Shabanu is the book's heroine and narrator. She is eleven at the beginning of the book. Although just a little more than a year passes during the course of the novel, Shabanu must grow up more than she ever wanted to or thought she could during that year. Shabanu spent her childhood in the desert with her mother, father, older sister, aunt, and cousins. Her parents dote on her. Since they have no sons, Shabanu takes on the herding responsibilities that a son would normally take. At the same time, she works diligently in the home, cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Shabanu is happiest, however, when she is with the camels. She loves the great beasts and handles them with gentleness and skill. Indeed, she often knows their ways better than Dadi. Shabanu is happiest when she is riding or walking free over the dunes with the quiet companionship of one of her beloved camels.
Shabanu often contrasts herself to her older sister, Phulan. Phulan is beautiful and graceful. Shabanu feels clumsy, short, and tomboyish in comparison. Shabanu envies her sister, but at the same time Shabanu deplores Phulan's empty-headed, dreamy, passive demeanor. In contrast, Shabanu is sharp- tongued, impulsive, rebellious, and capable.
Shabanu's willfulness repeatedly gets her into trouble. Her father struggles to discipline her and teach her to obey. Cholistani culture requires women to obey men, but Shabanu cannot become accustomed to the idea. As far as she is concerned, men are impulsive, lustful, and prone to violent anger. Most of the time, she tells herself, she knows how to handle things better than they do.
However, life deals Shabanu's free spirit a series of devastating blows. At first, she resists and despairs, but eventually she learns to cope with the challenges presented to her. By the end of the book, her childish rebelliousness has transformed into a steely will and a sharp, evaluative mind. She is determined to survive and retain the flame of her inner freedom. At the same time, she learns to act wisely and compassionately, with the well being of those she loves firmly in mind.
Dadi, Shabanu's father, is a strong and warm-hearted man. He heartily enjoys the challenges and freedoms of desert life. He is handsome and quick to break into a song or a smile. Although his culture is structured to reward parents who raise sons, he dotes on his two beautiful daughters. He sees that Shabanu is just as capable and strong as any son, and he lets her assume the responsibilities and work of a male child.
Dadi works hard to support his family and to make decisions that will benefit them. He seesaws between judiciously making decisions that will benefit his family in the long term and indulgently making decisions according to his emotions and immediate concerns. Much of his indecision centers on Shabanu. He loves her deeply and wants to make her happy; at the same time, he knows he must subject her to discipline in order to prepare her for life with her husband.
At the same time, Dadi has an impulsive and domineering side. Shabanu often catches glimpses of him when he is angry, which remind her of an angry and impetuous male camel. He loves his daughter but also has been steeped in a culture of male authority. When Shabanu defies him, he becomes truly and sometimes uncontrollably angry.
Sharma, Mama's favorite cousin, lives alone in the desert, herding her own animals. She was married to an abusive husband, and, after she built up a small flock of her own, she took her daughter and left him. She lives independently in the desert. Sharma is sharp-tongued, self-reliant, iconoclastic, and wise.
Sharma provides Shabanu with an important role model. She is a role model and source of hope for the free-spirited young girl. At the same time, she is not reckless, overly idealistic, or naïve. She understands that the best life for a woman in her society is as the wife of a decent, good-hearted man, and she tells Shabanu as much. When it becomes clear that Shabanu will not marry a trustworthy man, she counsels Shabanu to learn to use her beauty and charm to manipulate the man and to guard fiercely her innermost self from him. Sharma does not regret the decisions she has made in her life, but she knows the life she leads is hard. She does not give Shabanu a falsely idealized picture of her life.
Life has dealt Mama what Sharma considers to be the greatest blessing: the love of a good man. Mama is gentle, beautiful, and sweetly optimistic. Like Dadi, she loves her daughters and at one point avows that she never wishes she had sons instead of Shabanu and Phulan. Mama calmly supports the girls through periods of confusion and doubt, although she does not speak with such candor and boldness as Sharma. She works beside Dadi during the negotiations at Yazman to determine a course of action that will benefit her daughters in the long run. In this way, she acts as an arbiter of a fate hateful to Shabanu.
Mama is blessed with the love of a good man, but she constantly strives to mitigate the effects of his temper and impulsiveness. She is practical and clear-minded, and like Shabanu, often knows what to do better than Dadi does. She mediates for Shabanu whenever he becomes angry with her. At the same time, she too expects Shabanu's obedience.
Phulan is older than Shabanu by two years. She is a beautiful girl, and her beauty brings her great pleasure. She looks forward single-mindedly to her future as a wife, while at the same time quakes with fear and sadness at the prospect of leaving behind her childhood home.
Phulan serves as a foil for Shabanu. In many ways, Phulan is a model Cholistani girl: sweet, pretty, obedient, and unquestioning. On the other hand, Phulan is vain, enjoys being pampered, often does not consider the implications and possible outcomes of her actions, and, when she forgets her love for Hamir so soon after his death, proves somewhat inconstant. Phulan is a sweet, harmless girl for whom Shabanu feels responsible.