The eleven-year-old desert girl Shabanu narrates the story. She lives in the Cholistani desert with her family. She loves the desert and the sense of freedom it gives her more than anything in the world. She is willful and independent but also compassionate, tender, and insightful. She chafes under the constraints of the restrictive world around her.
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Shabanu's older sister. Phulan is more beautiful and graceful than Shabanu, but she is not as clever, critical, or capable. She and Shabanu have a close relationship, although Shabanu is envious of Phulan's beauty and maturity. Phulan enjoys being indoors and doing housework, and her life centers on her upcoming marriage to her cousin, Hamir.
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Shabanu and Phulan's mother. Mama is beautiful, strong, and gentle. She raises her two daughters lovingly and with joy. Mama loves life in the desert as well. She is a wise woman who understands the constraints and challenges of the world in which she lives and bears up under those constraints gracefully.
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Shabanu and Phulan's father. Dadi is a man of the desert. He is a skilled herder and is well known for having the best camels in the Cholistan desert. Like Mama, Dadi is a kind and loving parent. He adores his two daughters and raises them to have a sense of freedom and pride. Dadi struggles to do what he can to provide for the future safety and happiness of all his family members, especially his daughters.
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Dadi's father and Shabanu's grandfather, who lives with them in the desert. Grandfather fought for the Nawab of Bahawalpur, who was the king of their region before the formation of the state of Pakistan. Grandfather is kindly and forgetful. In his old age, he often "disappears" for days into garbled reveries but always returns to his old self.
Mama's dearest and liveliest cousin. Sharma lives in the desert with her daughter, Fatima. She left her husband because he abused her, and she now lives an independent life raising goats and sheep in the desert. Everyone in the family, Dadi included, adores Sharma. She is outspoken, strong, wise, and loving. She is about thirty years old.
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Sharma's daughter Fatima lives with her in the desert. Fatima is sixteen, which is well past the marrying age in Cholistan. She does not want to get married, and Sharma will not force her to do so. She resembles her mother in her fiercely independent and outspoken demeanor.
Dadi's sister-in-law, Auntie, lives with Shabanu's family in the desert. Her husband, Dadi's brother, works in a government office in Rahimyar Khan. Auntie is a fat and bitter woman. She is proud that she has borne Uncle two sons, but she feels displaced and lonely among her husband's relatives.
Hot-blooded and wild, Hamir is Phulan's fiancé. Hamir lives with his family in a nearby agricultural community. His family owns a fertile patch of land. Hamir works hard and is a decent man, but he is proud and easily angered.
Murad is Hamir's younger brother and Shabanu's betrothed. He is quieter and steadier than Hamir. Shabanu remembers that when they were younger, Murad was kind to her and treated her with respect.
Bibi Lal is Hamir and Murad's mother. Her husband died of natural causes two years prior. She is a warm, expansive, and understanding woman. She wears white to mourn her husband.
Lal Khan, Bibi Lal's oldest son, was found murdered a year ago. The family suspects that Nazir Mohammad is responsible for his death.
Kulsum, age sixteen, is Lal Khan's widow. She is a sad and withdrawn young woman. She is the mother of three children.
Sakina is Bibi Lal's youngest daughter. She is six months younger that Shabanu and tells Shabanu and Phulan the story of Hamir's death.
Nazir Mohammad used to own the land which Bibi Lal's family farms. He is rich, fat, and greedy. He owns a great deal of land, which he leases out to tenant farmers who must then pay him for use of the land with part of their crop. He wants to make Bibi Lal's family pay as well, even though they bought the land from him. He is used to getting his own way.
Rahim is Nazir Mohammad's older brother. He is a judicious and kind man. He is a politician and a respected holy man. He has three wives and falls in love with Shabanu the first time he sees her, despite the fact that she is young enough to be his granddaughter.
Spin Gul is an officer of the Desert Rangers who helps protect the women when they flee from Nazir Mohammad.
The family's most highly prized camel, Guluband is a warm and intelligent beast. Shabanu adores him, and the two share a special rapport. Guluband is famous throughout the region for his massive size, his intelligence, and his ability to dance.
Mithoo is the camel Shabanu helps birth. Mithoo's mother dies of snakebite. Because no other female camels will nurse the orphaned baby, Shabanu takes him under her protection.
Dadi buys Shabanu the puppy Sher Dil in Sibi to compensate for selling Guluband. Sher Dil grows up to be an excellent herding dog.
Xhush Dil is another of the family's trusted camels.