In the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, Bim Das, an unmarried teacher, lives in her longtime family home in Old Delhi, India, with her autistic brother, Baba. Their sister Tara and her husband, Bakul, a diplomat, live in Washington, D.C. They come to Delhi for a brief visit on their way to their niece’s wedding. As soon as their two teenage daughters join them, Tara and Bakul plan to go to Hyderabad to attend the wedding. The bride is a daughter of Raja, the oldest of the four Das children.
Bim insists that she will not attend the wedding; she no longer has anything to do with Raja. Bim expresses her resentment at being saddled with the house and with Baba while Tara and Raja live exciting lives. As they talk, the women hear the sound of Baba’s phonograph, which he plays constantly. Bakul emerges from his room, eager to go into New Delhi to visit friends and family, and urges Tara to accompany him. However, though she no longer feels the same joy at being home as she did before Bim started to complain, Tara stays with her sister.
After Bim has finished teaching her class, she shows Tara a letter that Raja wrote to her after the death of his father-in-law, Hyder Ali, who left his property to Raja. Bim is still angry because in the letter Raja made it clear that he was now her landlord, thus implying that he ranked above Bim. That night, Bim, Tara, and Bakul visit the Das family’s longtime neighbors the Misras, but they leave after Mulk Misra, one of the grown sons of the family, gets drunk and becomes obnoxious.
In 1947, the Partition of India has resulted in sectarian strife. Hindu radicals at Raja’s school pressure him to join their movement, but after he contracts tuberculosis and is confined to his home they leave him alone. In fact, although they are Hindus, the members of the Das family have always been friendly with their Muslim neighbor Hyder Ali, and he has taken a special interest in Raja. Hearing of his interest in Islamic culture, the scholarly Muslim has given Raja access to his library and has included him in his circle of friends. Raja has also grown fond of Hyder Ali’s young daughter Benazir. One morning, Raja learns that the Hyder Alis have fled the city, and he is devastated.
The Das children’s mother dies, and during Raja’s illness their father is killed in a car accident. Aunt Mira, who has acted as mother and father to the children, becomes an alcoholic, goes mad, and eventually dies. The doctor who is attending Aunt Mira courts Bim and even takes her to meet his mother, but Bim finds him annoying, and his courtship goes nowhere. Through the Misras, Tara meets Bikul, a forceful young diplomat. Although she is only eighteen, they marry immediately and leave for his new post. After Raja becomes well again, he joins Hyder Ali in Hyderabad, marries Benazir, and becomes a successful businessman.
In the 1930’s, the Das children are inseparable. After Baba’s birth, their mother turns the care of her children over to her cousin, Aunt Mira. Aunt Mira persuades the family to buy a cow that falls into a well and drowns, but in most respects she is successful in making the children feel secure. For example, after Tara sees her father giving her mother an injection, it is Aunt Mira who explains that he is not trying to kill her but giving her the insulin that will keep her alive.
Inevitably, as they become...
(This entire section contains 851 words.)
older, the children grow apart. Raja starts avoiding females, including Bim, who had always thought of him as her best friend, and Bim takes out her resentment on Tara. Bim finds an outlet for her energy in school activities. By contrast, Tara loathes school. Her most vivid memories of her schooldays are seeing a rabid dog get shot and observing a teacher’s heartbreak after her lover was chased away from the school. Tara also feels guilty because she ran away instead of trying to help when Bim was attacked by bees.
Years earlier, Tara notices that Bim, who once seemed so capable, has developed marked eccentricities. As they discuss the past, Bim dismisses the bee episode as unimportant but voices her resentment about being left to take care of Aunt Mira, Baba, the house, and the family’s financial affairs. Bim’s anger continues to grow until finally she terrifies Baba by threatening to desert him. Repentant, she realizes that she loves not just Baba but her whole family, including even Raja, whom she knows she must forgive. Her nieces, who have just arrived from America, are delighted with Bim and Baba, and after the wedding they look forward to spending several weeks with their aunt and uncle. After Bakul, Tara, and their daughters leave, Bim attends a party at the Misra home. This time, all goes well, and Bim finds new, positive meaning in the songs that Mulk’s guru sings.