The baby is born, and Nazneen finds him miraculous. He is fair-skinned and beautiful, traits Chanu attributes to his grandmother’s cousin but that Nazneen considers proof of the baby’s blood relation to Hasina. Chanu calls the boy “Ruku,” but his real name is Mohammad Raqib. Nazneen can tell that Chanu thinks of their son as a chance to redeem himself. Chanu hopes Raqib will somehow succeed where his father has failed. Nazneen wants only to be left alone with Raqib, who is more real to her now than her own self, but Chanu remains in the room, talking endlessly about his disapproval of Razia. He is not yet forbidding Nazneen to see her, but he would like her to take care in her interactions with her in the future.
Both Chanu and Nazneen are foisting impossible burdens onto their baby son. Chanu wants Raqib to be everything he is not—a success, a “big man,” a person who demands respect from his peers—while Nazneen loses herself in her son. He is the only thing that matters to her. She does, however, enjoy her visits with Razia. Chanu’s disapproval of Razia isn’t difficult to decipher: he sees Razia’s flourishing independence and is worried Nazneen will try to follow her lead.
Mrs. Islam is paying a visit to Nazneen and Raqib, showing Nazneen how to massage the baby to keep him limber and healthy. Nazneen has grown to resent and dread such visits. Raqib is now five months old, and Mrs. Islam has already drowned Nazneen in a torrent of motherly wisdom. Nazneen is familiar with most if not all of Mrs. Islam’s homemade cures and advice and wishes she would leave her be to mother her son. Later, Nazneen gets a chance to show Mrs. Islam what a good mother she is when she picks up Raqib and he stares at her adoringly. Then, when she puts him down to make tea, he cries inconsolably. Picking him back up again, Nazneen takes comfort in how much her son loves and depends on her and her alone.
Ever since moving to London, Nazneen has lived as one starved of love, but when Raqib comes that void is filled. Nazneen needs nothing beyond the adoration and love of her son. Mrs. Islam is, therefore, an interloper. She is neither wanted nor needed in this tight-knit, two-person unit. Nazneen, who had grown so tired of nurturing her husband that she launched a series of domestic protests, cannot get enough of nurturing her son.
Mrs. Islam tells Nazneen to give Raqib to her; her niece is coming over and loves babies. The break will give Nazneen a chance to tidy up the apartment, Mrs. Islam says. Nazneen counts the chairs in the room: eleven. It is impossible to tidy up when there is so much furniture everywhere. Besides, she wants to keep Raqib with her. She goes to the window and looks out on the trashcans in the estate yard, at a young man smoking, at the new metal frames installed around the windows that gleamed at first but are now dull like everything else. She sees Razia’s children playing behind a shade and the tattoo woman at her table, drinking. Nazneen wonders what the woman could be waiting for.
The bliss Nazneen finds in being a mother to Raqib has not erased all her unhappiness. The apartment furniture continues to irritate her and remind her that Chanu is not as good a provider as she once thought, and the estate is as ugly and divorced from nature as ever, turning even new and shiny things dull in short order. In that way, the tattoo woman, drunk and inert, is its perfect occupant.
Mrs. Islam again tells Nazneen again to give Raqib to her, but Nazneen refuses. She informs Mrs. Islam that Raqib will be staying with her, and she does not soften the blow with gratitude or small talk. Mrs. Islam responds by telling Nazneen about how the white people do things, how they conduct themselves in their personal affairs. They say that everything is their own business. No one is to interfere. Even if a child is being beaten to death, white people insist that it is a private matter. Then Mrs. Islam runs a hand across Raqib’s face and leaves.
Nazneen has committed an unpardonable sin: she has snubbed Mrs. Islam. The old woman takes her revenge by insinuating that Nazneen’s mothering style is analogous to that of a white woman. Perhaps, Mrs. Islam implies, Nazneen has already assimilated to the point that she wants no help from her own kind. Her parting gesture—running her hand over Raqib’s face—is likewise ominous, reading like a curse.
One Sunday, while Nazneen feeds Raqib, Chanu talks of Dr. Azad, who has yet to invite them to his home. Chanu thinks he might be a snob. Nazneen can’t be bothered with Chanu’s petty concerns. She is focused on Raqib, who has gone from awed to quizzical. She cannot believe such a golden, joyful creature has come from her and Chanu. Later, when they take him for a walk on Brick Lane, strangers will stop and compliment him, and Chanu will feed him treats and brag about his alertness and obvious intelligence.
That Chanu thinks Dr. Azad might be a snob shows the depth of his self-delusion. He is the one who is always degrading their Sylheti neighbors, whom he considers peasants. Nazneen and Chanu, meanwhile, have found in Raqib a source of common joy. It is the one thing they have in common.
Before they leave the house, though, Nazneen is forced to listen to Chanu go on and on about his chances for promotion (she notices he has started using “if” instead of “when” when talking about it) and she has to trim his hair and his corns. While she does so, she faces the fact that he will never finish anything. He will never get the promotion or follow through on his plans for the lending library or build the dream house in Dhaka or restore their apartment furniture. At the same time, she realizes that he won’t forget about these projects. He’ll just keep talking about them as if he intends to work on them any day now.
The furniture that Nazneen once considered proof of Chanu’s relative success has grown shabby and worn. This parallels Nazneen’s faith in her husband. She has come to believe that all his talk is empty blather, but as his wife she cannot say so, and she must pretend to believe him when he claims that he is working hard. It is a woman’s role to humor her husband in such a way.
Chanu reads two passages from Richard III aloud to Nazneen, both dealing with Richard’s self-hatred. While Raqib chews on a piece of bread, Nazneen continues to cut his hair, considering how she now spends her days. She often misses prayers. She tells herself it is fine to miss once in a while when Raqib needs her, but sometimes she loses track of time in little fantasies, like when she got sucked into an English magazine Chanu left lying around. The cover showed a couple ice skating, and Nazneen drifted into a different world where she was one of the skaters and the audience was applauding for her. Now, when she gets a letter from Hasina, she lets herself daydream that she, too, is an independent woman. Then she is remorseful and composes a stiff letter to her sister as penance.
Perhaps, given the context and content of the quotations from Richard III, Chanu is not completely without self-awareness. It is possible that he, too, might feel pangs of self-disgust, but Nazneen does not press the subject. Meanwhile, her faith in God and fate is slipping, being replaced by ice skating fantasies. The appeal of skating is not only the pretty outfits and the promise of a handsome partner, but the freedom associated with flying elegantly over a smooth surface, everything effortless and clean.
Nazneen pays a visit to Razia, who is, as usual, out of temper with her children. Tariq, who has grown silent and taciturn like his father, whines for his mother to give him five pounds. He wants a new football. Then Shefali asks for five pounds, too. Nazneen looks around the apartment. It has become crammed and cluttered with furniture, clothes, toys, food, and a whole host of largely useless items. Nazneen thinks about the children back home in Gouripur and about how they rarely complained, even when toys and food were scarce. Unlike Razia’s children, the villagers did not make themselves unhappy over things and opportunities they did not need.
Razia’s cluttered apartment parallels Nazneen’s. Both places are filling up with furniture, which, once it reaches a critical mass, begins crowding out the home’s inhabitants. Razia struggles with a dilemma common among Tower Hamlets parents: her children have begun to embrace western ways. They want the same things their white classmates want, and, because their expectations have been raised, they are now sure to be disappointed.
Razia sends both kids outside and begins to tell Nazneen about her husband’s frustrating approach to money. Rather than giving her some to spend on the family, he sends it all home to his brother in Bangladesh. Razia is worried the brother is spending it all. She supposes she’ll never see it again. In the meantime, she never sees her husband either, as he is busy working two jobs. Razia says she’s thinking of following Jorina’s lead and finding work in a factory. Nazneen is shocked. Everyone knows Jorina’s husband is cheating on her because she had to get a job and that made him feel less of a man. What, Nazneen says, will the community say if Razia tries to get a job, too?
Traditional marriage roles dictate that husbands work and therefore control all the money. This puts women in what amounts to a catch-22. They are obligated by convention to depend on their husbands for shelter and food. Should their husbands spend the money unwisely, wives are, in many cases, not permitted to obtain work to fix the problem. Should a wife go to work, and her husband misbehave, she risks getting blamed for that, too. This is a game a woman cannot win.
Razia could not care less what the community says, especially since “the community” usually means Mrs. Islam, who, rumor has it, is not the upstanding woman everyone presumed her to be. Nazneen is intrigued, and Razia goes on to explain that Mrs. Islam’s habit of keeping handkerchiefs up her sleeve goes back to a time when she and her husband ran a shady business in Bangladesh. Rather than keeping purdah, Mrs. Islam was an essential player in the company, using the handkerchiefs to signal to her husband when she wanted him to make a deal. And Mrs. Islam is still involved in business, although Razia is hesitant to tell Nazneen what kind, since she’s not sure she can trust the information she’s been given. Nazneen tells her it’s best to let the rest remain unsaid, then.
This is the second indication that Mrs. Islam might not be the kindly and respectable woman she appears to be. The handkerchiefs represent tricks. She seems to have an endless supply of them up her sleeve. If Razia’s story of Mrs. Islam’s work in business is true, Mrs. Islam is an inveterate hypocrite, for it was Mrs. Islam who criticized Jorina for working outside the home, not keeping purdah, and endangering the purity of her own culture by mixing with people of different ethnic groups.
Nazneen and Chanu are on a bus on their way to Dr. Azad’s house. Chanu comments, quietly at first and then more loudly, on the size of their African driver, saying that it’s obvious his people were born and bred for slavery. Nazneen responds to this observation in the same way she responds to nearly everything Chanu says now: with the phrase, “If you say so, husband.” It is her way of expressing subtle disagreement, but Chanu does not hear her dissent. Chanu asks her what he should say to Dr. Azad when they arrive. She answers that he should say “salaam,” and is puzzled by Chanu’s apparent ignorance of rudimentary etiquette.
Chanu’s ignorant remark about the African bus driver is an extreme example of his wrong-headed notions about race. It also puts Nazneen in a mortifying position. She does not allow herself to contradict him directly, for that would be a violation of her wifely role. The result is that Chanu feels vindicated and revered. As a man, he does not have to question his own ignorant assumptions.
Nazneen notices that Chanu’s soles are separating from his shoes and the knees of his pants are shiny. When she first met him, Chanu was not handsome, but he was at least well put together. Now, even though Nazneen has abandoned her rebellious approaches to housework (they annoyed only her), he looks slovenly and sloppy. As they move through the city, she considers whether or not she has enough diapers, wipes, and food for Raqib and she watches shop windows flash by. Chanu decides he will tell Dr. Azad they were just passing through, and it dawns on Nazneen that they are going to the doctor’s house uninvited.
Like the furniture in their apartment, Chanu’s clothing has grown ragged. This transformation is not the result of Nazneen’s housework mutiny, which has ended. She is focused now, instead, on Raqib’s needs. This shift in attention is a lateral move; having all but given up on her marriage, she is putting all her energies into motherhood. She has none left over for herself.
Nazneen wonders why her father would marry her off to such a man. She grows angry and feels an insidious kind of discontentment slither along her skin. The feeling is like a snake that moves up her shoulders and neck, hissing in her ear. Most of the time, she is successful at wishing the snake away. She tells herself that her life is comfortable and fine. Chanu does not beat her. She loves Raqib. But the snake is there all the same, reminding her that she is essentially unhappy.
The snake of unspoken anger returns in full force. At home in Gouripur, snakes were ever present and often deadly. This snake will not leave Nazneen alone, no matter how hard she works to banish it. It is similar, as a symbol, to the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve, shattering her innocence and opening her eyes to her own desires.
If she’d known what her life with Chanu would be like, Nazneen thinks, she would have wept on her wedding day. In truth, she did weep on her wedding day—the weeping came naturally to her. After all, Rupban was a champion weeper. The summer when Nazneen turned ten, Auntie, Rupban’s sister, came to visit, and the women spent the first several hours together crying. It was the same summer Mustafa, the village cow man, lost his mind, kidnapped a young girl, and kept her in the jungle for three days and nights. As a girl, Nazneen could not figure out the source of her mother and aunt’s suffering. It seemed to have nothing to do with Mustafa and the girl. All she knew was that it was connected somehow to being a woman, and she hoped that one day, when she was older, she would understand.
As a grown woman, Nazneen wishes she could go back to her childhood and relive the days she spent with Hazina, Rupban, and Hamid. As a child, though, she wanted to be a woman and to understand a woman’s sorrow and its source. Now she has first-hand knowledge of that sadness, and she sees that much of it is engendered by the men in women’s lives. Women are denied the power to make the kinds of decisions that would free them from the men who cause them pain. They, like the little village girl, are held captive.
Such sadness bored Hasina, so she dragged Nazneen away and they raided the local store, looking for tamarind and henna. Then they braided each other’s hair, and Nazneen was struck anew by her sister’s otherworldly beauty, thinking that Hasina was not, like the rest of them, born to suffer.
To the relatively plain Nazneen, Hasina’s physical beauty seems a blessing. It is clear, though, from Hasina’s letters that beauty alone has not shielded her from harm.
Later, while nearly everyone in the village took a nap, Nazneen climbed a tree and looked out over the nearby jungle and fields, wondering if, when she finally married, she would go as far away as the furthest field. While sitting in the branches, she noticed a dead man hanging from another tree. The man was talking to her. It was Mustafa, and he wasn’t quite dead. He wanted her to cut him down, but, as the girl whose life had been left to fate, she did not feel qualified to make any life and death decisions, so she walked away. Eventually, she went in search of water, thinking that if Mustafa were still alive when she got back, she would at least quench his thirst. What she found instead were three men, one the father of the kidnapped girl, dancing around Mustafa’s dangling corpse.
As a young girl, Nazneen did not comprehend that leaving a lynched man to his fate was basically condemning him to death. What she could have done to help Mustafa, however, is unclear. She was only a child, and Mustafa had been punished by full-grown men who were out for revenge. Even so, Mustafa’s death obviously haunts Nazneen. She thinks of his story while on the way to Dr. Azad’s because she again feels powerless and at the mercy of men.
In the present, Chanu and Nazneen stand outside a large house landscaped with elaborate flagstones and fake animals. When Chanu rings the bell, a plump woman in a tight purple skirt and short coppery hair answers the door. Chanu apologizes, telling her they’re looking for Dr. Azad, and assuming they have the wrong address. The woman informs them that they’re in exactly the right place.
In Gouripur, the animals were all too real. Water buffaloes lazed in ponds and mynah birds soared overhead. In London, the Azads have settled for tacky replicas. This suggests that the big city existence many Bengali immigrants are living is also a cheap substitute for the genuine thing.