Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Ushman Khan is a long way
from home. In New York City, he is a world apart from his beloved wife,
Farak, and his ailing mother, whose spine was crushed by an earthquake
that killed 35,000 Iranians and changed their lives forever. Life in New
York is indeed different and lonely, yet Ushman is determined to be
successful, to sell the beautiful rugs that Farak sends him and earn
enough money to have his family join him to start a new and prosperous
And, indeed, Ushman is a success, for not only does he prove himself
to be a good businessman, but his customers find his expert knowledge of
his carpets and their origins an attractive selling point. He has one
especially loyal customer, Mrs. Roberts. Alone in a big Upper East Side
apartment with her dying husband, she tries to fill the emptiness in her
life by buying carpet after carpet, and these sales help to put Ushman
on solid financial ground.
But as pervasive and unseasonably chilling as the early summer rain
falling on the city, the reality of Ushman's life and his history take
hold. Farak, having suffered the pain of several miscarriages and the
stigma of having come to her marriage from a lower class, confesses to
Ushman that she is now pregnant with another man's child and plans to
begin a new life with him. Ushman is devastated, paralyzed by the
thought that he has no idea what will now become of his life. Until he
Stella is nineteen, blond, and beautiful, an unlikely counterpart to
this older, Middle Eastern man. Yet Stella has her own demons to contend
with, including her mother's recent suicide attempt. And she, too, being
a southern girl, is a stranger to New York.
Ushman and Stella begin a relationship that is at once powerful and
precariouseach gains a sense of strength and belonging from the other,
yet underneath it all is the unspoken truth that a future together is
unlikely if not impossible. For Stella, though, what is important is
that she now has a confidant, a man who looks at her not as a child but
as a woman; and for Ushman, it is also the present that matters: this
young, beautiful, American girl has looked at him and seen, with clear
eyes and an open heart, not an immigrant but a man.
When their relationship comes to a sudden yet somehow expected end,
they are both stronger and better able to deal with what life has in
store. For Stella, that means returning to her life as a student at
Columbia, and reconnecting with her parents at home. For Ushman, it
means forgiving Farak, and offering himself to the person who perhaps
has needed him most but whom he has been avoiding emotionally: his best
client, the recently widowed Mrs. Roberts. Ushman is now able to give
her what she has really been after for these many months: not the
perfect carpet, but the perfect company.
The Rug Merchant is a beautiful portrait of loneliness in a
city with millions of people. It is also a touching meditation on
finding connection in unexpected places and learning how our seemingly
inconsequential lives can quite suddenly and unexpectedly take on a
depth of meaning and happiness when we realize a fundamental truth: Not
only do we need other people, but, no matter who we are or where we come
from, we all have something precious to give.
When Ushman decides to keep the antique carpet from the man in
Queens, the decision sets in motion, or at least Ushman believes it
sets in motion, a series of life-altering events. For instance,
Ushman believes the rug and the $30,000 he knew Mrs. Roberts was
willing to pay for it gave him the freedom and confidence to ask
Farak what she truly wants. It is then that she confesses to him
that she is pregnant, "and that stupid lucky feeling makes him a
bigger fool now than ever" (p. 21). If he had not "stolen" the rug,
would anything really have turned out differently? Later, he throws
out the rug. Why?
Our three principal characters all seem to be in search of
something. What does each character in the novel gain/learn from the
Is Stella truly devastated by Ushman's relationship with Mrs.
Roberts, or is she subconsciously looking for a way out of her
relationship with Ushman, as he suspects? Why might she wish the
relationship to end?
When Ushman tells Mrs. Roberts that her coveted carpet is no
longer available, she seems oddly pleased, and "it makes Ushman
angry, that to want something she can't have is an indulgence." In
the next moments, Ushman lies down and Mrs. Roberts lies down next
to him, silently and without touching him, "as a wife would." Why
does the author include this moment? How might it foreshadow later
"Show me how a Muslim would approach this rug, at a time of
prayer," Mrs. Roberts requests of Ushman, when admiring the antique
prayer rug (p. 71). Discuss the significance of Mrs. Roberts's
asking Ushman to pray in front of her, and what the various carpets
represent throughout the novel.
Ushman is thrilled when Stella comes to visit him for the first
time. Seeing her distress, he invites her to rest in his store and
she sleeps for several hours. When she wakes up, Ushman suddenly
feels angry at himself and begins to escort her out, but then seems
to change his mind (p. 87). Why does he change his mind? Why does he
choose this moment to blurt out that he wishes his mother would die?
After first wishing harm to Farak's baby, Ushman now feels
anguish and sympathy toward her after learning she is "marked" by a
purple blotch across her temple: "Only now that he has something to
cherish does he want the universe to be forgiving" (p. 185), he
thinks to himself, upon reflecting what he has gained from his
relationship with Stella. But just a few pages later he tells the
Vietnamese prostitute, "Your sad story does not concern me." She,
like Ushman, is also an outsider, so why does his newfound
compassion not spill over to her? Why did he ever allow himself to
be with this prostitute in the first place?
The Rug Merchant is, at its essence, the story of a
romance between two very different people. Can you think of other
examples in literature of unlikely couples or cross-cultural
relationships? How do these usually work out in the end?
Why does Ushman finally open up to Mrs. Roberts at the end of
the novel, after resisting this intimacy for so long? What change
does his openness signal?
What makes Ushman such a compelling character? How do you see
his life unfolding? Where do you see him building the rest of his
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