The novel begins with an unnamed narrator promising to tell a story to two children, Abdullah and Pari. The narrator mentions the children’s mother, who is “away.”
Hosseini begins in an uncertain mode, without revealing the identity of his narrator at all (though we later learn it is Saboor). Hosseini will continue to structure his chapters this way—every chapter is almost its own vignette, with a new point of view and different characters. Thus, part of the experience of reading the novel is situating ourselves anew in each succeeding chapter.
The narrator begins his story. “Once upon a time,” he says, in a magical age, there was a farmer named Baba Ayub. Baba Ayub lived in a village called Maidan Sabz, and worked extremely hard to feed his large family. He loved his family, especially his youngest child, whose name was Qais. Qais was only a small boy, but he had boundless energy, and loved to laugh. Qais also had a bad habit of sleepwalking. In order to ensure that Qais wouldn’t hurt himself when he walked in his sleep, Baba Ayub decided to hang a small bell around Qais’s neck—thus, if Qais moved in the night, everyone would be able to hear him. Even as Qais grew older, he refused to stop wearing the bell.
We have almost no information whatsoever about the real characters before we are introduced to the world of this fairy tale. As the opening story, and one with a mythical, allegorical tone, it’s suggested that the narrator’s story will be important and symbolic, and will set the tone for the novel to follow. To begin with, it establishes the idea of a strong bond between a father and his child. The strength of the parent-child relationship will motivates many of the characters’ key actions.
Baba Ayub’s fortunes change for the worse one day when a div, an evil monster, comes to his village. The div kills and eats anyone who dares look at it. As a result, most of the villagers keep their eyes fastened on the ground to avoid making eye contact with the monster. The div announces that it will be patrolling the houses in the village. Whenever it knocks at someone’s door, the family inside will have to give it one child to take back to its home to eat—if not, the div will eat all of the children inside.
At this point, we still seem to be dealing with a fairy tale—there’s a monster that gobbles up small children. The introduction of this antagonist reminds us that being a loyal parent is often a struggle: sometimes, people have to choose between their love for their children and their love for others, or their desire for self-preservation. While the choice is rarely as stark as it is in this tale, it’s a fixture of parenting—and a dominant theme of this book.
One night, the div knocks at the house of Baba Ayub. Baba and his family are horrified—they know that one of them will be eaten by the creature. After much agonizing, Baba Ayub decides to choose randomly. He labels five rocks with the names of his five children, places them all in a sack, and blindly chooses one. He chooses the rock bearing the name of Qais, his favorite child. Tearfully, Baba Ayub places Qais in a sack, with Qais screaming in horror and confusion the entire time. Baba Ayub places the sack containing Qais outside his house. Later, the div takes the sack and leaves the village for good.
Even in this (supposedly) childlike story, the narrator doesn’t mitigate the horror of having to sacrifice—and presumably kill—one’s own child. This only makes us wonder—why is the narrator telling this story? Granted, fairy tales are often dark and frightening to begin with, but there seems to be a more specific reason why the storyteller has chosen a story about sacrificing one’s children, even if we’re not yet certain what the reason is.
The narrator stops his story for a moment to note that Pari, Abdullah’s sister, has fallen asleep. He tells Abdullah to cover Pari with a blanket, and then resumes his story.
We’ve already established the importance of the bond between a father and his child, and now, Hosseini establishes the importance of the bond between two siblings—one of the most important kinds of relationship in the book.
After the div takes Qais from the village, there is a forty-day mourning period. Everyone prepares food for Baba Ayub, telling him that they feel sorry for him. Baba Ayub begins to neglect his family and his work, and people whisper that he is going mad with grief. Baba Ayub feels guilty for not trying to fight the div. A real father, he tells himself, would have found a way to kill the div instead of cooperating with it.
Baba Ayub’s guilt at having sacrificed his son is understandable, but there’s an explanation for his decision to have done so: he was trying to save the rest of his family. In a sense, then, Baba Ayub is a good father. Because the world isn’t perfect, being a good father necessarily involves making difficult, sometimes agonizing decisions.
Baba Ayub decides to seek out the div and kill it as revenge for it taking Qais. After many weeks of climbing and searching, Baba Ayub succeeds in finding the monster’s fortress. At the gates, Baba Ayub shouts to the div, and to his surprise, the div emerges. Baba Ayub angrily says that he has come to kill the div. Surprisingly, the div doesn’t immediately kill Baba Ayub—something about Baba Ayub’s appearance, the look in his eyes, or the fact that he is unafraid makes the div pause. After a moment, the div admits to Baba Ayub that he is impressed—clearly, Baba Ayub is a brave man. Baba Ayub disagrees—he isn’t brave, he argues, he just has nothing to lose: after all, the div has already taken the thing that mattered most to him.
It’s interesting that there’s no physical description of the div in this story—and for that matter, very little physical description of any of the characters in the novel. We should also note the appearance of another important motif in And the Mountains Echoed: the combination of passion and nihilism that emerges after one loses a loved one. Baba Ayub can barely go on living, yet his passion for his child makes him seem brave and invincible to the div. There will be many characters in this novel who embody a similar blend of spirit and hopelessness.
The div tells Baba Ayub that he will gladly duel with him. Before the duel, however, the div suggests that Baba Ayub should come with him. Baba Ayub agrees, and he walks through the div’s fortress, into a room with a big glass window. Beyond the glass window, Baba Ayub is immediately shocked to see a group of happy young children, including his own son, Qais, playing in a beautiful garden. Baba Ayub shouts to his son—who seems older and happier than ever—but Qais does not respond. The div explains, very gently, that he had subjected Baba Ayub to a horrible test, a test which Baba Ayub has passed, and for which Qais has been amply rewarded.
That the div has given Baba Ayub a test is clear—but it’s never explained why, exactly, the div feels the need to test Baba Ayub. What’s to be gained by performing this sadistic experiment? Perhaps the only answer to this question is that we’re in a fairy tale: the div is the embodiment of the cold, uncaring universe, which often subjects human beings to sadistic choices, to which there are simply no easy answers.
Baba Ayub can’t understand what the div is telling him. The div explains that in his fortress, Qais is provided with a wonderful home, a good education, and many friends. One day, the div will allow Qais to go out into the world, where he may share his kindness and knowledge with others. Baba Ayub begs the div for a chance to talk to his son again. Reluctantly, the div takes a large hourglass and turns it upside-down. By the time the sand settles, the div explains, Baba Ayub must make a second choice: he can either take Qais home and spend the rest of his life with his son, or he can leave Qais in his new home.
There’s a fine line between compassion and selfishness, both here and in the rest of the novel. Baba Ayub wants to see his son again—but is this because he wants his son to be happy, or because he wants to be happy? When it comes to actions, it is often difficult to distinguish between motivations of compassion and selfishness. This is a complex moral issue that Hosseini will struggle with throughout the novel.
Baba Ayub thinks for a long time. On one hand, he’s desperate to see his favorite child again. On the other, he recognizes that Qais’s life is better in the div’s home—Qais would surely be less happy in the village. After a long time, Baba Ayub becomes so frustrated that he breaks the hourglass and yells that the div is a cruel beast. The div tells Baba Ayub, “cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.” When the div asks Baba Ayub for his choice, Baba Ayub gets up to leave, deciding that Qais will stay in the fortress. Before he goes, Baba Ayub tells the div that he hopes the div will be punished in hell forever. In response, the div throws Baba Ayub a small bottle, and tells Baba Ayub to drink it when he returns to his village.
Ultimately, the horror of this story is that the div—or, symbolically, the uncaring universe—isn’t really responsible for Qais’s misfortune. Baba Ayub is the person charged with making the agonizing decisions about his son: whether or not to let Qais die, and here, whether or not to take Qais home. The horror of life, one might say, is that we’re required to make difficult decisions, some of which result in suffering for other people. Even opting out of decision-making is itself a kind of decision (we’ll see this very clearly in chapter 6). With this in mind, people’s only relief is to forget: to forget what others have done to them, but mostly to forget what they themselves are capable of.
After many days of travel, Baba Ayub returns to his home, where he finds his wife and family waiting for him. Baba Ayub drinks from the div’s bottle, and immediately forgets about his visit to the div. He forgets that he saw Qais, and that he had to choose whether or not to take Qais home—he even forgets that he had a son named Qais at all.
It’s often pointed out that forgetting is one of mankind’s most powerful weapons of self-preservation. If people didn’t have the power to forget their misdeeds, then they’d collapse with guilt and self-hatred. The div’s bottle, one might say, symbolizes mankind’s innate ability to forget and move on.
In the years following Baba Ayub’s return to the village, his fortunes turn yet again, and he becomes a hugely successful farmer. His crops bring him and his family great wealth, and his children all marry the finest suitors. He ends his life as an old, happy grandfather, taking great pleasure in the lives of his children and his young grandchildren. He loves taking walks through gardens and forests, where he feels thankful for his good fortune. But now and again, as he walks through the forest, he hears the ringing of a small, high-pitched bell. Although he has no idea where the sound comes from, or if it’s even real, it gives him a sense of profound sadness, which he’s incapable of putting into words.
The key point of this section is that Baba Ayub can’t entirely forget the decision he was forced to make: he is still haunted by a vague sadness that he cannot explain. This suggests a broader point about humanity: although we’re excellent at forgetting, we’re never perfectly capable of forgetting the past. Here and there, there will always be small reminders of our sins or past suffering. This is a poignant idea that will recur throughout the novel to come, making the story of the div especially symbolic.
The narrator ends his story. He tells Abdullah to go to sleep, as he and Pari have to wake up at dawn. He adds that he and Abdullah will say goodbye in the morning.
In hindsight, we recognize that Saboor is the narrator, and he is telling this story just before he gives away his daughter Pari to be adopted by the Wahdatis. It is almost as if the story—predicting Saboor and Abdullah’s future sadness—is a way for the terse Saboor to apologize for selling his daughter. This is also an early example of art (storytelling) as a method of transforming and dealing with one’s pain. It is easier for Saboor to see himself as sacrificing Pari to a powerful demon than accepting the reality that he is selling her to get money for himself and provide a wealthier upbringing for her.