Chapter 1 - Paradise Pickles & Preserves
The scene opens on the town of Ayemenem in the southern Indian province of Kerala. The setting is almost unbearably abundant and full of life. We encounter Rahel, who returns home to Ayemenem to see her twin brother, Estha. Still living in the same house is her grandaunt, Baby Kochamma. Rahel and Estha have a peculiar relationship. As children they considered themselves to be one person. Roy tells us that "they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities." Rahel used to share experiences, dreams, and memories with Estha. But as 31-year-old adults, the twins have become individual emotionally as well as physically. As young children they lived in the famous tea province of Assam. Later on, their parents divorced and Ammu returned to live in Ayemenem.
The narrative turns to the funeral of Sophie Mol, Rahel's and Estha's cousin. Sophie drowned at the age of nine while visiting Ayemenem from England. Rahel and Estha were seven years old at the time. Among those in attendance were Sophie's parents, Margaret Kochamma and Chacko, Baby Kochamma, and Rahel's and Estha's blind grandmother, Mamachi. Ammu, Rahel, and Estha had to stand separately from the rest of the family, and no one acknowledged their presence. Rahel was unusually aware of the "small things" going on during the funeral; she believed that that Sophie Mol was awake during the funeral and showed Rahel two things. The first was the unusual paintwork on the ceiling of the cathedral; it showed a blue sky complete with clouds and tiny airplanes. Rahel imagined the artist who painted it falling from his perch and cracking his head open, "dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret." The second thing was a baby bat that crawled up Baby Kochamma's sari and may have bit her. Rahel saw Sophie Mol do a "secret cartwheel in her coffin" when this happened. Rahel also heard Sophie's screams when they buried her-alive, according to Rahel. After the funeral, Estha and Rahel went with Ammu to the police station, where Ammu told the officer that there had been a terrible mistake. The officer was rude to Ammu and prodded her breasts. On the train ride back to Ayemenem, Ammu was in a trance and could say only "He's dead ... I've killed him." Two weeks later, Baba forced Ammu to send Estha to live with him in Calcutta.
Rahel and Estha have not seen each other since; they have spent twenty-three years apart. But now Estha has returned to Ayemenem; Baba moved to Australia and could not take his son along. Estha walks alone in the rain. We learn that he stopped talking as a child and learned to blend into his surroundings so that he "occupied very little space in the world," leading a withdrawn, mediocre existence. After graduating from school, he mortified Babu and his stepmother by doing the housework instead of going to college. He began a habit of taking long walks by himself. But once Rahel returned to Ayemenem, suddenly the world's noise infiltrated Estha's thoughts.
Rahel herself was wandering from school to school after Ammu died. As a child, she was expelled from three schools for her curiosity and inappropriate behavior. She attended architectural college in Delhi for eight years, never making the effort to graduate because she found the lifestyle comfortable. Her architectural designs were artless and impractical. She met her husband, Larry McCaslin, and immigrated to the United States with him. Their marriage crumbled from a sense of disconnection. When Rahel found out that Estha had returned to Ayemenem, she too returned home.
We next learn about Baby Kochamma, whose interesting life story belies her current, lazy existence. When she was eighteen, she fell in love with a visiting Irish monk, Father Mulligan. He was working with her father, Reverend John Ipe, who was famous for having been touched by the church Patriarch. Baby Kochamma tried to seduce Father Mulligan by pretending to be interested in religion and even joining a convent. When she realized that her attempts were in vain, she instead attended the University of Rochester in New York, graduating much heavier and with a degree in Ornamental Gardening. When she returned to the house in Ayemenem she kept a marvelous garden, which grew wild from neglect when she discovered her stronger love for television. This love she now shares with the midget housekeeper, Kochu Maria. Baby Kochamma is anxious now that the twins are back in Ayemenem, worrying as though they will steal the house from her.
Rahel looks out on her grandmother's old pickle factory, Paradise Pickles & Preserves. She remembers that the government banned their banana jam for being unclassifiable as either jam or jelly. She considers how this event encapsulates her family's way of life, which involves constantly transgressing different types of boundaries. In particular, she thinks about the mystery and uncomfortable atmosphere surrounding Estha's being sent away from Ayemenem. He carried with him a terrible memory of looking into the face of a beloved "young man with an old man's mouth" and saying "Yes." Rahel considers that the strangeness in the family can be traced back to Sophie Mol's death, or perhaps all the way back to a time when India was yet uncolonized by the British.
Chapter 2 - Pappachi's Moth
The scene opens in December 1969. Rahel's and Estha's grandmother, Mammachi, is driving Rahel and Estha to Cochin for a vacation with Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma. Ammu, Chacko, and Baby Kochamma ride in the car as well. It is a sky-blue Plymouth that belonged to Pappachi. None of them besides Chacko has ever met Sophie Mol. As she sits in the car, Ammu, now twenty-seven, considers that it was a mistake to have married Babu. She met him at the age of eighteen while at a friend's wedding reception in Calcutta. He proposed to her after five days, and they were married in a luxurious ceremony. They moved to Assam, where he assistant-managed a tea estate. Babu turned out to be an alcoholic, and their marriage was unglamorous. The twins were born during the war with China in 1962. When they were twelve, Babu's boss, Mr. Hollick, gave him an ultimatum. He could either be fired for his laziness or send Ammu over to Mr. Hollick's bungalow to sleep with him. Babu tried to force Ammu to fulfill this proposition, and she beat him senseless before returning to Ayemenem with the twins. She became a beautiful but withdrawn and unpredictable person.
We next learn about Mammachi. When Pappachi was alive, she started her pickle business without his help. He used to beat her every night with a brass vase. When Chacko was home on summer vacation from Oxford, he threatened his father so that he never beat Mammachi again. To regain his pride, Pappachi bought the Plymouth and refused to let anyone else ride in it. Pappachi had been an Imperial Entomologist at the Pusa Institute in Delhi, and his biggest regret was that the moth he discovered was not named after him. It flew into his drink one day and, when he noticed its unusual appearance, he took it to the Pusa Institute. It was identified as a variant of a common species. But twelve years later, it was classified as a separate species, but Pappachi received no acknowledgment as its discoverer. After that, Pappachi became increasingly unpleasant and temperamental until he died of a heart attack.
The story turns to Chacko's relationship with the twins. Chacko told them that in order to understand their family, they had to visit the forbidden History House on the other side of the river. He also told them that the earth was an ancient Earth Woman, compared to whom they were inconsequential. Estha and Rahel became fascinated and haunted by how history permeated the present.
Back in the present, Chacko and Ammu argue in the car. Chacko is an eccentric Oxford Rhodes scholar who builds model airplanes as a hobby. He returned to Ayemenem after quitting his job as lecturer at Madras Christian College and took over the pickle business. Estha and Rahel read the road signs backwards, continuing a habit of reading both backwards and forwards that used to stymie their teacher, Ms. Mitten. The Plymouth passes the armless, naked lunatic, Murlidharan, on the way to Cochin. (Murlidharan lost his arms in Singapore in 1942. Ever since, he has wandered from place to place with the keys to his old home tied expectantly around his waist.) They drive through a procession of Communists. Chacko is an unofficial Communist, but the rest of the family tries to ignore the to-do. Rahel notices Velutha marching with the Communists. She rolls down the window and calls to him, producing an angry slap from Ammu.
We turn to Rahel living in New York, remembering this incident. She still does not understand why Ammu was so furious. Velutha was a Paravan like his father, Vellya Paapen, considered an Untouchable. But he was such a skilled craftsman that Mammachi let him do all kinds of chores for her. Then Velutha disappeared for four years. After he returned, he did maintenance in the pickle factory. The twins loved him. One day Vellya Paapen went to Mammachi and offered to kill Velutha with his own hands because he had seen Velutha rowing across the lake every night and returning every morning.
We return to the Communist marchers. They open the door of the Plymouth and make Baby Kochamma wave a Communist flag and repeat a slogan. Rahel concedes that it was not Velutha she saw after all. But after that day, Baby Kochamma antagonizes Velutha because of her shame at having been embarrassed. As the family continues to drive, Chacko says that Ammu, Estha, and Rahel are burdens to him. Outside the car, life goes on as usual despite the uncomfortable stillness and silence in the car.
Chapter 3 - Big Man the Laltain, Small Man the Mombatti
Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria have let the house in Ayemenem become very dirty and unkempt. They watch television and eat nuts from a bowl as if it is a competition. There was an old coolie who used to meet Estha's school trip party at the train platform and carry their luggage. He would say: "Big Man the Laltain, Small Man the Mombatti," meaning: "Big Man the Lantern, Small Man the Tallow-Stick." Back in the present, a drenched Estha arrives at the door of the house, and Rahel follows him into Ammu's old room. He seems not to notice her as he undresses. She watches him with fascination, unashamed of his nakedness, admiring his body. Suddenly she reaches out to wipe a raindrop from his ear. As though he does not notice her, he begins to wash his clothes in silence.
As soon as the novel opens, we are swept up into Ayemenem's excessive lushness. Roy begins by describing the setting as physically lush. She adeptly magnifies this effect by making excessive use of modifiers. Her diction is open, throaty, and watery in order to evoke a very sensual and also sexual mood. Roy uses language of abundance: "gorge," "burst," "hum," "sloth." She also makes her own compound words to give the sense that everything is clinging together: "dustgreen," "mossgreen." In addition, Roy immediately personifies the setting; for example, she writes: "the countryside turned an immodest green." (Nature cannot be immodest since it does not have human consciousness.) This personification connects Roy's description of Ayemenem's natural world with its human inhabitants. It suggests that sexuality pervades the human world of Ayemenem in an illicit, sneaky way just as it does the natural world. In Ayemenem, nature sneaks through the crevices of manmade structures in order to find its full, sensuous glory: "Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across flooded roads ... Small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways." So from the very beginning, Roy gives us the sense that there is a rebellious sexual energy in Ayemenem's society that is difficult to suppress despite the strict Indian caste system. Roy also attunes us to the "small things," which she calls "the whisper and scurry of small lives." She gives them value immediately, affirming the title's suggestion that by engaging in Roy's world, we are made to look past the larger realities of life in order to examine the influence of its "minor" details.
In the first three chapters, Roy establishes Sophie Mol's death as a focal point for the rest of the story. For the whole family and especially for Estha and Rahel, it is an event around which everything else revolves and to which everything connects. The centrality of Sophie Mol's death, or any death, makes us aware of the novel's focus on the grotesque. The grotesque is one of Roy's most important themes throughout the novel, and it is connected to sex as much as to violence. For instance, the melancholy mood of Ammu's and Babu's relationship culminates with a grotesque show of sexuality-Babu tries to make Ammu sleep with his boss-and violence, when Ammu beats Babu senseless for doing so. There is no instance of rape or what we would call "sexual violence," but sex and violence are intimately connected in this scene. The grotesque also appears somewhat randomly in the macabre thoughts of Rahel and the other characters. Grotesque already is Rahel's conviction that Sophie Mol is mourned and buried alive. In Roy's world, we might classify this as a "Big Thing." Also grotesque are the "Small Things" at the funeral, which Sophie supposedly shows Rahel. These are the baby bat and the beautifully painted ceiling. Even the latter, which is wondrous and exquisite, is connected with a terrible sense of things gone wrong. Rahel is not a normal child; her thoughts wander into dark and very adult places. Therefore when she looks at the painted ceiling, her thoughts wander to the possible death of the man who must have painted them, "dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret."
Rahel shares her ability to think dark thoughts with Estha. Although the twins have an uncanny, subconscious connection, they are also very different. Rahel is outwardly expressive and awkward for all her quiet contemplation, while Estha is decidedly even-keeled and solemn. Roy describes him as "a quiet bubble floating on a sea of noise." Both twins are keen observers of the world around them, but they easily confuse fantasy with reality, as Rahel does at Sophie Mol's funeral. Their connection to one another traverses not only the normal boundaries of human communication, but also those of social appropriateness. At the end of Chapter 3, Rahel is not the least bit ashamed to watch, even to admire, her naked adult brother. In turn, he is not ashamed to be naked in front of her, and he goes about his activities as usual. As we learn later, the twins are not exempt from the persistent, socially-inappropriate sexual tide that rises in most members of the family. Another example of this is Baby Kochamma. In her old age, she seems to be a simple character who watches television and revels in being in control of the Ayemenem House. But after an insight into her past, we see that like Estha, Rahel, Ammu, Mammachi, and Chacko alike, she is sexually and romantically dissatisfied. She could not have Father Mulligan as she hoped, and she was unhappy alone just as Ammu was with Babu, Mammachi was with Pappachi, and Chacko is without Margaret Kochamma.
If marriages count as "Big Things" in the world of Ayemenem, then they are what force the members of the family to seek pleasure instead in the "Small Things," those things that go unrecognized by society. Unable to have Father Mulligan, Baby Kochamma becomes obsessed with the "Small Thing" of writing to him in her diary; Ammu must make the love of her life a "Small Thing," hidden on the riverbank away from others' eyes. Ironically, sometimes "Small Things" achieve more recognition than "Big Things." In the case of Pappachi and his moth, the latter, a "Small Thing," achieves a place in history while its rightful discoverer is given no credit at all. As the coolie suggests, "Small Things" are the driving force behind all action. He says, "Big Man the Lantern, Small Man the Tallow-Stick." Although the lantern magnifies the light, it is the tallow-stick that provides it. In the same way, although the big things in life usually get most of the attention, the small things provide much of the impetus behind everything that happens. The family members, being human, like to think that they have control over the events in their lives. But it is their secrets, carefully hidden away like their pickles and preserves, which really have the influence.