The story is set in Ayemenem, now part of Kottayam district in Kerala, India. The temporal setting shifts back and forth between 1969, when fraternal twins Rahel and Esthappen are seven years old, and 1993, when the twins are reunited at the age of 31. Malayalam words are liberally used in conjunction with English. Facets of Kerala life captured by the novel are Communism, the caste system and the Keralite Syrian Christian way of life. Lacking sufficient dowry to marry, Ammu Ipe is desperate to escape her ill-tempered father, known as Pappachi, and her bitter, long-suffering mother, known as Mammachi. She finally persuades her parents to let her spend a summer with a distant aunt in Calcutta. To avoid returning to Ayemenem, she marries a man who helps manage a tea estate. She later discovers that he is an alcoholic, and he physically abuses her and tries to pimp her to his boss in order to keep his job. She gives birth to Rahel and Estha leaves her husband and returns to Ayemenem to live with her father, mother and brother, Chacko. Chacko has returned to India from England (where he studied at Oxford) to run the family's pickle business after his divorce from an English woman, Margaret and the subsequent death of his and Ammu's father.