Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
A middle-class Syrian Christian family lives in Ayemenem in the southern Indian state of Kerala. In the Ayemenem house are Ammu, her twin children (Estha and Rahel), her brother (Chacko), her mother (Mammachi), and her aunt (Baby Kochamma). Also living in the house is the patriarch of the family, Pappachi, who is a disgruntled, retired entomologist.
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Chacko, who has returned home from Oxford, where he had been a Rhodes scholar, can no longer tolerate his father’s abusive behavior toward his mother, and one night he intervenes, demanding that he stop beating her. Pappachi stops, but he also stops speaking to Mammachi for the remainder of his life. Pappachi also forces Ammu, his daughter, to discontinue her college education.
Ammu returns home from college and then leaves for Calcutta to visit an aunt. In Calcutta she also meets Baba, a Hindu who works for a tea plantation owned by an Englishman. Ammu marries Baba to avoid having to return to her parents’ home in Ayemenem. The couple have twins, Estha and Rahel. Ammu divorces Baba, who, it turns out, is an alcoholic and a wife beater.
Ammu, Estha, and Rahel return to Ayemenem to live with Mammachi, Baby Kochamma, and Chacko. Pappachi dies and, after his death, Mammachi starts a pickle factory called Paradise Pickles and Preserves.
As a young girl, Baby had been infatuated with an Irish priest. To be close to him, she had become a nun. The priest, however, did not return the love and left for the United States. Broken-hearted, Baby leaves the convent and returns to Ayemenem. She remains unmarried.
Velutha is a talented and good-looking paravan (an untouchable) and an employee of Paradise Pickles and Preserves. With his ability to fix almost anything, he makes himself invaluable to the enterprise. He befriends Rahel and Estha and thus gets closer to Ammu, although they maintain their caste-prescribed distance.
Chacko had married Margaret Kochamma, an English waitress, whom he had known during his studies at Oxford. Together, they have one child, Sophie Mol, but the marriage fails because of Chacko’s inability to find a job and provide for the family. Margaret marries Joe, but Chacko, who had returned home to Ayemenem, still keeps in contact with Margaret. Learning that Joe had recently been killed in an auto accident, Chacko invites the bereaved Margaret and Sophie Mol to spend Christmas in Ayemenem. Chacko, accompanied by the rest of the family, drives to the airport to pick up Margaret and Sophie Mol, and on their way to Ayemenem they stop at a movie theater to watch the Sound of Music. Because Estha would not stop singing during the show, Ammu asks him to leave the theater. Estha finds a vendor and asks for a drink. The vendor gives him a drink free of charge, but then forces the boy to masturbate him.
The same day that Margaret and Sophie Mol arrive in Ayemenem, Ammu and Velutha secretly rendezvous. They soon develop a love relationship, regularly meeting in an abandoned house across the river. The house is called History House because it once belonged to an Englishman who had adopted Hindu customs. As soon as Baby Kochamma and Mammachi learn about the affair, the situation explodes. The women lock up Ammu in her room and Velutha is fired from his job. Enraged, Ammu blames Estha and Rahel for her miserable life and asks them to go away.
Sophie Mol, Estha, and Rahel run away. At night fall, they decide to cross the river in a boat to reach the History House, but the boat capsizes and Sophie Mol drowns. Estha and Rahel try in vain to find her. Exhausted, they fall asleep in the History House, not realizing that Velutha was there waiting for Ammu. Ammu does not show up.
After Sophie Mol’s body was discovered the next day, Baby complains to the police and accuses Velutha of attempting to rape Ammu, of kidnapping the children, and of causing Sophie Mol’s death. Finding Velutha in the History House, the police brutally beat him in front of the children and then transport him to the police station, where he dies of his injuries. When the police chief learns the true story from Estha and Rahel, he pressures Baby to get the children to change their story. Under threat of imprisonment, the children change their story and blame Velutha for Sophie Mol’s death.
The next morning, Ammu arrives at the police station declaring her love for Velutha. She tells them what actually happened, but the police are not interested. At Baby’s instigation, Chacko is convinced that the ultimate responsibility for Sophie Mol’s death lies with Ammu and her twin children. He forces them to leave the Ayemenem house. Unable to find a job, Ammu returns Estha and Rahel to their father. Before long, Ammu dies of loneliness, deprivation, and illness.
Rahel leaves for the United States, finds work in low-paying jobs, and gets married to an American. She soon divorces and returns to Ayemenem. Now thirty-one years old, Rahel reunites with Estha just for a day at the house. Permanently unable to speak because of all the traumas he has experienced, Estha says nothing. The twins lie down, hold each other, and express their grief without words, breaking the laws of love.