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Shabanu

Suzanne Fisher Staples

Sharma, Desert Storm, and Thirsty Dead

Dowry, Nosepegs, and Channan Pir

Derawar and Ramadan

Summary

Sharma

Sharma and Fatima arrive at Mama's campfire. They begin talking merrily about Phulan's wedding. Sharma tells about a woman whose husband had her stoned to death for looking at another man, and Shabanu fearfully tells the story of the young Bugti girl. Sharma reassures Shabanu that good men exist. Shabanu regards her doubtfully, secretly longing to stay in the safe circle of women. Sharma sings song after song, including the song of the sainted Channan Pir, whom the gods protected from an evil king at birth and who lived in peace and simplicity.

In the morning, the women offer their final prayers at the shrine. Shabanu experiences a moment of peace as she prays for wisdom. As they are saddling the camels, Sharma pulls Shabanu aside and repeats herself: "a man's love is a blessing. You and Phulan are lucky. Your father is a good man and has seen to it that you will marry well."

When the male and female halves of the family reunite, Shabanu observes that Auntie works very hard to make Mama feel envious of Auntie's two sons. She also notices that Auntie might be pregnant. Shabanu greets the camels warmly and sympathizes when Mithoo, the growing young camel, cannot decide whether or not he is too grown-up for her to hug his strong neck.

Desert Storm

When they return home, Grandfather is distant and incoherent. Mama assures Dadi that Grandfather will return to normal soon, as he always does. A few nights later, however, the family wakes up to a terrible dust storm. Mithoo and Grandfather are missing. Shabanu and Dadi brave the stinging, blinding, suffocating sand and search for Grandfather. He cannot live through such a ferocious storm.

Defeated, Shabanu and Dadi return to the thatched hut. The sand has reddened their eyes and blurred their sight. The family waits miserably for the storm to end. When it does, Dadi and Shabanu head for the toba, hoping to find the herd of camels and, they desperately hope, Grandfather.

The storm has altered the landscape: shrubs are buried, the shape of the dunes changed. The storm has reduced the toba to a small patch of wet sand. Shabanu finds a baby camel smothered beneath a small dune. Despair overcomes Dadi when he sees the toba, but Shabanu reassures him: they can extract enough water from the sand to sustain them until they can reach Dingarh, a neighboring village. They return home, saddened and disheartened.

At night, Dadi goes back out to search by the light of the moon. The family packs up their belongings in preparation for the move. They will not return until after Phulan's wedding. Before morning, they hear the bells of the camels. Dadi has found the herd and, miraculously, Grandfather. He found shelter among the herd and is barely alive. The family rushes him inside. He softly insists on traveling to Derawar, where he will be buried as a soldier. Dadi immediately agrees.

The Thirsty Dead

The family sets out for Derawar with one goatskin of water. They begin traveling before dawn, with Phulan's dowry and Grandfather carefully loaded onto Xhush Dil, their most trustworthy camel. Sadness overwhelms Shabanu as they leave their buried home.

They drink the water, a sip at a time. Shabanu's throat is as dry as paper in the hot desert air. Phulan and Shabanu wander off in search of a sito, a desert plant with succulent, watery roots. At the top of a dune, they catch site of a turban tied to the top of a tall shrub. Phulan is frightened: travelers who are lost or thirsty tie their turbans to the tops of trees in hopes that someone will see the turban and bring water. If the water bearer arrives too late, legend states that the ghost of the dead man will haunt him or her for the rest of his life. Phulan runs for Dadi.

Dadi arrives and digs up the man, buried by the sandstorm. They bless the man with water and bury him hurriedly. Shabanu knows the jackals will unearth him shortly. As they continue onward, Shabanu listens, through a haze of detachment, to Mama reminiscing about Grandfather. Shabanu promises Grandfather that the nawab, or prince, will receive him and bury him with honor.

They arrive in Derawar at night. Shabanu looks with despair to the next few months. She fears they will live half-thirsty, drinking salty water from poor wells and that the monsoon will not come. She prays that the monsoon will come before Phulan's wedding.

Analysis

Camels offer Shabanu an escape from the adult world. She takes great comfort in her relationship with the camels. She feels as happy to see Mithoo again after being separated from him during her visit to the shrine as she is to see Dadi. When the dust storm strikes, she feels as much concern for Mithoo as she does for Grandfather until she carefully prioritizes her fears. Shabanu's love for animals epitomizes her wildness—her independence, defiance, and desire to remain a child in the desert forever. Her relationship with the animals also demonstrates her strength—the strength of her love and her ability to care for the animals skillfully.

Stories of women who suffer at the hands of men shape Shabanu's understanding of the world, particularly the story of the Bugti girl, the woman who was stoned for looking at another man, the prince's consorts. Sharma herself was a victim of domestic abuse. Even Auntie, who lives among her in-laws apart from her own mother, father, and husband, provides a negative example of the paths and fates available to women. These stories and fates make domestic abuse seem commonplace and inevitable. Women must endure and attempt to survive men's unpredictability and violence, much as they must endure and survive droughts and dust storms.

At the same time, Sharma demonstrates that other stories and other possible interpretations exist. Sharma tells the story of the Channan Pir, a loving and sainted man. She tells Shabanu that the love of a good man is a blessing from Allah. She insists that Shabanu understand what a good man Dadi has been to arrange her marriage so carefully and thoughtfully. Mama and Dadi themselves offer proof that successful, respectful, and loving marriages exist. As Shabanu prays at the shrine the morning they leave, she feels a sense of peace as she prays for understanding. For a moment, she trusts Dadi, and she trusts Allah.

The dust storm and the dead traveler remind the family that the desert is unpredictable and unforgiving. In one night, the storm erases the very contours of the world they knew, burying the toba and the trees and changing the shape of the hills and the course of their life over the next few months. Mama felt sure that Grandfather would continue his cycle of forgetting his surroundings and then returning to normal, but now the storm has brought him to death's door. The terrain in Shabanu's world changes beneath her very feet both literally and figuratively. The storm foreshadows unexpected and wrenching change in Shabanu's future. What she knows as true today may be swept away tomorrow.

Her family's independent and self-sufficient life renders them especially vulnerable to the vagaries and power of nature. Death surrounds them and reminds them of their vulnerability. Death hovers over them as they travel to Derawar to bury their dying Grandfather. As if their journey were not morbid enough, the desert provides them with a literal embodiment of death: the suffocated young man. Upon finding the young man during their dirge-like trip to Derawar, Shabanu wonders how each of her family members will meet death. This experience contributes to Shabanu's day-to-day consciousness of life's fragility.

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