After their disappointing encounter with Ammu, Nathan and Rukmani return to the temple. The regulars among the destitute have mixed reactions, grumbling that the city temple should feed its own poor without having to cater to all of India’s poor. The harsh reality is that each new arrival means a little less food for the others.
Soon enough, Nathan and Rukmani become regulars themselves. They grow accustomed to the cruelties that make the temple-goers competitors: crippled people have their crutches kicked from under them, and the weak are separated from their supporters so there’s more food to go around for those who can stand the crush of the line.
In all of this, Rukmani often has to get a single portion and share it with Nathan, as he does not adapt well to the temple crowds.
As each night descends, Nathan and Ruku plan their journey back to their village. If they’re going to live in destitution, it might as well be in the place they call home. Still, they have no money to make the journey.
Rukmani then has the idea that she can make a little money using her education as a reader and writer of letters. This opportunity gives the old couple some hope.
Still, Rukmani is a woman, and people in the city often stop to marvel at her as she sets up shop in the market. A literate woman is an unusual thing. Business isn’t terribly good, but Ruku earns enough for them to eat rice cakes in the mornings.
It’s a new year, and Nathan and Ruku find themselves still living in homeless poverty in the city. Nathan’s rheumatism has begun to act up again, and they become increasingly desperate to return home.
One day, as Rukmani returns to the temple from the marketplace, a little boy calls after her. It’s none other than Puli, the street child who gave helped them find Murugan. Puli speaks like a man, and Ruku still finds him charming. He demands payment for his past service to Rukmani, and to show him that she has nothing she takes him to the temple with her.
There, Puli shares the single portion of dinner with Rukmani and Nathan, and to Ruku’s surprise, he also nestles next to them to sleep. Ruku worries that he should go home to his mother, but he tells her he has no home, and no mother to worry about him.
Rukmani knows this street-smart boy is perfectly fine on his own. She worries for him, though she lacks the resources to take care of him herself. Still, Nathan echoes her practical concern when he chides Ruku that they can’t add the boy to their burden, whether he is "whole" of body or not.
In the morning, though, Puli shows he can earn his keep. He tells them about a nearby stone quarry where anyone can work. They can break small rocks off the big stones, and will be paid by the sack, earning much more than Ruku is currently making as a letter writer. Puli can’t do it himself because he can’t hold a hammer, (he has lost fingers as a result of his leprosy). Still, he’ll direct their work.
Puli leads Nathan and Ruku to the quarry. It’s hard work, and noisy, especially when the sheet rock is exploded into smaller bits by gunpowder, as is often done. Nathan and Rukmani don’t have hammers, and are not as experienced as the other workers at using stones to chip off other stones.
Puli sits and watches them, but he comes in handy when he rescues them from their own distraction. The hoisting of a red flag signals impending explosions at the quarry, and Puli once pulls Nathan and Ruku to safety away from the blast when they don’t notice the flag. This ragged threesome has become something of a team.
After their first day’s work, Rukmani has a bit of difficulty figuring out exactly how the payment process works. As she’s in line waiting to present her stones, she sees that Puli has brought out a begging bowl, and changed his voice, asking onlookers to take pity on this orphaned leper.
When she finally presents her and Nathan’s basket of stones to the overseer, she gets eight annas, which amounts to four times what she made in a day at the market. Suddenly, going home to the village seems something of a possibility.
Puli, Nathan, and Ruku set up a routine of sorts: working at the quarry and sleeping at the temple. Though Puli is wily, Ruku entrusts their money to him, as he’s far more able to take care of it than either of them are. Calculating what they might make at the quarry, they figure that they could return home within two months.
In this excited planning, Nathan asks Puli if he’ll come with them to the village. Puli reminds them that the city is his home – he knows the place like the back of his hand, and has made a name for himself here.
Besides, Puli chides, if Nathan and Ruku are returning to poverty in their village, he might as well enjoy the poverty he already knows in the city. He’s happy to live just as he did before the old couple arrived.
Still, Rukmani begins to worry about what will happen to Puli when the leprosy that took his fingers begins to claim other parts of his body, making him increasingly disabled. She respects Puli’s independence, and appreciates that he puts up with their dependence on him. Still, she knows there are limitations as to what one can do under miserable circumstances.