Shabanu lives with her mother, father, older sister, grandfather, aunt, and young cousins in a compound of mud huts near the border between Pakistan and India. They own a herd of fine camels, and as long as there is water in the nearby pond (called a "toba"), they live a proud and free existence in the windswept desert of Pakistan. Once a year, they attend a fair in Sibi, which lies across the desert and where they sell their camels in order to buy goods they need. When the toba dries up, they move to nearby villages with deep wells. When this happens, they wait eagerly for rain to fill the toba, which will allow them to move back to their beloved desert home.
Shabanu regards her older sister, Phulan, with disdain and envy. Phulan is beautiful and graceful. Her parents have promised her to a young man, Hamir, in a nearby farming village. The wedding will take place in the summer, when the monsoon rains come. Shabanu has been promised to this young man's brother, Murad, but as she is younger, her wedding is still far off. Shabanu loves her life in the desert. Her parents are gentle and indulgent. She adores the camels of their herd. She is especially proud of Guluband, a great and intelligent beast, who dances when he hears music.
Shabanu and her father travel across the desert lands to the fair at Sibi. Their sales at Sibi this year are especially important, as they will help pay for Phulan's dowry. At Sibi, Guluband is by far the best camel. Many people want to buy him, but Dadi refuses to sell him. An Afghani soldier, who will subject the poor camel to the conditions of war, shows special interest in Guluband. Dadi names an exorbitant price, and the man storms off. Dadi sells the rest of the herd quite successfully. However, the next day, the soldier returns with all the money for which Dadi had asked. Dadi must sell him the camel. Shabanu feels betrayed and crushed.
Dadi and Shabanu return home. The family prepares for the wedding by buying and sewing beautiful clothes and making a pilgrimage to Channan Pir. Women pray for sons and good marriages at this holy shrine. At Channan Pir, the women of the family meet Mama's bold cousin, Sharma, and her daughter, Fatima. Sharma left her abusive husband for a simple but independent existence in the desert, raising goats and sheep. Shabanu looks up to Sharma and often wishes that she could steal away to live a wild and free life in the desert with Sharma and Fatima. Sharma loves Shabanu, but she insists that Shabanu is lucky to be betrothed to such a gentle and upstanding young man.
When they return from Channan Pir, a dust storm whirls up. Grandfather, who is old and often unaware of his surroundings, wanders off into the storm before anyone notices. When they find him the next morning, he is near death. He begs them to take him to Derawar, a fort where he will receive a burial befitting a soldier. The family travels to Derawar, but eventually must bury him in a humble grave at the edges of town. As the dust storm has filled the toba, the family sets out for Mehrabpur, where Hamir's family lives.
Hamir's family bought their patch of land from a greedy landowner named Nazir Mohammad. The family labored over the land and it became rich and fertile. Nazir Mohammad is trying to force the family to give him part of their crops, claiming they did not actually buy the land from him. One evening, Shabanu and Phulan are fetching water when they come across Nazir Mohammad and his friends. They see the girls and plan to take Phulan and rape her. Shabanu throws the water pots at the men, sweeps Phulan up onto a camel, and rides home. Dadi sends the women off toward Derawar, fearful of Nazir Mohammad. He runs to tell Hamir what has happened. Hamir becomes violently angry, and when Nazir Mohammad appears shortly thereafter, Hamir attempts to shoot him. Nazir Mohammad kills Hamir.
The Desert Rangers find the women and take them to a nearby post, where the families will gather to settle the dispute. Nazir Mohammad's brother, Rahim- sahib, is a politician and wants to settle the dispute quickly. At the ranger post, Hamir's family, Shabanu's family, and Rahim- sahib talk far into the night. The next day, they announce the settlement: Phulan will marry Murad right away, Nazir Mohammad will leave the family alone, and Rahim-sahib, who met Shabanu briefly in the courtyard, will take Shabanu as his fourth wife.
Shabanu is devastated. She numbly endures Phulan's wedding. Sharma, however, draws her aside. She counsels Shabanu to learn to manipulate and control the doting man, to remain true to herself, to keep her heart hidden from him, and, if all else fails, to escape and join her and Fatima in the desert.
After the wedding, the family returns to their home in the desert. Shabanu tries to reconcile herself to her future. When her period starts, she hides it from her parents, as she knows she must marry soon after. When her father finds out she has hidden something from him, he is livid: her secretive and rebellious behavior does not befit a woman. Shabanu quickly decides to leave for Sharma's that very night.
When her parents are asleep, she slips out and climbs atop a camel. One of her favorite young camels insists on following her. She rides all night and is almost assured of freedom, when the young camel falls and breaks his leg. She knows that if she leaves the camel, predators will attack and kill him. Rather than leave him, she waits, knowing Dadi will find them in a few hours. When he does, he beats her violently. Shabanu stands silently under his attack. She resigns herself to her fate, but she carefully guards her inner happiness in her heart.