Shabanu and her older sister Phulan are bringing water home from the toba, the pond near the girls' nomadic home in the Cholistan desert. Since the reservoirs the family dug have gone dry, the toba serves as the family's only source of water. If rain does not come soon and replenish the water in the toba, the family will have to leave their temporary dwelling in the desert, where their camels can graze freely, and move to a nearby town, Dingarh, with deep wells. The sky is hazy with sand as fine as dust. Although it is the middle of winter, the desert is hot. Shabanu pulls at her worn, red shawl and imagines that she is dressed in a fine shatoosh, a shawl knit of wool so fine that the entire shawl can "pass through a lady's ring".

Shabanu and Phulan arrive at the walled compound of thatched huts that make up her family's dwelling. Although Phulan is just thirteen, her parents have promised her in marriage to her cousin, Hamir. According to Cholistani custom, a bride's family must present her new husband with a dowry, which often includes livestock, clothing, and other valuables. The girls' mother and aunt are busy in the courtyard sewing clothes for Phulan's dowry, while the girls' grandfather sleeps with his back against the courtyard wall.

Mama shows Phulan the silk tunic she is sewing. She expects the beautiful tunic, decorated with tassels and mirrors, to last Phulan many years. She laughs when she sees how the womanly garment makes Phulan's chest look flat and girlish. Auntie complains about all the work involved in sewing clothes for a girl's dowry. She worries to Mama about how much Phulan's and Shabanu's weddings will cost Mama and Dadi. Auntie looks with satisfaction at her own two young sons, ages three and five. According to custom, when a husband and wife are old, their sons will be obliged to support them. Since Mama and Dadi have no sons, no customs provide for their well-being when they are too old to work.

Shabanu retorts that Mama and Dadi are happy, despite the fact that they have only daughters. While Auntie has two healthy young sons, her husband, Uncle lives and works for a government office in Rahimyar Khan. He only visits a few times a year, though when he comes, he brings rich gifts that Shabanu's mother and father cannot afford. Phulan and Shabanu laugh between themselves at Auntie's unhappiness.

Dadi returns home as night is falling. His eyes are red and irritated from the blowing sand, and he asks anxiously about the water. When he finds only two goatskinsful remain, he decides that they must leave the next day. Phulan moodily predicts that she will never see Cholistan again, but Mama assures her that they will go only as far as Dingarh.

Shabanu begins to anticipate the trip she will take with Dadi to the fair at Sibi, where they will sell fifteen camels to pay for Phulan's wedding. She looks forward to being alone with her beloved Dadi and showing off their family's superior camels to the fairgoers. Now that Phulan is engaged, Phulan no longer goes to the fairs but stays with Mama to work at home.