Chanu has decided that it is time for the family to see the London sights. Since he will soon be going home to Bangladesh, it is time to become a tourist, and he buys a guide book and a pair of shorts festooned with pockets for the purpose. They begin on a double decker bus and then head for Buckingham Palace. Nazneen is impressed by the building’s size but not its façade. Shahana isn’t impressed by anything. Chanu fiddles with his new disposable camera.
Clothing plays a crucial role in this novel, and Chanu’s shorts verge on the ridiculous, hinting at the fact that he has just been cuckolded but has no idea. The fact that the family has not yet seen much of London indicates just how difficult it is as an immigrant to assimilate and feel at home in a new country.
Nazneen is determined that Chanu not be disappointed in this day, so she peppers him with questions and laughs and eats so many treats she is nearly sick. Then she takes a photo of Chanu and the girls. The photo will eventually sit in their kitchen near the oven, gathering grease. Then Chanu asks an American tourist, glowing with goodwill, to take a photo of all of them. The man obliges happily, saying he’s always wanted to see India. Later, when they have the film developed, they see that the one of them all together shows only their feet.
Nazneen felt sick just before she slept with Karim the first time, but that was a different kind of illness. Now she is sick with guilt. Her absence from the first family photo is indicative of how she is distancing herself from Chanu and the girls. She is with Karim now, in body and mind.
In St. James park, Nazneen spreads out a picnic she has prepared. It is an elaborate feast, but Shahana only nibbles at the store-bought sweets. Chanu eats everything and falls asleep. The girls go for a walk and, even though she wishes she could join them, Nazneen stays with her husband. She thinks of her new love affair with Karim. Her desire for him fills her with a mixture of shame and elation. She knows that every time they make love they commit a crime, but she cannot stop herself. And she loves playing house with him afterward. She grows more patient with her children, Chanu, and her work.
Nazneen often shows affection for her family through the food she cooks them, and this elaborate feast might be a form of atonement. Her rebellion is proceeding in fits and starts. She is sleeping with another man but doesn’t dare leave her sleeping husband behind to take a walk in a park. Having grown deeply depressed while keeping house for Chanu, pretending to do the same with Karim makes her dull life in London bearable.
The Bengal Tigers seem to have lost their bite. It’s all because the Lion Hearts have stopped publishing leaflets of their own, so the Tigers have nothing to respond to. Karim thinks that they have gone underground and that there will be hell to pay. He has begun taking spiritual instruction from the imam in woman’s sandals, and he’s started growing a beard. He often tells Nazneen what he has learned about Islam while she changes the sheets.
Karim’s work in the Bengal Tigers seems mostly reactionary. He needs the Lion Hearts to make the first move. Otherwise, his advocacy is directionless. His faith is likewise ill-defined. Like many other characters in the novel, he begins his inner transformation by changing his clothes. He is trying on the role of good Muslim.
Nazneen forces herself back into the moment in St. James Park with her family. The girls have returned from their walk. Chanu wakes up from his nap. He goes in search of ice cream for everyone. When he’s gone, Shahana asks if Nazneen is in love with him. Nazneen misunderstands at first, but soon realizes Shahana is talking about Chanu. Nazneen says that Chanu is a good husband and that she was lucky in marriage. Shahana says she only says that because Chanu does not beat her. Nazneen wonders who is wiser, the mother or the daughter.
Shahana’s clear-eyed assessment of her parents’ marriage takes Nazneen by surprise. As a young girl, Shahana already knows the low standards a husband must meet to be considered a good mate, and she also seems to understand that her mother is not in love with her father. Marriage is, for many Bengalis, a practical arrangement, but Shahana wants more.
Mrs. Islam comes for her money the following Monday. Nazneen gives her the fifty pounds she and Chanu agreed upon as a monthly payment. Mrs. Islam is not satisfied with that amount, though. She has heard that Nazneen and Chanu are planning to go home to Bangladesh. She knows that there is money somewhere in the apartment. Nazneen tells her she has no more money, so Mrs. Islam begins to tell her about her husband, a worthless man, and her sons, who only have half a brain each. Everything she has accomplished, Mrs. Islam says, she has had to do on her own. Her speech wears Nazneen down. She goes to the cupboard and pulls twenty pounds from her secret stash and puts it in Mrs. Islam’s bag. Mrs. Islam is satisfied. She says she will throw Nazneen and her family a going away party when it’s time.
Mrs. Islam is corrupt, vile, and without compassion, but she is also self-made and courageous in her own way. She is an example of a woman who has succeeded in supporting herself in a community that, in general, does its best to make sure that women live lives of servitude. Nazneen can’t help but admire her ingenuity even as she despises her methods. This scene shows that Nazneen and Mrs. Islam actually have something in common: Nazneen is also making money on the sly. Unlike Mrs. Islam, though, she spends her money on her sister and on Muslim causes.
Nazneen and Razia are out shopping. Razia is looking for cloth for Shefali, who just finished her exams and is planning to go to university. Nazneen asks after Tariq, wondering if she should mention her suspicions to Razia (she thinks he might be using heroin). Razia says he goes out all the time now, and she hardly sees him. Nazneen remembers a conversation she had with Karim about the many young users living in the estates. He blames the heroin problem on a rise in the standard of living. It’s like in the U.S., he says, where the government supplied black people with drugs to bring them down. Nazneen is confused. Karim says that in England, the government is more scared of Islam than of heroin.
The cloth Razia is picking out for Shefali represents the young woman’s transition from school girl to young woman. It appears that the usually perceptive Razia might be in denial about Tariq’s odd behavior. Karim’s claims about the U.S. supplying African Americans with drugs in order to put them at a socio-economic disadvantage hints at a conspiracy theory bent to his worldview, although his claim about the British government’s visceral fear of Islam is not without substance.
In the store with Razia, Nazneen finds herself wanting to tell her friend all her secrets. She tells her only about the fact that she and Chanu borrowed money from Mrs. Islam. Razia is horrified. She says they’ll be paying off the loan for years. Mrs. Islam will always find a way to charge her more. Then she tells Nazneen to keep the money she and Chanu have saved for the trip to Dhaka. Razia will think of something to get Mrs. Islam off their backs. She selects her fabric and pulls out her purse to pay, but it’s empty. The white sales girl is contemptuous and dismissive. Nazneen offers to pay for the cloth, but Razia refuses. On the way home, Nazneen mentions that Dr. Azad is worried about local kids using heroin. Razia says she’s just glad God has spared her household that problem.
Nazneen, never one to talk much about herself or her own desires, finds that she cannot open up fully to Razia, even though Razia is her close friend. Razia, too, is being coy. All the evidence is pointing to Tariq’s being a heroin addict, but she is either in denial or does not want to admit to Nazneen that her son has a problem. The white sales girl acts as if Nazneen and Razia do not exist. Then, when Razia is unable to pay, it’s clear that the sales girl expected as much. Immigrants are treated as if they are invisible or, worse, born criminals.
That night, Chanu is reading a book about the Bengali textile industry at the time of British imperial rule. He mentions to Nazneen that the English often made a habit of chopping off the fingers of Bengali weavers. He is trying out a new gadget he bought for his cab—a beaded seat cover that is supposed to be good for the back. Nazneen thinks about all the money he has spent on gadgets and fines since becoming a taxi driver and wonders when or if they will ever break even. He continues to talk of textiles and tariffs. She wishes the girls would take more interest in their father’s studies. Shahana is absorbed in the TV. Chanu turns it off and asks her to come sit with him. To Nazneen’s surprise, she does.
Clothing imagery takes on a new meaning in this scene. Instead of suggesting a character’s transformation, it serves as a reminder of the cruelty of British colonial rule, and of how that cruelty had a ripple effect, leaving so many Bengalis, like Hasina, Nazneen, and Razia, with no choice but to try to support themselves as low-paid sewing women for sweatshops while others, like Chanu, have to settle for driving taxi cabs when they’re obviously over-qualified for such work.
Chanu tells his daughter that when he looks back on his life he is shocked by how little he has accomplished. Shahana tells him not to worry. He goes on, using the local newspaper merchant as an example of a man who could have been royalty back home but who here, in England, slaves away at thankless work. Shahana makes the point that the newspaper merchant just sold his flat for 167,000 pounds and that Chanu should have invested as he had, but Chanu doesn’t hear her. He is trying to explain why he and Nazneen plan to move home to Dhaka. He sends Shahana to bed, thinking that his daughter now understands him perfectly.
Chanu has changed a great deal since the birth of his daughters. He no longer brags about his degrees or complains about the fact that he can’t seem to get ahead. Instead, he blames himself for his lack of advancement. Shahana blames him as well. She is savvy and observant. She knows more about what is going on with the inhabitants of Tower Hamlets than he does.
Nazneen can’t sleep, so she gets up to wash the girls’ clothes in the sink. She finishes quickly, but a horror rushes on her suddenly—a realization of what she has done and how God will judge her. She vomits on the newly clean clothes and then Rupban appears in the corner, wailing and blowing her nose on her sari. She tells Nazneen that God tests everyone. Sometimes that test comes in the form of riches. Sometimes it is in the form of a man or a husband. Whatever the test is, Rupban says, her mouth and teeth growing with each word like a monster in a horror movie, there is an easy way to pass it. All one has to do is endure.
Nazneen’s actions come back to haunt her in the form of her mother’s ghost. The girls’ clothes are a tangible reminder of how, by sleeping with Karim, Nazneen is putting her family in jeopardy. The Rupban who appears to her at this moment isn’t the gentle, God-fearing woman Nazneen loved beyond all else but a grisly figure who dispenses useless advice. All Nazneen has done for years is endure, but it seems she can do it no longer.