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When we first encounter Rukmani, she is an old woman at home with her family. Having just lost her husband, she begins to look back over her life.
She fills us in on her childhood: she was the last of four daughters, and though her father was an important man in her village, he couldn’t afford a large dowry.
Rukmani has a simple marriage to Nathan, a poor tenant farmer. She is twelve at the time of her wedding.
Rukmani is sickened and saddened by leaving her family, but Nathan cheers her on the ride home. Her heart sinks more when she sees the simple life she’ll have in a very modest mud hut beside a paddy field.
Still, Rukmani eventually settles in comfortably to her new village life, making friends with the local women and learning their ways.
Rukmani is particularly proud of her vegetable garden, where she raises a pumpkin that she shows with pride to Nathan.
Rukmani helps her neighbor Kunthi as the woman gives birth. Ruku stays on for some time because the midwife did not arrive.
Rukmani does less and less work outside as her own pregnancy proceeds. She now devotes more time to her reading and writing, excited to teach these skills to her children. Rukmani is also pleased with Nathan’s reaction to her literacy: her husband is proud, and not resentful, of his wife’s education.
Rukmani gives birth to a baby girl. She weeps at the sight of the child for she had wished for a boy, believing that girls are only a burden.
Rukmani grows happier with her new daughter, Ira.
It’s been six years since Rukmani gave birth to Ira, and she is increasingly worried that she will have no more children.
She often goes to temple with her mother to pray, and she carries a good luck charm, but to no avail.
As Rukmani tends to her dying mother, she meets a British doctor named Kenny.
Prompted by Kenny, Rukmani finally pours her heart out about her sadness at having only one child, and a daughter at that.
At first, Rukmani shrinks from Kenny’s offer of help. Since nothing else works, she finally goes to Kenny for fertility treatment.
Rukmani gives birth to her first child in seven years and is thrilled that it’s a boy.
At the celebration, Rukmani looks for Kenny and is disappointed he isn’t there. She notes that she still hasn’t told Nathan about Kenny’s help with the fertility treatment and is worried that he’ll be angry with her for keeping it from him in the first place.
Rukmani gives birth to four more sons, making six children in all (five boys and Ira).
To make a little extra money, Rukmani begins selling the vegetables she grows.
At first Rukmani sells her vegetables to Old Granny, a homeless woman who lives in the village. Ruku soon switches to Biswas, the moneylender, because he gives her a better price. Our heroine notes times are getting tighter at home. Her family, however, always manages to make do.
Rukmani saves a little bit at a time and eventually creates a dowry for Ira.
When she learns that a tannery will be built near her farm, Ruku bemoans this turn of events. She realizes that the tannery may change the environment and economy of the village for the worse.
Rukmani runs into Kenny while she is out collecting dung for fuel and repairs.
She listens as Kenny says the earth would benefit from the dung, but she quietly points out that her family needs the dung’s benefits too.
Rukmani welcomes Kenny into her home to have the midday meal with her family. As Kenny warmly congratulates Nathan on all their children, she worries that Kenny will reveal the secret of her fertility treatment, which she still hasn’t mentioned to her husband. She’s relieved when Kenny fails to go into details.
Rukmani prepares an arranged marriage for Ira. She chooses Old Granny to make the match. Ruku she is pleased that Old Granny doesn’t have hard feelings about the fact that Rukmani stopped selling her vegetables.
Once Old Granny has found a nice match for Ira, Rukmani wistfully remembers her own marriage. She assures Ira that she’ll be fine once she settles into her new life as a wife. Rukmani also reflects sadly on the fact that Ira’s position as a wife will now trump her position as a daughter.
Rukmani puts on a modest but joyful wedding for Ira, bringing out the stores of food she’s been saving.
Rukmani notes that Ira looks too young to be going off with a husband.
Terrible rains strike just after Ira’s marriage. Ruku does her best to keep her home comfortable in the midst of this unfortunate change in the weather.
After the rain blows over, Ruku tries to calculate how they’ll fix up their house. She has to refuse help to her neighbor, Kali, as her resources are already so stretched.
One day following the rains, Rukmani goes to the market to stock up on provisions, but returns empty-handed, because no one had anything to sell. She lays awake listening to the drums of calamity beating over the village.
Rukmani sets out again with Nathan the next day. After a haggle, the couple buys two pounds of rice with all their money, leaving nothing left for repairs.
Rukmani eventually works with her family, harvesting fish from the fields and helping to salvage the paddy. They stay up late cleaning fish and separating rice grains from the husk. Rukmani dreams of feeding her family with new vegetables.
Rukmani has a bit of a tiff with her neighbor, Kunthi, who has grown distant. Ruku chides Kunthi for not being a creature of the earth, suggesting she’d be better off if she were more humble and modest.
Rukmani also notes that yet another neighbor, Janaki, is in trouble. The neighbor’s family has had to leave their home; Ruku can’t help or think about them, so she pushes it from her mind, focusing on her own troubles.
Rukmani marvels at the Muslims that are working at the tannery and living in their own area of the village. She does business with one Muslim woman, and is troubled by the woman’s isolation. She decides never to return to the woman’s house.
Rukmani despairs for Ira when her husband returns her to the family home. Her husband claims that because she has not fulfilled her wifely duty of bearing children, and hence is no wife. Rukmani laments because she went through the same thing.
Rukmani also faces the difficulty of her two eldest sons’ decision to work in the tannery. She’s hurt by the suggestion that Arjun makes that the family isn’t working hard enough to provide for everyone. She’s especially hurt by Arjun’s suggestion that there’s something going on between her and Kenny.
Still, Ruku uses the money her sons bring in from the tannery. She buys clothes and food, and she fixes the roof damaged by the storm.
Rukmani celebrates Deepavali with her family, even buying the children extravagances like firecrackers.
She has a great night on her own, and when she comes home, she and her husband make passionate love.
Rukmani later visits Kenny to ask for fertility help with Ira.
On the way home from her late visit with Kenny, Ruku runs into Kunthi on the road. The two get into a fracas, and Rukmani tears at Kunthi’s sari, only to realize that Kunthi wears the marks of a prostitute. She threatens Kunthi to keep her mouth shut about her visit to Kenny, but the encounter leaves her shaken.
Ruku goes to ask Ira’s husband to take her back. Sadly, it’s too late: he’s re-married and can no longer take Ira back.
Ironically, it is Rukmani who becomes pregnant again. She gives birth to a tiny baby boy that she names Kuti.
Rukmani remains troubled about Ira’s future. She talks to Old Granny and worries Ira will end a poor woman, old and alone.
Rukmani realizes her sons are behind a strike in the tannery. She rails against their futile efforts to fight their bosses and can’t understand why they don’t just accept the status quo, grateful for what little they get.
When it becomes clear that the two oldest sons can no longer go back to the tannery, they decide to leave home for work. Rukmani has to accept that her sons are leaving; as they pack up and make her empty promises, she’s sure she’ll never see them again.
Rukmani is brought out, and gains a little refreshment, from looking at the paddy fields with Nathan. She is drawn into hopeful planning about the future with him. Still, she notes the village is not as beautiful as it once was.
Later, Kenny visits and brings good news of Murugan, her son who left to be employed as a servant in the city.
Rukmani suddenly feels brave, and she inquires whether Kenny doesn’t have his own family and home.
She is quickly embarrassed by her brashness.
As Kenny reveals his own past, Rukmani promises she’ll never reveal it to anyone. She insists she isn’t a gossip. She watches with curiosity as he slinks away.
At one point in the novel it becomes clear that Ruku and Nathan will have difficulty paying their rent. Rukmani stands by Nathan as Nathan haggles with Sivaji, the landlord’s messenger. She tries to comfort Nathan in his despair, reminding her husband that the man before them is only doing his job.
Rukmani gathers all the things she can think of to sell in order to keep the land.
Once Ruku has decided what must be sold, she visits Biswas, the cruel moneylender, to sell her goods. She haggles and bluffs with him, eventually battling him up to 75 rupees from his initial offer of 30.
Rukmani returns home and has a rare fight with Nathan: he wants to sell their remaining seed, but she thinks they’d be unwisely selling off their future for the sake of the present.
The next day when Sivaji comes by to collect there’s another haggle. Rukmani is softened, when the rent collector points out that he’s only doing what he must and wishes that their family might prosper.
Rukmani worries about how her family will eat. She pulls out her final reserve of rice, and counts it out into small portions that will feed everyone for 24 days.
Kunthi shows up and has a squabble with Ruku again, this time demanding food. As Kunthi threatens to reveal Ruku’s visits with Kenny to Nathan, Ruku temporarily loses her senses. She has some misgivings, realizing that not even her genuine fidelity can protect her. She has misled Nathan about some things, namely the treatment she received from Kenny, and wonders if her husband will incorrectly assume that she has lied about other things as well.
Ruku doesn’t know what else to do, and in despair she gives Kunthi seven days worth of rice rations.
Ruku later goes back to count what’s left of the rice, and finds that only about one day’s worth of rice remains.
She panics and flips out, and rushes in to accuse her children of stealing the rice.
When Rukmani hears Nathan’s admission that he took the rice, she’s shocked.
She’s even more shocked to learn that Nathan is the father of two of Kunthi’s sons.
She quickly calms down when she and Nathan get the chance to discuss everything openly. Ruku and Nathan finally admit their deceptions to each other.
Rukmani is relieved that Kunthi no longer has power over them, but she knows now they’ll face starvation.
Rukmani coolly describes the starvation that grips her family.
Next, our heroine must bravely face two men as they bring home her son, Raja’s, dead body.
Rukmani is shocked to hear them explain what happened. She chastises Ira for wasting her tears, but then Ira’s sorrow flows into her.
Rukmani observes Raja’s body with a cool despair. She pleads with God, asking if this is why her son was brought into the world. She tends to his body, and notes that his spirit is gone. The work she does now is for this body, not for his soul.
Rukmani stands aside at the preparation for Raja’s funeral, and the men carry his body away for cremation.
Rukmani listens to the drums beat during the cremation – she knows at the last drumbeat that Raja’s body is gone.
Three days later, Rukmani deals with two men visiting from the tannery who have arrived to explain the unfortunate death.
She’s perplexed by their bizarre visit: they have come to get her to agree the tannery has no liability in Raja’s death.
Rukmani thinks this is silly because there is no possible compensation for her son’s death. Nothing can replace her son, not even the tannery’s money.
Rukmani comforts the smaller of the two men who seems to be taking the visit rather hard. With detachment, she assures him it does not matter, as not much really matters to her now.
Rukmani is in bed one night when she hears a woman’s footsteps approach.
Thinking it is her neighbor, Kunthi, coming to steal the last of what they have, Ruku throws herself at the woman in the night.
Her husband Nathan pulls her off of the woman. Ruku realizes with shock that the nightwalker was not Kunthi, but her own daughter, Ira.
She tends to Ira’s wounds, and then wash Ira’s sari, only to watch a rupee fall from it into the river.
Rukmani tries to talk to Ira about what she’s doing and why, but can’t get anywhere. Ruku can only imagine the many debasements Ira endures in the streets as a prostitute.
Rukmani turns her attention to Kuti, her littlest baby and youngest son, who has been suffering immensely from starvation.
She is with him, trying to comfort him up until the very last moment when he dies.
Holding his dead body, she notes that she doesn’t wish him back to life, as there is only suffering for him on earth.
Ironically, Rukmani soon rejoices with her family as they put work into harvesting the seed that has finally blossomed, and capture ample fish from the fields. They all excitedly make plans for the future.
Rukmani hears from Biswas, the cruel moneylender, that Kenny has returned.
Ruku visits Kenny. They have a pleasant meeting, although they talk about the dark times that have just passed.
Rukmani tells Kenny that two of her sons have died, and her daughter is pregnant with a stranger’s baby, after turning to prostitution.
Rukmani doesn’t warm up to Kenny’s suggestion that everything will be fine once the baby is born.
Walking home, Rukmani thinks about what Kenny said about the baby and notes that Nathan shares Kenny’s view. She is comforted by the possibility that the two men are right.
Back at home, Rukmani listens as Selvam announces he will no longer work on the land. Instead, has decided to take a job with Kenny at the new hospital under construction.
After some prodding, Rukmani admits that she’s a bit disappointed: Selvam’s decision means none of her sons will work the land.
Still, she is happy for Selvam, and knows that this is the best thing for him.
Rukmani thinks about warning Selvam that some people will suggest that he got the job because of the rumored "special relationship" between her and Kenny. She decides not to damper his spirits with such talk.
Mother and son have a quiet moment of complete understanding, and Ruku accepts Selvam’s assurance that he trusts her, and that she need only trust herself.
Ruku visits Kenny and thanks him for the favor to Selvam.
While talking to Kenny, she sees the plans for the new hospital and inquires about funding.
Rukmani is bewildered, not understanding why people who don’t know her village would want to help them.
Rukmani thinks to herself that man’s wants are eternal and inevitable – man’s spirits are given to him not to beg, but to rise above his desires.
Our narrator tells Kenny that the village priests teach them to suffer and endure, as it’s cleansing for the spirit. The two then have a discussion about the place of suffering in humanity.
Rukmani prepares to help Ira give birth.
As she makes all the logistical arrangements, she wonders over the many births that the house has seen.
Ruku also ruminates on her concerns about this baby: without a proper father, there’s no guarantee this baby will be a safe and normal one.
Our narrator notices immediately that Ira’s baby is albino. She’s shocked and dismayed that Ira seems totally obliviousness to the weirdness of the baby.
Rukmani tries to make the best of a bad situation and points out to Nathan that their daughter is happy.
Still, Rukmani is disturbed by the baby’s transparency in the sun. She has a hard time adopting to the differences between this baby and other children.
Rukmani finally accepts that bemoaning their fate and trying to lay blame is futile.
At one point in the novel, Ruku reflects on the building of the hospital. She informs us that at the time, no one knew it would take seven years to finish the building.
We discover that Old Granny has died of starvation. Ruku is pained because she could have helped the woman. Rather than offer to help, Rukmani actually accepted Old Granny’s last rupee as a gift for Ira’s baby, Sacrabani. Still, she ruminates on the fact that no one paid attention to Old Granny’s suffering in life because no one could afford to add her troubles to theirs.
The entire village takes care of the funeral arrangements for Old Granny.
Rukmani is already wary – people have begun to plague her to see if they can get spots at the hospital once it’s built. It’s clear to even her that only a few of the people that need help will be helped by the hospital. There’s just too much need.
Rukmani tries to follow along with the fundraising and financial planning Kenny and Selvam do. She is still baffled, however, because she believes there is not enough money or compassion in the world to help all who are in need.
Rukmani watches as Sacrabani begins to ask his mother difficult questions; he wants to know what it means to be a bastard, and where his father is.
Rukmani doesn’t offer any help during Ira’s talk with her child. After Sacrabani leaves the Ruku tells Ira it might have been better to tell the child his father was dead.
Ira leaves the hut, clearly distraught, but Rukmani chooses not to follow her.
Instead, she listens to Ira weep once Nathan goes out to her.
As the novel progresses, Rukmani tends to Nathan in his ailing health. She can’t help but worry that he needs to get better: the whole family relies on him being a breadwinner.
One day, Rukmani talks with Kenny frankly about their situation, and notes that their sons have all made their own way. She says they’re all in God's hands.
Rukmani comes home one day to find Nathan in a state of shock.
Hearing the news that their land is to be sold, Rukmani is shocked too. Surrounded by what she considers madness, Rukmani is unable to talk about the immense thing that has happened.
Rukmani has a few moments where she reflects on the tannery. She reasons that this business has brought nothing good. Still, she admits it once brought her family prosperity. She also recognizes that the land is also to blame for their ills, unreliable and unpredictable as it has always been.
Later, Rukmani is mostly quiet, while she watches her son and husband discuss what there is to do. She is hurt by Nathan’s insistence that he’s a broken old man. Nathan is a source of great comfort to her, however, because she realizes they need each other now more than ever. She reckons with the fact that they really have no choice but to go to her son, Murugan, in the city.
Rukmani is full of nostalgia as she packs up her last few items and prepares for the journey to the city. She gathers what little money they have, and she and Nathan saddle up together, waving goodbye to their family.
Once Nathan and Ruku reach the city, they realize they are not sure of how to find Murugan. They grow increasingly 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 travel, it’s too dark to do anything.
They go to a temple for food and shelter.
Rukmani tries to pray, and at first she can only concentrate on her family and all she’s left behind. Finally, she settles into prayer.
When the time comes for the sharing of the food offering, Rukmani finds a place within the jostling crowd. She handles some ridicule for trying to collect her and Nathan’s portion. In the end, they are forced to share one portion.
After eating, they note that their bundles have disappeared. They begin to search for their lost possessions, but slowly realize that their search is in vain.
Rukmani is irritated by the ease with which Nathan accepts the loss. All she can think of is the fact that she’ll go to her daughter-in-law like a beggar. She resolves to buy some things to bring to her daughter-in-law’s house.
As Ruku sleeps fitfully, she feels things rustling against her. She dismisses it as nothing, but can’t go back to sleep. She stays up marveling at the statues in the temple.
They next morning, Rukmani and Nathan realize that thy were robbed during the night.
They set out again to find Murugan, steeling themselves for more hunger.
At one moment during the journey, they watch some street children play.
Rukmani notes that the children are content enough, but seem to become animals once a scrap of food is dropped. One of the children, a boy named Puli, offers to help them find Murugan’s house.
Ruku follows Puli, their newfound guide, who he has lost his fingers to disease.
Nathan and Ruku are under the impression that Murugan is still employed by a doctor. When they arrive at the house where Murugan should be employed, Ruku lets Nathan do the talking.
Stunned by the fact that the doctor is a woman, Nathan stammers too much. Ruku immediately picks up his slack and explains why they are there.
Ruku and the doctor exchange questions: Ruku hears that Murugan now works for a Collector, while the doctor gets news of Kenny and the hospital.
Rukmani is pleasantly surprised by the doctor’s generosity: they have been invited to have dinner at her servant, Das’s house. The warmth she finds with Das’s wife even more pleasantly surprises Ruku. Rukmani is glad to be with such a happy, warm, young family again, and finds them to be a true breath of fresh air.
Ruku (as narrator) flips to the present for a second. To this day, she says, she likes to imagine Das’s wife as she was then, smiling and happy.
Nathan and Ruku set off to the Collector’s House, and are excited at the prospect of seeing their son and new daughter-in-law.
Unfortunately, they receive a rather cool greeting from Ammu, Murugan’s wife. Nathan and Ruku can both sense from the coolness of Ammu’s welcome, and both are shocked as the girl explains that her husband left her two years ago.
Ammu definitely doesn’t have resources to keep them. Rukmani accepts without the least bit of hesitation that Ammu had to turn to prostitution in order to support herself.
Rukmani is temporarily shaken, though, by Ammu’s open anger for her son. She feels the need to defend him, and suggests that perhaps he had his reasons for abandoning his wife. She apologizes for this quickly, realizing they’re all in a difficult situation.
Rukmani notes sadly that after they leave, she’ll likely never see this daughter-in-law and these children again.
Rukmani and Nathan settle back into temple life and make plans about how they’ll return to their village. Rukmani has the hopeful idea that she can set up as a letter writer in the marketplace to make some money.
Ruku makes a bit of money, but business isn’t so good.
One day Ruku is followed to the temple by the street boy, Puli. (He’s the one who showed the couple how to find Murugan in the first place.)
The boy stays with them at the temple, and Ruku worries that he should return to his parents.
When he says he has no parents, Ruku feels the tug to take care of him, though she knows she does not have the resources to do so.
Puli suggests that Rukmani and Nathan look for work at the nearby stone quarry. Ruku is glad for the work and makes the best of it.
Rukmani again makes hopeful plans with Nathan, calculating their return home. Still, she worries about what will happen to Puli as his leprosy worsens. The three settle into a lifestyle where they work at the quarry by day and sleep at the temple by night.
One day, Rukmani walks back from work with Puli. On the way, she stops at a vendor.
Ruku decides to spend more money at the market than usual. She reasons that they made a good amount that day, and almost have enough to return home.
Ruku spends more on food, and continues with some extravagances when she buys two toy pull-carts, one for Puli and one for Sacrabani.
Rukmani is a little ashamed, and panicked about what Nathan will say of these extravagances, but when she gets to the temple, she’s more concerned about his sudden illness.
She chastises him for working all day even though he was sick. She tries, to no avail, to get him to stay at the temple days. It is raining and Nathan is clearly not in good health, but he stubbornly refuses to stay at the temple.
Ruku works in the rain for nearly seven days with Nathan beside her. One day as she walks back alone from work, she sees a big crowd gathered.
She is called over because the crowd is surrounding her husband, who has fallen.
She tries to wrap her sari around him, but the clothe is so frail that this is useless.
Rukmani later recounts that she remembers every detail of this painful night.
She follows behind as Nathan is carried to the temple, and remembers only that she kept screaming like a mad woman, "Fire cannot burn in water."
Ruku is eventually left alone with her husband, holding his head in her lap. It becomes clear he’s going to die.
Ruku grieves deeply and explains that if she grieves it is only for herself, as she is losing her love and her life.
Still, as he passes, Ruku promises him they’ve always been happy together.
Rukmani turns to Puli to ease her grief over losing Nathan.
She promises him that his health will improve if he returns with her to the village.
Rukmani returns to her village with Puli, announcing to her children that she and Nathan had adopted the little boy.
Rukmani is reassured by Selvam’s and Ira’s reactions. She tells her son that his father passed gently, and they’ll talk about it later.