From the ambulance, Nazneen senses that the city has shattered. It is in fragments. The hospital, too, seems like a broken mosaic of people and sensations and moments. Raqib is taken away from Nazneen and put in an incubator. Nazneen feels like she has a noise inside of her that, if she were to open her mouth and let it out, would break the city and the hospital all over again.
Nazneen has built her life and sense of self around her roles as a wife and mother. Without Raqib in her arms, she has no purpose. Having swallowed all her grievances, she is worried that, if she were to voice them now, her words would have the power to destroy.
Chanu brings Nazneen food, first from the hospital cantina, and then from home. She eats ravenously. He brings more. They wait for news in a waiting room set aside for families of the gravely ill. Raqib stays in his incubator, covered in a raspberry red rash. After three days of waiting, Chanu tells Nazneen a letter has come from home. An old friend of his wants money. For years, this friend did very well for himself, collecting bribes and throwing parties, but his money has dried up, he only has one servant, and he hopes Chanu will not let his family suffer. Nazneen begins to laugh. She tells Chanu to send the money. God forbid a family live with only one servant. Chanu smiles.
For the first time since her marriage, Nazneen eats her fill in front of her husband. She eats with an insatiable hunger because she is attempting to fill the void left by Raqib. The story of Chanu’s friend begging for money reminds Nazneen that life at home in Bangladesh is not without its ridiculous side. It also reveals that Chanu is not as heartless when it comes to such entreaties as he’d wanted Nazneen to believe.
It begins to dawn on Nazneen that she no longer despises her husband. In fact, in the time they have spent at the hospital, waiting for Raqib to wake up, she has grown to understand him. Whereas she retreats inwardly, he pushes out. She accepts fate; he challenges it. Still, they aren’t so different after all. They want the same things, and the one thing they want the most in the world they finally get—Raqib appears to be in recovery. They can take him home soon. Nazneen had sat by Raqib’s cot, calm as a mongoose entranced by a snake, willing her son to get better, and he did. For the first time since moving to London, Nazneen is completely and utterly happy.
Nazneen and Chanu are clearly not in a love marriage. Their arrangement was one of practicality and convenience. Regardless, love seems to be sneaking up on them. They are growing closer over their shared anxiety for Raqib. Chanu, far from being a villain, is a caring and concerned father and husband. The snake that visits Nazneen has changed its tune. It no longer represents unvoiced anger—since Nazneen isn’t angry anymore. Instead, it represents the utter concentration required to save her son’s life.
Nazma and Sorupa, two of Nazneen’s neighbors from Tower Hamlets, have come to visit Nazneen and Raqib in the hospital. Jorina comes, too. All three women mean well, but it’s Razia who really comforts Nazneen. After Nazneen has asked the medical machines to look after her son (she thinks of them as small, mechanical animals), she and Razia sit in the family waiting room together and talk. Razia is furious with her husband. Not only does he send all their money home (to an imam, it turns out, who is building a new mosque), but he has begun nitpicking her grocery buying habits. He says she spends too much money on junk food and insists that they eat everything in the house before she buys more. The family has been living on raisins and crackers as a result.
Rupban trusted Nazneen’s life to fate. Nazneen and Chanu, on the other hand, have given their son over to modern medicine, which seems to be dominated by beeping machines. Investing the machines with animal-like traits, Nazneen begins to view them as allies in the fight for Raqib’s life. Razia’s main battle is for equality in her marriage. For all her independent spirit and verve, Razia is not able to overrule her violent husband. As man and master, he still has the power to make her and her children’s lives miserable.
Razia wants very much to work, but her husband has said he will slit her throat if she does. Nazneen says Razia should not want to be like Jorina. Jorina works and her family is a mess, but Razia counters that everyone is a mess. Just look at the teens on the estate, drinking and listening to loud music and disrespecting their elders. Working, Razia says, has nothing to do with it.
Razia represents the more liberated woman here, Nazneen the wife still clinging to conventional ideas. Nazneen is more apt to blame women for society’s ills. Razia’s concern about the youth being corrupted by Western values is an example of Chanu’s “tragedy of the immigrant” theory.
Meanwhile, Razia’s husband’s coworker is always giving them things they don’t need, usually cans of paint. Razia is beginning to think she should give up and become a housepainter. She and Nazneen share a laugh about this scenario and Chanu arrives with food from home. He greets Razia uncomfortably, and Nazneen suggests he go check on Raqib, which he happily does.
The charity Razia and her husband receive from his coworker, while well-intentioned, is also condescending. The coworker obviously assumes that, as Bengali immigrants, Razia’s family would appreciate junky donations of any kind from a white person.
Nazneen eats Chanu’s food ravenously. He is a very good cook, and she feels bad that she had no idea. She thinks about the rainy season back home, when water buffaloes seemed to grow webbed feet and goats took to roofs to survive and women splashed around, trying to get to the cook stoves. In those times, rice was the only thing they had to eat. It was the giver of life. Her husband’s rice is perfect. Chanu’s culinary talents are another discovery she has made while waiting for her son to recover.
Now, when Nazneen thinks of home, she no longer simply pines for days gone by. Her nostalgic daydreams now mingle with feelings of affection for her husband, showing that she is beginning to love him in spite of herself. By making her rice, Chanu is literally keeping her alive.
Razia takes advantage of their time alone to tell Nazneen something she has learned about Mrs. Islam. The “respectable” woman is, in fact, a loan shark. Nazneen can’t and won’t believe it, but Razia offers as proof Amina, the woman who left her husband for having a second wife. Mrs. Islam apparently loaned her money and is charging her 33 percent interest. Amina could not make the last payment, and Mrs. Islam’s sons are threatening to break her arms. Razia gets up to leave, saying she needs to tend to her children. Nazneen asks her to say “salaam” to the tattoo woman for her, but Razia says she can’t: the woman has been taken to an institution. She was sitting in her own filth at the end. Razia asks why no one helped the woman sooner. Did they not see her?
Amina, like several other Bengali wives living in Tower Hamlets, is suffering severe hardship as a result of the community’s entrenched sexism. Her problems double when she seeks a loan from Mrs. Islam. It’s clear that a system biased in favor of men places women not only in physical danger but financial jeopardy as well. The tattoo woman’s removal is bitterly ironic in that Nazneen did see her. She watched her on a daily basis, but she never did anything to help her because Nazneen was too caught up in her own problems to see that the white woman was suffering from neglect.
Chanu brings Nazneen her prayer beads, and she begins praying hurriedly, wanting to get to Raqib, but then she slows down, realizing that she owes God for her son’s life. It was his will that saved him, not hers. She had been praying incorrectly all along, and from now on, she will do it right. And she will live as she should. No more trying to deprive herself of desire. To do so was like trying to cure a tapeworm with starvation. To do so was to die.
Nazneen vacillates wildly between thinking she is responsible for Raqib’s health and believing, instead, that God should be given control. The tapeworm image harkens back to the snake-as-repressed-fury symbol. She knows she needs to own her desires and needs but doesn’t know how to.
Raqib has been in the hospital eight days, long enough for Nazneen to begin to be able to distinguish the family members and friends of the sick from the patients themselves, and to recognize a doctor, nurse, or orderly on sight. She is in the hall because Raqib’s room is being cleaned. Chanu joins her and they discuss the curious case of Mrs. Islam. Chanu tells Nazneen it is now time for him to be honest with his relatives back home and admit to them he is not a rich man. He enjoyed them thinking he was rich and important, but Mrs. Islam’s story has convinced him that he needs to end the hypocrisy. Nazneen disagrees. His attitude reminds her of the Bengali saying, “sinking sinking drinking water” about a hypocrite who goes to the pond while everyone is starving and dying of thirst to dunk his head and sink a little lower.
It becomes clear during this hallway discussion that, contrary to his previous claims, Chanu is, indeed, corresponding with his family back home, and that in his letters he has intimated that he is much more successful than he really is. His confession brings to Nazneen’s mind the famous Bengali saying because Chanu has not only been keeping secrets from her, but he is sabotaging himself. However, it is not Nazneen’s place to say so, and so Chanu will continue to drown in his own delusions.
Chanu then tells Nazneen that he has resigned from his job on the council. He is clearing out his desk in the morning. Nazneen cannot believe his work can spare him so soon, but he assures her that he is determined to act more and talk less in the future, and that he doesn’t care if he is needed: he is done. While he tells her this, a downtrodden-looking orderly walks by with a bucket full of water. Chanu accidentally kicks it and the orderly, sighing, begins cleaning up the mess.
Nazneen is bothered by the fact that Chanu would make such an important decision without her, but she does not think it is her place to say so. Chanu’s clumsy knocking over of the water bucket suggests that, despite his resolution to be a man of action from now on, he is merely fumbling headlong into an uncertain future.
Raqib is awake and Nazneen basks in the joy of holding him, of sticking her finger in his mouth and being bitten by his little teeth. Chanu promises to buy a set of encyclopedias for his son. He can tell he is going to be an intelligent and inquisitive little boy. Nazneen, meanwhile, wonders where the money will come from. She begins to consider her mother’s absolute faith in God and fate. It was God who decided Nazneen should live and God who gave health to Raqib. But then she becomes furious with Rupban. If Nazneen had trusted Raqib’s health to fate, he would have died. How could Rupban have been so irresponsible?
Nazneen is continuing to go back and forth between her faith in God and her doubt about the wisdom of entrusting human lives to something as fickle as fate. Her changing attitudes hint at her gradual transformation from a traditional Bengali girl and wife to a more Westernized woman who sees some advantage in adopting British ways. She is able to question her own mother because she, too, is a mother.
Nazneen can now see that her mother was wrong about some things. Children’s lives should not be left to fate, and childbirth is nothing like indigestion. Nazneen now thinks she understands why Hamid would leave for days on end. He needed to be spared Rupban’s misguided saintliness.
When Nazneen was a girl, she wanted nothing more than to be just like her mother, but cracks have appeared in Rupban’s clay feet. Nazneen’s disillusionment with Rupban is a sign that she has, to a certain extent, lost her innocence and is becoming her own person.
This realization brings to mind the days just after Rupban’s death, when Mumtaz asked Nazneen to help her wash her mother’s dead body. Mumtaz wonders aloud about her sister-in-law’s absolute and unquestioning faith in God. She used to tell Rupban that it was all well and good to trust God, but, while they were waiting to find out exactly what his will was, they had to manage on their own. She supposes Rupban would say her death was God’s plan, but Mumtaz seems to doubt it. While Mumtaz braids Rupban’s hair, the rains come, and the villagers greet the sudden showers with joy and abandon. Even the adults stroll out, feigning casual happiness. Finally, Nazneen is able to cry for her mother, letting her tears mingle with the rain and fall onto her mother’s shroud.
Mumtaz served as a practical foil for Rupban, whose superstitious nature had to be kept in check so that Rupban would think to see to the needs of her family. Village life in Gouripur is intimately tied to water and the cycles of rain and drought. As Nazneen and Mumtaz wash Rupban’s body, the rain pours down, almost like a benediction. Nazneen’s tears complete the picture. In the face of death, the scene suggests, there is life. It is a bittersweet moment for Nazneen, who is mourning her mother while the rest of the village rejoices.
Nazneen wakes to the beep and glow of the hospital machines. Razia is there, biting her knuckles. Her hair is in disarray and she looks deeply disturbed. When Nazneen asks what is wrong, Razia tells her that her husband is dead. There was an accident at his job, the one in which he drove halal meat to grocery stores, and he was crushed by seventeen frozen cows. Nazneen holds her friend’s hand, and Razia says ruefully that she supposes she can get that job now. Her husband is in no position to stop her.
Having fallen asleep thinking of Rupban’s corpse, Nazneen wakes to Razia’s loss. The frozen cows bring to mind the animal statues outside the Azads’ house. In a way, Western appetites killed her husband. Razia is now a free and independent woman, but the independence is hard-won. It is now up to her alone to support her family.
Nazneen returns to her apartment, appalled by the mess. Everywhere she looks she sees furniture in various states of disrepair, mismatched rugs, open books, and other disorienting clutter. She’d gotten used to the spartan surroundings of the hospital. Now she supposes she will get used to the disorder of her apartment. She sees that Chanu has at least started trying to fix some of the chairs. While she catalogues their deteriorating belongings, Hanufa knocks on the door with an offering of food. Nazneen thanks her but tells her Chanu has been cooking. Hanufa says she knows that, but didn’t know what else to bring.
The cluttered apartment mimics Nazneen’s preoccupied mind. At the hospital, she is focused on Raqib alone. At home, there are myriad chores to do and things to tidy up. Hanufa’s offer of food is also clearly an offer of emotional support. Nazneen might have felt isolated when she first moved to London, but she is, indeed, part of a community whose members strive to take care of their own.
Nazneen is alone in her apartment. She bathes carefully and then, approaching the dreaded dark wardrobe, pulls a pair of Chanu’s pants out and tries them on, telling herself she isn’t harming anyone. Then she trades the pants for her underskirt and looks at her legs in the mirror. She is pleased with them. She lies down on the bed and lets herself drift for a moment. She thinks about cleaning the fridge, about buying more toilet paper, about writing to Hasina. She gets out of bed, dresses, and begins composing a letter. She tries to tell Hasina about Raqib’s illness and Chanu’s resignation, but nothing comes out right. She attempts to draw what she wants to say, the gist of which is that she fought for her child and won.
Nazneen is, in effect, trying on a new persona when she puts on Chanu’s pants. It is a brief flirtation with her independent side, a quick and clandestine attempt at a certain type of drag. She likes the sight of herself in Western, masculine garb, which is also why she indulges in a moment of self-congratulation. Having taken her son to a British hospital for treatment and remained steadfastly by his bedside, praying all the while for his recovery, she is proud to tell her sister that, unlike Rupban, she triumphed over God and fate.
While Nazneen tidies the apartment, it occurs to her that by willing her son back to health she might have doomed Razia’s husband. Death needed another target and took him. A jinni, or ghost, dances before her for a moment but she banishes it. She leaves for the hospital, and out in the courtyard of the estates, a group of young men flirt with her and put on exaggerated displays of chivalry. Nazneen pulls her headscarf over her face to hide a smile.
The brand of superstition drilled into Nazneen’s head and heart by Rupban is destructive in its effects, in that it causes Nazneen to feel guilty about Raqib’s apparent recovery. Her amusement at the young men’s advances, however, suggests that she is open to embracing more progressive ideals.
Nazneen finds Chanu in Raqib’s room at the hospital. Chanu informs Nazneen that their son is gone. At first, she thinks the nurses have taken him away to conduct another series of tests. She notices that the room is eerily quiet. All the machines are off. Chanu asks her if she will wash him when they bring him back, and Nazneen agrees. She’s been giving him sponge baths this entire time. She begins to tidy the bed she and Chanu have been sleeping on, but he tells her to leave it. Her son is not even cold. How can she think of cleaning at a time like this? Chanu begins to cry, and Nazneen lets him hold her. She thinks of all the children who died in Gouripur, how they were buried in such a way to keep them as clean and pure as they were when they came into the world.
Nazneen is so preprogrammed to think in terms of her duties as a wife and mother that, when informed of her own son’s death, she cannot process the news and thinks, instead, of all the tidying up she must do. This is alien to Chanu, who has always been allowed to have his own feelings about things. It is natural that, at a moment of such extreme emotional trauma, Nazneen’s thoughts would drift back to Gouripur where she first learned of life, death, and love—and where, with Mumtaz’s help, she washed her mother’s body to prepare it for burial.