The narrator introduces Ayemenem, a small town in Kerala, India, and describes the humid jungle and the monsoons that come in June. In 1993 Rahel Ipe is returning to her childhood home in Ayemenem, where her great-aunt Navomi Ipe (whom everyone calls Baby Kochamma) still lives. Rahel has come back see her “dizygotic” twin Estha, who she hasn’t seen in twenty-three years. As children Rahel and Estha didn’t look alike, but they always thought of themselves as a single person in separate bodies, and they share certain memories and dreams that only one twin experienced.
The story will be told in fragments, mostly jumping between scenes in 1969 (focusing on Sophie Mol’s visit) and 1993, when the twins are reunited at age thirty-one. This style, focusing on small moments broken apart and examined separately, connects to the theme of “small things” in the novel. “Kochamma” is a female honorific title, not an actual name.
After their long separation, however, the twins are now distinct individuals and strangers from each other. The narrator describes their birth. The twins’ parents, Baba and Ammu, were driving to the hospital when their car broke down, so they had to take a bus. Estha and Rahel were almost born in the bus, and later they wished they had been, as they got the idea that it would mean free bus passes for life.
The relationship between Estha and Rahel is one of the most important of the book, as they think of themselves as a single entity, but then have different experiences and are separated for years. The Ipe family is relatively well off – they have a car.
The story then jumps to 1969 (when the twins are seven years old), to the funeral for Sophie Mol, Estha and Rahel’s cousin and the daughter of their uncle Chacko, Ammu’s sister. Sophie was visiting from England when she died. At the funeral Ammu, Estha, and Rahel are made to stand apart from the rest of the mourners. Rahel imagines that Sophie Mol is still alive in her coffin, showing Rahel the ceiling of the church. Rahel imagines a man falling from the ceiling and dying, and she thinks of other “breaking men” and a smell like “old roses.” Rahel then watches a bat climb up Baby Kochamma’s sari, and she sees Sophie Mol cartwheel in her coffin while everyone is distracted.
Roy creates tension by basically revealing the end (Sophie Mol will die) at the beginning, and then jumping back and forth in time to slowly reveal how this comes to pass. “Mol” is a term meaning “girl,” and again “Kochamma” is an honorific – Roy’s style of free indirect discourse involves telling the story partly through the eyes of the young twins, so these characters (and others, like Ammu) are only named in the way the twins refer to them. Rahel clearly has a very active imagination that allows her to avoid confronting tragedy.
After the funeral Ammu and the twins go to the police station, and Ammu asks to see someone named Velutha. Thomas Mathew, the police inspector, calls Ammu a veshya (prostitute) and threatens her if she doesn’t go home quietly. Ammu leaves and starts to cry, and Estha helps her onto a bus and hugs her.
There is more to this “ending” than just Sophie Mol’s death, as Ammu has been socially disgraced in some way. The story starts out very confusingly, but Roy gives out enough information to keep up the tension.
Two weeks after that, Estha was “Returned” – sent to live with his father (the twins parents are divorced) in Calcutta. Soon afterward he began to grow quieter and quieter until he stopped speaking altogether. The quietness helped him erase the words describing his painful memories, and he began to take long walks around the neighborhood. Twenty-three years later, Baba has “re-returned” Estha to Ayemenem, and now Estha walks around the old familiar places of the village. Since Rahel has returned, however, the quietness in Estha’s head has been broken by the sounds of memories.
We first see the results of whatever trauma occurred around Sophie Mol’s death. The twins, who considered themselves as almost one person, are separated for years, and Estha retreats into silence to avoid his terrible memories. Roy capitalizes and emphasizes certain phrases that linger in the childrens’ consciousness (like Estha being “Returned”), as part of her style of presenting the world as the twins perceive it.
The story then follows Rahel after her separation from Estha. She lived with her uncle Chacko and grandmother Mammachi in Ayemenem during the summers, where the “Loss of Sophie Mol” still remained long after the memory of Sophie Mol herself faded. Meanwhile Rahel drifted from school to school, get expelled for different strange reasons like stealing a teacher’s wig and purposefully crashing into other students. Basically she was exercising her curiosity about the world, as no one was around to raise her or teach her about life.
“The Loss of Sophie Mol” is a separate entity from Sophie Mol herself, which introduces the theme of preservation. Whatever traumatic events occurred in 1969 have lingered on in the Ayemenem House, despite Estha’s attempts to silence them. Rahel kept her curiosity and active imagination, but both twins act like “lost souls” without the other around.
Rahel eventually went to an architecture college in Delhi, where she stayed for eight years without ever graduating. There she met Larry McCaslin, an American student, and she married him and moved to Boston. Eventually he grew weary of her constant detachment and depression, as she watched horrible things happening in India and always felt an emptiness where Estha used to be. They were divorced, and then Rahel heard that Estha had come back to Ayemenem, so she returned as well.
Roy also attended architecture college, and also grew up in Kerala with a brother of similar age. Later the narrator will characterize the adult Estha as “Quietness” and the adult Rahel as “Emptiness,” both of them lost without the other. The personal trauma of the Ipe family is also shown as just a fragment of the political upheaval happening in India.
Baby Kochamma, who is now eighty-three, is pleased that Estha doesn’t speak to Rahel when they interact now, and she gets no special treatment from him. Baby Kochamma doesn’t like the twins, and she wishes they would leave soon, as they make her uncomfortable. In her old age she has started wearing all of Mammachi’s jewelry at once and putting on lots of makeup.
Baby Kochamma will be an antagonist to the twins and Ammu. Each of the family members struggle with social obligation, love, and personal dislike in their relationships, but Baby Kochamma always puts her own well-being first. With her makeup and jewelry, Baby Kochamma is just another thing being “preserved” in Ayemenem.
When she was eighteen, Baby Kochamma fell in love with an Irish monk named Father Mulligan. Father Mulligan would visit Baby Kochamma’s father, who was a reverend in the Syrian Christian community (and famous for once having been blessed by the Patriarch of Antioch), and Baby Kochamma would make up questions about the Bible as an excuse to talk to him. Then she started performing charitable actions to impress him, but nothing ever came of it.
The Patriarch of Antioch is the head of the Syrian Christian Church. Though Baby Kochamma has a tragic backstory of unrequited love, even in her youth she was very self-centered – using her Christianity and charitable acts only as a means of seeming like a good person to society and Father Mulligan.
Eventually Father Mulligan left Kerala and Baby Kochamma followed him to Madras, defying her father and becoming a Roman Catholic. She joined a convent, but soon realized she would hardly ever see Father Mulligan, so she sent for her father to fetch her. Her father knew she was unlikely to find a husband now, so he sent her to school to study Ornamental Gardening. Baby Kochamma never stopped loving Father Mulligan from afar, but she stayed in Ayemenem, grew very fat, and spent all her time gardening.
Roy will often criticize the patriarchal system of India, where a man-less woman has basically wasted her life and is seen as worthless. Baby Kochamma sticks with the status quo and allows herself to decline without a husband, spending all her time mourning and preserving Father Mulligan’s memory, as well as indulging in her own personal grudges and jealousy.
Almost fifty years later Baby Kochamma discovered television, and since then her garden has been abandoned. She and Kochu Maria, the house cook, watch American TV shows all day and enter all the contests they see. Baby Kochamma has also grown very paranoid, and she keeps her doors, windows, and even her refrigerator locked.
Roy will later comment that Baby Kochamma’s paranoia is based in the fear of “being displaced” – the Ipe family is of an upper class of landowners, and Baby Kochamma is the type to cling to old class divisions and fear any kind of social change.
Baby Kochamma questions Rahel suspiciously, but Rahel ignores her. Rahel looks out at the old pickle factory, Paradise Pickles & Preserves, which sits between the house and the river. Mammachi used to run it and make a variety of preserved products, including banana jam, which was officially illegal as it could not be categorized as either jam or jelly. Rahel thinks about how this difficulty with classification is the source of many of her family’s troubles, as they all broke some kind of social rule.
The pickle factory is an important symbol of the theme of preservation, as the Ipes (especially Mammachi, the pickle maker) preserve old traditions and class divisions. Even Mammachi makes banana jam, however – suggesting that none of the Ipes could stick to the status quo, and this ultimately led to tragedy. Roy just hasn’t said what kind of tragedy yet.
The story jumps back to 1969, after Sophie Mol’s death, when Baby Kochamma acted self-righteously pious even though much of the trouble was her fault. Ammu consulted a “Twin Expert” about separating her children, and the expert said that it would be okay to send Estha away. So Estha took the train to Madras and then to Calcutta, still haunted by the face of a beat-up young man and the smell of old roses.
We still don’t know what Baby Kochamma has done, but she already appears as a negative character because of her self-righteousness, laziness, and jealousy. She clearly puts herself and the “family name” above the actual other members of the family. Certain small things – like the smell of old roses – signify big things and lingering memories.
The narrator steps back, musing that “things can change in a day,” and that little, seemingly ordinary things can add up to life-changing events. The story potentially began with Sophie Mol’s arrival in India, but the narrator says that it also could have begun centuries before, when the Hindu caste system was laid down, including the “Love Laws.”
The novel contains a contradictory mix of “small things” – the little moments and objects that Roy uses to build up a story, and a writing style that takes a childlike view of a brutal world – and “big things,” like the ancient caste system and political turmoil in India. Despite the family’s attempts at preservation, “things can change in a day” is one of the novel’s most frequent refrains.