Chanu tells Nazneen that he found her on the kitchen floor, eyes unblinking, vomit at the corners of her mouth. He had missed her heartbeat in bed and came to look for her. Nazneen enters as deeply as she can into her state of collapse. She dives down into the silence and darkness, hearing the voices of her daughters and Hasina and Chanu and Karim. When Dr. Azad comes to visit, she finally opens her eyes. He prescribes rest. Chanu, when he sees Nazneen sitting up, can hardly contain his happiness. He has cooked lavish meals for her, but she wants only rice. She thinks that maybe she should worry about something, but she can’t remember what. Chanu and Dr. Azad trade their usual barbs. Later, Chanu plays the clown for the girls, overjoyed at Nazneen’s recovery. She is still bothered by the thought that she forgot to do something important.
Ali hints here that Nazneen’s breakdown is not just the byproduct of guilt. Over-work and anxiety have played their part as well. Nazneen has worn herself ragged, cooking and cleaning and trying to keep the peace between Chanu and Shahana. She has juggled the demands of husband and lover. She has tried to be a good friend to Razia and negotiate terms with Mrs. Islam, all the while working hard to make money for the family’s home fund and for Hasina. She has not had a moment for herself in years and is quite literally exhausted.
The girls are on break from school and the apartment is a mess. Nazneen does her best not to tidy it, and for a moment her lack of activity gives her a certain amount of pleasure. Maybe she doesn’t always have to be doing something all the time. Maybe the world won’t fall apart. Still, she is disturbed by a memory at the corner of her mind. She can’t recall how things ended with Karim, or if they ended at all. She hopes everything will be clearer when he visits again. After Chanu and the girls go to bed, she picks up objects randomly, disarranging the room, and forces herself to sit and breathe for a while. The only thing that really gives her peace is pulling out the stack of Hasina’s letters and reading them, absorbing her sister’s words like breath.
Nazneen had been raised to believe that women should, at all times, be tending to their husbands and children. In the wake of her breakdown, however, she sees the flaw in this system. It leaves women drained not only of energy but of their sense of self. She is, for the moment anyway, making a conscious effort not to busy herself with unnecessary work. Thoughts of Hasina are life to her. With Hasina’s words as company, she can endure.
In a letter dated June 2001, Hasina writes of telling Lovely about Monju. Monju was married off at thirteen and soon had a son. When the son was seven days old, her husband wanted to sell it. Monju took to begging to support him. Lovely tells Hasina that the problem with begging is that the money has to come from somewhere. Hasina wants to point out that Lovely’s money comes from James, but she keeps her mouth shut.
Monju is an example of what can arise when extreme poverty meets entrenched sexism. Lovely is in denial that Monju’s life has been made tragic by misogyny and a rigid class system. To acknowledge this truth would also be to admit that she benefits from both.
Lovely is getting ready for the Pantene Head and Shoulder Show at the Sheraton Winter Garden. At the show, one boy and one girl will get the award for best hair. Monju’s husband poured acid on her seven-day-old son and she has spent all of her money trying to treat him. Lovely thinks maybe Monju could benefit from Goats for Life or a similar charity aimed at raising people’s self-esteem. Perhaps low self-esteem is Monju’s problem, Lovely says. She leaves and Hasina drifts around Lovely’s room, touching the expensive objects there and wondering if touching these things is different for Lovely because they belong to her. Zaid surprises her by making a loud Kung-Fu noise and chopping the air. Jimmy and Daisy join in.
Lovely’s world is one of empty pleasures. While Monju languishes in a hospital, her face melted, Lovely readies herself to go to a best hair competition. Her suggestion that Monju needs help with her self-esteem reveals the depth of her cluelessness. Meanwhile, her obsession with charities continues to be shallow and self-serving. Hasina is beginning to see that she and Lovely inhabit different realities. Hasina cleans beautiful things, while Lovely owns them.
In Hasina’s next letter, dated July, she thanks Nazneen for her money and says she hopes she won’t be mad, but she took it to the hospital to pay for new dressings for Monju. Monju does not want money spent on her. She thinks only of her son. Hasina then goes home to tend to the children. Daisy has grown clingy, and cries if Hasina puts her down. They sit on the verandah together, where a kingfisher calls to his mates to come and join him on the roof, which is nothing special, but the bird seems to consider paradise. Hasina tells him to fly away, but he never does.
Nazneen, Hasina, and Monju are all acting selflessly, giving what little money they have to someone else. This is in direct contrast to Lovely, who, if anything, wishes she had more money. The bird represents Hasina’s current predicament. She had thought her new position a kind of paradise, but now wishes she could fly away.
Holding Daisy, Hasina kisses her hair, thinking of how loving the girl is, like holding a beautiful, fragile bubble in her hand. Zaid, who’s been inside watching a Kung-Fu movie with Jimmy, tells Hasina not to get too close to the children, since they’re not hers.
Hasina’s happiness, too, is fragile as a bubble. Built on loving children who aren’t hers, it has the potential to pop at any moment.
In the next letter, also dated July, Hasina writes of Lovely’s latest dinner party, this one for Betty and her husband. The men talk about politics and the possibility of a plastic bag ban. The women look bored. Zaid makes dessert and tells Hasina that the rich people in the dining room don’t know what they’re talking about. He has big plans. He might work for a political party in need of muscle. He might become a Kung-Fu actor. He’s considering moving overseas, but he’s seen too many people fail at that to be really tempted. Hasina tells him about Chanu and how he’s lived in London for almost 20 years, and Zaid is finally impressed. He says that Chanu can probably afford to come home and build an entire town where everything works like it should.
This dinner party highlights the deep divide that exists between the upper class and their employees. Lovely and Betty can afford to be bored. Hasina and Zaid have to work and scheme. For all his eccentricity, Zaid does have plans and those plans could threaten the easy and exploitative lifestyles of people like James, Lovely, and Betty. That Zaid is impressed with Chanu is ironic, of course; whereas Chanu is merely a man of many words, Zaid appears to be a man of action.
The next letter is dated August. Hasina writes of going back to the hospital to visit Monju. Lovely supports her completely in these visits and asks her to take Jimmy and Daisy with her this time, but then Hasina tells her a bit about how Monju looks and Lovely, annoyed, makes a comment about how one gives and gives to charity and it’s never enough. Monju is mostly unconscious now, which is a mercy, in Hasina’s opinion. At night she sits with Syeeda on the veranda and they watch the rains together.
Lovely wants so much to be rid of her children that she suggests an outing to a hospital to see an acid attack victim. If she feels bad for Monju, it doesn’t show. She saves most of her pity for herself. Meanwhile, the rains wash Hasina’s disturbed mind clean. In the company of Syeeda, she can forget, at least for a time, her friend’s horrible suffering.
Nazneen and her family are home, cleaning house together. Chanu seems to have stopped going to work. He hovers around Nazneen, fussing and telling her not to overdo it. He tells her that Razia came to see her during her illness, which Chanu is calling “nervous prostration.” Nazneen does not remember Razia’s visit. She thinks about Hasina and her chaotic life and how Hasina always blames herself for every misfortune. She thinks about how what she did with Karim means she will burn in hell for all eternity. At least that matter is settled.
On one hand, progress has been made. Nazneen now has help cleaning up the house. On the other, Chanu has stopped making money and they still owe Mrs. Islam. Nazneen considers Hasina blameless when it comes to the many setbacks she has suffered in life, but she very much blames herself for her own setbacks. This is a testament to the ways in which women in this novel internalize their culture’s misogynistic attitudes.
It is August and hot and Nazneen is looking across the estate at her old apartment, where plants bloom in the windows. She is filled with regret for all the things she has left undone. She should have bought plants and nurtured them. She should have sewn covers for the furniture and gotten rid of the hated wardrobe or at least painted it. She should have hung all of Chanu’s certificates on the wall. Everything seemed so temporary back then. Now, she feels that is too late to make things better.
The blooming plants contrast greatly with the barren landscape of Nazneen’s sudden depression, brought on, it would seem, by regret over not having been the perfect woman and wife. Although she never admitted it to herself, she had thought she would someday escape Tower Hamlets. That is why she didn’t work harder to put down real roots there. This is another aspect of the duality of the “tragedy of the immigrant.”
There is a knock at the door and Nazneen knows it is Karim. He comes in with a bale of jeans over one shoulder. They stand for some time not talking, and Nazneen feels the room fill with things left unsaid. She doesn’t know who moves first, but they come together and end up in the bedroom, making love roughly. She bites his ear and draws blood. She wants everything all at once: to disappear, but mostly for Chanu to come in and see, finally, who she really is.
This scene suggests that Nazneen’s nervous collapse and resulting depression might have been caused, at least in part, by Karim’s absence. The blood she draws when she bites him is proof of her passion for him.
Afterward, in bed, Karim mumbles kindnesses and vows, all of them tainted with his stutter and the idiocy of youth. Nazneen gets up to wash and sees, when he is settled on the couch with his feet on the coffee table, that there are holes in his socks. He tells her that he hasn’t visited for a while because he’s been away, visiting family. He can tell she’s angry about his absence. She says she isn’t. She wants the Karim of the fresh new shirts back. He lingers, telling her that things with the Bengal Tigers have died out. They need new blood. They’d planned a march against the Lion Hearts, but the Lion Hearts canceled everything because they could see they were going to be outnumbered.
Nazneen is slowly beginning to see Karim for who he is: young and awkward and not nearly as well put together as she thought. She’s used to seeing him in sharp, clean clothes. The holes in his socks show that he is, contrary to what she’d hoped, not a hero in an ice skating fantasy but a three-dimensional human with flaws. His work with the Bengal Tigers is again revealed to be reactionary. Without the Lion Hearts, it seems, the Tigers have nothing to fight for because they have no one to fight against.
Nazneen suggests they plan another march and make it a celebration. That way more people will show up. Karim only seems to take the idea seriously when he repeats it aloud, as if he had thought of it himself. He looks at various things on Chanu’s computer, including a picture of an ox driver in Bangladesh. He tells Nazneen that he has never been to his home country. Then he reads to her from an Islamic website, quoting a Qur’an verse about man’s role in adultery. It is a sin against God to look at sinful things and to listen to voluptuous talk and to walk to a place where he will commit vicious deeds. Nazneen is electrified and furious. She tells him to go, wondering if he could have possibly selected the text at random.
That Nazneen feels comfortable enough to suggest that Karim plan a celebration rather than a march is, in itself, remarkable. She never ventures to suggest any course of action to Chanu. That Karim takes credit for the idea is much less remarkable. He is given license to do so by his faith and community. His efforts at trying on Islamic fundamentalism are on-going, and his selection of Qur’anic verse is interesting in that it explains a man’s role in adultery, but it does not explain a woman’s.
Sometime later, Nazneen stamps around, testing the ground beneath her feet. She finds that it is solid. Shahana comes home with a flyer, announcing the date of an upcoming Bengal Tigers-sponsored festival. She wants to go. Everyone will be there, she says. Chanu says no, and that if she insists on whining about it, he will beat her to a bloody pulp. It’s another one of his empty threats, but Nazneen steps between him and Shahana and declares that she can go. Chanu is shocked, but he and Shahana laugh Nazneen’s declaration off. She has not been well, Chanu whispers conspiratorially.
Nazneen’s walking on solid ground seems to be a reference to the Qur’anic text that Karim read to her about adultery. A man is not supposed to walk down the road of temptation, for it is a sin. Nazneen is beginning to understand that she can walk wherever she wants because she is strong and resilient. That is what also gives her the courage to overrule her husband. Chanu might mock her resolve, but it is real.
Later, when Chanu proudly reads aloud from a London School of Economics study that suggests Bangladesh is the happiest country on earth, Nazneen speaks up again. She tells him she does not believe it. Chanu is again shocked. His face can hardly register his level of surprise. Nazneen says that Hasina is proof that the study is bunk. Then she tells him everything about Hasina that she has been hiding all these years, including the rape at the hands of Mr. Chowdhury and the years of prostitution, although she speaks indirectly about the latter. Chanu understands all. He walks around the apartment, restless, eager to make a plan. He wants desperately to fix things but obviously doesn’t know how.
Chanu has never known what to do with either money or women. Meanwhile, Nazneen is growing in courage. She is confident enough now to hit Chanu in one of his most vulnerable places: his reverence for Bangladesh. Moreover, she no longer thinks it necessary to keep the most shameful aspects of Hasina’s life secret because they aren’t, in reality, shameful. Rather, they are the tragic results of a system biased against women and the poor.
Everyone is talking about the Bengal Tigers’ festival, according to Hanufa, who, when Nazneen comes to visit, hands her tub after tub of leftover food. Nazneen is preoccupied with the meeting the night before. Chanu attended with her and even stood up to speak, making a short speech about Bangladesh’s suffering at the hands of the West. Nazneen sat beside her husband and in front of her lover and was happy for a moment, until she remembered her mother.
Rupban continues to haunt Nazneen, who seems to think of her mother most often now when considering her affair with Karim. Rupban’s saintliness underscores for Nazneen her own sinful nature. She is torn between pure joy and overwhelming guilt.
Nazneen returns home from her visit with Hanufa to find Razia standing in front of her apartment, looking tortured and frazzled. When Nazneen asks her what is wrong, Razia responds that Tariq has sold her furniture.
In many cases in this novel, furniture represents the struggles immigrants go through to put down roots in a new country. Tariq sends Razia back to the beginning.