The book is set during famine in Bengal (see Famine in India, for more information about famine in India under the British regime). Kalyani, a housewife, is fleeing through the forest with her infant, trying to escape from man-hunters who will sell her for food. After a long chase, she loses consciousness at the bank of a river. A Hindu monk, stumbles upon her and the baby, but before he can help her, he is arrested by the British soldiers, because other priests were fueling revolt against the British rule. While being dragged away he spots another priest who is not wearing his distinctive robes and sings,
"In mild breeze, by the bank of the river,
In the forest, resides a respectable lady."
The other priest deciphers the song, rescues Kalyani and the baby, taking them to a rebel priest hideout. Concurrently, Kalyani's husband, Mahendra, is also given shelter by the priests, and they are reunited. The leader of the rebels indoctrinates Mahendra by showing him the three faces of Bharat-Mata (Mother India) as three goddess idols being worshipped in three consecutive rooms:
1. What Mother Was - An idol of Goddess Jagaddhatri
2. What Mother Has Become - An idol of Goddess Kali
3. What Mother Will Be - An idol of Goddess Durga
Gradually, the rebel influence grows and their ranks swell. Emboldened, they shift their headquarter to a small brick fort. The British attacks the fort with a large force. The rebels blockade the bridge over the nearby river, but they lack any artillery or military training. In the fighting, the British makes a tactical retreat over the bridge. The Sannyasis undisciplined army, and lacking military experience, chase the British into the trap. Once the bridge is full of rebels, British artillery opens fire, inflicting severe casualties.
However, some rebels manage to capture some of the cannons, and turn the fire back on to the British lines. The British are forced to fall back, the rebels winning their first battle. The story ends with Mahendra and Kalyani building a home again, with Mahendra continuing to support the rebels.
The plot background was loosely based on the devastating Bengal famine of 1770 and unsuccessful Sannyasi Rebellion. Bankim Chandra dreams of an India rid of the British. In this dream, he romantically imagined untrained Sannyasi soldiers fighting beating the highly experienced Royal Army. Despite the romanticism, the novel patriotism was a significant voice amidst the oppression and the struggle for independence. The novel's prose has been quoted by many writers talking about Indian independence.[cita