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Analysis

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.