This is one of the best times in Rukmani’s life. Her marriage is underway, and her husband, Nathan, is kind to her. Rukmani and her husband are full of hope for the future: Nathan will eventually be able to buy their land, and Rukmani will raise a happy healthy family, who will take on the legacy of farming. The family is also established in this period – Rukmani gives birth to Ira, and eventually five more sons in rapid succession. Though times are a bit tight, this period is generally characterized by a hopeful feeling of promise and potential.
Each member of Ruku’s family faces his or her own challenges and deals with them individually. Arjun and Thambi leave for Ceylon, abandoning their family; Murugan leaves his family for a servant job in the city; Raja, weak from starvation, is killed while he is stealing from the tannery; Ira is abandoned by her husband, returns home, and turns to prostitution to feed Kuti; Kuti dies of starvation and sickness, and Ruku and Nathan struggle through starvation and fear of betrayal before admitting that neither of them has been completely honest.
All of these personal conflicts take place against the backdrop of Ruku and Nathan’s greater conflict with the land. Their livelihood is threatened by monsoon and drought, causing crops to fail in one way or another, and resulting in starvation. This poverty informs the personal conflicts of the characters, but also serves as an umbrella of the general difficulties that the entire family faces under harsh conditions.
When Selvam decides to work with Kenny, it’s the last nail in the coffin for Ruku and Nathan’s hope that they might keep the land and prosper on it. Selvam’s decision means that Ruku and Nathan can only keep the land for as long as Nathan can work; Ruku talks with Kenny about the fact that they do not have the luxury of planning, as they can never anticipate what will happen next.
This is the point of no return in the novel. The land is gone, their livelihood is gone, and there is no hope of keeping the home they’ve made together. Ruku and Nathan have lost their battle against the merciless reality of subsistence living.
Selvam, Ira and Sacrabani will figure out some way to carry on, and only Rukmani and Nathan will leave. They set out to the city with high hopes – they know that if they find Murugan, he will keep them and assure they are taken care of. Their quest for Murugan is populated with little setbacks, especially the theft of their goods and money. Still, they hope they will find Murugan and once again have a home.
Nathan and Ruku finally find Murugan’s home, only to learn there is no more Murugan. It’s clear from their daughter-in-law Ammu’s living conditions that they cannot stay with her. They settle into a life of homeless poverty in the temple and begin to nurse hopes of returning to their village, even though they know they’ll be in poverty there too. Puli helps them get the money to make this happen. Even though they’ll be getting out of the city, it’s rather anticlimactic that they’ll only go back to the village (and the poverty) that is familiar to them. Though it’s not much solace, at least they’ll be going back to their home village and family.
Nathan doesn’t make it, but Ruku finds her family again and announces that Puli is now a part of it. The family still struggles, but Ruku is now more of an observer than a participant. Her time is over, and the time for her children, who will likely struggle as she did before them, has arrived.