Young Apu is growing into manhood in a Bengal village in India as his parents struggle even to provide him food on a daily basis. The 20th century is only ten years old and Apu’s father Harihar Roy dreams of being a writer, but is stuck with the paltry earnings provided by being a pujari or priest. In addition to his father and mother, Apu shares his home with a sister, Durga, and his father’s aging cousin who is known as Auntie. Auntie’s presence has created a high level of tension and more than a little resentment from Apu’s mother because the relative is not only old, but infirm and must be cared for as if she were a third child.
Apu’s sister has stolen mangoes to give to Auntie which is deserving of merely a scolding from her mother. Things kick up to another level when a neighbor who is more economically stable accuses the girl of stealing a necklace. At this shame brought upon the family, the mother kicks Durga out of the house. Apu is hurt by this extreme action since he secretly is on his sister’s side.
Little wonder at this, since one of Durga’s responsibilities has been to care for Apu and as a result they have developed a close bond marked by closeness as well as gentle teasing and the occasional squabble. Following one particular fight between the siblings, Durga responds to yet another scolding from their mother by running away. Apu starts after her across a field and they both are struck by the smoke rising into the air from a train. The train represents a way out of the misery of their home life and at its appearance they get more excited and run even faster toward. The way back home is slower and marked by an ending of hostilities and close conversation and a feeling of serenity and contentment until they find Auntie in a grove of bamboo.
Durga reaches to touch her and the woman falls over. Realizing that death is approaching, their father heads to the city in an attempt to increase his earnings. While he is gone, Durga comes down with pneumonia after playing outside in the monsoon for too long. Soon she succumbs to the illness and dies. When Apu’s father returns home, he is upbeat and excitedly informs them of his success by handing out presents, including a beautiful sari he bought for Durga. Only then does he get the news of his daughter’s unexpected death, upon which the grief overwhelms him and he collapses.
As Apu listens to the miserable sound of his father sobbing, his father is making the decision that he must take the entire family to the city with him when he return. As they are gathering their belongings and cleaning the house, Apu comes across the stolen necklace which has been secreted away inside a bowl all this time. Having believed his sister’s denials through the accusation, Apu’s grief over losing her becomes far more complex at the realization she betrayed his trust in her.
Apu steals away to a nearby pond and tosses the necklace into it, watching as the weeds conceal its presence before joining his parents and the ox-cart which takes them to the city.