The novel opens on the judge and his granddaughter Sai sitting on the veranda of their home, Cho Oyu, while their cook makes tea and the judge’s dog, Mutt, sleeps on the porch. A set of boys from the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) arrive and demand that the judge hand over his guns, threatening them with a rifle and stealing anything of value they can find in the house. The judge then sends the cook to the police station. The police return home and accuse the cook of having a hand in the robbery. They tear apart his meager hut and read letters from his son, Biju.
Biju works at Gray’s Papaya in the heart of Manhattan, but is asked to leave when the manager of the restaurant is instructed to do a green card check. Biju then cycles through a series of restaurants, but the situation is often the same. Biju is fired from a French restaurant when customers complain about the smell of the food.
The narrative jumps back to Sai’s arrival at the judge’s home nine years earlier, at age eight. She had left St. Augustine’s convent, where she had grown up with English customs, because her mother and father had recently been hit by a bus. The nuns then found the address of her grandfather and returned her to him. When Sai arrived, she and the judge exchanged few words, but the judge was pleased that they seemed to be accustomed to similar cultures.
The judge remembers when he had left his own home at age twenty. He had been accepted at Cambridge to study for the Indian Civil Service. He had also just been married to a fourteen-year-old wife, Nimi. At Cambridge, he was treated like an outcast and a second-class citizen, and barely spoke to people. He began to find his own skin color odd, and his own accent strange. He spent most of his time studying.
The morning after Sai arrives, the cook takes her to meet her new tutor: Noni, who lives with her sister Lola. They pass the houses of Uncle Potty, Father Booty, the Afghan princesses, and Mrs. Sen—all of whom are upper-class and well-educated.
Biju’s second year in America begins at an Italian restaurant, where he is once again fired because the owners believe he smells bad. He then takes a job at a Chinese restaurant, delivering food on a bicycle. In the winter, it is freezing, and he is fired because the food he delivers becomes too cold by the time he arrives. Biju returns to a basement in Harlem, where he lives with other undocumented immigrants in destitute conditions. He then gets another job at the Queen of Tarts Bakery.
Over the years the cook had become ashamed of the judge’s poor treatment of him, and he began to lie to other servants and Sai to exaggerate the judge’s wealth and social standing. In reality the judge had been born to a family of the peasant caste, but his father saved up money to send him to the mission school. He had studied hard and risen to the top of his class. He attended Cambridge, passed his exams and was admitted to the Indian Civil Service. He was placed in a district far from his home and toured around India, even though his knowledge of regional Indian languages was minimal.
When Sai turns sixteen, Noni realizes that she will need another tutor for math and science, because her own knowledge has been exceeded. The judge asks the principal of the local college if he can recommend a teacher or graduate for her. Twenty-year-old Gyan, a recent graduate who has not yet been able to find a job, is hired. He and Sai quickly become entranced by one another.
At the Queen of Tarts Bakery, Biju meets a Muslim man from Zanzibar named Saeed Saeed, He admires Saeed because of the way he seems to stay afloat in the underground system of being an illegal immigrant rather than drowning in it, the way Biju feels. Biju begins to question his prejudice against people from Pakistan, and then questions his prejudice against people of many other ethnicities, as they had never done anything harmful to him or to India, unlike white people.
Back in Kalimpong, Sai asks the cook about the judge’s wife. At first the cook lies and says they loved each other, but he then remembers that the judge hated his wife. Sai then questions the judge about her grandmother. He rebuffs her questions, but begins to remember her for himself.
Before the judge had left for England, his family didn’t have enough money for his travel expenses and so they looked for a wife for him in order to gain a dowry. One local man named Bomanbhai Patel was extremely wealthy, and was very interested in the judge because he planned to enter the ICS. Patel offered up his most beautiful daughter, who was fourteen years old at the time. The two married shortly after, and she was renamed Nimi by the judge’s family. The night of the wedding, he had tried to consummate the marriage, but she was terrified, and so they did not. Before he left for England, the two shared one gentle moment in which he took her on an exhilarating bicycle ride.
The cook sends letters to Biju asking him to help others get to America. Biju feels overwhelmed by these requests, and Saeed empathizes with him because he is experiencing the exact same thing. More than anything, the two aim to get their green cards. One day, they are swindled by men in a van who say that they can get them green cards, but in reality simply steal their money. Shortly after this incident, the Queen of Tarts Bakery closes.
Gyan and Sai’s romance begins to bloom when he is stuck at the house due to a monsoon. They flirt and play games, measuring each other’s hands, feet, and limbs. One day, Gyan asks her to kiss him, and she does. They begin to sightsee together, going to cultural institutions, the zoo, and a monastery. Gyan tells her a little of his family history, about how they had been taken advantage of serving in the British Army.
Meanwhile, Lola and Noni discuss the growing political rumblings of the Nepalis living in India, who are demanding a separate state, more job opportunities, and schools that teach Nepali. Noni is more understanding of their cause than Lola, but Lola begins to see her own prejudice when her neighbor, Mrs. Sen, starts speaking about Pakistanis with the same kind of bias.
Biju now works at a restaurant called Brigitte’s, but is unhappy because they serve steak. He realizes that it’s important to him to retain his values, and so he quits and goes to work in the Ghandi Café, which is run by a man named Harish-Harry. Harish-Harry invites the staff to live in the basement below the kitchen, but then pays them a quarter of minimum wage.
Sai celebrates Christmas with Lola, Noni, Uncle Potty, and Father Booty. After New Years, Gyan is in the market when he sees a procession of young men from the GNLF. He is quickly caught up in the procession and relates to their demands and complaints, which echo many of his own as a young Nepali man. The next day, Gyan arrives at Cho Oyu and yells at Sai, frustrated by her complicity in English cultural elitism.
The judge remembers how his and Nimi’s relationship had turned sour. When he had returned from England, she had taken his powder puff. As he looked for it, his family ridiculed him for using it. By the time he discovered that Nimi had taken it, he was furious, and he raped her. In the following days, he insisted that she speak English and follow English customs, which she refused to do. He took off her bangles, threw away her hair oil, and pushed her face into the toilet when he discovered her squatting on it. He then left her at their home while he went away on tour.
The day after Gyan’s eruption at Sai, he tries to apologize, but they only return to their fight about English customs, and Sai accuses him of being a hypocrite for enjoying Western things like cheese toast with her but making fun of them with his friends. He leaves, and tells his friends in the GNLF about the judge’s guns, giving them a description of Cho Oyu and telling them that there is no telephone.
The cook thinks about his attempts to send Biju abroad. For his first attempt, Biju had interviewed and been accepted at a cruise ship line. They had paid eight thousand rupees for the processing fee and the cost of training before realizing that it was a scam. His second attempt involved applying for a tourist visa. Despite the fact that it was difficult for poorer people to be approved for a visa, Biju was allowed to go to America.
At the Ghandi Café, three years after that visa was approved, Biju slips on rotten spinach. He demands Harish-Harry pay for a doctor for him, but Harish-Harry refuses and calls Biju ungrateful. He suggests that Biju return to India for medical care.
Father Booty, Uncle Potty, Noni, Lola, and Sai go to exchange their library books before the GNLF closes more roads and shops. When they start to walk back to their car, they spot a procession of GNLF, and Sai sees Gyan there. He ignores her. On the way back, Father Booty takes a picture of a butterfly at a checkpoint and is stopped by the police. It is discovered that he is in India illegally, and he is quickly deported.
The narration skips ahead, after the incident in which the boys from the GNLF steal the judge’s guns. A few days later, the police pick up a drunk and accuse him of the crime, beating him brutally. Meanwhile, in America, Biju becomes informed about the Nepalis’ strikes. He tries to call the cook, and they have a very disjointed conversation. Biju feels even more empty than before. The strikes in Kalimpong continue, and the Nepalis put up tents in front of Lola and Noni’s property. The sisters begin to feel that the wealth that always protected them now makes them vulnerable.
Sai goes to find Gyan at his home and sees how poor he actually is. Gyan becomes angry at her pity, and the two argue before he throws her in a bush and beats her. Sai returns home and sees the wife of the drunk who had been beaten by the police begging the judge for money and mercy. They turn her away. Meanwhile, Gyan’s sister informs his family of what he’s been doing, and they forbid him from going to the GNLF protest the following day.
The next day, the cook attends the protest because the GNLF is forcing each family to send a male representative. Rocks start flying from nowhere, and the protesters and police, in equal confusion, begin to throw rocks at each other. The police then begin to open fire on the crowd. Many young boys are killed, and the protesters begin to wrestle weapons away from the police and turn on them. The police run away and seek shelter in private homes. Lola and Noni turn them away.
Biju decides to return home to India despite warnings not to. He buys various souvenirs to bring home to his father, and takes the cheapest plane possible to Calcutta. When he arrives, the airline loses many bags, and only compensates the foreigners and non-resident Indians. Biju waits for his luggage, which arrives intact, and steps out into the street. He feels at peace in his homeland.
The incidents of horror continue in Kalimpong. There are many robberies and acts of arson. The woman that the judge had turned away returns and steals Mutt in order to sell her. When they realize she is missing, the judge, the cook, and Sai all set out to search for her. When the judge goes to the police station, he is mocked because this seems like a minimal crime relative to the atrocities being committed.
The judge thinks back to the family, the culture, and the wife he had abandoned. One day when he was on tour, a woman had knocked on Nimi’s door and taken her, unknowingly, to be a part of the Nehru welcoming committee for the Indian National Congress Party. The judge had returned and been confronted by the district commissioner. He lost a promotion and had been incredibly embarrassed. When he arrived home, he had cursed Nimi, beaten her, and kicked her. Six months later, his daughter had been born. He never met her. It is then implied that Nimi’s brother-in-law had orchestrated her death, when her sleeve had caught fire on the stove.
Biju is told that there are no buses to Kalimpong because of the political situation. Biju catches a ride with some GNLF men. They take him most of the way before dropping him off and robbing him of all of his possessions, money, and clothing. He is forced to walk the rest of the way to Kalimpong.
The judge grows more and more distraught over Mutt’s disappearance. He blames the cook and threatens to kill him. The cook then goes to the canteen, where he runs into Gyan. Hearing what has happened and growing increasingly guilty, Gyan resolves to find Mutt for Sai. The cook returns to Cho Oyu and begs the judge to beat him. The judge hits him over and over again with a slipper. Sai yells for him to stop, and makes the cook tea. At that moment, the gate rattles, and the cook goes to answer it. It is Biju. The cook and his son leap at each other as morning breaks over the mountains.