Lenny, a Pakistani woman, narrates Bapsi Sidhwa's novel as an adult looking back at her childhood experiences. In her grown status, she is not innocent, but she recognizes the crucial ways that innocence—or perhaps more accurately, naiveté—influenced her behavior during the period she considers. The eighty-year-old girl’s lack of understanding of the adult world, including the class and gender divisions that structured it, affected not only her but those close to her. The adult’s reflections are saturated with nostalgia and, to some extent, regret.
The years that Lenny looks back on constituted the period when most of the Indian subcontinent, formerly subsumed into the British colonial “Raj,” became independent and was divided into India and Pakistan. This period, which began in 1947, is sometimes called Independence but more often Partition, referring to that division and the widespread violence that accompanied it. Much of this was based on religious differences, as the majority of India’s people were Hindu, while those of Pakistan were Muslim.
The young Lenny was an upper class girl leading a rather sheltered life in a lovely home in Lahore, a large city in the part of India that became Pakistan. Emotionally closer to the Ayah, or nursemaid, than to her own mother, Lenny sees Ayah as popular with men and does not understand the importance of the nursemaid’s Hindu faith in the political turmoil. A series of misunderstandings, as the family home serves as a refuge amidst the city’s violence, first endanger Ayah and then contribute to a former friend abducting and raping her. Lenny plays an unwitting role in this tragedy.
That Lenny’s innocence contributed to Ayah’s assault seems to represent in miniature the larger colonial situation. However, the colonized peoples of the subcontinent were purposely kept in ignorance by the imperial rulers, whereas Lenny’s innocence is portrayed more as an appropriate reflection of the knowledge level corresponding to her age.