The narrator introduces us to Ayemenem and its seasons.
Rahel returns to Ayemenem in the rainy season to the "old house on the hill" (1.4).
We meet Baby Kochamma, Rahel's great-aunt. We learn her real name is Navomi Ipe and that Rahel is not there to see her. Instead, she's there to see her twin brother Estha (short for Esthappen).
We learn that Rahel and Estha are two-egg ("dizygotic") twins who were born eighteen minutes apart.
The narrator tells us that Estha and Rahel never really looked alike. Instead, any confusing similarities between the two lie in a "deeper, more secret place" (1.8).
We get Estha and Rahel's perspective on themselves: as kids they saw themselves as "Me" together, and separately as "We" or "Us." They shared identities and thoughts – Rahel remembers "waking up one night giggling at Estha's funny dream" (1.10).
Rahel also has memories that she "has no right to have" (1.11): what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha at the movie theater and the sandwiches that Estha ate on the Madras Mail. (Keep your eye out for the way the narrator keeps telling us hints about what's going to happen before it actually does.)
Now, as adults, Rahel thinks of Estha and Rahel as "them." She sees borders drawn between their individual lives. We learn that they are now 31, the same age their mother Ammu was when she died.
We learn that Estha and Rahel were almost born on a bus. Their father Baba had to hold Ammu's stomach to "keep it from wobbling" (1.21). Almost immediately after these details, we find out that Baba and Ammu got divorced and Ammu moved back to Kerala with the kids.
As kids, Estha thought that if they had been born on the bus they'd be entitled to free bus rides for life. The fact that this didn't happen has always been a source of disappointment to Estha and Rahel. (They also thought that if you were killed in a Zebra crossing, the government was obligated to pay for your funeral.)
The mention of funerals jets us back to a memory of the twins' cousin Sophie Mol's funeral. She died when she was almost 9 and Estha and Rahel were 7. We get the idea that she drowned: "her face was pale and as wrinkled as a dhobi's thumb from being in water for too long" (1.27).
The scene of Sophie Mol's funeral introduces us to the whole family: Margaret Kochamma, Sophie Mol's English mother; Chacko, Rahel's uncle and Sophie Mol's biological father; and Mammachi, Rahel's grandmother.
For some reason (we don't know why at this point), Ammu, Estha, and Rahel are not allowed to stand with the rest of the family at the funeral, and everyone ignores them.
Rahel thinks Sophie Mol is awake for her funeral, since she's lying in the coffin with her eyes open. She shows Rahel two things. The first is that the dome of the church has been painted blue like the sky, which Rahel never noticed before. She imagines someone like Velutha swinging from scaffolding to paint the clouds on the ceiling and then falling and dying, "lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret" (1.38). (We will see this image pop up later – keep an eye out for striking images in this book, because they tend to repeat.)
The other thing Sophie Mol shows Rahel is a baby bat that climbs up Baby Kochamma's sari.
Rahel sees Sophie Mol do a cartwheel in her coffin. When Sophie Mol is buried, Rahel knows she's not really dead. "Inside the earth Sophie Mol screamed, and shredded satin with her teeth. But you can't hear screams through earth and stone" (1.48). (Keep an eye out for moments where kids' versions of reality conflict with those of adults.)
After the funeral Ammu and the twins go to the police station. Ammu tells Inspector Thomas Mathew that there has been a terrible mistake. She wants to make a statement and to see Velutha.
Inspector Thomas Mathew tells her it's too late. He calls her a veshya with illegitimate children. (Rahel and Estha don't know what these words mean.) He tells her to go home and taps her breasts with his police baton, "as though he was choosing mangoes from a basket" (1.56). Ammu cries for the first time that Estha and Rahel have ever seen.
On the bus, Ammu says, "I've killed him" (1.59).
Two weeks later, Ammu sends Estha back to live with his father in Calcutta. Throughout the book, this event will be referred to as the time Estha was Returned (always with a capital R). This is the last time Estha and Rahel see each other for years.
Now we're back in the present, in 1993. Estha has come back to Ayemenem. Baba is moving to Australia and he can't take Estha with him.
Estha is out walking in the rain. He knows without anyone telling him that Rahel is there.
We learn more about Estha. He had always been a quiet kid, but at some point he stopped talking entirely. He has acquired the ability to blend into the background – sometimes people don't even notice him.
When Estha was Returned, he did fine in school but didn't go to college. Instead, he took up the housework in his father's home.
We learn that Estha had a dog named Khubchand, whom he nursed until he died at an old age. We get more foreshadowing of the events we're about to learn about: "To Estha – steeped in the smell of old roses, blooded on memories of a broken man – the fact that something so fragile, so tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle" (1.77).
After Khubchand dies, Estha starts walking for hours on end. (Think of Forrest Gump going on his epic runs because he feels like running.) Now that he's back in Ayemenem, Estha walks all over the place.
Through Estha's walks, we become more acquainted with the landscape and everyone's place in it. We see the village school that his "great-grandfather built for Untouchable children" (1.83), the church, the kung fu club, and Comrade K.N.M. Pillai's printing press, which was once the office of the Ayemenem Communist Party.
We meet Comrade Pillai. He has lost his wife, Kalyani, to ovarian cancer, and his son Lenin now lives in Delhi. Comrade Pillai was the first person to hear that Rahel was back in town. He hasn't seen Estha since he was suddenly Returned, but he watched Rahel grow up.
We meet Kochu Maria, the "vinegar-hearted, short-tempered, midget cook" (1.94) who lives with Baby Kochamma. When Estha came back to Ayemenem, they were the only two people still living in the family home. We learn that Mammachi is dead and Chacko lives in Canada.
We learn a little more about Rahel's back-story. After Ammu died, she drifted from school to school. She would come back to Ayemenem for the holidays but was ignored by the family. Sophie Mol's death lived on in the house.
We learn that Rahel often got in trouble at school. She decorated cow dung with flowers. She was expelled for hiding behind doors and deliberately jumping out to collide with senior girls. Then she was expelled twice more: once for smoking and then for setting fire to her housemistress's fake hairpiece.
Rahel's teachers often remarked that she was really nice but had no friends.
After school Rahel went to study architecture in Delhi. She wasn't really interested in architecture and she didn't have any talent. Her messy drawings were mistaken for "artistic confidence" (1.109). Rahel went on to spend eight years in college.
There she met Larry McCaslin, a visiting student. We learn that they got married and moved to Boston. Larry was totally smitten with Rahel, but when they had sex he could see in her eyes that she wasn't thinking about him.
We learn that Rahel and Larry got divorced and that Rahel moved to New York and then Washington. When Baby Kochamma wrote her to say that Estha had moved back to Ayemenem, Rahel decided to return home.
We come back to the present. Baby Kochamma, 83, sits at the dining table. She's thrilled that Estha hasn't spoken to Rahel. Baby Kochamma is wearing all of Mammachi's jewelry.
We get Baby Kochamma's back-story. When she was 18 she fell in love with Father Mulligan, a young Irish monk who came to Kerala to study Hindu scriptures so he could denounce them properly.
Every Thursday Father Mulligan would come to visit Baby Kochamma's father, Reverend E. John Ipe, who was well known for being blessed by the Patriarch of Antioch (the head of the Syrian Christian Church). We learn more about what happened when he was blessed.
Back to 18-year-old Baby Kochamma. She thought she could seduce Father Mulligan if he saw her performing acts of charity, so every Thursday when he was supposed to arrive, she would force-bathe a poor village kid in the well. Then she would call out to him and start talking about scripture.
After a year of Thursdays, Father Mulligan had to return to Madras. Baby Kochamma needed a new strategy to woo him, so she decided to convert to Roman Catholicism and took vows to become a nun.
Baby Kochamma realized pretty quickly that this strategy was a mistake. She truly hated the convent. She started sending her father letters about how she was happy there but someone named Koh-i-noor was terribly unhappy. We find out that this was a code because the Mother Superior read everyone's letters.
Baby Kochamma's dad came to get her out of the convent. He thought her reputation was sort of tarnished and that she wouldn't find a husband after that, so he figured he'd let her have an education. He sent her to the University of Rochester in New York, where she got a degree in Ornamental Gardening.
When Baby Kochamma returned from college, she was obese. She spent all of her time making the garden at the Ayemenem house beautiful.
Eventually Baby Kochamma abandoned gardening for a new obsession: satellite TV. She and Kochu Maria now spend all of their time watching TV together.
We learn more about the house. There are two oil portraits hanging in the front veranda of Reverend E. John Ipe and Aleyooty Ammachi, Rahel and Estha's great-grandparents. They hang with their "backs" to the river, which we suspect is going to be significant later.
As Rahel gazes out the window, we see Paradise Pickles and Preserves, which used to be Mammachi's pickle factory.
We get another flashback to the past, when the police find Velutha and handcuff him.
We learn that it was Baby Kochamma's idea for Estha to be Returned. We also learn that in the days after Sophie Mol's death and before Estha was Returned, Margaret Kochamma would slap him every time she saw him.
We get an image of young Estha being Returned, with "terrible pictures" running through his head (1.200).
The chapter ends by posing two possibilities for how all of these events came to pass. Either everything began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem for the first time, or everything that happened to this family is a product of history.