Haroon leaves his wife and family to find himself. His spiritual life and attraction to Eva Kay afford opportunities he cannot resist. An Indian immigrant to London, Haroon is able to live out the ambivalence at the core of his identity by adopting an Eastern religious practice and, in modern Western fashion, divorcing his dull wife to marry a liberated, flamboyant, and ambitious English woman.
Karim is a keen observer of his surroundings and the individuals who populate his expanding world. Nothing escapes his notice, from changing fashions in clothing to popular music, and the politics and sexual practices of everyone he meets. His attachment to the world is predominantly erotic, and from each new encounter he incorporates a life lesson, moving toward a life of hope, love, and ambition. He finds some success as an actor, presumably the result of his porous boundaries. His intense desire to understand everything enables him to take stock of the times and portray the effects of time and place on the individual.
Anwar's arranged marriage to Jeeta, a Pakistani princess, produces the liberated and good-hearted Jamila. Anwar's physical deterioration begins with a fast he undertakes to convince Jamila to accept her arranged marriage to Changez. Early economic success for Anwar and Jeeta declines as their grocery, Paradise Stores in Penge, becomes the target of racial strife in a neighborhood of mixed immigrants of color. Anwar, in a debilitated state, dies as the result of an injury to the head, an accident that involves a dildo (a sex toy) belonging to his son-in-law, Changez.
Changez, a lover of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, arrives in London, innocent of Jamila's resistance to the arranged marriage. His disability, the result of a malformed hand and arm, is a disappointment to Anwar, who sought help in his business from his new son-in-law. Changez keeps a collection of sex toys to ease his curiosity and pain over the lack of Jamila's sexual attention. Changez finds some comfort in a sexual relationship with Shinko and, eventually, as a member of a communal household where his responsibilities include caring for Jamila's baby. He also helps Jeeta in the modernized grocery after Anwar's death.
Determined not to suffer patriarchal imposition, Jamila graciously accedes to Anwar's coercion and marries Changez. She is able to create a marriage on her own terms and manages her life according to feminist principles she has been studying. Her compassion and uncompromising principles enable her to keep Changez in her life and maintain her independence at the same time.
Charlie Kay meets Karim in a casual sexual encounter when Karim is a guest at the Kay home. Their friendship becomes a caring, fraternal relationship. Charlie Kay, who reinvents himself as Charlie Hero, becomes an international celebrity and punk rock star. In New York with Karim, they find themselves disillusioned by the nature and demands of fame. Karim measures himself against Charlie, a sort of surrogate brother, and moves on with a better understanding of his own needs.
Eva's ambition is for herself and for her son Charlie. She believes in Charlie and predicts his success. She has ambitions for Haroon as well and promotes his capacities to turn his Eastern wisdom into a communal spiritual practice. First and foremost, she is a self-promoter who has a clear sight on her goals. She accomplishes them by renovating grand, decaying homes in gentrifying neighborhoods and selling herself as a decorator-designer for the elite. She succeeds in her climb up the social ladder and in improving her social-consciousness credentials by marrying Haroon.