A boy has been stabbed and no one, not the newspapers or the residents of Tower Hamlets, can get the story straight. His name and character changes with each telling. Nazneen and Shahana stand outside a grocery store, listening to people gossip. Nazma seems intent, especially in front of Razia, on blaming the boy’s death on drugs. It’s too bad that so many young men are deep into the drugs these days, she says. Razia pretends not to hear them.
This boy’s life is not important enough to the authorities or even his neighbors for anyone to know his name or situation. He is dispensable, disposable. Razia is targeted by the gossipers on the estate. Like the injured boy, Tariq is being treated like a commodity and nothing more.
Nazneen and Razia are walking home from the grocery store, and they see a funeral procession pass by. In one of the cars is a white woman who smiles at Nazneen as if she knows her, as if she is a familiar object of some kind. Nazneen wants desperately to ask Razia if she is being talked about, but it is difficult to talk to Razia about real things now. Razia never jokes anymore, and never does any impressions. They walk past a store called Fashion Fusion. It seems to sell saris to white girls, and Razia is roused to talk finally. She wonders how people can spit on her for being a Muslim while outfitting themselves like the people they claim to hate. What is wrong with people? she asks.
In one quick glance, the white woman in this scene thinks she knows everything about Nazneen because, to the white woman, Nazneen is not a complicated human but an exotic object, lovely to behold and easy to dismiss. White girls who wear saris are in the same camp. They embrace the styles of the East while remaining ignorant about who people like Razia and Nazneen really are.
One evening, the girls and Nazneen are alone in the apartment. Chanu is working. Shahana is saying she doesn’t want to move to Bangladesh. Not even, Nazneen asks, to meet Mumtaz auntie? Bibi asks to hear a story of Mumtaz, so Nazneen tells them of Mumtaz’s jinni given to her by her father. She broke the bottle the jinni lived in, telling it that she was giving it its freedom and in return it had to give her wisdom. Time passed, though, and Mumtaz never heard from it. Finally, after a village woman came to Mumtaz with a problem—she had eight children and her husband would not stop sleeping with her—Mumtaz asked the air what she could say to the woman to help her with her dilemma. This time, the jinni answered.
In the scene depicting Nazneen’s birth, Mumtaz appeared to be the voice of reason. She wanted Rupban to take Nazneen to the hospital for treatment rather than leaving her to her fate. But this story shows that Mumtaz is as superstitious as many of the inhabitants of Gouripur. She believes in the power of a jinni, or spirit, to shape lives, including that of a woman with eight children who wants her husband to stop impregnating her. It’s a reasonable request, and yet it’s not a woman’s place to make it.
The jinni told Mumtaz that the woman should line up all her children and tell her husband that if he wants another child, he will first have to pick which of the eight he wants to kill. Kill one and she will replace it. After this incident, the people in the village often came to Mumtaz for advice and Mumtaz obliged them, asking the jinni and often speaking in tongues. Rupban was the only skeptic. She thought Mumtaz’s jinni act was a complete fraud.
Mumtaz gives the jinni credit for the wisdom she dispenses, but, given that it’s the very devout and unquestioning Rupban who thinks the act fake, it is very possible that the wisdom is coming from Mumtaz herself. Mumtaz, though, is a woman, and the village might not listen to her unless she disguises her intelligence as God-given.
Finished with her story, Nazneen leads the girls to the bathroom to brush their teeth. There, she thinks of a jinni tale she had never told them. When Nazneen was eight or nine years old, Rupban became possessed by an evil jinni. The jinni made her sharpen sticks and try to poke Hamid’s eyes out with them. It made her stop washing. Things got so bad that Hamid called on an area holy man, Manzur Boyati, to come and perform an exorcism. Exorcisms were considered great entertainment in the village, and everyone came out to see Rupban shed the jinni.
Nazneen now knows that much of Rupban’s suffering was caused by Hamid’s many affairs, but both Hamid and the village at large preferred to blame a jinni for her anger. It was more entertaining and expedient to do so. It is worth noting that no one blamed a jinni for making Hamid abandon his wife and daughters on a regular basis. In fact, no one blamed Hamid, either.
The holy man called on a volunteer from the crowd to help with the exorcism. One of Rupban’s servant boys raised his hand. He was a moody boy who kept a mongoose on a leash. The exorcism proceeded as planned, with the holy man transferring the jinni from Rupban to the body of the servant boy. When the holy man began questioning the boy about why he would torture Rupban, he answered in a wicked voice that she had stepped on his shadow. The boy then proceeded to yank on the holy man’s beard to the point that the holy man asked the crowd to intervene. He insisted that the boy was faking and was trying to kill him.
The exorcism is a comedy of errors, but there is a serious message hidden in the ridiculous way it plays out. Rupban was never in need of an exorcism. She needed, instead, for her husband to treat her better. The holy man’s claim that the boy is faking suggests that this religious rite is not religious at all. It is, instead, elaborate and socially sanctioned theater.
When the servant boy was finally pulled away from the holy man, the holy man demanded the chance to avenge himself on the boy. The crowd began to fight about what should be done. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the holy man would be permitted to put the boy in a headlock if he solemnly promised to rid him of the evil spirit.
The crowd’s bickering is reminiscent of the fights between members of the Bengal Tigers. Both group’s battles are petty and self-defeating. Meanwhile, the holy man’s request is the opposite of holy. It’s vengeful and immature.
Rupban eventually got better, and even though Nazneen overheard the servant boy bragging that he’d humiliated the holy man on purpose, she insisted on believing in the exorcism. Now, though, she can only wonder why Rupban always seemed to believe in bad jinn but not good.
Mumtaz’s jinni would be considered a benevolent one, but Rupban thought that spirit was a fake. Trusting in fate made Rupban a hardened pessimist because the God she revered seemed always to be punishing her.
Nazneen sees little of Karim at the moment. He is busy with Bengal Tiger activities and with his spiritual instruction. When she does see him, he tells her he’s researching divorce, and he talks about their future wedding, which he thinks should be a simple, small affair. Nazneen does not know what she wants to happen. She can go to Bangladesh with Chanu and the girls, but that could end in ruin. She could stay here and marry Karim, but then what? She supposes she should wait and let fate decide, but, having cut a chili and gotten some of the heat into her eye, she cries out in pain and then exhilaration. She will decide what happens to her, she thinks. She will act.
Nazneen is torn between letting a man determine her future and sitting back and seeing what God seems to have planned for her. The pain she feels when the chili lands in her eye is, in effect, a wake up call. She doesn’t have to wait on either men or God. She can rely on herself. That said, doing so will probably be painful.
Later, though, Nazneen is left with only the ghost of her determination. She vacillates back and forth, torn between Karim and her family. One night, after praying, she finds a Qur’anic verse about two oceans divided by a reef and containing the question “which of God’s blessings would you deny?” Both sides of the ocean have coral and pearls. Which is the right ocean? It reminds Nazneen of Chanu cutting his toenails in bed and coming over to her, kissing her forehead, and saying he has never once regretted his choice of bride. Her girls are beautiful, she thinks. She is a lucky woman. She vows that she will not deny God’s blessings.
The divided oceans get to the heart of the dualities at play in this novel. Like the water cut in two by the reef, Hasina and Nazneen are literally separated by distance and circumstance. Nazneen is pulled toward Bangladesh by Chanu and toward a new life with Karim. Should she choose Chanu, it would be more of the same, more cutting of his corns and the tedium and sweetness of raising children. It is not such a hateful prospect as it once was.
Chanu talks less and less, while Karim talks more and more. Karim is energized by the Lion Hearts’ latest leaflet, which claims that Islam is a religion of hate and violence. Karim, still dressed in his Panjabi pajama and skull cap, is furious with such claims. Everyone is always talking about Islamic terrorists, but never Catholic terrorists or Jewish terrorists, he says. Nazneen wants to talk to him, but she doesn’t know what to say. He’s so angry all the time now. Karim tells her that the Lion Hearts might have started the war, but the Bengal Tigers will finish it.
Karim and Chanu have seemingly switched places. Karim is now the restless, talkative man who seems to use an abundance of words to hide his lack of focus. His point about so-called Islamic terrorists receiving the brunt of the public’s condemnation is a good one, but his obsession with the Lion Hearts is ill-conceived, as fighting them will not solve anything.
In a letter dated September 2001, Hasina writes that Monju has died. Hasina is glad that her friend is now relieved from her suffering, and she is grateful to report that Lovely is making good on her promise to start a new charity. It will help child victims of acid attacks, and Monju’s son will be its first beneficiary. Lovely calls the newspaper to announce the formation of the organization.
The only way for Monju not to suffer is to die. That is the tragic fate of many poor women who are powerless to defend themselves against angry and violent men. Lovely has finally shown herself capable of thinking of others, although, of course, she is still putting fame above everything.
Hasina had the chance to give the good news to Monju before she died, and she could see the joy and relief in the woman’s eye. Then Monju told her a secret. When her son was two years old, she smacked him across the legs in a fit of frustration. She thought it might have been that smack, rather than the acid, that was causing all his leg problems. Hasina pretends to go ask a doctor about it and comes back, telling her the doctor said it could not have been the smack. It was not Monju’s fault. Monju almost smiles. She tells Hasina that secrets kill and asks her if Hasina has any she would like to get off her chest. The next day, when Hasina comes back to unburden herself, Monju is gone.
Monju’s ignorance is to blame for her misconception that a simple smack across the legs could have caused the kind of damage produced in an acid attack, and her ignorance is a direct result of her poverty. Hasina’s secrets are a lot like Monju’s. She was raped by Mr. Chowdhury and forced into a life of prostitution. Neither of these were her fault, but she blames herself nonetheless because women are taught that they are at fault for men’s mistakes.