“Ravi lives with his uncle, Rajagopala Iyer, aunt Parvati and his cousins in Chidambaram. They have all been part of a joint family and remain so after Ravi’s parents passed away when he was a toddler. Ravi’s family is one of moderate means with some landholdings in the villages around the town.
Raghavan is Ravi’s close friend. Ravi grows up practicing Silambam, playing Chedu-Gudu (Hu-tu-tu) with his friends on the river bank and swimming in the river. One day Raghavan tells Ravi, “I am not going to waste my time here any more…I am leaving for Madras tomorrow”; and asks Ravi as to what has he decided. Ravi has not made up his mind and says, “I don’t want to displease my elders”.
Another day, when Ravi steps into his house, cousin Raji lighting a lamp at the doorstep and she whispers to Ravi, “Your marriage is finalised.” To authenticate her message, Raji adds ‘Dr Ramanathan’s sister, Lakshmi is the chosen bride’.
In the year 1907, when Ravi is around 20 years of age, Ravi and Lakshmi are united in wedlock. A few months later, Raji’s marriage takes place and she moves to her husband’s house in the neighbourhood. After the marriage, Ravi tries various means to earn his livelihood but they meet with little success. Ravi puts up a Provisions Stores. This venture starts incurring losses when Ravi’s valued customers fail to pay up the credit extended to them. Undeterred by this setback, Ravi sets up a manufacturing unit for soaps and oils.
In the meanwhile, Ravi and Lakshmi beget children – Jayalakshmi (Jayam) in 1908, Venkataraman (Venkat) in 1910 and Jagannathan (Jagan) in 1912. Ravi is deeply attached to his children.
After a period, Ravi’s manufacturing venture runs into loss. Ravi starts a traditional medicine store. This venture generates some income but is insufficient to meet the needs of the growing family.
In the month of July 1914, World War I begins. The British Government starts recruiting Indians for their war. Posters that speak of ‘Good food, Good pay and Good treatment in the British Army’ and others displaying a fistful of old coins beside the faceless picture of a gun wielding Indian soldier; haranguing the people, ‘Who will take this Money, Rifle and Uniform’ make their appearance at several vantage points in the town.
Around this time a minor incident happens.
Sometimes Ravi joins the game of cards underneath a peepal tree, in the street corner. One day, Ravi beats up another player Varad for some unwarranted comment about Ravi drinking toddy with the tappers. After Varad goes away humiliated, his old mother rushes to the scene. She curses Ravi and his family, throwing up mud and dust before Ravi, in a vile symbolic manner. Ravi is unperturbed and asks the old lady to go away. As things turn out, for entirely different reasons Ravi’s personal life takes a dip subsequently.
Dr Ramanathan, Lakshmi’s elder brother, advises Ravi to join him in managing his estates and rice mills rather than pursuing unprofitable business ventures. Dr. Ramanathan suggests that Ravi should take care of just himself if he is intent on pursing his unprofitable ventures and offers to take care of Ravi’s family. Ravi considers Dr Ramanathan’s remarks as preposterous and takes his suggestions as a personal slight, questioning his ability to take care of his family, his entrepreneurial skills, his independent spirit; in a word as an assault on his self-dignity. Ravi leaves the place silently without speaking his mind. This incident leaves Lakshmi quite disturbed as she is well aware of the irrepressible trait of her husband.
Ravi plans to join the British Army. Ravi tells his uncle, Rajagopala Iyer, that he wants to forego his share in the family property in favour of his cousins as he is going away. Rajagopala Iyer does not wish to be a party to any decision divesting Ravi of his share in the family property. Aunt Parvati is also averse to Ravi’s idea and says, “Lakshmi is in the family way. How can you leave her now and go away.” Rajagopala Iyer tries to be accommodative saying, “I can do one thing… I can partition the family property and you can take your share….if it helps in solving your present problems and you continue to stay here.” Rajagopala Iyer tells Ravi, “Taking care of your family is your responsibility…You cannot pass that over to Ramanathan, even if he volunteers”.
Rajagopala Iyer, Parvati and Lakshmi are unable to sway from the path he has chosen.
Lakshmi gives birth to a son after Ravi sails away to Arabia as a British soldier; and he is named Narayanan (Nanu).
While travelling by ship SS Aden to Arabia, Ravi comes across two drunken British soldiers who taunt him as a ‘blackie’. Ravi beats them up and locks them in the ‘Whites Only’ Toilet. There are no eye witnesses who can testify against Ravi for this incident. Ravi narrowly escapes getting caught.
At the army camp in Arabia, Ravi is disillusioned with the prevailing conditions. The disgruntled Ravi plans to get discharge from the Army on medical grounds. Ravi discusses this issue with his friend Michael. Ravi tells Michael, “I have some herbs. If I use them, I will have rashes all over…they won’t know how to cure…” Michael cautions Ravi against this dangerous move which can backfire. Ravi dispels his doubts, saying, “I know how to cure this… I have to get back home, in whatever condition”. Ravi then requests Michael to help him get back to his home, when he is discharged. Michael assures help.
Ravi gets discharged from the British Army on medical grounds and returns to his family in poor health. Ravi starts treating himself. By 1916 Ravi gets better and he is offered a job in Military Accounts Department, in the northern region, through the aegis of a family friend. Ravi decides to accept the job offer. Lakshmi arranges the marriage of daughter, Jayam, before they move out of the town. In deference to Lakshmi’s wishes Ravi agrees to this even though the marrying couples are minors.
Between the years 1917 – 1930, Ravi and his family move to various places in the north – Simla, Meerut and Poona. In Poona, Ravi works with the Controller of Military Accounts, Charles Craig. Craig is a liberal Britisher who likes to bond with his staff. Charles Craig is avidly interested in learning the fine art of chewing tobacco, which is Ravi’s favourite pastime. Charles and Ravi become great friends. They begin chewing tobacco, frequenting races and dining in Clubs together.
In the year 1931, a new horse from Britain, Spring Thunder, is touted to be a sure big-time winner. Charles places all his bets on this horse and recommends Ravi to do likewise. The prospect of assured bounties is surely tempting for Ravi as well. Ravi is never inclined to borrow from friends so he borrows secretly from a moneylender. Charles even adds to enhance Ravi’s stake. The favourite horse ‘Spring Thunder’ springs a surprise and loses the race. Ravi and Charles lose heavily, but Ravi and Charles are not the ones to lose heart over such trifle. Unfortunately, at this time, Charles gets transferred to Rangoon. Charles promises to send money to make up for Ravi’s losses on the race.
Ravi plans a counter move against the rapacious money lender. Ravi, as a government servant, files a complaint with the Police for harassment and usurious lending. At the same time, Ravi asks his wife to go back to Chidambaram with the children in order to overcome the enveloping crisis. Lakshmi questions the reason for this sudden decision. When Ravi explains that he got into debts because of loss in the races, Lakshmi offers her gold jewellery to clear Ravi’s debts. Ravi does not accept this proposal. Ravi assures Lakshmi that he will clear his debts once his British friend, Chares Craig, sends him the money and come back to Chidambaram. Eventually, Lakshmi reluctantly agrees to return to Chidambaram.
Ravi resigns his job with the Military Accounts and leaves Poona. As things turn out Charles is stabbed to death by a Burmese nationalist on the day he sets foot in Rangoon. So the promised sum from Charles never reaches Ravi. It is much later that Ravi learns from Raju about this tragedy.
Ravi reaches Chidambaram but he does not remain there; even as Lakshmi insists that he should stay on Chidambaram.
Ravi becomes a wanderer and reaches Trivandrum. In Trivandrum, Ravi calms down an enraged elephant running amok in the temple premises when the Mahout is away. Mahout Krishnan and Ravi become friends. When Mahout Krishnan learns that Ravi is looking for a job, he suggests that Ravi can find a job in Colombo with the help of his friends there. Ravi goes to Colombo and gets a job as Manager in a tea estate.
Meanwhile, at Chidambaram, aunt Parvati and uncle Rajagopala Iyer pass away, in quick succession, due to old age. After the demise of family elders, Raji and Lakshmi shift to Pudukottai.
In Colombo, on a dark night when Ravi is walking towards his home with torchlight in hand, he comes across a young woman and her child surrounded by four men. The men sign Ravi to go away but Ravi does not move. The men start attacking Ravi. Ravi manages to disarm and overpower them. The men run away. Ravi lets the woman and her child stay with him, in deference to her plea. The woman and her child now come under the care of Ravi. Ponny is her name. Ponny’s husband has been killed by men of the same gang earlier who also set ablaze their house. With the help of Father Paul and a priest, Ravi and Ponny get married.
Gunavartane and Mallika are Ponny’s well wishers and they come to meet Ponny and Ravi. During the discussion with them, Ravi makes a candid confession that he had refused the task of managing his family’s estates in Chidambaram, but has become the Manager of someone’s estate in Ceylon.
In the year1933, a son is born to Ravi and Ponny and they name him Kumaran. In 1934, Ravi is sick with high fever. Ponny nurses Ravi back to good health.
Early in the year 1939, before the World War II begins, Lakshmi and Venkat go to the Chidambaram temple for the annual festival. The old postman at the Chidambaram Post Office meets them and tells Lakshmi that some money had come from Colombo in her name. It was sent back because there was no one at the address. Venkat comes to know about the whereabouts of Ravi from this Postman.
Venkat visits Ravi in Colombo. Venkat informs Ravi that both he and Jagan are planning to join the British Army. Ravi also learns that his aunt and uncle have passed away. In a frank interaction with Venkat, Ravi makes a confession when he says, “It is my distorted perception of self-dignity that tore me away from you all and what a mess it has created.” After the departure of Venkat from Ceylon, Ponny asks Ravi if he is preparing to return to India. Ravi says that he is not planning anything. Ponny expresses her desire to go back to her mother’s relatives in Jaffna whenever Ravi decides to move back to India.
In 1946, as the World War II comes to a close, Ravi learns that his sons are being demobilized from the British Army. Ravi decides to return to India. Ravi leaves Ponny and her children with Ponny’s relatives in Jaffna.
Ravi reaches Lakshmi’s house in Pudukottai. Ravi and Lakshmi decide to shift to Poona where their sons are likely to be posted hereafter.
The year 1946 is marked by three successive celebrations – Ravi’s sixtieth birthday followed by the marriages of his two sons – Venkat and Jagan.”