Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Shabanu is the first of three books Suzanne Fisher Staples has written about desert life in Pakistan. The first story is told from the perspective of Shabanu, who is eleven years old when the novel opens. She lives a nomadic life in the Cholistan Desert region of Pakistan. Living with her older sister, Phulan, her Mama and Dadi, and her Auntie and her two small sons, life consists of tending the camel herds and enjoying her last months of childhood in the dusty, wind-storm prone desert.

Shabanu's narrative is exciting and filled with interesting events that move the story forward. The novel opens with the birth of a baby camel while its mother is being attacked by vultures. Shabanu manages to save the baby camel whom she names Mithoo. There is also a terrifying fight between two enraged male camels which Dadi, Shabanu and her family struggle to break up. Shabanu tells us how her family must now always be on their guard, for camels never forget.

Soon Dadi and Shabanu travel to Sibi to sell their camels at the Great Fair. Dadi gets a good price because his animals are the finest at the fair and they return home wealthy and able to afford expensive gifts for Mama and Phulan. However, for Shabanu, this is a difficult time because Dadi has sold her favourite camel, Guluband. She is angry and hurt at the loss of this treasured animal, but at the same time she comes to terms with the loss.  
 "But at the center of myself is an aching hole. With Guluband, my joy, my freedom, all of whom I am is gone. I wonder if I will ever take pleasure in anything again."
 As it turns out how Shabanu deals with this loss will be preparation towards accepting a more significant loss in the near future. Guluband's sale is a foreshadowing of her own sale later on.

Shabanu's family's life now centers around preparations for two marriages in the next year. It is also one of the main reasons for the sale of camels at Sibi. Older sister Phulan has been betrothed to her cousin, Hamir whom she will marry after the feast of Ramadan this year. It is expected that Shabanu will follow her sister the next year, marrying Hamir's brother Murad, soon after she begins her menses.

Not long after returning home from Sibi, a devastating sandstorm strikes, fatally injuring Grandfather. Out of respect for his wishes, the family takes him to Derawar to die. Too early to travel to Mehrabpur for Phulan's wedding, Shabanu's family waits for a bit and then proceeds to Mehrabpur to meet up with Hamir and Murad. Once there, Shabanu tells the reader of the tense situation between Hamir and Murad and former landowner, Nazir Mohammad who sold them a part of his land only to see it flourish under the brother's hard work. This tension will come to head shortly as a result of a chance encounter.

Nazir is known to have quail hunting parties where he usually offers his guests the daughter from a tenant family. When Shabanu's family camps near a canal on her cousin's land, they have a run-in with Nazir, who tries to kidnap the girls for his own use. Shabanu, Phulan, Mama and Auntie flee from the enraged Nazir while Dadi, Hamir and Murad try to settle things.

However, Shabanu finds the arrangements of the settlement to be horrific. She must marry the brother of the landowner, the kindly Rahim-sahib who is completely smitten with her, so that her family can pay the debt owed to the humiliated rich land owner. Not only that but she loses Murad as her betrothed to her sister. Shabanu's family is saved because of the love of Rahim-sahib, but her family has sold her to ensure her sister's happiness and her family's comfort and stability.

Shabanu is a beautifully crafted, well paced and fascinating story.The broader storyline of two young girls preparing for marriage is punctuated by interesting events that provide clues to the Cholistan culture and beliefs and which also set the stage for the climax of the novel.

It is obvious that Suzanne Fisher Staples has truly done the significant research she claims. Almost all the characters are based on people she met in Cholistan and almost every scene in Shabanu and Haveli, the second book in the series, is based on stories told to her when she lived in Pakistan. She was inspired to write Shabanu as a result of some of the women she met while working on a literacy project in a rural village in Pakistan's Punjab Province. She realized that women wherever they are, have similar stories and similar issues in their lives.

Some have criticized the author for writing Shabanu, because they feel as an American she cannot possibly be true to a culture that is not her own. However, Shabanu's voice is authentic. The character of Shabanu is based on a young girl, Maryam, whom Ms. Staples met in Yazmin. This girl was being raised by her grandmother and the two of them also form the basis for the characters Sharma and her daughter Fatima in the novel.

Shabanu is convincing both as a young girl approaching adolescence with her mixed feelings of growing into a young woman and leaving the joys and carefree times of childhood behind, and as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in a traditional, nomadic Pakistani family.

Part of being an adolescent is the search for identity, the answering of "who am I?". Shabanu doesn't want to marry and wishes she could be like her cousin Sharma whom she admires. She wishes to be free, strong and independent like Sharma. Yet the traditions of her culture require her to be exactly the opposite; obedient to her husband, dependent upon his provision.

When she was betrothed to Murad, Shabanu was gradually coming to accept her soon-to-be role as wife and eventually mother. But when she is told that she will no longer marry Murad, but the much older Rahim-sahib, who has three other wives who will hate her and beat her, Shabanu rebels. While outwardly appearing to accept what her father has ordained, Shabanu hides the evidence of her periods to buy herself some time. When her father forces the issue of marriage, Shabanu must choose between family and self. She chooses self and flees only to be caught and beaten. She has lost. Or has she?

It is Sharma and not Shabanu's Mama or Auntie who give Shabanu the strength and a way to accept her fate. She decides she will use Sharma's way and never give her heart to Rahim-sahib, a man she decides she can never love.

"The secret is keeping your innermost beauty, the secrets of your soul, locked in your heart," Sharma's voice whispers in my ear, "so that he must always reach out to you for it." 
Shabanu explores the microcosm of Cholistan culture, revealing this fascinating part of Pakistan to young readers the world over. First published in 1995, novels like Shabanu are more relevant than ever, especially given the ongoing events in Afghanistan, Pakistan's northern neighbour. Young people are like young people everywhere; the dream, they rebel, they wish to make their own choices, they challenge their parents, their culture and their way of life.

I am anxious to read Haveli and The House of Dijnn which continue the story of Shabanu.
Book Details:
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples
New York: Dell Laurel Leaf   2003
240 pp.

No comments: