In 1756 Calcutta is a city on the brink of Empire. Already, the grandiose buildings of White Town, settled about Fort William, are in stark contrast to the bustle of Black Town across the Maratha Ditch. The events of this momentous year will settle forever the colonial history of India. As yet, however, both Indian Black Town and British White Town are under the rule of Siraj Uddaulah, the hot-headed young nawab in Murshidabad.
In White Town Chief Magistrate Holwell and his arch-rival Governor Drake must unite to outwit the dangerous schemes of the Murshidabad Court. In Black Town the half-cast girl Sati, believed possessed by the Goddess Kali, finds herself a God-Woman and the centre of a religious cult. Her grandmother, Jaya, and her promiscuous mother, Rita, married to the Frenchman Demonteguy, battle for possession of her. Shuttled between the two towns of Calcutta, yet belonging to neither, Sati is in search of her identity. On her journey many fall under her spell including Emily, the Governor¹s wife.
In far off Murshidabad the new nawab is interested only in ridding India of the British and their growing threat to his country. He descends upon Calcutta with a huge army. Locked into Fort William with a large number of the Black Town population the British residents plan their escape. Their benighted attempt to flee infuriates the nawab and ends in the notorious incident of the Black Hole of Calcutta.
The novel explores not only the events that led up to that incident but the lives of a town divided by race and culture and the prejudices that would soon, after the Battle of Plassey, grow unchecked in the era of Empire.