When a famine threatens the State of Bihar in Eastern India in 1967, Roberta Meeker is among the Peace Corps volunteers rushed in to assist in the relief effort. Richard Verlock is in charge of U.N. operations. He is deeply cynical about the many do-gooders around him but is perversely attracted to Roberta, the most idealistic of the whole crowd.
Roberta, sure that she can save the world, faces India’s stolidly entrenched caste system at a feeding center. The plight and passivity of the women–their utter powerlessness and subservience to men–incense her.
In the vast background that is India, officials pursue their own agendas, which often baffle or — worse — stymie the relief efforts. Fortunately, one senior Indian official, F.C. Chaganti, helps them by overriding a District Commissioner who is blocking a train full of grain, and by arranging for the transfer of two stubbornly bureaucratic railway officials so that food supplies can keep moving.
Richard arranges a vacation for himself and his mistress, with Roberta and Bentley Overman, another Peace Corps volunteer, in Kashmir, in the foothills of the Himalayas. As they talk far into the night, we learn the depths of Richard’s cynicism. He seems able, as always, to disprove the likelihood that human beings really want to do anything decent or could if they did want to.
Roberta challenges his nihilism, but he sees that she is also attracted by it, just as her reformer’s naiveté attracts him. Roberta has begun to believe — naively? — that Richard’s cynicism masks a deeper generosity.
Roberta becomes increasingly drawn to Richard. He relishes the prospect of undermining her innocence, teaching her how weak and venal people are, and reinstating her picture of him as someone who doesn’t give a damn.
As the story approaches its climax, an alert goes out that a desperately poor section of rural Gaya District has run out of food. For 48 hours straight the volunteers, U.N. workers and CARE reps all pitch in.
That night, exhausted, they sing songs around a fire fueled by wood and dung cakes and cry for those they have been unable to help–and those they have perhaps saved.
Later, when Richard tries to persuade Roberta that seeking one’s own gain is the best path to happiness, she overwhelms him with her response. “We will never be happier than we were out there in the frying heat, doing what had to be done, together.” Against all reason, Richard realizes that she may be right. Against all his instincts and beliefs, he realizes he is falling in love with her.
More determined than ever to prove (perhaps most of all to himself) that life is vile and people are worse, Richard ensnares Roberta and Bentley in a night of couple-swapping sex. He has foreseen the consequences. She has not. Although the disaster that follows horrifies the main characters, it also illuminates Roberta’s future path.