The narrator and protagonist, occupying and owning the house in which he was reared, recalls the stages by which he comes on some crushing knowledge, how he lives with it and finally realizes his present gain. Seated in the easy chair once occupied by his uncle, he reminisces in the silent, solitary setting, ideal and natural for a reverie, on how the man and woman he called his uncle and aunt used to dote on him as though he were their own child. Memories of simple joys such as are universal in happy homes crowd his mind—how Uncle used to push his snuffbox out of his reach when the narrator was a toddler, how delighted he was when the little fellow tumbled, and how his aunt would carry him off and set him to the entertainment of water-splashing and then attempt with loving determination to feed him. He sees their lives revolve around himself not only when he was small, but also through all of his remembered days, when even under the pressure of silent agony he maintains their sweet relationship.
When the youngster starts going to school, his uncle and aunt pay meticulous attention to every detail of his daily routine. The reader, regaled with lively descriptions of the early morning scrub, the prayers and recitations, the organization of the school satchel with a pointy pencil and all, is left in no doubt whatsoever that the boy (the narrator) is happy and content in the tender, loving care of his uncle and aunt. They take absurd parental pride in all of his childish antics; his pretense at saying holy verse, for example, is seen as a sign that he will one day be renowned as a saint.
The first shadow of a doubt about Uncle falls on the unsuspecting little boy’s mind when Suresh, a classmate in the first grade, asks him his father’s name, what he does for a living, and whether they are rich. This battery of questions, which would have seemed natural and which would have posed no problem to any other boy, bewilders him. When asked about his father, all he can say is that he calls him Uncle. He does not know what work his uncle does, for Uncle is home all day, either meditating or eating. To the question of riches perhaps he responds adequately; he does not know, but “they make plenty of sweets at home.” (At this the reader is imperceptibly led to wonder about the child’s use of the third person, an intuitive distancing of himself even from those closest to him in the whole world.) When he asks Uncle where his office is and whether he is rich, his aunt drags him off to eat some goodies and cautions him about asking things Uncle does not like to talk about.
Some days later, the same classmate informs the boy that his uncle came from another country—which sounds like a good thing. He also says, however, that Uncle “impersonated”—which sounds ominous even though neither boy knows what the word means. Eager as he is to find out, he cannot broach the subject when he gets home, and instead entertains Uncle with an imagined account of his physical prowess.
One day when he is being measured for a shirt to be expressly made for a picture-taking at school (a matter of monumental importance on which much thought and energy are expended), the boy gathers some more information about his uncle. The tailor, very respectful toward Uncle, expresses his family’s gratitude by recounting how Uncle revived him when he was left for dead, and how he helped him go over mountain passes although Uncle had a baby in his arms. Uncle, however, tells him not to bring up the past.
Whenever Aunt wants to go out, she sends the boy to get a carriage from the street corner, where he hears the men talk among themselves, making disparaging remarks about Uncle, calling him “that Rangoon man.”
The day the class photograph arrives amid much excitement, the boy and Uncle go on foot to Jayraj the frame maker, who, to the boy’s astonishment, addresses Uncle as “Doctor.” Mystified, the boy makes a timid and predictably futile attempt at asking Uncle for a clarification. As Jayraj is full of his own importance, full of talk and jokes, and has other customers to attend to, he cannot finish their work till the evening. With Jayraj’s promise to give him food from a restaurant across the street and to bring him home, the boy, with a sense of adventure, begs his uncle to let him stay on at the shop.
Following Uncle’s departure, Jayraj starts talking with a bald man about Uncle, speaking in undertones and casting sidelong glances at the boy, who grows more and more uncomfortable and hungry. From half-heard whispered phrases, the boy gathers that Jayraj addressed his uncle as “doctor” only for effect, for he is no doctor, but an impersonator of one. The real doctor—the boy’s father—was a rich and successful doctor in Rangoon, where he had ten doctors employed under him. Uncle was then only a syringe washer. When the Japanese bombed Rangoon, the doctor and his wife, with their fifteen-day-old baby and the syringe washer (Uncle), trekked back to India over the mountains. Apparently, Uncle pushed the doctor over a cliff to his death and impersonated him in India, thereby acquiring his gold, jewels, and a bank account in Madras. He kept the doctor’s wife a prisoner, and then, having given her a lethal injection, wound up his crimes with her speedy cremation. The baby, he reared.
After recounting all these shocking matters, Jayraj digs out an unclaimed photograph from his storage room, and, shoving it at him, asks the boy if he wants it. The boy knows by now that the stranger in European clothes is his father, the doctor. Hungry, confused, and terrified, though, he runs home without the photograph. He runs the entire unfamiliar way of looming shadows to the comforting arms of his uncle, the murderer and swindler of his parents.
When the boy confides the whole story to his aunt, she simply asks him to forget it. He suppresses questions even when he grows up. At college, he ignores unfavorable remarks about his uncle, but once tries to strangle a classmate for gossiping about him. When Uncle dies, he leaves everything to the boy, the narrator. In going through his uncle’s things, he finds that the only connection to Burma is a lacquered box.