than a friend. Nazneen is a devout rule follower, but she would be willing to break the rules for Karim.
Nazneen tells herself not to go to the meeting, but then she goes anyway. It is in an ugly building at the edge of the estate. She is nervous going in and even more so when she sees that the group gathering is almost all men. An intense man in immense pajamas and a skull cap welcomes her, and Karim tells her to sit down. The meeting starts with Karim announcing that the matters of business are to settle on a name and a mission and elect a board. There is much cross talk about the name before they settle on the Bengal Tigers. The mission is simple: to support the local Muslim community and Islam around the world, although the audience also seems to want to fight the Lion Hearts gang if given a chance.
It would seem to be completely out of character for Nazneen, timid housewife and mother, to attend a meeting of a pro-Islamic group, especially when the group is made up primarily young men, but since Karim came into her life, Nazneen has found herself doing things she never thought she would do. This is her first real exposure to the male community of Tower Hamlets. Prior to this, most of her interactions were with the women of the community.
A wiry man continues to challenge Karim. Nazneen thinks of him as the Questioner. Karim and the Questioner vie for the position of chairman of the board. Nazneen casts the deciding vote in favor of Karim. She sees that Karim and the Questioner hate each other. As the meeting breaks up, the man in the skull cap points out the group’s spiritual leader, an old imam in women’s shoes who just got to London and who has no idea what’s going on.
Nazneen gets her first glimpse into the workings of a pro-Islamic advocacy group and what she sees is mostly petty squabbling. The spiritual leader’s pathetic appearance suggests that the Bengal Tigers might not be on a terribly effective course.
Karim comes to Nazneen’s apartment with jeans and unlined dresses. They talk. He tells her about the persecution of Muslims in Chechnya and Palestine. Nazneen is ashamed of her ignorance. She reads the pamphlets he gives her and puts them out on the table to show Chanu, but then hides them at the last minute. Karim prays in her house several more times. At one point, when she hands him her prayer mat, their fingers touch, and she smells the soap coming off his clean shirt. It is the smell of her ice skating daydreams, of her faceless fantasy dancing partner: limes.
Prior to her friendship with Karim, Nazneen did not take an interest in the fate of her fellow Muslims. She did not have the opportunity to learn about her people. Now her eyes are being opened, but she can’t share her awakening with Chanu because it is the result of her time spent with another man. Karim’s scent makes Nazneen wonder if their partnership might be fated.
Dr. Azad is once again having dinner with Chanu and Nazneen. Age has not been kind to his face. It has collapsed completely, although he still has a full head of flat, black hair. Chanu asks after Mrs. Azad and their daughter. Dr. Azad replies that they are healthy and asks Chanu about his petition to start the mobile lending library. Nazneen watches the men trade barbs, and then the girls come in. Chanu quizzes them for a moment. Shahana fails the test and Bibi passes, but Chanu does not acknowledge her. He continues to quiz Shahana, so Nazneen intervenes and sends the girls to bed.
Like Hasina and Nazneen, Chanu and Dr. Azad often work as foils for one another. Dr. Azad is thin and careful about his eating habits and health, whereas Chanu is corpulent and always putting himself in danger of getting another ulcer. However, the two men share the need to one-up each other. Chanu’s quizzing of the girls is part of this game, but he only really cares about Shahana’s performance. Bibi’s is immaterial.
Now that the men are alone, they take up their own separate topics. Dr. Azad is preoccupied with heroin abuse among the Muslim community. Chanu worries about the tragedy of the immigrant. The men talk around each other, never directly addressing what the other is saying. Nazneen is amazed they can keep it up so long. At one point, though, Chanu strays from the script, bringing up abuse of the Bengalis at the hands of the British, and Dr. Azad asks Chanu about his job. Chanu retaliates by asking Dr. Azad about his son-in-law, whom he and Nazneen have never met. She sees clearly that her husband has won the verbal battle.
Just as Chanu talks at Nazneen rather than to her, he and Dr. Azad talk around each other, not really hearing a single thing the other man has said. Their topics do dovetail, though. Heroin abuse among the Tower Hamlets youth is an example of Chanu’s “tragedy of the immigrant.” Young people, keen to adopt Western ways, have fallen prey to a Western vice, and then their confounded parents are left to pick up the pieces.
Days later, a leaflet falls through the letterbox and Shahana grabs it and begins reading. Chanu demands that she give it to him. Then he hands it back to her and tells her to read it aloud to him, Nazneen, and Bibi. It is an anti-Muslim screed. The writer claims that, at school, Christian children are being taught to follow Islam and that soon they will be worshipping Muhammed. Chanu announces that, from now on, all money made in the household will go to the Home Fund. That night, for the first time since their marriage, Nazneen sees Chanu take the Qur’an off the shelf. He keeps the book with him the rest of the evening.
Chanu’s theory about lower-class white resentment and his claims of racism in the workplace would both seem to be vindicated here. A group of whites is obviously angered over the Bengali immigrant presence in Tower Hamlets and in the Brick Lane area of London, but their claims are patently ridiculous. Nazneen and her family are simply trying their best to survive—they have no interest in converting anyone.
Nazneen is walking a respectable distance behind Chanu through Brick Lane. Chanu comments on the exorbitant price of the merchandise in the shops. Nazneen notices the high-end restaurants and fancy homes nearby and thinks of Karim. He often talks of his father, of his father’s former life as a bus conductor and how proud he was of him then. Chanu changes the subject to the bankrupt nature of British culture. While they walk, an English woman with cropped hair snaps of photo of Nazneen, making her self-conscious.
Nazneen is continuing to outwardly fulfill her role as the respectful wife while inwardly she fantasizes about another man. The British woman snaps Nazneen’s picture as if she were an animal at the zoo. Nazneen and Chanu will never exactly fit in here. There will always be people who treat them like the exotic other.
Nazneen thinks about the events of her life and how it has always been her perception that they were being recorded, written down by angels who were tallying up her transgressions for the day of judgment. She then grows convinced that the street is filled with angels. They flap their wings around her head until she has to sit down. She remembers the last time Karim came to their apartment. Their shoulders nearly touched. She wonders if he is fated to be her future, knowing it is not that simple.
Plastic bags fill the streets where Hasina now lives, while Nazneen’s streets are filled with angels. However, the angels aren’t necessarily of the benevolent variety. They are there to remind Nazneen of the sins she has committed. While she has been able to shed some of the more crippling aspects of her faith, she is still plagued with guilt.
Chanu assumes that Nazneen is over-tired and says they will be home soon. Tears come to her eyes. She feels like a fool, thinking a young man like Karim would want an older woman like her. She and Chanu begin walking again, and he tells her of his hopes of obtaining a professorship in English literature at Dhaka University when they return to Bangladesh. Nazneen realizes that when they go home, it is not just Shahana she will have to worry about. They see Mrs. Islam walking toward them and duck away onto a side street.
Chanu arrived in London with very high hopes. Now, he talks of arriving in Dhaka with the same outsized, impractical dreams. Nazneen does not openly question his abilities to obtain a professorship in Bangladesh, but she worries about it. That is her job as his wife: to support him in everything he does, even if he is putting their livelihoods in danger.
The Bengal Tigers and Lion Hearts are conducting a war of leaflets in and around the estate. Every day seems to bring a new flyer. The Lion Hearts want to protect the Englishness of their estate against the encroachment of what they see as extreme Muslim values. The Bengal Tigers want the freedom to practice their faith in peace. Chanu finds the leaflet war amusing. He thinks the Bengal Tigers have grown fed up with the quiet timidity of his generation, and the Lion Hearts are trying desperately to save a culture not worth saving. Nazneen has begun walking both Shahana and Bibi home from school.
The Bengal Tigers and Lion Hearts are fighting a war of words. Their threats are, for the most part, empty, not worth the paper they’re printed on. Still, the Lion Hearts’ hatred has to be challenged somehow. As part of the older generation of Bengali immigrants, Chanu can see why the younger might want to rebel. He came to England hoping to be accepted by the British, but he now knows how difficult and disheartening that effort can be.
Karim often composes leaflets while Nazneen sews. He is unhappy with what he sees as apathy among the members of the Bengal Tigers. They do not know what it was like when Karim was a kid. White boys beat up Muslims on the way home from school. They had to fight and gang together to protect themselves. The youth, Karim says, have lost their focus. Often Karim comes when Chanu is in the house, and Nazneen feels good about this because it means her interactions with Karim cannot be considered sinful.
Like Chanu, Karim enjoys explaining the ways of the world to Nazneen, who sits quietly sewing while he talks. But she finds Karim’s version of the world much more interesting than her husband’s. This is how she justifies her “sinful” behavior, although all she has done so far with Karim is talk and drink tea with him.
Karim’s main aggravation is not the Lion Hearts and their anti-Muslim leaflets: it is the Questioner who, in Karim’s opinion, just does not understand the struggle. Karim tells Nazneen that he will decide what is radical or not, and Nazneen comes to understand that “radical” means “right.” Karim says he wishes Nazneen weren’t always working. She tells him to talk; she will listen. He tells her about the current political unrest in Egypt. Then he goes through her glass showcase. When Chanu cannot be still, it is because he is uneasy. Karim, on the other hand, is full of energy. And Nazneen is full of longing and desire. Karim talks more about how difficult it was to grow up Bangladeshi in London. It was as if he had no identity to claim. Nazneen wishes only that he would claim her.
Karim informs Nazneen of what is “radical” and right. He might say he wishes she would talk more, but he obviously desires a captive audience, and Nazneen is more than happy to oblige him. She is only half listening, though. While he goes on about the plight of Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere, Nazneen can only think of him. She continues to admire him for the ways he is not like her husband. One main difference is that Chanu was born in Bangladesh. Karim is like a man without a country.
In the bath, Nazneen thinks about her children, about Shahana’s habit of finishing her homework too quickly and Bibi’s way of chewing on her nails. After a time, she lets herself think of Karim, about his well-shaped forearms and the mole on his chin and the certainty with which he holds himself at all times. He seems to have found what Nazneen and Chanu cannot: his place in the world. She grabs the soap and razor and shaves her legs.
At this point, Nazneen has to force herself to think of her children, although she would like to spend all day thinking only of Karim. Shaving her legs represents the layers of herself that she is shedding in order to be closer to Karim. She is discarding the version of herself that is a wife and mother. Now she is trying on the role of lover.
The next day, when Nazneen goes to pick up the girls from school, the police are in the courtyard, separating the Questioner from a group of Lion Hearts, both sides obviously spoiling for a fight. Shahana walks ahead of her mother, drawing stares. Nazneen wishes she were wearing pants today. Chanu has been waffling on the issue of the girls’ attire. If he has a Lion Hearts flyer in hand, he insists the girls wear pants under their uniform skirts. If he sees a woman in a hijab, he insists the girls defy such peasantry and show their legs. If he is in the mood to see both sides of the question, it is up to Nazneen to decide what the girls wear.
Chanu’s concern about the girls’ clothes borders on humorous, but there are serious issues he’s pondering when he decides what they’ll wear. The girls’ attire could attract negative attention from the anti-Muslim Lion Hearts. At the same time, Chanu doesn’t want Shahana and Bibi to dress too conservatively, either. That would suggest that they and their parents are ignorant zealots. As in so many areas, the girls really can’t win.
Back in the apartment, Nazneen begins a letter to Hasina, attempting to explain to her what is happening on the estate. What she writes makes her laugh. It’s all about leaflets. It’s ridiculous. She goes to her room to put more money in an envelope for her sister.
The Bengal Tigers’ battle with the Lion Hearts would make no sense to Hasina; it’s too petty and insular. What matters to Nazneen is supporting Hasina in whatever way she can.
There is another letter from Hasina, dated April 2001. She tells Nazneen that everything is the same. She is fine, working for Lovely and James. She is making friends with Syeeda, the maid next door, who is completely untroubled and happy with her lot. She is not pretty like Lovely, but she is more content and that gives her a certain attractiveness. James is anxious about an upcoming election. Depending on who wins, it could be bad for business. Zaid is behaving oddly, chopping the air even more than normal and declaring that his time is coming. Lovely departs for a charity function benefitting female and child victims of AIDS. She leaves the house wearing more jewelry than a bride. She calls it “the Bombay look.”
Syeeda is the only character in this novel of restless people who seems completely satisfied with who she is and what she has, even though what she has is very little. Lovely, on the other hand, is surrounded with riches, but she is riddled with insecurities and always discontented about something. When preparing for the AIDS benefit, she is much more concerned with her outfit than the charity itself. To Lovely, charity is simply another way to make herself look good.
It is May, and Hasina writes of witnessing something horrible on the city streets. Robbers shot two men in front of the bank and, having grabbed the victims’ money and valuables, attempted to make a get-away on a moped, but a crowd pulled them off the bike and started beating them. Then someone set their bike on fire, and the robbers were burned alive. Hasina cannot stop seeing the image of the men in agony, and she wonders if in London there is justice by the court or by the people. Hasina finds justice by the people cruel.
Even though the robbers were clearly in the wrong, the response of the mob is horrifying to Hasina, who is unable to put the sight of the men’s melting bodies out of her mind, just as Nazneen is haunted by memories of Makku Pagla dangling body. Her comments about justice reveal that her political consciousness is developing.
James and Lovely have dinner together and, while Hasina cleans around them, James grumbles about the country needing more stability and the opposition party being a bunch of criminals and thugs who want nothing more than to break into houses and rape wives. And students aren’t students anymore, he says; they’re thugs. Lovely isn’t really listening. She makes a comment about James’ company being medium-sized under her breath. Zaid hears everything and tells Hasina in the kitchen that all sides are hiring muscle for a political fight, only sometimes the muscle is a brain that can think for himself. He taps his head as he says it. Hasina is starting to think that Zaid is actually pretty smart.
James and Lovely, like Mr. Chowdhury before them, have very little use for the lower classes. James’s politics are self-serving and conservative. His contention that all students are criminals reveals that he distrusts education because it teaches the young to think for themselves. Zaid is the other side that James fears so much—and indeed, he might have something to fear, as Zaid and Hasina’s political education continues apace.
In Hasina’s next letter, also dated May, she writes to Nazneen about finding out through the grapevine that her friend, Monju, is near death. She goes to see Monju in the hospital and finds her in a terrible state. Pushed into a corner of a hospital hallway, her face is melted and she smells awful. She can hardly talk, but she tells Hasina that her husband, his brother, and his sister poured acid on her. Back home, Hasina visits with Syeeda, drawing strength from the woman’s calm demeanor and from the love she gets from little Daisy.
Monju’s tragic situation is an extreme example of the disastrous effects of both long-standing poverty and entrenched sexism. Poverty results in ignorance and that ignorance gives rise to attacks like the one Monju suffered at the hands of her husband. Acid attacks are very common in southeast Asia and the victims are almost always women.
Nazneen turns back to her letter to Hasina. She can’t remember what she found so funny. Her head is full of household cares and worries. She turns the paper over, thinking she’ll start a shopping list, but writes that she has fallen in love instead. She tears the paper up and begins again, thinking she hears someone outside the door. She wonders if it is Mrs. Islam or one of her sons. Chanu did not only borrow that first fifty pounds. In fact, she has no idea how much he borrowed from Mrs. Islam. She only knows that all of the money is going toward repaying the loans.
Nazneen is obviously disturbed by the story of Monju’s suffering, but she is also preoccupied with her own concerns and her growing love for Karim. Still, she cannot bring herself to admit her feelings for him, not even to her sister. Meanwhile, Chanu’s irresponsible habits have put the family under a dangerous obligation to Mrs. Islam.
Bibi comes over, and wonders what she’s doing. Nazneen checks her throat, as she’d been ill with tonsillitis. Dr. Azad diagnosed her. In his office, Bibi had been transfixed by his snow globes. He showed her how they worked and told her they were like life. Snow and confusion might swirl around you, he said, but as long as you had a strong foundation, the sky would clear eventually. In the lobby, Nazneen sees Tariq. All the bones seem to have been removed from his body and his head lolls.
Dr. Azad’s words about snow and confusion swirling, while meant for Bibi, mimic the confusion Nazneen is experiencing as a dutiful wife who has fallen in love with another man. His prediction suggests that Nazneen will be fine someday, but for now chaos reigns. Tariq’s lifeless posture indicates that he might be one of the heroin users Dr. Azad worries so much about.
Nazneen wakes to a feeling of anticipation. Then she sees the hated wardrobe and Chanu’s pimply arm and she realizes it is a day like any other. She is filled with dread and worry. Karim seems to appear before her, the wind blowing his hair. She banishes him and gets up.
The wardrobe symbolizes Nazneen’s sensation of being trapped in a loveless marriage. Chanu’s arm reinforces the feeling. The image of a wind-blown Karim suggests that Nazneen is getting carried away by romantic notions.
The leaflets keep coming, but they come in the morning now. Chanu picks up the latest one from the Bengal Tigers. It is a reminder that all Muslims should be grateful for the death of martyrs in the name of Allah. It mentions a specific fighter in Chechnya whose dead body smelled fragrant upon its return to the man’s home country even though it had lain three months unburied. Chanu is furious. He calls the Tigers peasants and says that putting such flyers through the doors of white people will end with the death of them all. Nazneen has begun secretly giving money to Karim for the cause. On television, the news is reporting of a riot in a city called Oldham. The rioting men wear black masks over their brown faces.
The story of the Chechnyan fighter is clearly propaganda. Chanu, who has experienced his fair share of racist treatment in the workplace, understands that rational people will suffer from being lumped in with those who believe such tall tales. Nazneen, though, is so bewitched by Karim that she is daring to give him some of her sewing money. Prior to this, the money she saved in secret all went to Hasina.