Summary and Analysis
Chapter 40 - Laila, Fall 1999
Drought persists throughout Afghanistan, and Laila and Mariam dig a hole in their yard in an attempt to reach water. The Kabul River is dry, and farmers and villagers regularly abandon their homes to try to find a better life in the city. Mariam is now 40 years old, her missing teeth and rough skin attest to a life of beatings and hard work.
In the yard, Zalmai, Laila's young son, chases his sister Aziza. When Zalmai is alone with Laila, he's well behaved, loving, and responsive to her reprimands. With Rasheed, however, Zalmai is a different boy, taking on his father's temper and poutiness. Rasheed spoils Zalmai with gifts they can't afford, including a TV and VCR, both items forbidden by the Taliban but which Rasheed procures on the black market. Six-year-old Aziza has grown into a mature and thoughtful little girl to whom Mariam teaches the Koran.
Money is tight and Rasheed's generosity with Zalmai does not improve matters. One evening he suggests to Laila that Aziza become a street beggar. Laila refuses and Rasheed slaps her across the face. Laila punches him back and experiences a fleeting sensation of victory before Rasheed holds her against the wall with his gun down her throat. That night, Laila dreams of burying Aziza alive and wakes up terrified, tasting dirt.
Hosseini foreshadows problems for Laila's children in Chapter 40 as the situation in Kabul worsens. Hosseini foreshadows problems with Zalmai by contrasting his behavior when he's with Rasheed to his behavior with Laila. When alone with Laila and Mariam, Zalmai is obedient and loving. But with his father, Zalmai takes on more of Rasheed's traits. These shifts in behavior suggest that under Rasheed's influence, Zalmai will grow to respect his mother and Mariam less and less. Already the distance between Zalmai and the women is shown through Zalmai and Rasheed's secret jokes at the dinner table that exclude the others.
Rasheed's spoiling of Zalmai and Laila's dream suggest problems for Aziza. By spoiling Zalmai, Rasheed puts the rest of the family's life at risk. Not only does the question of food and water begin to arise, but also Rasheed's suggestion that Aziza become a beggar to solve the problem reveals just how little he cares for the girl's existence. It is Rasheed's willingness to sacrifice Aziza that inspires Laila's haunting dream in which she lowers Aziza into the hole in the backyard. This vision encapsulates Laila's deepest fear: that someday she'll be forced to sacrifice even her own child in order to survive.