Daphne Manners, who has lost her immediate family in England, comes to India to live with her only remaining family member, Lady Manners. Lady Manners sends her to Mayapore to stay with her Indian friend, Lady Chatterjee.
While staying with Lady Chatterjee, whom she calls "Auntie Lili," Daphne meets Hari Kumar. He is an Indian who was brought up in England and educated at Chillingborough, a public school that Daphne's own brother attended. Hari speaks only English, but his father's financial collapse and suicide obliged Hari to return to India. Daphne learns to despise the attitudes of the English in India and also grows to love Hari.
Meanwhile, the local police superintendent, Ronald Merrick, becomes infatuated with Daphne. Merrick, of lower-middle-class English origin, is resentful of the privileged English "public school" class and contemptuous of Indians. Hari thus represents everything that Merrick hates.
After Daphne and Hari make love in a public park, the Bibighar Gardens, they are attacked by a mob of rioters who by chance witnessed their lovemaking. Hari is beaten and Daphne is raped repeatedly. Knowing that Hari will be implicated in her rape, Daphne swears him to silence regarding his presence at the scene. But she does not count on the instincts of Ronald Merrick, who, upon learning of the rape, immediately takes Hari into custody and engages in a lengthy and sadistic interrogation that includes sexual humiliation. Merrick also arrests a group of educated young Indians, including some of Hari's colleagues at the Mayapore Gazette .
Daphne steadfastly refuses to support the prosecution of Hari and the others for rape. She insists that her attackers were peasants and included at least one Muslim (although she was blindfolded, she could tell he was circumcised) and could not be young, educated Hindus like Hari and his acquaintances who have been taken into custody. The inquest is frustrated when Daphne threatens to testify that, for all she knows, her attackers could have been Englishmen.
Hari puzzles the authorities by refusing to say anything, even in his own defence (he has been sworn to secrecy by Daphne, and he honours that pledge to the letter). Because the authorities cannot successfully prosecute him for rape, they instead imprison him under a wartime law as a suspected revolutionary. And Daphne's refusal to aid a prosecution for rape leads to her being reviled and ostracized by the English community of Mayapore and of British India as a whole, where her case has become a cause celebre.
Although unknown to Hari, Daphne is pregnant; the child's paternity is impossible to determine, but she considers the child to be Hari's. She returns to her aunt, Lady Manners, to give birth, but a pre-existing medical condition results in her death. Lady Manners takes the child, Parvati, to Kashmir. Parvati's physical resemblance to Hari satisfies Lady Manners and Lady Chatterjee that Hari was her biological father.