Chuyia is on her way to the village of Rawalpur in a bullock cart. Her skin burnt ebony by the sun, she has bright, sparkling eyes and long hair that falls to her waist. Her tiny wrists have two red bangles each and silver anklets encircle her bony ankles. In the cart with her are two men and a crone of a woman who administers to the needs of a dying man in his fifties. Chuyia, utterly bored, tickles the foot of the sick man. The woman gives her a resounding slap for her feeble attempt at entertainment.
The bullock cart arrives in Rawalpur. Rawalpur lies on the banks of a Holy River, which is beloved to millions of Hindus. It’s a city dedicated to Lord Shiva, its skyline an uneven row of steeples, domes, minarets and ramparts. Below the temples is a giant amphitheater, whose
buff-coloured stone steps come all the way down to the river. These are the 'ghats', their severe lines softened by mushroom-shaped umbrellas and octagonal balconies.
When they get to the banks of the River, the adults carefully lower the sick man from the cart onto a boat. They start their crossing towards the blazing cremation pyres on the ghats reflected on the river’s glistening surface.
A long night vigil ends with the sick man's death. Chuyia, asleep on the stone steps, is woken up by her father’s gentle prod. He asks her with genuine sadness, "You do remember getting married, don't you?" “No,” says Chuyia simply. Chuyia's father continues, "Your husband is dead and you are now a widow.” Chuyia looks at him with puzzlement and asks earnestly, "For how long Papa?" He doesn't answer her but looks away with concern. She is lead to the pyre by the old woman who breaks Chuyia's red glass bangles and takes off her anklets. As the funeral pyre is lit, a bewildered Chuyia is made to squat on the ghats where a barber unceremoniously cuts off her long hair and shaves her head to a shiny pate. In the early dawn Chuyia is led through the empty streets of the city and deposited in the house for Hindu widows (and ashram) to spend the rest of her life in renunciation. As a Hindu widow, she is expected to atone for the past sins that resulted in the death of her husband.
There are 14 women who live in the house for Hindu widows, a small, dilapidated two-story house built around a central courtyard. The widows' ages vary from about 18 to 80. They wear white, coarse saris, no adornments, and their heads are shaven. Some have gleaming scalps while others sport wiry black bristles or white patches of fluff. They are wraith-like figures, their every move an apology for their existence. The widows are not allowed to speak unless spoken to. They eat one sparse meal a day, sleep on the bare ground, pray when they aren't begging for food, and wait patiently to die. The women are sent here to expiate bad karma, but more often than not, to relieve their families of financial and emotional burden.
Madhumati , in her mid-70s, rules the House like a queen. Enormously fat, her huge breasts protrude like mountains out of the white, cotton sari that encases her. She is often found seated in the courtyard on a stringed charpoy, cramming beetelnut into her mouth while screaming instructions at the widows, "Don't stand there staring like an owl; get to work. And you, Kunti, you little harlot, you haven't fed my bird as yet.” If she has a weakness, it's for ganja (marijuana). Her evenings are spent tugging at her water pipe in a tiny cell-like room. This, for Madhumati, is nirvana. Her only friend is the pimp, Gulabi, a sprightly hijra, or eunuch and also a hermaphrodite, who not only keeps Madhumati supplied with ganja, but also with the latest gossip. Gulabi’s exchanges with Madhumati take place through the bars of her window that opens to the street. "Did you know, didi (older sister)," Gulabi whines, "that strange man in his underwear, that Gandhi, is going to sink India? Gandhi says untouchables are the children of God.” “Chi! Chi!” Madhumati, shocked, shakes her head in disbelief. "Disgusting!" she exclaims, "It's fools like Gandhi who are going to destroy our great culture!" The two also have a side business; Gulabi helps Madhumati to prostitute Kalyani.
Kalyani is breathtaking, and the only widow whose hair- as a nod to her profession - is not shorn. Uncomplicated and gentle, she radiates a child-like innocence. Kalyani spends her day either playing with her puppy Kaalu, or talking to the small statue of the God Krishna she has in her room. However, her nights are surreal. Gulabi ferries her across the waters to the mansions of the rich gentry in Rawalpur. This she accepts with a quiet equanimity; it's her karma. Besides the holy books dictate “she should live as the beautiful lotus flower untouched by the dirty water in which it resides.” The rest of the widows ostracize her as they feel that close contact will result in a sullying of their purity. Apathy hangs over the house for Hindu widows like a fine mist.
Shakuntala is perhaps the most enigmatic of the widows. She is good-looking enough, a sharp, dark person with secret black-brown eyes. Her generous mouth has an angry set to it. Even Madhumati leaves her alone. Quiet and reserved, Shakuntala is caught between her hatred of being a widow and her fear of not being one. Shakuntala is a very devout Hindu who seeks the counsel of Sadananda, a gentle-looking priest in his late forties who recites the scriptures to the pilgrims who throng the ghats of the holy city.
Chuyia is convinced that her mother will come to take her away. With that thought firmly tucked in her mind, she quickly adapts to her new life with the unique resilience of children. Madhumati sternly initiates her into widowhood: how to beg for alms, how not to play and how to survive on one simple meal a day. But it's the reticent Shakuntala that Chuyia chooses to emulate. She follows her like a little puppy dog and imitates her every gesture and every move. Slowly Chuyia's presence and unending questions ("Why do plants grow? Where is the House of Men-Widows?") start chipping away at Shakuntala's reserve and her single-minded quest for a kashi moksha (liberation of the soul).
If Shakuntala becomes a reluctant mother figure to Chuyia, Kalyani becomes a friend. Chuyia plays with Kalyani's puppy Kaalu which helps allay her own longing for the pet she left in her village. One day they are bathing Kaalu in the river when he escapes with Chuyia in close pursuit. Chuyia loses her way but a young man named Narayan picks up the dog and helps her find her way back to Kalyani. Narayan who has just finished his law degree is an idealist and follower of Gandhi's 'Quit India Movement.' Upon meeting Kalyani there is an immediate attraction, but the restriction placed on interaction with widows makes it difficult to find a way of pursuing any kind of relationship. Kalyani, also attracted to Narayan, in deference to tradition tells him to go away as it is a sin to speak with widows.
Kalyani cannot get the young man she met at the ghats out of her mind and she begins to refuse to oblige Madhumati and her 'clients'. Meanwhile Narayan ponders how he can arrange a clearly forbidden meeting.
Narayan finds a way to meet with Kalyani and during a covered buggy ride through the British section of the city declares his intent to take her away to Calcutta. Kalyani returns to the widows house and whispers the secret of her wedding plans to Chuyia, who is thrilled at the prospect of a wedding feast where one can eat as many sweets and forbidden food as one desires.
One of Chuyia's many tasks is massaging Madhumati's fat legs. This she does by walking along their spongy length. Brimming over with the suppressed secret of the imminent marriage and all the puri that she will eat, she blurts out the couple's secret to Madhumati, and all hell breaks loose at the house for Hindu widows. Suddenly Kalyani's resistance to being ferried across the waters by Madhumati's pimp makes sense. Not only has Madhumati lost a source of income, but also the disgrace of a widow re-marriage will doom them all to seven lifetimes of being re-born as jackals.
“Widows do not get married!” Madhumati shouts. Hearing this, Chuyia begins to pound down on Madhumati's thighs with a fury, “You're a liar!” she screams, "Kalyani will get married.” A shocked Madhumati, using her massive arms like fly swatters, tries to dislodge Chuyia, who continues to stomp even harder. Madhumati panics and cries for help. Shakuntula enters and tears the frenetic Chuyia off of Madhumati.
Madhumati menacingly enters Kalyani’s isolated hovel, throws her to the floor, shears her long black hair and locks her up until she 'comes to her senses'.
The next morning, after Sadananda has finished reciting the scriptures for the widows, Shakuntala stays back. Overcoming hesitation, she asks the priest, "You have studied the Holy Books. Do they tell us to treat our widows so harshly?” Surprised at Shakuntala's questions, Sadananda, slowly answers her. “There are three options from which widows may choose, according to our texts. They may burn with their husbands; live lives of abstinence and piety; or if the family agrees marry their husband’s younger brother.” Sadananda goes on: “However, a law has recently been passed favouring widow re-marriage.” “A law? Why don't we know about it?" Shakuntula responds. Sadananda’s concern deepens. “Men ignore the laws that don't suit them,” he declares solemnly.
The next day Shakuntala, over the protests of the other widows unlocks the door to Kalyani's room. It's a quiet act of rebellion that leaves everyone speechless. A liberated Kalyani walks out of the house, Madhumati’s booming voice following her. “If you leave now you cannot come back,” she shouts. Kalyani bathes in the ghats washing away the cruel face of her tormenter and walks to the small deserted temple where Narayan is waiting for her. Narayan tenderly explores her shorn hair and in a whisper asks her once again if she will marry him. She leans down and brushes his feet with her fingertips.
That evening they take a boat across the river to meet Narayan’s parents. “You told your mother about me?” Kalyani asks. “Yes I told her I want to marry you.” Narayan replies. “And what did she say?” Kalyani queries. “She cried.” Narayan quips with a smile. “My God” Kalyani whispers. As they approach the house Kalyani begins to recognize the gates of the portico and asks Narayan for the full name of his father. He replies and is perplexed when Kalyani demands that he turn the boat around. “What is wrong?” he asks. “I cannot say,” she replies. “Ask your father.” What then follows will forever change their lives, and the life of little Chuyia.