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Mariam’s father, Jalil Khan, is a wealthy businessman with three wives. Mariam’s mother, Nana, is not married to Jalil. When Mariam is five, Nana calls her a harami—bastard—for breaking part of her tea set. This is when Mariam learns of her illegitimate status. Nana was a housekeeper in one of Jalil’s homes when she became pregnant. Jalil quietly arranged for Nana and the baby’s new home. Nana once told Mariam that she wished her own father had killed both Nana and her unborn child.
Jalil and two of his sons built a small shack, a kolba, for Nana and the baby. Jalil preferred to take the responsibility on himself rather than hire laborers. Mariam has been given two very different accounts of the day of her birth, in 1959. Nana says she was alone, gave birth to Mariam in their kolba, and that Jalil waited a month before visiting his new child. Jalil claims that he arranged for Nana to give birth in a hospital, and that he picked out Mariam’s name. Mariam adores her father, who visits her for a few hours once a week, and she believes Jalil’s version of the story.
Once a month, a few of Jalil’s sons deliver supplies to Nana and Mariam. Nana hurls rocks and insults at the boys. Nana doesn’t like people, especially visitors from the village who bring special things for Mariam. But Mariam enjoys her regular visits with Mullah Faizullah, the village tutor. Mullah Faizullah teaches Mariam how to read and how to pray. When Mariam hears that Jalil’s other daughters are going to school, Mariam tells Mullah Faizullah that she wants to go to school with her father’s other children. Mullah Faizullah asks Nana for permission for Mariam, but Nana refuses. Nana tells Mariam that the only lesson Mariam needs to learn in life is endurance.
Mariam always looks forward to her father’s weekly visits. The anticipation keeps her anxious for several days. Nana and Jalil make polite conversation, and then Jalil and Mariam spend time together. Jalil takes Mariam fishing, they sing songs together, and Jalil brings Mariam trinkets and news from the world outside Mariam’s kolba. When Jalil leaves, Mariam imagines being part of his life, living with him, and taking care of him.
Jalil comes to visit Mariam weekly, and Nana serves them tea and acts with civility towards him. In 1974, just before Mariam turns fifteen, she tells Jalil that her birthday wish is for Jalil to take Mariam to the cinema to see “Pinocchio.” After Jalil leaves, Nana berates Mariam for being ungrateful, for wanting to leave Nana alone. The day arrives, and Mariam waits for her father. When Jalil does not come, Mariam leaves her home for the first time, in search of her father. The villagers, not at all how Nana described, are pleasant. One villager helps Mariam find Jalil Khan’s home. However, Mariam is turned away. Jalil’s driver tells Mariam that her father isn’t home. Mariam sees her father in the window and refuses to leave. Ultimately Mariam is forced into the car and taken home. After the driver helps Mariam across the stream, he tries to shield Mariam from what she is about to see. Nana has hung herself from a willow tree.
After Nana’s burial, Jalil tries to comfort Mariam, but she only wants Mullah Faizullah. Mariam’s tutor speaks to her from the Koran, but nothing can ease the guilt Mariam feels over Nana’s death. Mariam keeps mostly to her new room in Jalil’s house. Mariam’s half-sister, Niloufar, brings a gramophone and plays music. Mullah Faizullah comes for a visit. Mariam tells him she feels responsible for Nana’s death. Mullah Faizullah tells Mariam that Nana had always been an unhappy person, and that her death was not Mariam’s fault. A few days later, Niloufar’s mother summons Mariam downstairs. The family needs to speak with her.
Jalil’s wives inform Mariam that she has a suitor. Rasheed, a forty-five-year-old widower, is a respected shoemaker in Kabul. Mariam argues; she is too young, she’d rather live with Mullah Faizullah. Jalil’s wives say that she is the right age to marry, and that Mariam would be a burden on her old tutor and his family. When Mariam pleads with Jalil, he dismisses her. Jalil has already made the arrangements with Rasheed. Mariam is taken back upstairs and locked in her room.
The next day, Mariam and Rasheed are married. Mariam and her new husband prepare to travel to Kabul, and Jalil accompanies them to the bus stop. Jalil tells Mariam how much she will enjoy Kabul, but she stops him. Mariam tells Jalil how desperately she had loved him, but how she now realizes he is ashamed of her. Mariam tells her father not to visit her in Kabul. Mariam never wants to hear from Jalil again. Mariam gets on the bus and does not look back as it pulls away.
A Thousand Splendid Suns introduces the theme of shame in tandem with the introduction of Mariam, one of the novel’s protagonists. Dropping a tea plate is an unforgiveable offence for which Mariam is viciously berated by her mother, Nana. This cruel display reveals Mariam and Nana’s difficult relationship. Nana repeats the slur “harami,” meaning a bastard child, showing how deeply her daughter’s illegitimate status affects her. Mariam thus learns from an early age that she is not desired by her mother and that her very existence is shameful.
Jalil treats Mariam with a kindness that is starkly contrasted with the harsh treatment Mariam receives from her mother. Jalil brings Mariam gifts to not only appease her need for his attention, but also to assuage his own guilt over Mariam being a child born out of wedlock. Mariam views Jalil as benevolent because she cannot understand what her father actually thinks of their relationship. Regardless of how Mariam feels about her father, one fact remains: while Jalil may be kind to Mariam, he has no desire to integrate Mariam into his life in the city with his other children and wives, ultimately heightening Mariam’s feelings of shame.
Mariam’s parents find one commonality in how they view and treat Mariam, which will shape how Mariam views herself: both parents refuse to truly integrate her into their lives. Nana, with her strict hand over Mariam’s life, treats her as a subject to control. Because of Mariam’s status as Jalil’s bastard child, he cannot face the shame of bringing her into his home with his legitimate children. The trauma of not having a supportive family forces Mariam to adopt her reputation as a harami as a fundamental part of her identity.
Nana’s influence over Miriam underscores the importance Nana places on enduring and surrendering to their personal fates. Amid their tense and complicated relationship, Nana dutifully teaches Mariam necessary skills like cooking, bread-making, and cleaning, but she resents Mariam’s desire to go to school. In displaying her displeasure, Nana reinforces the gender expectations of their society. Nana uses the word harami as well as many other insults, including what other people perceive Mariam’s reputation to be, to exert control over her daughter. While Mullah Faizullah believes education is beneficial and worthwhile, Nana has resigned herself and her daughter to simply enduring the will of fate.
In Chapter 5, trauma ushers in Mariam’s sudden and dramatic shift into adulthood. Jalil teaches Mariam how to fish and recite poetry, and these activities become a form of childish escapism that Mariam uses to craft an imaginary life in which her father might bring her to his home. However, these childish fantasies crack when Jalil refuses to let Mariam come to the theater to see Pinocchio. This deeply traumatic first rejection from a man makes Mariam realize her childhood daydreams are not real, and that she is not one of her father’s priorities. Her lack of importance in her father’s life is solidified when Mariam is not allowed to enter Jalil’s house, which she interprets as a refusal to be a part of Jalil’s family. Nana hanging herself and the subsequent trauma of witnessing her dangling body fully removes Mariam from everything that was familiar to her in childhood.
Just as it was for Mariam’s mother, endurance begins to play a significant role in Mariam’s life. Staying at Jalil’s house is not the fantasy she assumed it would be. At the house, Mariam endures Jalil’s unwelcoming and even hostile wives. They exemplify this behavior by trying to expel her out of the house through an arranged marriage. There is an unbalanced power dynamic between Mariam, Jalil, and his wives: Mariam, who is but a teenager, is being married off to a much older man and Jalil’s wives are shepherding this decision to get her out of their lives. Mariam marries Rasheed inside her father’s home, shattering her childish hopes of it ever being a safe haven. Going forward, Mariam will have to endure a troubled home life with her new husband, while her forced marriage by her father marks the beginning of her suffering at the hands of cruel men.