It’s the spring of 1987, and Laila, who is nine years old, is sulking at the departure of her friend Tariq for a two-week vacation. She knows that time goes by more quickly or more slowly depending on whether she’s with Tariq or not.
After a nine-year jump and a shift of perspective, we have left the realm of a husband’s (Rasheed’s) brutality to enter that of a close childhood friendship.
Downstairs, Laila’s parents are fighting like usual—Mammy, angry and ranting, and Babi, quiet and sheepish-looking. Afterward, Babi calls for Laila, and she brushes her blond hair, recalling how Mammy always says Laila inherited her beauty from her great-grandmother, who lived in the Farsi-speaking Tajik region of the Panjshir valley. Mammy and Babi had both moved to Kabul in 1960 for Babi to attend Kabul University.
At the end of Part I, Laila’s parents seemed happy and in love, but something seems to have changed drastically over the past nine years. The description of Laila’s physical beauty contrasts with the earlier description of Mariam’s plainness, just as her parents’ educated upbringing contrasts with Mariam’s childhood.
Babi shows Laila a rip in the screen door, and says that Mammy has complained it’s letting in bees. Laila feels sorry for Babi, a small, delicate man with his nose always buried in a book. Babi knows poetry by heart and is well-versed in politics and geology, but he’s hopeless in practical matters. Mammy complains about Babi’s lack of handiness, but Laila feels that before Babi had let Ahmad and Noor leave to fight against the Soviets, Mammy might have found his bookishness charming rather than irritating.
We now begin to understand how the relationship between Mammy and Babi has begun to disintegrate over the years. Love had allowed Mammy to see Babi’s bookishness as endearing, just as her grief and anger with him now makes her see the same qualities as irritating. Laila, though, has inherited some of Babi’s intellectualism and finds it appealing.
Babi teases Laila about missing Tariq, saying that before she knows it, he’ll be sending her a signal with a flashlight from his next-door house, a bedtime ritual.
Laila and Tariq are intimate childhood friends, though their intimacy is public knowledge.
Babi takes Laila to school, and on the way she spots a blue Benz car parked across from the shoemaker Rasheed’s house, where he lives with his “reclusive” wife. Laila asks who the two men sitting inside are, and Babi says it’s not their business. Laila recalls how Mammy yelled at Babi for making nothing his business, even his two sons were going to war. Laila can only notice that the man in the backseat is thin and white-haired, dressed in a dark brown suit, and that the car has Herat license plates.
Just as Mariam’s life had intersected with Laila’s on occasion—Fariba was an acquaintance of hers, and she had once caught a glimpse of Tariq—Laila’s now intersects briefly with Mariam’s. Herat may mean nothing to her, but the reader is aware that this visitor can only be a person from Mariam’s past, most likely Jalil.
In class, Laila is distracted and doesn’t notice when the teacher asks her a question. The teacher’s name is Shanzai, but the students call her Khala Rangmaal, “Auntie Painter,” because of the brushing motion she makes with her hands when she slaps students. She forbids the female students from covering their heads, since she says men and women are equal. She also says the Soviet Union is, along with Afghanistan, the world’s greatest nation, and Afghanistan would become as idyllic as that country once the bandits were defeated.
Whereas politics has entered into Mariam’s life sporadically and, up until this point, largely superficially, the communist regime in Afghanistan has a direct impact on Laila’s education. Soviet propaganda is clearly evident in the way Khala Rangmaal teaches. In addition, however, Soviet norms about women’s rights are progressive, even allowing girls to attend school.
Khala Rangmaal asks Laila again, calling her Inqilabi or Revolutionary Girl, since Laila was born the night of the April coup of 1978. Khala Rangmaal, however, prefers inqilab or revolution to coup, and also insists that the fighting in the provinces is skirmishes rather than jihad. She forbids anyone from mentioning the rumors that the Soviets are losing the war, especially with the Americans helping the Mujahideen and other Muslims arriving to fight with them.
Here we’re reminded of when Mariam’s story ended, with both Laila’s birth and a shift in political destiny. The narrator toggles between Khala Rangmaal’s official party line and a more balanced background description, explaining the beginning of the Soviet occupation’s unraveling thanks to the Mujahideen and help from America and others.
After school, since Mammy doesn’t show up, Laila walks home with her classmates Giti and Hasina. Hasina is clever and talkative, and today she is telling them how to fend off unwanted suitors—eat four cans of beans before the man arrives to ask for marriage. Laila knows she doesn’t need this advice, since Babi wants her to get an education. He tells her she can do anything she wants. Hasina’s father is a taxi driver and will probably marry her off in a few years.
Hasina teases Laila about her “one-legged prince.” Giti yells at Hasina not to talk that way about people injured in the war, but Laila, since it’s Hasina, doesn’t take offense.
Obviously referring to Tariq, Hasina is yet another person who suggests that his relationship with Laila is more than just friendship.
Laila walks the last few blocks alone, and sees the blue Benz still parked outside Rasheed’s house, with the elderly man standing outside it looking up at the house. She hears someone behind her tell her to turn around, and when she does she sees a gun pointing at her.
Laila finds herself paying less attention to her surroundings since she’s naturally curious. Her curiosity is helpful to the reader, who can fill in knowledge about what this man might be doing—has Jalil come to see Mariam?