The city of Chandrapore, apart from the nearby Marabar Caves, is unextraordinary. The small, dirty city sits next to the River Ganges. Slightly inland from the city, near the railway station, lie the plain, sensible buildings of the British colonials. From the vantage point of these buildings, Chandrapore appears lovely because its unattractive parts are obscured by tropical vegetation. Newcomers, in order to lose their romantic image of the city, must be driven down to the city itself. The British buildings and the rest of Chandrapore are connected only by the Indian sky. The sky dominates the whole landscape, except for the Marabar Hills, which contain the only extraordinary part of Chandrapore—the Marabar Caves.
Dr. Aziz, an Indian Muslim, arrives late to his friend Hamidullah’s house, where Hamidullah and Mahmoud Ali are engaged in a debate over whether it is possible for an Indian and an Englishman to be friends. Hamidullah, who studied at Cambridge when he was young, contends that such a cross-cultural friendship is possible in England. The men agree that Englishmen in India all become insufferable within two years and all Englishwomen within six months. Aziz prefers to happily ignore the English.
Hamidullah takes Aziz behind the purdah (the screen that separates women from public interaction) to chat with his wife. Hamidullah’s wife scolds Aziz for not having remarried after the death of his wife. Aziz, however, is happy with his life, and sees his three children at his mother-in-law’s house often.
The men sit down to dinner along with Mohammed Latif, a poor, lazy relative of Hamidullah. Aziz recites poetry for the men, and they listen happily, feeling momentarily that India is one. Poetry in India is a public event.
During dinner, Aziz receives a summons from his superior, Major Callendar, the civil surgeon. Annoyed, Aziz bicycles away to Callendar’s bungalow. When Aziz’s bicycle tire deflates, he hires a tonga (a small pony-drawn vehicle) and finally arrives at Callendar’s house to find that the major has gone and left no message. Furthermore, as Aziz is speaking with a servant on the porch, Mrs. Callendar and her friend Mrs. Lesley rudely take Aziz’s hired tonga for their own use.
Aziz decides to walk home. On the way, he stops at his favorite mosque. To Aziz, the mosque, with its beautiful architecture, is a symbol of the truth of Islam and love. Aziz imagines building his own mosque with an inscription for his tomb addressing “those who have secretly understood my heart.”