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Shabanu

Suzanne Fisher Staples

The Choice and The Wedding

Yazman and Justice

Cholistan

Summary

The Choice

Five days after fleeing Mehrabpur, the family returns. To their surprise, they find that Rahim-sahib has had his servants build new huts and cottages for Shabanu's and Bibi Lal's families. A man on a white horse rides up. He presents the family with a servant girl. He hands Shabanu an elaborate box filled with beautiful jewelry. Shabanu eyes the gift sullenly, hissing that Rahim-sahib is trying to buy her. Dadi, exasperated, retorts that Rahim-sahib has bought her. Shabanu is shocked to learn that Rahim-sahib paid a bride price for her; the money will provide for Mama and Dadi for the rest of their lives.

The women crow around her, marveling over the beautiful jewels. Shabanu reluctantly dons them. She views her sparkling reflection in the mirror impassively, feeling completely dark and lifeless inside.

Bibi Lal, Kulsum, and Sakina go to their new dwellings to begin the customary forty days of mourning for Hamir. The house in which they buried Hamir becomes a shrine as pilgrims eager to pay tribute to the heroic young man who brought such good fortune to his family visit the house. According to custom, the family receives guests paying their condolences.

After twenty days, the families begin to prepare for the wedding. Relatives arrive, and the monsoon rains fall. Phulan becomes even dreamier and more overbearing. Mama and Shabanu massage her skin and hair with oils, and she adorns herself with makeup. Shabanu envies Phulan. Rahim-sahib sends more gifts, which Shabanu resents. She steals into the desert with her camels and begins to teach Mithoo to dance as Guluband danced.

Finally, Sharma and Fatima arrive. She immediately sees that Phulan is deeply happy, despite Hamir's death. Sharma quickly and vehemently condemns Dadi and Mama of selling Shabanu for their and Phulan's happiness and prosperity. Sharma points out that Rahim-sahib's other wives will despise and abuse Shabanu and that Shabanu's sons will inherit nothing. She argues that the selfish man may grow tired of Shabanu and marry an even younger girl. Dadi storms out of the house.

That night, Shabanu steals over to Sharma's house. The women sit around the fire, the shadows playing on their faces. Sharma smokes a cigarette. Sharma brushes Shabanu's hair and paints her face, telling her that she is more beautiful than Phulan. She assures the despondent girl that she does have a choice. Shabanu practically shouts in her anxiety to know what the choice is, and Sharma explains: she can learn to beguile and manipulate Rahim-sahib. She can also, if he abuses her, leave him and live with Sharma in the desert.

The Wedding

As the wedding nears, relatives continue to arrive. Uncle comes, looking appreciatively at Auntie, who has been losing weight. A male cousin arrives with his shy, sixteen year old wife and their brood of children. Phulan grows anxious, and Shabanu gently reassures her. Rahim-sahib sends Phulan a gift of pearls and rubies. Phulan gushes over the beautiful jewels, but Shabanu looks at them with revulsion: he is merely, she tells Phulan, buying what he wants. Phulan gasps at Shabanu, and Shabanu closes her mouth, realizing that she must keep her bitter thoughts to herself, or Phulan might tell Dadi.

Two days before the wedding, the mahendi celebration begins. At the mahendi celebration the women gather to decorate the bridal party's feet and hands with henna and to prepare the young bride for marriage with advice, dancing, fragrant oils, and teas. At sunset, the women gather around Phulan and begin painting her palms. Phulan timidly asks Sharma for advice and wisdom. Sharma cryptically tells the young girl that she must please her husband by learning to keep her "innermost beauty" hidden deep within her, so that her husband must always reach out to her to find it. Phulan seems confused, but the words lift Shabanu's heart.

Dawn approaches and the women prepare to dress Phulan. Mama hugs the grieving and confused Shabanu and promises her that she will heal. Shabanu cries in her mother's arms. Shabanu wanders outside and sits with Mithoo. Suddenly, with her friend beside her, she reconciles herself to losing Murad, and peace steals over her.

The women dress Phulan in a rich red silk chadr. They lead her out to Murad and his family. The two young people exchange vows and ascend to sit on an elaborate platform amidst singing and dancing guests. Murad drinks from a glass of milk and hands the glass to Phulan. In her first act of obedience to him, she drinks. The couple sees each other for the first time as man and wife in the mirror Bibi Lal holds under Phulan's chadr. Later, Bibi Lal pulls the veil off of Phulan's face, and Mama and Shabanu lead her to the camel on which Murad waits. The women cry and wail as Phulan and her new family disappear.

On the next day, Murad's family gives a feast. Rahim-sahib attends, and he watches Shabanu closely the whole time. She throws him one glance and spends the rest of the day feeling his eyes on her back.

Analysis

In some ways, the wedding preparations serve to turn Phulan into an even more beautiful object for Murad's consumption. Phulan feels pleased by her beauty and desirability, but as Shabanu is quick to observe, men can use this pleasure to manipulate and control women. Beauty takes time, effort, and resources to maintain, and it fades with age. By relying on beauty to attract a man who will provide for her, a woman becomes enslaved to conceptions of beauty and men's responses to it. She cannot depend on herself.

When Sharma counsels Shabanu to use her good looks to enchant and control Rahim- sahib, she offers the possibility that beauty can be used as a tool for a self-reliant woman to get what she wants. These two interpretations reflect competing thoughts in feminist theory: some theorists focus on how ideas of beauty harm the self-esteem and self-reliance of women, while others argue that a woman can rightly enjoy and cleverly manipulate others with her physical appearance.

Sharma goes even further than this at the mahendi ceremony, suggesting that physical beauty is not nearly so powerful as mystery. Phulan's husband will desire her, Sharma suggests, if he does not know what Phulan is thinking. With her words, she is counseling Phulan to hide her desires from her husband and to keep a secret reserve of peace and pleasure in her heart.

Sharma's witchlike qualities render her words all the more powerful and prophetic. Her conversations with Shabanu and with Phulan recall the witches of Macbeth. The three witches, who gather to sing, dance, and cast spells around a cauldron over a flickering fire, prophesy for Macbeth with mysterious words. Macbeth tragically misinterprets their words and destroys himself as a result. Like the witches offer Macbeth mysterious counsel, Sharma offers the two sisters prophetic words. Phulan fails to understand them, but we see that Shabanu grasps them immediately. In fact, Shabanu has understood Sharma's ideas intuitively even before her conversations with Sharma: she has already hidden her skepticism over Rahim-sahib from Phulan. At the wedding feast, true to Sharma's words, she inflames Rahim-sahib's heart with a solitary pointed glance.

The mahendi ceremony recalls the women's visit to Channan Pir. Both are women-centered experiences in which Shabanu feels safe and protected. While both offer an escape from a society in which males hold most of the apparent power, they both still center on men in some way: at Channan Pir, the women prayed for sons, and at the mahendi ceremony, the women share the secrets of pleasing men. At the same time, these two spaces give the women strength and resources for protecting themselves and furthering their own interests. Both experiences offer Shabanu not a complete escape but wisdom she needs to better negotiate an often hostile and unpredictable world.

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