Foreignness is most present in this novel as a trope of colonialism. The colonial world has brought in unfamiliar objects, people, and ways of life. The tannery, the Muslims that come to work at the tannery, the white men, the caste-breaking, and the breakdown social structure are all changes that intrude on people’s lives, and are difficult to bear because they are so alien to what is normal. The colonial world is to blame for bringing strange and foreign things, and for disrupting traditions, but there’s also other foreignness central to the novel. Characters are often foreign to each other. Ruku’s children make decisions she doesn’t understand, and she can’t relate to Kunthi’s love of the urban or Kenny’s worldview about suffering. Foreignness is an inevitable part of relationships, and characters must learn to overcome it, by overlooking it, or, in better cases, by understanding it in order to communicate.
Familiarity is not necessarily a central part of empathy; often it is those characters who are most foreign, who inspire the most sympathy. As ironic as it may seem, empathy may cause characters in the novel to be less inclined to help each other. Because Rukmani is familiar with the problems that Janaki, Old Granny, and others in her community face, she is uninspired to help them, thinking they, should deal with their problems on their own. Had their woes been foreign to her, she might work harder to understand and help them.