Shabanu is tending the herd in the middle of the day when she notices vultures circling in the sky. She runs toward the birds and finds them swarming around a felled camel, who, she deduces, has been bitten by a poisonous snake or scorpion driven out of its hole by the rain. As she draws closer to the camel, however, she sees that the situation is more complicated: the camel, near paralysis and death, is giving birth. She knows the mother will die and that the fate of the baby camel depends on her.
She heaves at the half-born camel, holding its head and forelegs, and manages to pull it out of its mother's birth canal an inch. Suddenly, she remembers a midwife helping Auntie give birth by lying across Auntie's stomach. Shabanu throws herself on the mother camel and squeezes with all her might. Her head swims with horrified pictures of Phulan giving birth. She struggles, and finally the baby is born. Shabanu bites the umbilical cord in two and watches as the vultures begin feeding on the dead mother. Shabanu dries the baby camel with her skirt, and the two return to the toba and fall into an exhausted sleep.
They wake at sundown. Dadi and Phulan appear on Guluband. Dadi is upset, as the mother and baby were to be part of Phulan's dowry. The three rightly fear that no other nursing camel will be willing nurse the new baby.
Shabanu notices that Phulan is wearing the long head covering of an adult woman, a chadr. Shabanu resents this and feels disgusted with Phulan when she clumsily knocks the chadr off.
The two sisters, however, work together to devise a way to feed the orphaned camel: Shabanu lets the baby suck on her fingers while Phulan pours milk down Shabanu's hand. In this way, the sisters suckle the baby.
A month has passed, and Shabanu and her father are ready to leave for the fair. Shabanu looks forward to wearing her "first grown-up clothes": a long blue skirt and dress.
She names the baby camel Mithoo, which means sweet. The two are constant companions.
Phulan brings lunch to Shabanu, who is herding the camels. Phulan does little work outdoors anymore, preferring to stay at home to cook, mend, and sew. The girls turn to see Tipu, the stud of their herd, court a female in her first heat. They watch with fear and fascination as Tipu pursues the female, forces her to her knees, and begins to mate. Shabanu shoots a frightened glance at Phulan, and Phulan laughs at her.
Suddenly, a young male camel, Kalu, bellows a challenge to Tipu. Before the two girls can do anything, the two angry camels are engaged in a deadly battle. Dadi appears, and the three begin desperately striking the camels with their staffs. Finally, Dadi manages to wedge his staff into Tipu's mouth. Kalu trots away, relieved to be done with the battle. Now all of Tipu's rage is focused on Dadi.
Tipu charges, and Dadi throws his turban to the enraged beast. Tipu begins mauling the turban, and the three race away from him. Guluband finds them, and they climb onto his back in relief. Shabanu is suddenly seized with fear for Mithoo and insists on finding him. Dadi tells her this is not necessary. Shabanu protests, but Guluband is already on his way.
As soon as they dismount the camel at home, Dadi flies into a rage at Shabanu, shaking her violently and warning her never to disobey him again. Later that night, Mama repeats Dadi's injunction, with such seriousness in her eyes that Shabanu realized her mother is afraid for her. She struggles with her thoughts. She knows the camels better than Dadi, Shabanu thinks stubbornly to herself. She realizes that if she cannot even obey Dadi, she will have a difficult time obeying Murad, whom she has known since he was a young boy and who is only sixteen.
Mama and Dadi talk to each other quietly at night when Shabanu is almost asleep. Mama admonishes Dadi to be careful: now that he has angered Tipu, the malevolent camel will bear him a grudge for the rest of his life. Shutr keena, or camel vengeance, dictates that Tipu could turn on Dadi anytime he lets down his guard. Shabanu muses that men of the desert cling to grudges and offenses with a bitterness and ferocity equal to that of the camels.
Shabanu and her sister Phulan share an ambivalent relationship. Shabanu successively resents, grudgingly accepts, and then envies her older sister. When Phulan first arrives after Shabanu has birthed Mithoo, disgust wells up in her at the sight of her sister in her new chadr clumsily dismounting from her camel. Immediately after she tells Dadi and Phulan about her harrowing experience, she turns to Phulan with a scathing comment about the chadr. Just a page later, however, the two sisters work in concert to feed the hungry baby camel. They invent their method for feeding the baby by drawing inspiration from each other's actions (they watch each other in alternating attempts to feed Mithoo, and step by step, draw closer to a workable solution) and by working cooperatively (both girl's hands are needed to pour milk down one sister's hand into the camel's mouth). Later that night, Shabanu finds herself again resenting Phulan's chadr. This time, the envy beneath the resentment peeks out: Shabanu finds herself remembering seeing and envying Phulan's growing breasts at the toba the day before. Shabanu wants to be more like her sister, even while she scorns Phulan's prim, ladylike behavior.
The male and female camels offer Shabanu a rough blueprint for interpreting the behavior of male and female humans. The female camel becomes highly vulnerable when she is giving birth, yet she has no choice about the matter and no way to protect herself. Similarly, a woman of Shabanu's position and culture has precious few options other than marrying and bearing her husband children—preferably sons. Shabanu's memory of Auntie's perilous birthing experience and her horrified fantasy of Phulan in the throes of a difficult birth underscore how vulnerable pregnancy can make a woman.
The male camels, on the other hand, are subject to a strict hierarchy: only one male in the herd mates with the females. Any male who would challenge the stud must face a battle to the death. The camels' battle shows the males caught up in and nearly maddened by their thirst for dominance. Dadi's sudden and fierce anger with Shabanu creates a parallel between him and the male camels. Shabanu understands the inherent injustice in the blueprint offered her by the camels and, it seems, often mirrored by the adult world of her culture.
The camels' plight underscores the struggle between the living and the forces of nature, showing that the desert is a harsh and dangerous environment. The camels abruptly find themselves in life-threatening situations: in the throes of labor, the female camel is bitten by a poisonous snake. A challenge from another male arises unexpectedly and without warning. We sense that Shabanu's life, also hosted by the desert, could change just as quickly. Dadi's behavior toward Shabanu supports this idea: like the male camel, Dadi's rage with her when she disobeys him is sudden and violent.
Dadi's anger surprises and frightens Shabanu, but she responds stubbornly, refusing to concede that she deserved Dadi's anger. Mama chides her gently, reminding her that she must learn to obey her father whether or not she agrees. Shabanu knows enough to quell her objections to Mama's words, but inside she seethes with anger at the thought of obeying Murad or Dadi even though she knows camels better than either of them and can think of times when she knew Dadi's decisions were not the best. Shabanu's continued arrogance foreshadows future struggles between her and Dadi. The argument over Mithoo establishes the novel's main conflict: Shabanu's defiant spirit pitted against Dadi's societally sanctioned claim to authority over her. Dadi has shaken her sheltered world, but only a bit.