The narrator of the story is Sonil, a young girl raised by her aunts in Madras but visiting her grandmother in Pi during a long vacation. Sonil is surrounded by female relations (men are largely absent in her family, and even her great-uncle who lives with her grandmother in the house on Pi disappears for days at a time on opium binges). The story centers on Sonil's coming of age and trying to make sense of her mother, an enigmatic figure who is present in the grandmother's house but nevertheless refuses to talk with Sonil or otherwise engage in motherly behaviors.
Sonil's mother, Lakshmi, has three daughters, each by different men. She first married an older Indian man and had her first daughter with him before he passed away. She then had an affair with a playboy from Bombay and later with the white American who is Sonil's father.
Sonil's cousin Jani also visits for a spell, and the grandmother sets about trying to arrange a marriage for Jani, who remains resolutely passive about the endeavor. Much of the novel, thus, explores Sonil's growing understanding of women's roles in society and the way gossip and reputation work against women who do not conform to usual gender expectations.
One of the fascinating aspects of the novel is the presence of many foreigners such as Americans in Sonil's life, including her (absent) American father whom she has never met. Another American man, Richard, plays a significant role in the novel as Sonil learns about the lure of Pi and India for Westerns--with their spiritual traditions and different pace of life.
The island setting allows for an intimacy of family and community that belies its thoroughly transnationalized and even cosmopolitan traffic. In addition to the Americans, Sonil's two aunts both married foreigners (one from a Russo-Indian immigrant family and the other a Scottish expatriate, both of whom live most of the year in Abu Dhabi where they work as oil investors and engineers).
I find it interesting to think about this novel in light of another novel published in the 1990s, Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night (Grove Press, 1996) because both are set on fictional islands (I think Pi is fictional.....) and both have captivating first-person narrative voices. In Mootoo's novel, the island is Lantanacamara in the Caribbean, and the exploration of colonialism and race (especially the idea of self-hatred among the colonized) is especially strong. In Ganesan's novel, British colonialism is not as clearly of thematic concern, but the late twentieth century world of a global traffic and the influence of the West on Indian culture and politics is nevertheless apparent.