Uma is at home alone in the modern day, while MamaPapa are out at a bridge game. Rarely by herself, Uma enjoys the opportunity to go into her room and go through her old Christmas card collection. Most of the cards are from the nuns and teachers at the convent school, and going through the collection makes her think of them. She gets the desperate urge to use her alone time to call a friend, but realizes she has nobody to call—Anamika is unreachable, Aruna is too busy with her own life, and Ramu is nowhere to be found. She gets the courage to call Mrs. O’Henry, a Christian missionary lady who worked with the school. Mrs. O’Henry is not at home, and Uma angrily slams the phone. When MamaPapa return, Uma pretends to be asleep. “Always sleeping,” her mother says, disapproving.
Uma devotes any free time to looking through cards and trinkets from her childhood, a very long time ago –representing how Uma herself is frozen in time, denied an adult life by her parents. Constantly with her parents, Uma hungers for solitude. Yet, when she is finally alone, she is lonely. She has no friends to call, for everyone she thinks to call is from her past. When she tries to call Mrs. O’Henry, Uma gets angry because it isn’t just Mrs. O’Henry who isn’t at home—rather, it is as if the whole world has become unavailable to Uma, and left her behind.
Back in time, Aruna chooses from among her suitors Arvind, the handsomest, richest young man from an urban background. They have a sophisticated, westernized wedding at the showy Carlton Hotel, which nobody in their town has ever done. Aruna insists on all of the wedding details, and arranges everything to stun both families and their community. During the cocktail party that Aruna arranges for the family and in-laws the night before, Uma has a seizure in front of a group of extended family. That night, Aruna yells at Uma for spoiling the event and Uma yells back. Aruna threatens Uma not to have a “fit”, as she calls the seizures, during the wedding ceremony. During Aruna’s wedding, Uma is ignored, and the only person who remembers to ask how she is doing is Dr. Dutt, the charismatic female doctor who helped her when she had her seizure the night before.
Aruna can be choosy in selecting her husband, in contrast with Uma, who was expected to accept whoever would take her. Unlike Uma’s modest, somber wedding, Aruna’s lavish wedding reflects the high value her parents put on her. The differences in the girls’ weddings reflects the inequality in wealth, opportunity, and social status which the two sisters will experience all their lives. Uma has no control over the differences in beauty and charm by which this inequality is justified, just as she can’t control the seizures for which Aruna blames her.
After the wedding, Aruna moves with her husband Arvind to a fancy flat in Bombay, visiting her family only rarely. When Aruna does come, she criticizes all of her family for their appearance, the appearance of the house, and their manners—calling them “villagers”. During her visits, Aruna takes no pity on Uma, but expects Uma to care for them as the “maiden aunt”. Mama and Uma unite against Aruna’s criticism, and on one occasion laugh together over Aruna’s suggestion that Uma shorten her hair like the women in Bombay. Uma and her parents take some comfort that Aruna also criticizes her husband for his dress and manners. Uma pities how she imagines Aruna must go through life –always upset over the failure of everyone, including herself, to be perfect. She dresses her children up, but Mama and Uma are appalled at how bratty little Aisha and Dinesh are.
Although Mama and Papa took greater pride in Aruna when she was young, the good marriage they wanted for her has only taken her further away from them. Aruna, in her new life in Bombay, manages to do what Uma only wishes she could do—escape the life and family she was born into Yet, Aruna’s escape does not bring her happiness. While Uma lost out on the chance to a glamorous life full of wealth and freedom from MamaPapa—it is she who feels sorry for Aruna. Uma allows herself to feel joy from simple things, to feel unconcerned by what other people think of her. If that is freedom, then it is Uma who is free, not Aruna.
On one visit home, Aruna brings her in-laws to bathe in the holy river near the house. Uma visits the local optometrist, who says she has a bad condition and must see a specialist in Bombay. Papa gets angry and says that the doctor in their town should be good enough. Later, Mama tells Aruna about the doctor’s suggestion, in an attempt to get her help—but Aruna only says that it would be too expensive, that the local doctor is enough for Uma. When both families go to bathe in the river, Uma impulsively jumps off the boat, without looking. She sinks to the bottom, letting the current wash over her, while everyone shouts her name and tries to find her to pull her up. After they rescue her, Uma realizes that the water rushing over her was what she had wanted most, and she wishes she hadn’t been saved.
Uma’s family panics when she jumps, joining forces to try to save her life. Yet, ironically, refusing to address Uma’s need to see a specialist, Papa and Aruna show no concern for Uma’s health. It is surprising that Aruna, who shuns the village as beneath herself, would think the village doctor would be enough for Uma. Uma’s family expects her to be content with less than everyone else. With nobody caring for Uma’s needs, it is no wonder she jumps into the river, without even thinking, as if nothing in her life were worth staying in the boat for.