Hannah Easton grew up an orphan in Puritan society. Her neighbors gossiped that her mother had been brutally murdered in skirmishes with Native Americans. But Hannah knew the truth: her mother had fallen in love with a Nipmuc man. Her mother, well beyond the boundaries of Puritan society, joined her lover and left evidence of her death, allowing her daughter to be accepted by another family.
This choice influences the rest of Hannah's life, driving her to explore and inhabit the interstices between cultures. She marries Gabriel Legge, an inveterate liar, because he offers her the opportunity to travel first to England and finally, under the auspices of the East India Company, to Madras. It is only in Madras, against the contrast of Hindu and Muslim culture, that Hannah begins to fashion an identity for herself outside the starched social constraints of Company life. When natural and social catastrophe strikes, Hannah is completely divorced from English culture and thrown to the mercy of Raja Jadav Singh. As she becomes his consort, Hannah is able to construct an entirely novel self-identity as Salem Bibi.