Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal) is a quiet Anglo-Indian woman. After the marriage of her daughter, Rosemary, Violet Stoneham lives a lonely life in her single room flat located at 36 Chowringhee Lane in Calcutta, with only a tom cat for company. She teaches Shakespeare to inattentive little girls, occasionally visits her senile brother (Geoffrey Kendal) in a nearby nursing home, and returns home to her tiny flat and the company of her cat, Toby.
One day Violet encounters one of her former students, Nandita (Debashree Roy) and Nandita's boyfriend Samaresh (Dhritiman Chatterjee). Eager to reminisce and starved for companionship, Violet invites the young couple to her home for tea, and they politely agree. In Violet's flat Samaresh smells opportunity- the flat would offer a perfect, discreet hideaway for afternoon trysts with Nandita. Nandita explains to Violet that Samaresh finds it difficult to concentrate on poetry in his family's crowded home, and Violet is delighted to offer him the flat. Nandita and Samaresh meet in the flat everyday, taking care to be dressed and presentable when Violet returns from school. Often they serve Violet her tea or take her out for walks in the city, and their daily company cheers and energises her.
It seems to be a very genuine friendship for Violet, but Samaresh and Nandita have other intentions. The young couple uses her while it's convenient, but as soon as they have the opportunity to take off on their own, they do so. The new principal at Violet's school - the school's first Indian principal, cuts back on her course load, assigning her a dreary grammar class while a new young teacher takes over the Shakespeare. Violet's visits to her brother are particularly unsubtle; a relic of the colonial era, he is now weak, helpless and disoriented, and Violet must repeatedly explain to him that the Raj is over, that India is independent.