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Shabanu

Suzanne Fisher Staples

Cholistan

The Choice and The Wedding

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

After the wedding, Shabanu's relatives disperse into the desert. Sharma is among the last to leave. She pulls Shabanu aside to remind her to act wisely and to remember that she always has a choice. Shabanu begs her for guidance, but Sharma demurs, emphasizing that only Shabanu can decide what to do. Shabanu feels confused and frightened.

On the way home, Shabanu joins her parents in singing and acting brightly, trying to ease the ache of missing Phulan. The camels begin dancing beneath them to their songs, and Xhush Dil knocks Dadi off of his back with his dancing.

When they return home, they find that most of the sand from the storm has been blown away. Rain begins to fall, and Shabanu feels relieved to be home.

The next morning, she rises as always to tend to the camels, but Dadi stops her. He commands her to stay and help Mama fix breakfast. Shabanu begins to protest, but Mama hushes her. Dadi stalks outside, and Mama reminds her that a betrothed girl must take responsibility for the housework. While Shabanu asserts that she can both keep house and tend the camels, she remembers Sharma's warnings and silences herself. She spends a miserable morning inside.

In the afternoon, she goes out to look for mushrooms and finds Mithoo. She hugs him and wonders sadly if her whole life will consist of stealing away for a few moments of private happiness in the desert. She takes heart and carefully folds the moment away as part of her hidden, inner reserves of happiness.

The days pass. The family digs new cisterns in the ground. Rain comes and fills them up. They seal the cisterns and anticipate drinking from them when the rain has stopped and the toba has gone dry. Shabanu notices her growing breasts with suspicion and hopes beyond hope that somehow she will remain a child and never begin to menstruate. When her period begins, she panics. If she tells Mama, her parents will contact Rahim-sahib to set a date for the wedding. Shabanu secretly tears up a worn out skirt into strips and does not tell Mama that she is bleeding.

A month passes. One night, Shabanu overhears Mama tell Dadi that, since the scrap bag is mysteriously empty, she suspects Shabanu has begun to menstruate. Dadi is furious that Shabanu has hidden the fact from them. Mama pleads with him to be patient, explaining to him that Shabanu is too sensitive and intelligent to reconcile herself easily to the wedding. Dadi avows that Shabanu is a woman, and that, as such, her intelligence is worse than useless. Shabanu, lying stiff under her quilt, decides that she will run away to Sharma that very night.

Once her parents have fallen asleep, she rises quietly, removing her jangling ankle bracelets. She takes some of Dadi's clothes, and, in the courtyard, dresses as a man, flattening her chest with a cloth and hiding her hair in a turban. She takes a saddle, goes to the toba, fills a jar of water, and climbs on Xhush Dil after removing his ankle bracelets.

As she begins to ride away, Mithoo follows. Shabanu calmly dismounts and begins to tether Mithoo to a tree. Mithoo, however, begins to protest loudly, and Shabanu quickly realizes that if she leaves him he will wake the entire camp with his bellowing. She unties him and urges him to hurry along with her and Xhush Dil.

The trip to Sharma's will take twenty-four hours. She rides over the dunes in hopes that she will be harder to find. She prays for wind or rain to cover their tracks, but the night remains still. She knows, however, that with a night's travel behind her, Dadi will not be able to catch up with her. She urges the camels on. Mithoo, still a young camel, struggles to keep up.

As the stars fade, Shabanu remembers the Bugti girl who ran away from her family. Suddenly, she understands that the girl had not acted bravely or impulsively, but had done what she needed to do. Her heart lifts as she imagines the life of freedom and simplicity ahead of her.

The sky continues to lighten when Mithoo stumbles and begins to bleat in pain. Shabanu dismounts and goes to him quickly. She finds that he has stepped in a foxhole. His leg is broken. Shabanu leans against the suffering camel. She knows that if she leaves him, predators will attack and kill him. As she cannot abandon him to such a fate, she huddles next to him, prays, and waits for Dadi to find them.

As sunrise nears, Shabanu can feel the pounding of a camel's feet through the desert floor. Suddenly, Dadi appears at the top of a dune. He descends on her and begins beating her mercilessly. Shabanu stands tall and remains perfectly silent, repeating Sharma's words to herself: keep your innermost self hidden. As pain courses through her and her consciousness wavers, Shabanu fills her mind with happy memories. Finally Dadi, sobbing, stops and clasps his bleeding daughter to his breast. With steely determination, Shabanu resolves that Rahim- sahib will never know her heart's secrets.

Analysis

Shabanu's tactics for emotional survival mirror her family's tactics for physical survival: just as her family digs cisterns to store up the monsoon's water for the dry winter, Shabanu begins to store up moments of happiness to enjoy when life brings her sadness. Her moments with the camels, the look and feel of home, the sky, and the sun fill up the underground compartments from which she will draw when she is lonely and suffering.

Sharma's words have given Shabanu great wisdom about power and resisting power. When society or an individual attempts to force another person to do something against his or her will, that person can always resist. Even if the oppressed person physically complies, he or she can, as Shabanu does, resist mentally. No social structure or set of values can dominate a person's inner happiness and thoughts unless that person allows it to do so. Great power resides in this type of resistance.

Hence, Dadi becomes infuriated when he finds that Shabanu has kept the news of her period from him. More than anything, her ability to hide her inner knowledge and inner experiences from him threatens his authority over her. He expects that his culture, which insists that children unquestioningly obey their parents and women unquestioningly obey men, has weakened or obliterated her ability to resist him mentally. He is wrong, and what is more, he can never know for sure that she is truly obeying him and truly disclosing her heart to him. Herein lies Shabanu's greatest source of power. She can and may very well pay lip service to his values and his authority, but she has an inner, private life that she can live as she wills.

Dadi himself does not completely or unthinkingly reflect the values of his culture. In many instances, he resists values that do not seem right to him. For example, throughout the course of the book, he treats Shabanu indulgently. He loves and is proud of his two daughters even though his culture prizes sons. When he punishes Shabanu, he partly does it for her own good, in order that she learn to behave in a way that will not incur the punishment of her future husband or other men. At the same time, Staples repeatedly draws parallels between Dadi and male camels: he is impulsively bloodthirsty, hungry for power, and holds irrational grudges. Dadi's anger when he finds Shabanu is real; culture has caught him in its grip and he acts according to its values. In this instance, Shabanu bests him: she remains impassive, in control, and completely unaffected by his passion and violence.

Shabanu's predicament in the last pages of the book again demonstrates the unstable relationship between fate and the human will. Shabanu has made her decision to reject and run from her fate; as she rides she can almost taste the freedom, safety, and release that await her in Sharma's arms. When Mithoo breaks his leg, however, she quickly reinterprets her situation. She sees that, since she is unwilling to sacrifice Mithoo (as Dadi sacrificed first Guluband and later herself), she must accept her marriage to Rahim-sahib and her submission to Dadi's will. As she bears his brunt of Dadi's anger, her resistance and will grow subtler and more powerful. She sees that the greatest exercise of will lies in how she decides to interpret and react to the circumstances around her.

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