Part I: Nanda Kaul at Carignano
Nanda Kaul is relaxing at Carignano, her clean and spare house on a hilltop in Kasauli, when she sees postman coming up the winding road. She is annoyed that he might bring some bad news. The postman recalls the traumatic history of all the English people (mostly “maiden women”) living here before Independence. The postman and Ram Lal, Nanda Kaul’s cook, run into each other and decide to go together up to the house. The postman hands Nanda Kaul a letter, to great chagrin.
The letter is from Asha, her frivolous and self-centered daughter, who is asking her to keep Raka, Nanda Kaul's great-granddaughter, for some time. Raka has just recovered from typhoid but her depressed mother, Tara, is going to Geneva to try to work things out with her cruel and abusive husband, a diplomat. Raka needs to recover outside of the heat and humidity of Bombay; otherwise, Asha would take her herself. Thus, Raka will be sent to Nanda Kaul.
Nanda Kaul was herself a wife to a stern husband and had spent her life taking care of little children. She hated this life and was eternally grateful to be living in the solitude at Carignano. It pains her that this will all be disrupted by a needy child.
Nanda Kaul receives a call from Ila Das, a former friend with an obnoxious, high-pitched voice. She becomes excited upon hearing about Raka, but Nanda Kaul makes excuses to keep her away. She thinks of the time when she served as wife to the Vice-Chancellor of a school and had multiple responsibilities. These were wearying, and she had only been alone during her walks on the lawn in the evening.
She discusses with Ram Lal what to cook for Raka. She has blocked the memories or jettisoned things that she thought were too painful or unnecessary now that she is not among people. The two agree that potato chips are universally liked by children.
The day Ram Lal leaves to fetch the child, Nanda Kaul wonders if she will be expected to find ways to entertain Raka. She is also anxious that her privacy will be disturbed.
Part II: Raka comes to Carignano
When Raka finally arrives at Carignano, Nanda Kaul cannot help but compare her to an insect because of her sickly figure and round, protruding eyes. They embrace each other with a lack of warmth.
Raka begins to explore her new environment and finds it full of things she hasn't seen, like a factory or the club. Raka questions Ram Lal about the factory as he makes tea. He tells her that it is the Pasteur Institute and that they make 'serum' for mad dogs. People with dog bites are taken there for treatment. They conduct tests on animals and dispose of their bones in a ravine. He forbids her to go there as jackals prowl the area for bones and ghosts haunt it.
Nanda Kaul begins to feel annoyed at Raka for disappearing for hours in the cliffs. She would come home bruised, bitten, scratched, and dirty, but neither says a word about it. Each of them is trying to avoid the other. Nanda Kaul begins to realize that in that sense Raka is exactly like she is, and she begins to admire her for it.
On one of her explorations, Raka visits the ravine and finds all sorts of refuse there, including bones, blood, and glass. She finds a snake basking in the sun. She takes in the scenery and climbs back, but she ends up in the club, which is closed, so she leaves for Carignano by road. She meets Ram Lal as he is heating water for her bath; he disapproves of her going to the Institute and tells her that she should have an ayah to bathe her and take her to the club to play with the babas. Raka listens but has no interest in playing with other children. A storm approaches and Ram Lal grows worried that the fire from the hamam for Raka’s bath would burn the house, but, finally, the storm stops. Nanda Kaul watches them as he carries the water to her bath, and Raka follows.
Nanda Kaul then suggests walking with Raka, which the latter dislikes, as her evening walks were the time she looked for food because she was not eating enough at tea-time. Nanda Kaul describes the houses, once beautiful and now in bad shape, to Raka, lamenting human intrusion on the hills. She also suggests Raka going there, which Raka declines, hating the thought of being disciplined.
They reach Monkey Point, where Nanda tells Raka to go to the top on her own as she herself is not up to it. Raka observes the plains to the south and mountains to the north, feeling like a shipwrecked sailor in a boat.
Once, Nanda Kaul suggests that Raka go to the club, to which Raka replies that Nanda doesn't go either. Surprised and pleased, Nanda Kaul bursts out that Raka is exactly like she is. Raka is loath to hear this, and both are embarrassed.
One day, Ram Lal tells Raka about ballroom dances at the club (which were not as good as the ones by the British, he says). Raka hears music one night and visits the club by climbing down the hillside unnoticed. When she reaches the club ballroom and peers inside it, she sees a terrifying, debauched scene of masked revelers violently contorting, drinking, and laughing. She remembers her own drunken father and how he beat her mother; she felt helpless to do anything. She flees the scene.
Nanda Kaul notices something is different with Raka but does not know what it is. That evening, both of them witness a fire starting across the valley. Raka is fascinated by the fire and spends the night going back and forth from her room to look at it. Nanda Kaul begins to observe the comfort level between Raka and Ram Lal and grows jealous of the way Raka hangs around him instead of her.
Nanda Kaul receives another letter from Asha informing her about Tara's breakdown in Geneva, telling her that she is going there to help her. Raka never asks Nanda for any news or letters from her mother, which Nanda Kaul finds very unlike any of the other children for whom she has cared. She wonders if she should make a will and leave Carignano to Raka since she was the only one who would appreciate it. She has begun to grow used to Raka's presence and does not want her to leave.
The next day as they take their tea, a huge storm breaks. Raka grows restless and Nanda ends up telling her about her father's various expeditions to Tibet, during which he collected various things and met with sorcerers. Raka is intensely engaged in this conversation. When the rain slows down, they go outside to see the clear view. Nanda Kaul muses to Raka how her mother would say, “rainy days are lily days.”
The next day, Raka sees what her mother's words had meant: there is an abundance of pink lilies growing alongside the hill. At breakfast, Raka asks Nanda Kaul about her mother's visits to Kasauli; Nanda Kaul thinks she couldn't really tell one grandchild from another. Raka also asks about the letter, and Nanda Kaul tells her that her mother is ill. Raka's reaction is one of nonchalance, as she has seen her mother that way more often than not. Raka climbs to the burnt house on a ridge and explores it. It is a place she likes best for its rawness. She spreads her arms like wings.
Nanda Kaul tells Raka of her childhood in Kashmir and describes the lakes, forests, orchard with great fruit trees, and the animals her father would keep. Raka cannot understand why her great-grandmother has become so talkative and wants to get away from her. When Nanda Kaul stops, both are slightly angry at the growing attachment and change of routine. When Raka comes back from her expeditions, Nanda Kaul tries to interest her by telling her tales about the animals she had kept, but she can tell that Raka is not interested. In fact, Raka is starting to doubt her great-grandmother’s veracity.
Nanda Kaul notices that Raka is gone for most of the afternoon and begins to miss her. She receives a call from Ila Das who asks to meet Raka, to which she acquiesces out of annoyance. She realizes Raka is wild and likes nature more than she likes Carignano; even if Nanda attempts to fill the house with things to interest Raka, she will not stay.
Part III: Ila Das leaves Carignano
Ila Das is late for the tea, which irks Nanda Kaul. She is spotted coming up to Carignano followed by a group of schoolboys teasing her for her attire and voice. They knock her umbrella to the edge of the road, where she is rescued by Ram Lal, who shoos them away. Nanda Kaul muses on how Ila's voice has always been shrill—a cause of distress for parents and teachers alike, and a cause of giggles for others. But for Ila, Nanda Kaul is the friend who has always been there.
The two women move towards the verandah, where Ila greets and kisses a hesitant Raka. The kiss irks Nanda Kaul and makes her smug at the same time, and they conduct the tea party. Ila Das begins to describe their old days, and Raka is weary with their talk.
Ila Das mentions Nanda Kaul's house and the comfort she felt there. When she mentions playing badminton with Nanda Kaul’s husband and Miss David, a teacher, she falls silent suddenly. Nanda cracks her knuckles. She asks Raka to fetch Ram Lal to clear the teacups and muses on how well she knows Ila Das.
Ila Das had once belonged to a rich family whose fortune was squandered by her brothers till there was nothing left for the two sisters. They had to divide every morsel until Nanda Kaul arranged for a job for Ila Das at the university. Ila Das reveals that she is finding it difficult to make ends meet. Her elder sister has been residing with an old nanny. Ila Das now has a job as a social worker for the government, working in the villages.
Nanda Kaul knows she should invite Ila Das to live with her, but she cannot bring herself to do it. Ila Das says she is much better off than the villagers who starve if the harvest goes bad and, due to a superstitious and misogynistic priest, do not visit the health clinic. She is also frustrated by the inability to make headway against child marriages.
As Ila Das prepares to leave and everyone else is distracted, Raka grabs a packet of matches from the kitchen and climbs down to the ravine. Ila Das leaves and Nanda Kaul feels like protecting Ila from any harm that might come to her, as is her natural instinct.
Cheered by Nanda Kaul's company, Ila Das decided to go to the bazaar to see if she can buy any food. She grows less cheerful as she is jeered by bystanders. She learns from the grain seller she can't afford the corn and decides to leave when he, alarmed by what the father of a child bride had said about her, asks her not to go out in the dark. She hurries away, followed by the laughter of other people, musing over her upbringing and current financial condition.
Ila Das hurries towards her house, but as her hut comes within sight, she is attacked by Preet Singh, the father of the child bride. He strangles her, tears her clothes off, and rapes her.
Nanda Kaul receives a call from the police station to come and identify Ila Das's body. Shocked, she realizes the lie her life has been: her father had not been a traveler; they didn't have any wild animals; her husband never loved her and carried on a lifelong affair with Miss David; she never loved her children; living in Carignano was the last option she had, not a choice. She had woven all her lies together as a delusion to justify her existence.
Raka then comes and informs her that she has set the forest on fire.