In 1930, the year of Gandhi's Salt March, British poet Flora Crewe travels to India for her health. Flora is a thoroughly modern girl who has modeled for Modigliani, hobnobbed with communists, and been accused of obscenity for the racy book A Nymph and Her Muse . In India her portrait is painted by the Indian artist Nirad while she fends off the attentions of a dashing but dimwitted scion of the British Raj. But her bravado hides the knowledge that she is severely ill with tuberculosis.
In the 1980s, American academic Eldon Pike seeks out Flora's younger sister Eleanor to discover the truth about the end of the poet's life— she died in India soon after meeting Nirad. Eleanor, who married an Englishman she met at Flora's grave and became a staunch Tory, reveals little to the scholar, sending him off on a wild goose chase tracing Flora's path through India. But she is more welcoming to Nirad's son Anish, who also comes looking for answers. Eleanor shows Anish a painting by Nirad done partly in a classical Indian style, and partly in the style of Western realism. The painting's erotic symbolism convinces him that his father and Flora were lovers before she died.