Amal is clever and ambitious, determined to be a teacher. However, life in her Pakistani village continually thwarts her ambitions. Her role as the eldest of five daughters means that she must help to run the household-at the expense of her schooling-when her mother descends into post-natal depression. Her hopes of an eventual return to school are quashed when a minor verbal altercation with a man who she is unaware is their tyrannical landlord, Jawad Sahib results in a captive servitude at his home and complete isolation from her family.
This feudalism is graphically described-individuals vanish or are ruthlessly persecuted and entire villages are razed to the ground. The contrast between Jawad Sahib’s opulent life and the hand-to-mouth existence of his tenants is made very clear,but Jawad’s house lacks love and companionship, which abounds in the lives of the villagers. Saeed is adept at creating community life and her characters are clearly and believably drawn.
Amal must make the most of her new existence, as it seems likely to be permanent. She befriends and teaches a young servant girl and, in her role as personal maid to Jawad’s mother, is able to travel out of the family compound with her and even borrow books, illicitly, from the house library in order to keep her mind stimulated.
Jawad’s corruption, arrogance and cruelty are evident at every turn and it is a relief when he is finally arrested and he and his father can no longer maintain their rule of terror over the many villages in thrall to them. Most gratifyingly of all, it is the servants in his household, spearheaded by Amal, who supply the police with the information they need to make the arrests. This triumph for the underlings of society and the courage of a girl in making it happen give the book a true ring of satisfaction. After all, as Amal so powerfully says, ‘if everyone decided nothing could change, nothing ever would.’