The narrative picks up in 1969 as Estha, Rahel, Ammu, Chacko, and Baby Kochamma drive in the family’s blue Plymouth to Cochin, where they will see The Sound of Music (for the third time), stay at the Hotel Sea Queen, and then pick up Sophie Mol and her mother, Margaret Kochamma, from the airport. Margaret Kochamma is Chacko’s ex-wife, an English woman who left him for a man named Joe. Joe has recently died, and Chacko invited Margaret and Sophie to spend the holidays with him in Ayemenem.
Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma’s arrival in India is the setting for most of the novel’s action. The Ipes are an upper-class family with their own car (and pickle factory). Roy herself said that her family also made “pilgrimages” to see The Sound of Music when she was young.
The narrator gives various descriptions of the characters in the car. Ammu currently has no surname, as she can only choose between her ex-husband’s name or her father’s name. Estha has his hair in an “Elvis puff,” and Rahel has her hair tied up in a band called a “Love-in-Tokyo.” She is wearing a watch with the time painted on it. Chacko, a former Rhodes scholar, quotes from The Great Gatsby as they drive.
Ammu is also a “man-less woman” like Baby Kochamma, but Ammu refuses to accept her situation as inferior, and she rages against the unfair patriarchal society. Certain descriptors like the “Puff” and the “Love-in-Tokyo” come up again and again, emphasizing the innocence and youthfulness of the twins.
Ammu is twenty-seven years old, and she remembers her past, mostly her fatal mistake of marrying the wrong man. When she was eighteen she moved with her father to Ayemenem, and because she had no dowry no one asked to marry her. The rebellious, independent Ammu escaped for a summer to Calcutta, where she met her husband at a wedding reception. They moved to Assam and were happy for a while, until Ammu learned that her husband was an alcoholic and a compulsive liar.
Ammu’s father was cruel and abusive (as we will learn) and her husband was as well, but Ammu can still only choose between these men’s last names to have any kind of social standing. Ammu has the kind of fiery, independent spirit that rebels against the injustice she grew up with, but as a divorced woman she is basically powerless.
After Estha and Rahel were born, Ammu’s husband (Baba) tried to prostitute her to his boss in order to keep his job (which he was losing because of drinking), and he beat her when she refused. When the violence continued and spread to the children, Ammu left her husband and returned to Ayemenem. Her parents reluctantly took her back, but she was always disgraced in the town for being a divorcee.
Instead of offering an escape from her oppressive life in Ayemenem, Baba just becomes another man abusing his power over Ammu. The Ipe family and the people of Ayemenem still cling to the traditional views of a “man-less woman” as worthless and disgraceful. Unfortunately, most of the “love” relationships in the novel are abusive and unhealthy.
The narrator describes Ammu’s “Unsafe Edge,” how on certain days she would seem dangerous and wild, like she had nothing to lose, but on other days she was a caring, mature mother to the twins. The narrator muses that it was her recklessness that led her to later “love by night the man her children loved by day.”
Ammu’s contradictory nature makes her an intriguing character but also leads to great tragedy for herself and the children. The narrator offers more little hints about the events to come.
The story returns to the car ride in the Plymouth. Even in 1969 Baby Kochamma doesn’t like the twins, as they are half Hindu and the children of a divorced woman, so she is always trying to make them feel unhappy about their unhappy fate. Despite her grudge, the children draw great joy from each other.
Baby Kochamma gives great importance to society’s opinion and tries to preserve political and social divisions. She sees the twins as “less-than” because of their heritage as children of divorce and mixed religious background, and so thinks they should feel ashamed.
Rahel thinks about the car and how on its roof is a sign advertising Paradise Pickles & Preserves. The pickle company began with Mammachi’s small personal business. She began to be successful just as her husband was retiring, and Pappachi was bitter and jealous. He would beat her nightly with a brass flower vase, until one day the adult Chacko returned and put a stop to it. Pappachi took out his rage by destroying a rocking chair, and he never spoke to Mammachi again.
Pappachi is another antagonistic, negative character and an example of the abusive power of the patriarchy. Pappachi is never punished for his brutal violence, and in fact is seen as a model citizen in public. Yet despite his brutal actions, Mammachi never complained, and she still tries to uphold the traditional society that condoned such beatings.
Earlier in life Pappachi had worked as an “Imperial Entomologist,” and once he discovered a moth he believed was a new species. He was not believed about this until years later, after his retirement, and then the moth was named not after Pappachi but after some other entomologist that Pappachi disliked. Pappachi considered this the greatest failure of his life, and the moth supposedly inspired his fits of rage in later life. Pappachi’s moth then came to “haunt” all his descendants with fear and misfortune. Mammachi still cried when Pappachi died, and Ammu told the twins it was because Mammachi had gotten used to her husband and his violence.
Pappachi’s moth will become a symbol of fear and unhappiness, especially for Rahel. The moth is another small thing that symbolizes a larger stream of events, like Pappachi’s abusive nature. The fact that Mammachi could live with Pappachi, and even cry when he died, shows how deeply ingrained such traditions as the male-dominated Indian social system are. Pappachi, as Imperial Entomologist, represents the old upper class.
Chacko describes Pappachi as an “anglophile,” and admits that everyone in the family is an anglophile. He describes history as an old house, and the twins think he is talking about “the History House,” an old place across the river that was owned by Kari Saipu, an Englishman who “went native.” Chacko laments the state of the Indian people, whose dreams have been commandeered by their colonizers. The twins would later grow more familiar with the History House, as a place where history was acted out as violence, and again they think of the smell of old roses.
India gained its independence from Britain years earlier, but evidence of British culture is everywhere, like the fact that the family speaks English and is going to see a movie in English. Kari Saipu was a symbol of the colonizer as the kind of man to steal Indian dreams and “redream” them, an Englishman trying to take on the culture of India. The narrator portrays the twins’ personal tragedy as a slice of a larger history of violence in India.
The narrator describes Chacko’s habit of assembling model airplanes and then almost immediately crashing them, despite Mammachi’s assertion that her son is one of the “cleverest men in India.” After Pappachi died, Chacko quit his job teaching at a college and moved back to Ayemenem, hoping to become a “pickle baron.” He took over the factory from Mammachi, bought new equipment, and hired lots of workers, but the business immediately declined.
Chacko, as a man, was given all the love and privilege that Ammu was denied. He is also one of the few members of the family with actual credentials to back up his pride and sense of superiority – others like Baby Kochamma rely solely on the family name and class.
In the car the twins are worried about being late for The Sound of Music, as they get stopped by an approaching train. While they wait the twins read signs backwards. They used to quote The Jungle Book and The Tempest, and were offended when Miss Mitten, a missionary friend of Baby Kochamma’s, gave them a book for little children. They recited the book to Miss Mitten with all the words backwards, and she said she saw “Satan in their eyes.”
The twins are clearly intelligent and imaginative children, who are unfortunately stifled by their situation. Reading words backwards becomes a recurring motif, and will connect to Estha’s later act of silence, as both manipulating words and refusing to speak any words are efforts to suppress the memories those words signify.
Most of the waiting cars shut off their engines as the delay lengthens. Beggars and vendors appear, and Estha watches Murlidharan, an insane man who sits on the milestone at the crossing, counting his keys and reliving old memories, while Rahel imagines what is happening in The Sound of Music. Suddenly the beggars disappear and a huge march of Marxists sweeps through the line of cars, carrying red flags.
Murlidharan is a kind of extreme example of the “preservation” of old memories – a potential insanity that the twins will face because of their traumatic pasts. The Communist Party is very successful in Kerala during this time period, and threatens to upset the social order the Ipes defend.
Chacko himself is a “self-proclaimed Marxist,” but he is still a landlord driving a nice car, so he is quiet and afraid. Baby Kochamma is terrified and tries to avoid eye contact with any of the marchers. Thousands of people pass chanting “Workers of the World Unite!” The narrator steps back and describes the swift rise of the Communist Party in Kerala, and the theories about why it was so successful.
Though Chacko agrees with Marxist ideas, in practice he still upholds the class divisions between landlord and laborer. This march is an early sign of what will fuel Baby Kochamma’s paranoia. The rise of Communism is the kind of large social change that the entrenched upper class fears.
Chacko had become enthralled with Marxism in college, and he and Pappachi would argue every day about the Communist government – led by Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad – that had recently been elected in Kerala. The government grew more and more violent in its “transition” until the Congress Party returned to power. Ten years of political chaos followed, and then the Communists were reelected.
Chacko can dabble in Marxism without consequences, as he has the luxury of not actually belonging to the laboring class. Years later Namboodiripad will become the leader of the first democratically elected Communist government of all of India.
There had recently been a famine in India, so the government put revolution on hold to fight hunger. This angered the Chinese Communist Party, and they began to support a militant faction of the Indian Communist Party called the Naxalites. The Naxalites had since broken off and begun arming militias in small villages and occasionally killing landowners.
The Naxalite movement is the great fear of the upper classes during this time. Communism had entered Kerala “insidiously”, rarely upsetting the status quo, but the anger and violence of the Naxalites directly threatens the established social order and makes those at the top of that order want to preserve it all the more.
The marchers that day are on their way to demand a one-hour lunch break and that Untouchable workers not have to be addressed by their “caste names.” The march contains both Touchables and Untouchables, and it is full of palpable anger. In the Plymouth, Rahel sees Velutha (a young man she knows) holding a Marxist flag and she rolls down the window, leans out of it, and yells for him. Velutha disappears and Ammu and Baby Kochamma pull Rahel back into the car, furious.
The more radical Communist ideas targeted not only the hierarchy of landowners and laborers, but also the deeply entrenched caste system of India. In Marxist thought, people are divided by class, not caste, so in theory Untouchables and Touchables should be seen as equals. This kind of change was too radical for many Indian Communists, however, as Roy will reveal.
The narrator describes Velutha, who is an Untouchable, a Paravan. He has a leaf-shaped birthmark on his back. As he child he worked for Pappachi with his father, Vellya Paapen, but they were not allowed to enter the Ipe house or touch anything the Touchables touched. In older times Untouchables had even had to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their “unclean” footprints.
Velutha is a Dalit, an Untouchable, which is a caste seen from birth as inferior no matter a person’s actions or abilities. Though the idea of caste comes from Hinduism, it became a deeply ingrained social system to the point that even Syrian Christians like the Ipes hold the same extreme prejudices.
Even as a child, Velutha was very skilled with his hands, and later he learned carpentry from a German carpenter. Velutha built the Ipe dining room table, the sliding back door, and set up all the machines in the pickle factory when Chacko took over. Vellya Paapen worried about his son, as Velutha had none of the shame and self-deprecation that Untouchables were supposed to have.
Untouchables are supposed to see themselves as inherently inferior, but Velutha clearly lacks that self-hatred and is confident in his own rights and abilities. The only way he can express this is by fighting against the unfair system that oppresses him, and hoping that Communism will bring change.
Soon afterward Velutha disappeared for four years. Meanwhile his brother, Kuttappen, had an accident and was paralyzed. Velutha then returned to Ayemenem and Chacko hired him to work for Paradise Pickles. The other workers sometimes grumbled about his presence, so Mammachi paid him less than the Touchable workers, but she still felt she was giving Velutha special treatment, and that he should be grateful.
It is not just the Ipes, but even the laborers of Ayemenem feel the same sense of superiority over Untouchables. It is ironic that Velutha, the figure most representing social, political, and personal upheaval, works at the pickle factory where the old ways are preserved.
The narrator then hints at “the Terror” that would come later, and how Vellya Paapen came to Mammachi and offered to kill his own son. But earlier, in the months before the present narrative, Velutha and the twins had become very close friends, and he cooked for them and made them toys.
Vellya Paapen and Velutha will also share a complex relationship where love struggles with social obligation. Velutha is one of the most innocent, positive adult characters of the book.
Back in the present one of the marchers opens the car’s door and mocks Baby Kochamma, giving her a Marxist flag and making her wave it. When he leaves and the march ends Chacko asks Rahel if she really saw Velutha among the marchers, as that could mean trouble for the factory. The narrator says that Baby Kochamma focused her anger and shame at Velutha in the days after that, so that in her mind he came to take the place of the marcher who had humiliated her.
Chacko is concerned that a Naxalite-type revolution could occur at the pickle factory – again an example of preservation fearing change. Baby Kochamma allows her personal grudges to eclipse her moral judgment. All her fear of social embarrassment and being displaced comes to focus in a hatred for Velutha.
As they keep waiting the twins think about Ammu telling them the story of Julius Caesar. Estha used to act out the Et tu, Brute? scene to Kochu Maria, who thought he was insulting her in English. Ammu used the famous betrayal to explain that no one could be trusted, and that even Estha could grow up to be a “Male Chauvinist Pig.”
Estha quoting Caesar is an ironic foreshadowing of how he will later “betray” Velutha, scarring himself for life in the process. Ammu lashes out against the patriarchy, but she is basically powerless in her situation.
Estha and Rahel blow spit bubbles in the car, which infuriates Ammu, as it reminds her of Baba. Chacko comes to the childrens’ defense, and the angry Ammu tells him to stop playing the savior, as he doesn’t really care about the twins at all. Chacko basically agrees, and says that Ammu, Estha, and Rahel are “millstones around his neck.” Then the train passes by and Chacko starts the car again.
Chacko has all the privilege and power that Ammu does not, so he can afford to play-act as Marxist, as father-uncle, and as professor, all the while admitting that he doesn’t really care about the twins at all. Estha and Rahel, on the other hand, long for Chacko’s affection.