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Shabanu

Suzanne Fisher Staples

Dowry, Nosepegs, and Channan Pir

Sibi Fair, The Bargain, and Shatoosh

Sharma, Desert Storm, and Thirsty Dead

Summary

Dowry

The family reunites joyfully. They exchange stories, exclaim over purchases, and play with the new puppy. Grandfather is especially happy to see Shabanu and pulls her down to sit with him. Grandfather, Dadi's father, is quite old and not always truly present. Shabanu feels glad that the "old Grandfather" she knows and loves is talking to her today. She excitedly recounts the fair at Sibi, and when she reaches the story of Guluband, she begins to cry. Grandfather mourns with her.

Shabanu and Phulan rush out to see the new baby camels. Phulan shows Shabanu the device she has contrived to feed the ever-growing Mithoo: she fills a goatskin bag with milk and ties it upside-down to a tree. Mithoo suckles from the bag. Shabanu feels jealous of Mithoo's affection for Phulan.

They return and eat a celebratory meal. Dadi presents Mama and Phulan with shawls and jewelry. The richness of the gifts strikes the women speechless, but Dadi stands, explaining with hesitant joy that they are rich, and he dances.

Nose Pegs

Shabanu wakes early the next morning and walks to the toba to bathe. Shabanu surveys the water carefully and predicts it will be gone in a month. The monsoon will not begin for another two months. Shabanu fills a pot with water and takes it to a nearby rock, on which she washes her hair.

As she is bathing, Shabanu notices that her chest feels sore. She looks down and sees with astonishment that her breasts have begun to grow. She accepts this development warily, vaguely hoping she will one day be as beautiful as Phulan.

Shabanu sees Phulan approaching, carrying more pots to be filled at the toba. Shabanu begins to wash Phulan's hair, and in the process, enviously notices how big Phulan's breasts have grown. Shabanu tells Phulan about the Bugti girl who had run off with her lover. Shabanu is certain the girl is dead. The girls fall silent at this sobering thought. She feels that her tales about the fair are childish in comparison.

Phulan complains about Auntie, and Shabanu pauses to remember that, though Auntie's father was rich, he could not find her a husband because she was fat. He arranged the match with Uncle with difficulty.

Back at home, the family sets about pegging the noses of four young camels. With pegged noses, the camels can be harnessed and trained to do work. Phulan and Auntie draw back, but Shabanu relishes the work. She helps Mama, Dadi, and Grandfather capture the young camels, tie their legs, pierce their noses with a needle, slide wooden pegs through, and soothe the affronted young beasts.

Channan Pir

Travelers passing through inform the family that a caravan making a trip to Channan Pir, a shrine at which women pray for their children, will pass nearby. The women decide to join the caravan and offer prayers for Phulan's wedding.

They leave at night, dazzled by the night sky, the sand glittering under the full moon, and Grandfather's strong voice. He tells stories of his days as a soldier, and though his reminiscences are hopelessly garbled, the family enjoys his stories. Eventually, the women break off and head toward the caravan, whose bells and songs they can hear nearby in the desert. They join the caravan and arrive in Channan Pir in the morning. The men travel to a nearby camp, where they will tend the herd and wait for the women.

As soon as they arrive, the women circle the sacred grave, marked by a mound of rocks, with reverence. After establishing a campsite, Mama goes off to find her cousin Sharma and Sharma's daughter Fatima, who Mama knows are among the caravan members. Many years before, Sharma left her abusive husband to live alone in the desert, taking her daughter and a small flock of goats and sheep. Shabanu admires Sharma deeply and envies Fatima, who is sixteen and unmarried. Sharma will not force Fatima to marry.

The women catch up briefly over tea, agreeing to eat dinner together that night. Then Shabanu, Phulan, and Mama visit the mosque. They pass through the courtyard, which teems with women writhing, whirling, and wailing in religious fervor. At the shrine itself, the three women leave garlands of flowers. Shabanu prays fiercely that Phulan will bear sons.

As the sun is setting, Shabanu goes to gather wood. She hears the bagpipes of the nearby men's camp and suddenly comes upon a crowd of men. The crowd gathers around two men, naked but for their loincloths, who are fighting. One man is strong and heavy, the other light and agile. The two fighting men remind Shabanu of Kalu and Tipu, the two camels battling over the female in heat. With horror, she sees that the smaller man, who wins the fight, is Dadi. As she turns to leave, Dadi notices her with angry eyes. She rushes back to camp. When she sees Mama, she feels repulsion, wondering how Mama can let Dadi, who is so like the angry, lustful camels, touch her.

Analysis

In many young adult novels, the protagonists feel betrayed and confused by the adult world. Grandparents and other elderly people, however, provide sympathy and guidance that parents and other adults do not. Like the protagonists of young adult novels, the elderly may feel shut out and even disgusted by the adult world. They offer the young protagonists a sympathetic, wise, and critical perspective on the norms of the adult world. Grandfather plays this role for Shabanu.

When Shabanu returns from Sibi, she has not finished grieving for Guluband. Dadi has tried to comfort her, but it was he, after all, who betrayed her by selling the magnificent camel. When she tells Grandfather about Guluband, he assures her that she is right to feel such passionate grief for the loss of her proud companion. Shabanu releases her grief and feels relief that someone else understands what Dadi has done in selling Guluband.

Shabanu's developing breasts give her occasion to express her ambivalence about her continuing progress toward adulthood. She regards her sore breasts a bit suspiciously, while simultaneously longing for a body and face as beautiful as Phulan's. Shabanu finds beautiful things and the thought of being beautiful irresistible; at the same time, she understands that beauty brings with it adult responsibilities. Just before she notices her breasts, after all, she has worked with Phulan to create a stand-in teat and udder for the hungry young Mithoo. Even while her growing breasts suggest she will be as beautiful and womanly as Phulan, those very breasts signify her responsibility to bear and nurture children.

The visit to Channan Pir continues the novel's exploration of the divisions between men and women. The sexes, in this chapter, literally divide themselves into two camps. Their actions in their camps reflect gender concerns: the men, mimicking the camels, fight and show off their strength. The women pray that their daughters will bear sons and be blessed with favorable marriages.

The women pray out for their daughters to bear sons out of necessity, not out of any inherent spite for girls: they are, after all, praying for the good fortune of their daughters. In the context of their culture, that good fortune comes in the shape of sons. Both men and women, in their camps, are acting partly on what culture expects of them and partly on their desires and passions. They are working to negotiate how cultural norms and expectations influence their own hopes, dreams, beliefs, and prayers.

Sharma opens an interesting alternative narrative in this society characterized by prescribed gender roles. She has flown in the face of all tradition and, through hard work and good luck, has managed to support herself and her daughter independently. Sharma demonstrates that within any culture, the possibility of challenging and reinterpreting norms and values exists and can be met with success.

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