Rajkumar is only another boy, helping on a market stall in the dusty square outside the Royal palace in Mandalay, when the British force the Burmese King, Queen and all the court into exile. He is rescued by a far-seeing Chinese merchant, and with him builds up a logging business in upper Burma. But, haunted by his vision of the Royal family, he journeys to the obscure town in India where they have been exiled, and his family and friends become inextricably linked with theirs.
Through the lives of the wider family and connections, an extraordinary story of the 20th century is told: in Malaya, amid the vast rubber plantations, in India, among the growing nationalist feeling, in America where ideas of democracy and terrorist action, as well as business acumen, could be learnt. By the time World War II arrives, Rajkumar - who had made and lost several fortunes - has spread his family and influence from the great estate at Morningside where his son will be involved in the British collapse in Singapore, and one of his relations in the remarkable rebellion of the Indian troops against their British officers.
Another of the great characters, the formidable Indian widow, Uma, becomes a spearhead of the Indian nationalist movement and provides a final refuge for the battered remnants of the family as they flee form Burma before the Japanese advance in a horrifying trek across appalling terrain. And it is his grand-daughter who survives that experience who brings the readers back to contemporary Burma, and completes the circle of the family started so long ago in Mandalay.