The story is of three generations of an Indian family, brilliantly told, in which a sensitive and intelligent foundling boy orphan who is casteless and without religion and Bakul, the motherless granddaughter of the house, grow up together. The boy, Mukunda, spends his time as a servant in the house or reading the books of Mrs Barnum, an Anglo-Englishwoman whose life was saved long ago by Bakul's grandmother, by now demented by loneliness. Mrs Barnum gives Mukunda the run of her house, but as he and Bakul grow, they become aware that their intense closeness is becoming something else, and Bakul's father is warned to separate them. He banishes Mukunda to a school in Calcutta, where in the years after Partition he prospers, and whence in time he will return to rediscover all that he has lost.
The novel begins in 1907 with the founding of a factory in Songarh, a small provincial town where narrow attitudes prevail. Amulya and Kananbala have two sons and as their family grows, and the house and their garden too, a microcosm of a society develops. It is scholarly, eccentric, hide-bound, fraught with drama, destined to self-destruct. The many strands of this intensely fashioned narrative converge when Mukunda, by now a successful businessman, returns to Songarh years after he has been exiled from the only home he knew, to resolve the family's destiny.