Nazneen is with Razia and Shefali in their apartment. The place is bare, stripped clean except for a couple of mattresses and a chair. Nazneen remembers the rooms when Razia’s husband was still alive. After he died, she cleared out all the junk and paint and gradually, over time, began furnishing it again with modest but elegant pieces she could afford on her seamstress’s salary. Now it’s all gone, and Razia admits that she’s known for some time that Tariq was selling drugs. Trouble came when men from another estate said he was encroaching on their territory. They wanted to tax him on his earnings. Nazneen later confesses to Razia about Karim, but Razia rebuffs her, saying just because she is suffering, Nazneen does not need to suffer too.
Razia has worked very hard to make her apartment a home. She began by tossing out the unwanted gifts she received from her husband’s white coworker. That was her most decisive act in her battle to make her home her own. Tariq’s battle with rival drug dealers is not unlike the Bengal Tigers’ fight with the Lion Hearts. Nazneen and Razia have both been keeping secrets from each other. Nazneen picks the wrong time to unburden herself.
Razia and Nazneen are in Dr. Azad’s office. Razia wants his help getting Tariq off drugs. Dr. Azad is, as usual, calm and tidy. Razia, on the other hand, is a mess, pacing the room and demanding to know what the community is saying about her. She stops and asks Dr. Azad if he can cure her son. He replies that Tariq needs to want to stop using drugs. She should go home, he says, and talk to her son.
Even with her son’s life at stake, Razia is preoccupied with what sort of rumors the women in Tower Hamlets might be spreading about her. For women largely deprived of agency, gossip gives them a feeling of power. Razia is an easy target, and now the burden of getting her son clean is on her shoulders.
Nazneen, the girls, and Chanu are at home. Everyone is preparing for the festival. The girls are in charge of the arts and crafts table, and Chanu is on the classical music committee, though he wishes that he were on the poetry committee instead. He recites a few lines about the beauty of Bangladesh from memory, then tells the girls and Nazneen that when they move back home they will return to the simple life that everyone in London seems to have lost sight of. Then he launches into song, and the song contains the line, “What keeps you tied to the corners of the room?” Nazneen thinks they are all tied to the corners of the room. The thought stays with her all day, like a breastfeeding baby.
What keeps Nazneen tied to the corners of the room is habit and convention: religious tradition paired with her own meekness. Chanu is bound by his unrealistic ambitions and inability to follow through, and the girls are hemmed in by their parents’ choices and their status as immigrants in a country that is often suspicious of “outsiders.” Breastfeeding, likewise, ties a woman down, making her a prisoner to her baby’s appetites.
In a letter dated August 2001, Hasina writes about Lovely’s restlessness and discontentment. Lovely is angry partially because Betty recently had her picture in the newspaper. The picture was taken at an HIV benefit. Lovely thinks she should perhaps start her own charity, maybe one for child workers. Hasina brings up a number of children who work in the neighborhood. Lovely points out that Hasina is supposed to be mopping the floor, and then Lovely wishes aloud that she weren’t so beautiful, and that instead she were plain like Hasina.
Lovely’s hypocrisy is glaring. She sees children every day who could benefit from her charity, but she doesn’t want to help them because they are employed by her neighbors. She wants, too, to be able to complain to Hasina nonstop without ever hearing Hasina’s point of view. Her parting shot about Hasina’s plainness is most likely motivated by spiteful envy.
Later, Hasina lies down in the guest room bed, loving the feel of the sheets. Then she goes to the master bedroom and begins to apply Lovely’s makeup to her face. Zaid comes in while she is putting kohl on her eyes and quotes to her a line of poetry about the human heart never being satisfied with what it has.
Just as characters often change their clothing in order to become a new person, Hasina is putting on Lovely’s makeup in an attempt to be her for the afternoon. Zaid knows this can only lead to suffering.
Nazneen slips into a depression. She stays in bed longer and longer. Now after Karim leaves, she often doesn’t bother to wash the sheets, preferring instead to wrap herself in the soiled linen and sleep there. Chanu buys her an ivory comb and a beautiful bolt of cloth. She doesn’t want either. One night, when ice skating is on the television, Chanu drags her to the sofa and, together, everyone watches. But the magic has been lost. Nazneen thinks it all looks cheap and fake.
Nazneen’s sadness is not explained, but it could be due to her last meeting with Karim when he read aloud to her the Quranic verse about adultery. Neither beautiful clothes nor ice skating on television cheer her. She knows that true transformation has to come from within, and she can’t count on a handsome partner to fix her problems.
Mrs. Islam comes for her money. Nazneen gives it to her, realizing that everything she has saved for Hasina is now going to Mrs. Islam. One day, Razia visits. Tariq has not stopped using drugs. Razia mentions that she saw Karim on the stair. This is the only thing that seems to puncture Nazneen’s depression. Soon, though, she is back in a fog, sewing and worrying. Chanu rushes in and orders her to turn on the television.
Despite working long days with very few breaks, Nazneen is not saving any money. Mrs. Islam is taking it all, and, since Nazneen does not know how much Chanu borrowed, she also has no idea how close they are to paying her back. Every day is just another day, except when she has time to think of Karim.
The terror attacks of September 11 play out on the screen. Chanu and Nazneen watch it unfold in horror. Chanu says this is the beginning of the madness. Nazneen feels as if she is in a trance. Nazma drops by and watches for a while, asking if Nazneen will take her children for a while after school tomorrow. Nazneen agrees. Nazma starts to leave, pausing by Nazneen’s sewing machine. There is a glint in her eye as she asks Nazneen if she is still getting plenty of work. Nazneen’s stomach plummets.
The events of September 11 are one kind of disaster. Nazma suspecting Nazneen of sleeping with Karim is another. Nazneen seems more upset by the latter, but this is understandable given the personal nature of this exchange and the fact that the attacks happened on the other side of the ocean. Chanu, though, understands that many will use the attacks as an opportunity to target Muslims and punish them for something they did not do.
Everyone watches the coverage together, including Shahana and Bibi. Nazneen feels as if they have all survived something together as a family. Later, after she makes dinner, she sees a new image: that of a man throwing himself out of one of the burning towers. That night she dreams again of Gouripur and the men after the cyclone doing what little they could to put the village back together.
The image of people throwing themselves out of the Twin Tower windows reminds Nazneen of humanity’s inability to save itself, and that life on earth is, in general, an exercise in well-intentioned futility.
People in the estates start to experience a backlash from September 11. Girls have their head scarves pulled off. Razia is spit on. Chanu gathers his family into the living room and tells them the story of the famous painter Zainul Abedin, who painted the regular people of Bangladesh. During the famine of 1942, he painted both the living and the dead. He showed how the vultures and crows feasted on dead children. While all of this was going on, Chanu says, the British took grain from the country and ate it themselves. That is life, Chanu says, and they will be leaving for Dhaka very soon.
What Chanu feared has come to pass. Angry and ignorant people have begun harassing the Tower Hamlets Bengali community, punishing little girls for crimes committed by grown men. Chanu’s story about Abedin points out that humans have been horrible to each other since the beginning of time and the British are far from blameless. He wants to take his girls back home where they will be accepted for who they are.
But they can’t leave yet because they still don’t have the money. Chanu counts what they have at the kitchen table and asks in confusion where it is all going. He tells Nazneen to ask Karim for a fifty percent raise. Later, while Nazneen brushes her hair, they talk more about the move. Chanu asks her if she wants to go. She answers that if it is God’s will, she will go. But does she want to, Chanu asks. She doesn’t answer. Chanu puts his head on her shoulder. He answers for her. Of course, she wants to go. What kind of sister would she be if she didn’t?
For the first time in the novel, Chanu asks Nazneen’s opinion about something and he does, indeed, seem to want an honest answer. Nazneen equivocates, however, because she is still embroiled in an affair with Karim and because giving her opinion is not something she’s in the habit of doing. That Chanu answera for her in this moment is less a function of his need to control her than it is wishful thinking.
Chanu starts working all the time. He works so much he is too tired to talk, and his ulcer grows so painful that he no longer finds pleasure in food. One day, he comes home to find Karim at his computer. Karim is completely calm. He yawns and tells Chanu that he is looking up an Islamic website. Nazneen digs her nails into her flesh, thinking she’ll cry out and break the room in two, but she remains silent. Chanu tells Karim about his youthful ambitions, his burning desire to be a British civil servant. Karim replies by saying he knows what he wants. He says it two more times, but Chanu goes on like he doesn’t hear him. When one is young, Chanu says, one wants everything to be possible. When one grows older, one needs things to be certain. Finished with his speech, Chanu goes out.
Nazneen had been hoping Chanu would come home, find her with Karim and see her, finally, for who she is: a bad wife, a bad mother, a sinner against God. Instead, he seems not to see her at all. He sees only Karim, and directs all his comments to him. Chanu has grown wise over time. He has learned to value Nazneen over his delusions of grandeur, but it is too late. He will never be certain of anything again. Nazneen’s desire to break the room harkens back to her wanting to cry out at the hospital when Raqib is sick. In both instances, she remains silent.
The festival everyone had been looking forward to is cancelled. Karim tells Nazneen that the events of September 11 convinced them that now was not the time to throw a celebration of Islamic culture. It would seem in bad taste. The girls are disappointed. They are also worried about Chanu, who has stopped humming and giving speeches. He doesn’t even want them to turn the pages of his books anymore. After a time, he brings home a suitcase. It is an unremarkable black bag, but what Nazneen notices is that he presents it to the family without any pomp and circumstance. It is this lack of grandiloquence that convinces her he is finally serious about moving home to Bangladesh.
A celebration of Islamic culture has nothing to do with the terror attacks of September 11, but Karim knows that people are not always rational, and so the celebration falls victim to others’ ignorance. Chanu has not been himself since coming home to find Karim on his computer. His resolve to move to Dhaka, however, has not changed. If anything, it has grown stronger.
Karim changes his style. He trades the jeans and gym shoes for Panjabi pajama and a skull cap. Nazneen senses he doesn’t want to discuss his new look, so she keeps her thoughts to herself. Her mind drifts back to Gouripur and a man named Arzoo, a poor laborer who worked her father’s lands. One day, Arzoo showed up in the village in an elaborate red, wool jacket. No one could believe their eyes, and everyone teased him about it. They teased him so much he began to hate the jacket. Nazneen heard Arzoo tell her father that people often think that clothing is a superficial thing, but in a poor place like Gouripur, it is a very serious business.
Karim’s changing style reflects the seriousness with which he is approaching his religious education. He is trading in the attire of the West for that of the East. Arzoo’s story underscores the power of clothes, especially when one is poor. The jacket made Arzoo an object of envy in the small village. He was suddenly very visible, and all he wanted to be was invisible. Karim’s clothes are a clear statement about his desire to connect with his homeland.
Nazneen is trying to think how she would describe Karim to Hasina in a letter. Karim is on the computer, reading about the September 11 terror attacks on the internet. Nazneen’s thoughts drift to the barber of Gouripur, Tamizuddin Mizra Haque, who, in Nazneen’s memory, seemed to be a respected authority on everything. People deferred to him and they always referred to him by his whole name as a sign of high regard. She realizes she will never write to Hasina of Karim. She begins one of her usual letters, mentioning the girls and sending good wishes to Monju and her son. Nazneen knows it is inadequate. Hasina’s letters are always so full of life.
As they did when she first arrived in London, Nazneen’s thoughts are straying often to Gouripur. This could be because Karim is trying to learn more about his ancestral home, which brings to mind her childhood, or because Chanu has redoubled his efforts to make his dream of moving back to Bangladesh a reality. More likely, it’s both. The men’s obsessions are infectious.
Karim, meanwhile, has stood up and is pacing the apartment, saying that the official account of the September 11 attacks does not add up. None of the men would have left their Qur’ans in a taxi cab as the reports suggest. He tells Nazneen to consider who benefits from the attack. When they can answer that question, they can find the true culprits.
Karim understandably does not want to believe the reports about the men responsible for 9/11, but his thinking is muddied by his hopes and it is, again, drifting into the territory of conspiracy theories.
Nazneen vows to tell Karim he can’t pray in her apartment anymore. It is wrong and it has to stop, but then he whispers in her ear and she is powerless. She sometimes wishes Chanu would discover them and kill her. Then she would be freed from this torment, but he hasn’t even mentioned the day he came home and found them together. One day, she asks Karim why he likes her. He jokes with her for a bit and then tells her that, unlike the women who go around in short skirts speaking English all the time, she is the real thing. She is reminded of the time when, just after their marriage, Chanu described her as an “unspoilt village girl.”
Chanu, even if he were to discover Karim and Nazneen making love, would never be capable of killing his wife. The fact that Nazneen would even indulge in such morbid fantasies shows how far she’s let herself slip into a world which is divorced from reality. Like Chanu, Karim likes that Nazneen is submissive and will, for the most part, do whatever he wants.
Nazneen tells Karim that Chanu is making plans to move the family home to Dhaka. He does not react at first. Then he tells her that when he didn’t come to see her for a while, the time when he said he was with his cousins, he went to see a girl his father had picked out for him. He turned her down for Nazneen. He tells her to let Chanu go to Bangladesh without her. Then she can sue him for divorce on the grounds of desertion.
Karim’s extended absence corresponded with Nazneen’s breakdown. While she never admitted it, it was perhaps that absence that was a catalyst for her depression. Karim wants to enter into a love marriage with Nazneen. Nazneen, on the other hand, does not seem to know at all what she wants.
The family has stopped eating together. Chanu has no appetite, so Nazneen lets the girls eat hamburgers and baked beans and whatever they want. When Nazneen cooks now, she cooks for herself and she eats alone at the middle of the night, wondering if she’ll ever eat with her sister again. One night, a Lion Hearts leaflet comes through the door, advertising the March Against the Mullahs. Karim is overjoyed. The Bengal Tigers now have a cause. Chanu, on the other hand, gives the flyer a disgusted glance and goes to the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
Food has often acted as the glue that kept Chanu and Nazneen’s family together. The discontinuing of family dinners hints at some dissolution of the blood bonds. Much of that can be traced to Chanu’s coming home to find Karim casually using his computer. Karim’s work with the Bengal Tigers is still mostly in response to the racist Lion Hearts.