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Nathan marries the young Rukmani, and they go to live in the modest village home that he built with his own hands. During the ride he comforts and cheers her, and does so again when she seems dispirited upon seeing their new mud-hut.
Nathan, a farmer, praises Rukmani for the single pumpkin she’s grown on her own.
Nathan looks on as Rukmani practices her reading and writing. At first, he says nothing, but after taking a little time to think about it, Nathan praises Ruku for her cleverness.
One day, Nathan kills the cobra Ruku chanced upon in the vegetable garden. He’s unconcerned with the supposed sacredness of the cobra; he thinks mostly of protecting his pregnant wife.
Nathan pays little attention to their daughter, Irawaddy, until she calls "Father" at the age of just ten months.
After many years of patient waiting, Nathan is overjoyed at the arrival of their first son. He invites everyone in the village to come to a celebration at their house on the tenth day after the boy’s birth.
When first introduced to the tannery, Nathan assures Rukmani that the tannery is here to stay. He encourages her to go with the flow, saying "Bend like the grass, that you do not break." (4.20)
Nathan welcomes Kenny into his home, saying he’s honored by Kenny’s presence in his poor home.
Nathan stoically notes that, with the monsoon drowning the paddy fields, there will be little harvest to eat this season.
Nathan prepares to go to the market with Rukmani, counting out two rupees from their life savings for food and repairs.
Nathan takes Ira’s return home in stride – he says her husband was patient for as long as he could be expected to be.
Nathan tries to dissuade his second son, Thambi, from working at the tannery, saying he looked forward to the time when his sons would work with him on the land. Thambi crushes his hopes by pointing out that Nathan never did, and never will, own the land.
Nathan celebrates Deepavali joyously, parading around his sons and celebrating his wife. He returns home in high spirits and makes love to Rukmani.
Nathan bears the results of the strike at the tannery more graciously than anyone. He declares that their children must do what they do for their benefit, not for their parents. He quiets everyone with his authority.
Nathan is not surprised when his sons come home and announce their intention to go to Ceylon.
Nathan does his best to comfort Rukmani now that three of their sons have left for work abroad. He brings her out to look at the beauty of paddy fields, and he talks of plans for the future.
Nathan has to haggle and argue with Sivaji, when payment is due for the land he rents. The crops failed in the drought, so the family has no money with which to pay. Nathan finally gets Sivaji to agree they’ll pay half the rent now, and the rest will follow.
Nathan is despairing and angry. He curses men like Sivaji, who are employed to protect wealthy landowners from realizing the suffering they inflict on others.
Nathan sells the portion of their goods they can to make up half the rent. However, they still come up short of the half they’d promised to pay.
Rukmani and Nathan fight about whether they should sell their remaining seed. He is most concerned about paying off their present debts. Ruku convinces her husband, however, that they cannot pay for the present with the future.
One day, Nathan rushes into his house to find Rukmani wildly accusing their children of stealing rice.
He breaks down and admits that he stole the rice, but not for himself.
Nathan then confesses that he is the father of two of Kunthi’s children, and he was forced to give her rice when she threatened to tell Rukmani the truth.
As Nathan tells the truth about his own infidelity, he listens to Ruku tell of her own deceptions regarding her fertility treatment. At this point, they become free of their respective lies and are closer than ever.
Nathan suffers with the family, scavenging what little they can, and continually being optimistic about the coming harvests.
One evening Nathan notices that Rukmani is beating their daughter, Ira. He rushes out of the hut in the middle of the night to pull Rukmani off their daughter.
Nathan is furious at Ruku for not recognizing Ira, and he pushes her away as she tries to help.
He holds back on questioning Ira about her night-walking until she’s better.
Then one night, as Nathan is coming back from the fields, Ira on her way out to find "work". He stops his daughter, and asks her what she thinks she’s doing. He forbids her prostitution in vain, and then gets angrier, calling her out as a common strumpet. He is powerless to stop her though, and lets her pass into the night. Nathan refuses to eat anything brought in with the money from Ira’s prostitution, though Ruku keeps pointing out that there’s nothing they can do to stop her. Nathan continues to starve out of a sense of shame.
There’s finally a good harvest, and Nathan and his family work to collect the fish and rice from the field. They sit in an absurd joy, laughing at their past misfortune and facing the future with disbelief and optimism, once again full of plans.
Nathan is particularly disturbed by the birth of Ira’s baby Sacrabani. He was never pleased about Ira’s choice to prostitute herself, and is furious that she seems indifferent to the evident strangeness of the baby. He fears she has given up her sanity to pretend her child is normal.
Nathan blames himself for letting all of this happen.
Nathan notes the baby is not normal, that it loves the darkness. He says this dark affinity is for bats and snakes and jackals, but not human babies.
Nathan decides they’ll have a naming ceremony, as is customary. However, rather than celebration, his motive is to stop the visitors who come and ogle the baby.
Nathan scolds Rukmani for dwelling on Old Granny’s death, and for lamenting that the hospital hadn’t been built in time to save her. Nathan notes that the hospital will be for the sick, not the old.
Nathan tries to deal gently with the difficulty Ira has in answering questions from her son about his father. He says it’s Ira’s choice to do as she sees fit, but he is gentle.
Nathan leaves Ira alone for a while after she walks out, but eventually he goes to comfort her.
He stays with her while she weeps.
Approaching 50, Nathan is plagued by rheumatism and fevers.
As he finally begins to get better, the news falls that his rented land is being sold to the tannery.
He is in a state of shock, telling Ruku they must leave in two weeks.
Later that night, Nathan tells his son, Selvam, about the sale of the land.
Ignoring Selvam’s fury, Nathan announces that they will have to stay with their son, Murugan in the city. Nathan reasons that he is too old to rent and work another plot of land.
In an act of self-sacrifice, Nathan refuses Selvam’s offer to give up his job with Kenny in order to work with his father to rent a new plot of land. Nathan insists that his son pursue the building of the hospital.
Nathan cannot convince Ira to come with her child. He insists that if he is not too old to build a new life, neither is she. But he can’t convince her, so he’s grateful when Selvam vows to take care of his sister and nephew.
Once Nathan and Ruku are dropped off in the city, they realize they are still not sure of exactly where to go. They grow more and more tired and lost, bewildered by the big city.
They stop to have a snack and a rest, and by the time they have strength enough to again, it’s too dark to do anything.
They go to a temple for food and shelter for the night.
When the time comes to crowd and bustle for food, Nathan stays on the side.
He ends up sharing a single portion with Ruku.
Later, when they realize their bundles have been lost or stolen, Nathan comforts Ruku that at least they still have their money. Nathan tries to make a little joke, and generally seems to accept their misfortune.
In the morning, Rukmani and Nathan realize they’ve been robbed.
They set out again to find Murugan, steeling their hungry bellies. Nathan admits that they are lost, and he can’t quite follow any of the directions they’ve been getting. They rest, and Nathan notes that they might be reduced to begging.
They watch some street children play for a bit, and Nathan suggests they might ask one of the street children for help.
They follow Puli, the boy they’ve gotten to direct them.
Arriving at the house where Murugan is supposed to be employed, Nathan explains that he’s looking for his son.
Nathan will not be deterred when the servants are unhelpful, and he insists on speaking to the head of the household.
Nathan is a bit shaken by the fact that the head of the house is a doctor and a woman. He stammers so much that Ruku ends up doing all the talking. The doctor informs the weary travelers that their son, Murugan, now works for the "Collector" and lives at his house. The doctor invites Nathan and Rukmani to stay for dinner at her servant, Das’s house.
After Nathan and Rukmani are invited to dine at Das’s house, Nathan is his solid self again. He reminds Rukmani that she’ll have to get used to city things, like using the dirty latrine.
Nathan and Ruku set off to the Collector’s House, and both are excited to see their son and new daughter-in-law.
Finally the two arrive at their son’s home. Nathan and Ruku can both sense that they’re getting a cool welcome from his wife, Ammu. They are not prepared, however, to learn that Murugan has left her.
Nathan helpfully suggests that maybe he and his wife could help to look for Murugan, before he’s shot down by Murugan’s bitter, abandoned wife.
To diffuse the tension, Nathan emphasizes that he and Ruku will return to their own children in the village
In another awkward incident as they leave, Nathan confirms to a servant that they won’t ever be visiting this place again.
Rukmani and Nathan settle into temple life and plan how they’ll get back to their village.
When Rukmani comes back to the temple one day with Puli, Nathan is worried that they can’t add this extra little burden to their own.
Still, Nathan warms to Puli when the boy suggests that they can work at the stone quarry for more money.
Nathan works hard at the quarry alongside Ruku, and as they begin to save up some money, Nathan asks Puli if he might return with them to their village.
Nathan explains to Puli his need to return home, even if there’s nothing there for him.
One day, leaves the quarry ahead of Ruku and Puli. He returns to the temple telling them he’s tired.
Upon their arrival, with excessive food, Nathan runs off to a corner and vomits. He admits he’s been sick all day.
In spite of his sickness (and the rain that now pours down), Nathan insists on going to work beside Ruku.
Some time later, Nathan collapses in the mud on a hillside.
Nathan comes in and out of consciousness on the temple floor where Ruku holds him.
He says his time has come, and that he would like to go. He is at peace.
Nathan tells Rukmani not to grieve for him, as he lives on through his children.
Finally, Nathan reminds Rukmani that they have been happy together.
Nathan dies at the temple before they are able to return home.