Shabanu and her older sister Phulan are bringing water home from the toba, the pond near the girls' nomadic home in the Cholistan desert. Since the reservoirs the family dug have gone dry, the toba serves as the family's only source of water. If rain does not come soon and replenish the water in the toba, the family will have to leave their temporary dwelling in the desert, where their camels can graze freely, and move to a nearby town, Dingarh, with deep wells. The sky is hazy with sand as fine as dust. Although it is the middle of winter, the desert is hot. Shabanu pulls at her worn, red shawl and imagines that she is dressed in a fine shatoosh, a shawl knit of wool so fine that the entire shawl can "pass through a lady's ring".
Shabanu and Phulan arrive at the walled compound of thatched huts that make up her family's dwelling. Although Phulan is just thirteen, her parents have promised her in marriage to her cousin, Hamir. According to Cholistani custom, a bride's family must present her new husband with a dowry, which often includes livestock, clothing, and other valuables. The girls' mother and aunt are busy in the courtyard sewing clothes for Phulan's dowry, while the girls' grandfather sleeps with his back against the courtyard wall.
Mama shows Phulan the silk tunic she is sewing. She expects the beautiful tunic, decorated with tassels and mirrors, to last Phulan many years. She laughs when she sees how the womanly garment makes Phulan's chest look flat and girlish. Auntie complains about all the work involved in sewing clothes for a girl's dowry. She worries to Mama about how much Phulan's and Shabanu's weddings will cost Mama and Dadi. Auntie looks with satisfaction at her own two young sons, ages three and five. According to custom, when a husband and wife are old, their sons will be obliged to support them. Since Mama and Dadi have no sons, no customs provide for their well-being when they are too old to work.
Shabanu retorts that Mama and Dadi are happy, despite the fact that they have only daughters. While Auntie has two healthy young sons, her husband, Uncle lives and works for a government office in Rahimyar Khan. He only visits a few times a year, though when he comes, he brings rich gifts that Shabanu's mother and father cannot afford. Phulan and Shabanu laugh between themselves at Auntie's unhappiness.
Dadi returns home as night is falling. His eyes are red and irritated from the blowing sand, and he asks anxiously about the water. When he finds only two goatskinsful remain, he decides that they must leave the next day. Phulan moodily predicts that she will never see Cholistan again, but Mama assures her that they will go only as far as Dingarh.
Shabanu begins to anticipate the trip she will take with Dadi to the fair at Sibi, where they will sell fifteen camels to pay for Phulan's wedding. She looks forward to being alone with her beloved Dadi and showing off their family's superior camels to the fairgoers. Now that Phulan is engaged, Phulan no longer goes to the fairs but stays with Mama to work at home.
The girls sleep outside and huddle together under a quilt in the cold night. They discuss the future. Phulan, in anticipation of Shabanu's wedding, speaks with excitement about the beautiful new clothes Shabanu will have. Shabanu has been wearing the same tunic and skirt since she was eight, and they are colorless, tattered, and far too small for her. Without thinking, she tells Phulan she will miss her next year, and Phulan begins crying at the thought of leaving the desert.
Now Shabanu feels frightened. She knows that next year, she will be promised to Murad, Hamir's brother. Like Phulan, she will go and live with him in Mehrabpur, the settled, agricultural region where Hamir and Murad own land. The people of Mehrabpur do not welcome nomadic herders. The two girls fall asleep, preoccupied by the gravity of their concerns.
In the morning, rain begins to fall. The family is overjoyed. They spend the day inside their mud huts, telling stories and mending harnesses. When night comes, Dadi can hardly wait to go to the toba and see how much water has collected, but Mama chides him affectionately for his impatience and tells him to wait until the next morning.
The morning dawns cold, clear, and sparkling. Shabanu climbs atop Guluband, the finest camel of the family's herd. Guluband wears great brass bracelets around his feet and dances to the music of drums and pipes. Shabanu loves him dearly. The pair sets off in the direction of the toba, going to fetch water for the family.
When they arrive, they find Dadi splashing about in the water. In his joy, he tosses Shabanu in the air above the water. The toba is full, and Dadi predicts that they can stay in the desert until Phulan's wedding.
Shabanu, our young narrator, gradually introduces us to the details and history of her everyday life. One by one, she uses and briefly explains the words particular to her world—toba, shatoosh, chapatis, lungi, hookah, pogh. She also narrates the history and relationships of the various characters but briefly and only when needed. For example, she introduces and characterizes Auntie several pages before explaining that while Auntie may be rich with sons, she only sees her husband a few times a year. This delayed foreclosure and the unfamiliarity of words, names of towns, and customs creates a sense of unfolding: her daily and yearly routines in and of themselves are part of the story.
Shabanu's voice is that of a young girl who knows and loves the desert. Her sentences are short, direct, elegant, and evocative of her surroundings: her clothes, now worn, were as blue as "the winter sky", the heat is "wicked", silk is yellow, "the color of mustard blooms", Grandfather's voice is "as rough as the windblown sand". With these descriptions, the narrator enriches our picture of the particulars of her life. Her comparisons and descriptions show us the colors, objects, and images available to her.
Shabanu speaks fluently about her present, but she cannot give language to her future. However, reminders of her future abound: Phulan's beautiful clothes remind her not only of Phulan's upcoming wedding but also of her own. Phulan's grief at the thought of leaving the desert foreshadows Shabanu's grief. She looks forward with childlike anticipation to traveling to the fair with Dadi and staying in the desert until the monsoons come and they must leave for Phulan's wedding, but she cannot or does not want to see beyond that point in time.
The presence of an unimaginable but undeniable future in Shabanu's narrative makes her idyllic life in the desert with her doting parents seem to be only a reprieve, as brief and ultimately powerless as the reprieve granted by the rain. The world around the family encroaches threateningly on them. Mama and Dadi's love deflects Auntie's complaints and worries about Shabanu and Phulan, but at the same time, Auntie makes clear that the culture around them rewards parents who have sons, not daughters. Once married, the two girls may have little power over where they live or when they see their mother and father or even, like Auntie, their husbands. Mehrabpur, where the girls will live once married, is a hostile and unwelcoming place. The girls hope that the impending storm of change will bring blessings, as the monsoon or unexpected winter rain does.
The monsoon, which marks the outermost limit of Shabanu's conceptualization of her future, symbolizes change—the changing of the seasons, Phulan's wedding, and, eventually, Shabanu's wedding. The monsoon, like change itself, is unpredictable: some years it brings a great deal of water, and sometimes it brings very little. Phulan and Shabanu depend, like their family, on the whims of the land and weather around them. More than their family, who are adults with established roles and relationships in the world, the two girls depend on the whims of fate and the people around them.