Naseem, whatsitsname, Aziz is the undisputed, whatsitsname, matriarch of the Aziz family and she rules, whatsitsname, with an iron fist. Don't worry, we won't be doing this whole character analysis using the Reverend Mother's signature catch phrase, even though it's tempting.
Of all the characters in the novel, she is one who changes the most. She is a silent good Kashmiri girl at first, and becomes a stubborn old woman with moles like nipples on her face. That's a pretty big change.
When we meet Naseem, she's nothing more than a body part seen through a hole in a sheet. These days, feminists discuss the objectification of women (reducing a woman to her body parts) in mainstream media. Naseem's situation takes objectification to the extreme before commercials even exist.
Every week, Adam Aziz comes to her house to treat a different illness, and every week he sees a new body part. Eventually Dr. Aziz forms a mental picture of his patient:
So gradually Doctor Aziz came to have a picture of Naseem in his mind, a badly-fitting collage of her severally-inspected parts. This phantasm of a partitioned woman began to haunt him, and not only in his dreams. [...] but she was headless, because he had never seen her face. (1.2.5)
When he finally does see her face, he's fallen in love. But with what?
When Naseem starts speaking, we know that Aziz is in trouble. It's easy to think she's some demure little girl when you can't even talk to her, but things change pretty quickly. Saleem writes, "Nowadays, Naseem's tongue was getting freer all the time. 'What kind of talk is this? What are you—a man or a mouse? To leave home because of a stinky shikara-man!'" (1.2.17) Real demure.
We'll give this to Naseem—she does try her best to be a good Kashmiri woman. The only problem is, she married Aadam Aziz and he's not the most traditional guy ever. You could say that opposites attract, but in this case it's more like opposites crashed into each other and exploded.
They have marriage problems from their second night together:
She has been weeping ever since he asked her, on their second night, to move a little. "Move where?" she asked. "Move how?" He became awkward and said, "Only move, I mean, like a woman..." She shrieked in horror. "My God, what have I married? I know you Europe-returned men. You find terrible women and then you try to make us girls be like them! Listen, Doctor Sahib, husband or no husband, I am not any... bad word woman." (1.2.45)
Perhaps they need some marriage counseling.
Naseem has reservations about sex, but it seems to work out. We guess good Kashmiri girls have children, since they end up with five of them.
We're tempted to think that Aadam is right about Naseem's traditional attitudes, but things aren't so black and white. She ends up right about Nadir Khan. She also lets everyone know it:
"Whose idea had it been? Whose crazy fool scheme, whatsitsname, to let this coward who wasn't even a man into the house? […] Who had spent his life offending God, whatsitsname, and on whose head was this a judgment? Who had brought disaster down upon his house..." (1.4.44)
Wow. That's an earful. We get it.
Who's right? We're not sure, and their kids aren't either. Throughout the novel they keep struggling to find the balance between Aadam Aziz's rationality and modernity, and Naseem's religiosity and tradition. Even Aadam himself falls back on religion after a lifetime of hating God. Maybe this tradition thing isn't all bad.
If this novel is full of anything, it's warfare and powerful women. Naseem Aziz gets that party started when she stops being a good Kashmiri girl and things get real. The way that Saleem describes her domination of the family isn't too different from how he describes the Indo Pakistani wars. He writes: "[…] the domestic rules she established were a system of self-defence so impregnable that Aziz, after many fruitless attempts, had more or less given up trying to storm her many ravelins and bastions, leaving her, like a large smug spider, to rule her chosen domain" (1.3.12). In other words, Naseem is like a great fortress and constantly at war with her husband. She protects herself from everything outside.
What is this illustrious general's most famous battle? The Great Silence. When Nadir Khan comes to live with them and Naseem disagrees with Aadam Aziz, she takes a vow of silence that lasts three years. That's some determination. Most people don't last a week when they try to give the silent treatment, but this lady lasted for years.
The silence has such an impact on the family that we keep seeing it even decades later. Dr. Narlikar is killed in silence. Amina Sinai punishes her children with silence. Go ahead, look—you'll find lots more examples.
The weird thing about Naseem Aziz and her will of steel is that as she gets stronger, Aadam Aziz gets weaker. What's up with that? Saleem describes the phenomenon:
And as he declined, Reverend Mother grew larger and stronger; […] as though their marriage had been one of those mythical unions in which succubi appear to men as innocent damsels, and, after luring them into the matrimonial bed, regain their true, awful aspect and begin to swallow their souls..[…] my grandmother, in those days, had acquired a moustache almost as luxuriant as the dustily-sagging hair on the upper lip of her one surviving son. (2.19.20)
Is she a succubus? Is the mustache a sign of her masculinity? Why is she blowing up like a balloon? What is she blowing up with?
We don't have the answers to all these questions, but they're good to think about. After all, Naseem Aziz, a.k.a. the Reverend Mother, is the prototype for all the strong women in this novel. Get to know her so you can understand everyone else.