As the chapter begins, Parwana sees “it” smeared down Masooma’s buttocks and thighs. Parwana “wants to howl,” but she forces herself to be cheerful. It is early morning, and Parwana is going about her normal routine, despite Masooma’s presence. She feeds the chickens, chops wood, etc. Between these tasks, she finds the time to take care of Masooma, who is suffering from an unnamed ailment.
This opening comes as a shock, and not only because it includes an image of a grown woman soiling herself. The first two chapters of the novel suggested that And the Mountains Echoed would be a book about a young boy, Abdullah, in search of his sister. Instead of staying with Abdullah, however, Hosseini now bounces to Parwana, whom we remember as Abdullah’s stepmother. The chapter title also reveals that we have been taken back in time—three years before the events of the previous chapter.
As Parwana goes about her usual business, she sometimes sees Saboor. Saboor, as Parwana sees him, is a mature family man. One day, Masooma asks Parwana about a shared memory of going biking long ago, and as they talk, Parwana refers to Masooma as her sister. That night, Parwana sleeps next to Masooma, and can’t help but think about Saboor. She has heard rumors that Saboor is looking for a new wife.
It is here made clear that Saboor is the man Abdullah called “Father” in the previous chapter. This is a common motif in the novel: the same character will be called by three or four different names, making it difficult to determine (from chapter to chapter) who he or she is, at least at first. Hosseini takes us from one complicated sibling relationship to another.
When Parwana was born, she was a surprise. She and Masooma are twin sisters, but their mother didn’t realize she was bearing twins until Parwana came out immediately after Masooma. Beginning with her painful and time-consuming birth, Parwana was always a “problem child,” especially when compared with Masooma and Nabi, her older brother. Growing up, the children would often eat dinner at Saboor’s family’s house. Saboor liked to entertain his friends by telling them stories about heroes and divs. One day while she is at a market with her mother, Parwana sees a beautiful notebook. Recognizing that she could give it to Saboor as a way for him to write down all his stories, she steals the notebook. Parwana is too afraid to give the notebook to Saboor herself, however. One day, Masooma finds the notebook and asks Parwana if she could buy from her and give it to Saboor. Parwana, too nervous to tell the truth, says she doesn’t mind. Secretly she’s furious though, and a little jealous of her sister’s friendship with Saboor.
In contrast to the close relationship between Abdullah and Pari, Hosseini now presents us with a distant, not particularly affectionate relationship between the two twins, Masooma and Parwana. This reminds us that blood ties don’t always mean love and affection. The reference to divs in this section is another “call-back” to the previous two chapters, the kind of allusion that Hosseini delights in throughout this novel. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this section, it’s that it’s not enough to think or feel something: one has to translate one’s thoughts and emotions into definite actions, or risk being outmatched by someone else (just as Parwana is outmatched by her bolder sister, Masooma).
By the time Masooma and Parwana are 11 years old, Masooma has begun to attract attention from the local boys. One of them throws a rock at Masooma and Parwana’s feet, to which he’s attached a message, saying that he wants to marry “you.” The note also says that “your sister” can marry the boy’s cousin. This incident bothers Parwana, because Masooma assumes the note is addressed to her, not Parwana. It’s around this time that Masooma begins telling people, including Parwana, that she is “already taken.”
There’s no guarantee that the boy’s letter was for Masooma—the difference between the two sisters, however, is that Masooma believes that she’s prettier and more desirable. We can assume, moreover, that by this time, she’s in some kind of relationship with Saboor, the boy Parwana had a crush on.
Some time before 1949, Nabi drives to town from Kabul. He is one of the most successful people in his community, since he’s succeeded in finding a job in Kabul, and is sometimes allowed to drive his employers’ fancy car. Nabi brings his family money every month. Masooma asks Nabi if he’s found a wife yet, and he laughs off the question. Parwana remembers a recent trip that she and Masooma made with Nabi. On the trip, Nabi drove them into Kabul and showed them the beautiful city sights. Parwana is nostalgic for this day—the happiest day of Masooma’s life, she thinks, since her “accident.”
The reference to an “accident” helps explain the chapter’s opening image of Parwana taking care of her sister—there is some big event that led to Parwana’s permanent injury. It’s also here that we start to get a sense for the vastness of Hosseini’s project in the novel. Each chapter seems to be told from a different character’s perspective—all of them interconnected in various ways.
During Nabi’s visit, he tells Parwana that the rumors are true: Saboor is looking for a new wife, following the death of his former wife in childbirth. He adds that Saboor told him this news personally. Parwana is still a little in love with Saboor, but she finds it unlikely that he would marry her, and she’s already fully committed to taking care of Masooma.
Even for Parwana, who isn’t especially close with her sister, the sibling bond seems to take priority over her attraction to Saboor. This makes us wonder if something else (like guilt) might be motivating Parwana to take care of Masooma—another example of selfishness mixed with compassion.
When Masooma and Parwana were 13 years old, they used to enjoy going to bazaars to run errands for their mother. Men at the bazaars would always stare after Masooma, who was already a beautiful young woman. Parwana, by contrast, was plain, frizzy-haired, and broad-shouldered. She hated her appearance.
Based on what we know, it’s not at all clear if Parwana is, in fact, uglier than her sister. The chapter is told from Parwana’s perspective, meaning that it’s often impossible to tell the difference between reality and what Parwana perceives as reality.
In 1949, Parwana carries Masooma outside for some fresh air. She is careful to take perfect care of her sister, arranging cushions so that she’s comfortable. As they sit, Masooma asks Parwana to take her to Kabul. She imagines surprising Nabi in his house. Parwana is skeptical—in Masooma’s “condition,” it’s difficult to travel. Masooma replies that everything has been worked out: a friend has a mule, which can carry them both to Kabul. She begs Parwana to go with her.
Parwana is careful and attentive around her sister, and it’s unclear what has made her change her behavior so drastically—we see no signs of the jealousy that she once felt for Masooma. A recurring motif in the novel is the relationship between the invalid and the “nurse” or “doctor.” Here, Masooma plays the former role, while Parwana acts as her nurse.
When Parwana and Masooma are 17 years old, they sit in the branch of a tall tree and discuss Saboor. Saboor has made it clear that he’s going to ask Masooma to marry her. As she hears this, Parwana’s heart sinks. Masooma turns away from Parwana for a moment to pull something out of her pocket. As she does so, Parwana intentionally shakes in her seat, shaking the entire branch. This causes Masooma to slip off the branch and fall from the tree. She hits the ground with a horrifying crunch.
We now understand why Parwana has devoted so much of her time and effort to taking care of her sister. Her care isn’t just the result of her natural affection for Masooma—on the contrary, she’s acting as Masooma’s nurse because she feels guilty for causing Masooma’s accident. Overcome with jealousy for her sister, Parwana causes Masooma to fall from a tree, destroying Masooma’s chances of marrying Saboor.
Back in 1949, Parwana and Masooma are talking. Masooma tells her sister, “You have to do it now. If you wait until morning, you’ll lose heart.” As the sisters talk, Parwana reveals that Saboor has asked her to marry him. This will require Parwana to abandon Masooma instead of continuing to care for her. Masooma encourages Parwana to accept Saboor’s offer. Parwana bursts into tears. She explains that Saboor loves Masooma, not her. Parwana adds, “This is all my doing.” Masooma replies that she doesn’t want to know what Parwana means by this. She tells Parwana that if Parwana loves her at all, she’ll leave and marry Saboor immediately.
It’s heartbreaking to see Parwana confessing—or beginning to confess—her guilt to Masooma, but it’s even more wrenching to see Masooma refuse to listen. The goal of a confession is to express one’s innermost feelings and secrets, leading to a reconciliation and, hopefully, progress. But Masooma refuses to hear Parwana’s confession—implicitly, she’s refusing to reconcile with Parwana, while also sacrificing her own health and happiness for her guilty sister.
After staring into Masooma’s eyes for a long time, Parwana decides to leave her sister and marry Saboor. She walks away from her home, in the direction of Saboor’s home. Suddenly, she hears a noise, similar to the sound of a woman crying out. She wonders if Masooma is calling her back, having had a change of heart. Parwana decides to keep walking. As she walks, she thinks about how everyone loved Masooma when they were younger. Parwana resolves to keep her secret—that she’s responsible for crippling her sister—and share it with no one except the mountains. With this in mind, she walks through the desert, toward her future husband.
In this final section, Hosseini gives us another clue about the nature of his novel’s title (which critic Michiko Kukutani called one of the most awkward titles ever bestowed upon a successful novel!). The “mountains” seem to absorb the secrets and sins of the characters. One could say that the mountains represent the characters’ sense of loneliness and isolation in an uncaring, empty universe. Parwana—certainly isolated from her family and from herself—can’t force Masooma to listen to her confession, and as a result, she goes through the rest of her life at a distance from others.