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Our heroine begins her narration in the present, though her story will be about the past. She begins by talking wistfully about her husband, who is no longer with her, except in her dreams.
Her waking life, we learn, is peopled with loved ones: her daughter, a little boy named Puli (who has no fingers, and doesn’t actually belong to her family, though she keeps and loves him), and her son Selvam, who works with a man called Kenny in a hospital.
The narrator explains she is an old woman now. She begins to tell us her story.
Her father was a "headman" in her village, a position that became less important when a figure called "the collector "began to change the dynamics of village politics.
Our narrator was the youngest of four daughters, and as her father’s importance dwindled, her own prospects for a suitable arrangement of marriage to a young man diminished too.
Her parents could not afford a grand dowry (money given to the groom’s family by the bride’s family), and the best they can do was marry her to a poor tenant farmer.
Though our narrator tells us her family lamented the match, she herself was happy with the arrangement. At the time of her marriage, she was twelve.
The woman describes her simple union to her husband, Nathan. We learn that Nathan is gentle and caring. On the six-mile ride to her new home, she cries and gets sick. Nathan does his best to comfort her.
She’s happy enough with the idyllic country ride, until she arrives at her new "home," which is really a two-room mud hut complete with thatched roof beside a rice paddy field.
Our narrator tries to hide her displeasure, saying she’s worn out from the ride, but Nathan senses her unease and tries to comfort her. He promises a better future and presents her with handfuls of grain from a good rice harvest. On this, he says, they’ll rest their future.
Our narrator then describes her adjustment to domestic village life – she does laundry in the river and meets some of the local women, Kali, Janaki, and Kunthi. In their talk with our narrator, we finally learn her name is Rukmani.
From the women’s friendly gossip, Rukmani learns that Nathan was unbelievably excited about his marriage to Rukmani, and that he built their home with his own two hands, sometimes even neglecting his work in the field to provide the best home he could.
Rukmani has a poignant moment of recognition as she learns what she means to Nathan. Nathan, in turn, demurs modestly when Rukmani confronts him about why he never told her that this house was his own handiwork.
Rukmani-as-narrator then nostalgically glosses over those happy days, and she says she’s glad to have had those good times, as she can look back on them and remember that once her life was blessed.
Rukmani then fills us in on more details: while Nathan doesn’t own the land he works, there is still a chance that he might one day have enough money to buy it. In the meantime, they eat well and are even able to store some rice from each harvest. Rukmani delights in trips to the market, meeting the local characters: a jovial old woman who sells guava and peanuts (named, fittingly, Old Granny), a shady moneylender, and Kunthi, her neighbor who is not particularly warm or friendly.
Rukmani notes that people often say Kunthi married below. People might say the same of Rukmani, but even she admits she’s not much of a looker. Also she didn’t know much about how to work the land, so on all fronts, she wasn’t much of a catch.
Rukmani then describes the things she learned from the friendly neighborhood women: milking the goat, planting seed, churning butter, and mulling rice.
Rukmani’s first pumpkin plant is a particularly memorable victory: it yields generously, and when she brings a pumpkin in to Nathan, he’s tremendously proud of her.
Flush with success and a bit of pride at her growing achievement, Rukmani grows different kinds of plants, and the eating is good.