We meet our narrator Rukmani as an elderly woman, looking back over the events of her life. At the very onset Ruku (a nickname for Rukmani) launches into her life-story, describing what it means to be desperate and poverty stricken in rural 20th century India.
Rukmani begins her flashback reflecting on her marriage to Nathan. Ruku was the fourth daughter of a once-important village headman. As their wealth and status dwindled, it was hard to scrape together a dowry (money or possessions a woman would bring to her husband when married) for Ruku. As a result this fourth daughter was married to Nathan, a poor tenant farmer with no land, but a noble man nonetheless with heart of gold. Ruku settles into a simple farming life very happily, as Nathan is kind and loving with her. The main problem, though, is that she has had only one child, a daughter named Ira, after six years of marriage.
Ruku desperately wants sons, because giving birth to boys is a point of pride in Indian culture. So she pours her heart out to Kenny, a white doctor whom our protagonist first met when he was helping her dying mother. Ruku undergoes fertility treatment despite the fact that she never mentions it to her husband, Nathan. It must’ve been pretty potent medicine, as Ruku has five sons in the next few years. The family is happy enough, but with all these new mouths to feed, money is tight.
Big changes arrive with the construction of a tannery, where animal skins are cured. The noisy process disturbs Ruku, as she watches her home transformed from a quiet village to a dirty town. Other big changes come as Ira grows older and turns fourteen, the traditional age of marriage. A friendly member of the village, Old Granny, finds Ira a nice match through the common practice of arranged marriage. Ira’s groom is the sole inheritor of some land, and many members of the village turn out for the joyful but modest celebration.
Ira leaves for her husband’s home, and immediately thereafter, a terrible monsoon strikes. It seems as if the heavens are crying out in agony at the departure of the only daughter. The family faces near-starvation for the first time, but get to eat again when the rains end. Nathan and the sons harvest rice and hunt fish living in the wet fields.
However, it’s not long before disaster strikes again. Ira’s husband delivers Ira back to her parents’ home because she has failed to conceive a child. The family’s thin resources become stretched again, and Ruku’s two eldest sons go to work in the tannery to make extra money. Their decision to seek work outside of the land dashes Nathan’s hopes that his sons will take after him. The tannery jobs are good for a while though, and bring in some much-needed money. As a result the relative financial security the family experiences, they decide to celebrate the Festival of Lights, Deepavali Deepavali. On that joyous night, Ruku conceives her last baby.
Buoyed by the improving situation, Ruku seeks help from Kenny for Ira’s infertility (still keeping these treatments a secret from Nathan). One evening she is caught on a late night visit to Kenny by Kunthi, her old neighbor. In a scramble, Kunthi threatens to reveal what she knows about Ruku’s illicit visits to Kenny, and implies not-so-subtly that Ruku is having an affair. During their brief conversation Ruku realizes that Kunthi has turned to prostitution.
Ruku then makes another visit, this time to Ira’s former husband. Unfortunately, he has already married a new woman and won’t take Ira back (in spite of the recent fertility treatments). Ruku begins to realize that Ira maybe never leave home.
She encounters more grief when her educated sons start a strike at the tannery, petitioning for better wages. Ira is moody, the boys (now out of work because of scabs at the tannery) have grown sullen and distant, and Ruku feels like she no longer knows her children. Eventually, Arjun and Thambi, Ruku’s two eldest sons, answer a call for work at a tea plantation in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). She and Nathan let them go hesitantly, believing that they’ll never see the boys again. Ruku has "lost" another son too, as Kenny has found her third boy, Murugan, work as a servant in a distant city.
More ills befall the family. There’s a drought that season, which means no harvest. They sell off all their goods (but save their seed), hoping to make up half the rent for the land. Rukmani has saved up a little food to get them through, but Kunthi blackmails Rukmani to give up half of what she’s saved. Right after, she realizes the other half of food that remained is gone too. In an emotional exchange, Nathan reveals Kunthi extorted the rest of the rice from him. Kunthi threatened to reveal the fact that two of her sons were fathered by Nathan. Ruku and Nathan forgive each other, the air is clear between them, and yet they still face starvation.
In the meantime, Raja, Ruku’s fourth son, is killed at the tannery. His body is brought home. Soon after, tannery men visit to explain the death. Apparently Raja was trying to steal a calfskin and was so weak from hunger, that he fell dead when they beat him in punishment. They insist the tannery has no responsibility.
Things only worsen for Ruku and her family as they continue face starvation. The youngest child, Kuti, is taking it particularly hard. He’s weak and whimpering, but suddenly seems to start to get better.
One night, Ruku has a fight with a woman who is sneaking into their house late at night, thinking it’s Kunthi. It turns out to be Ira, who has turned to prostitution to bring money in to feed Kuti. Ruku doesn’t understand Ira’s decision, but she can’t stop her daughter, and besides, Kuti needs the food. In spite of the fact that the family does everything they can to feed the young boy, Kuti dies. In an ironic turn of events, the family has a rich harvest immediately after Kuti’s death.
Selvam, Ruku’s last remaining son, decides to leave the land and instead become Kenny’s assistant at the hospital. (By the way, did we mention that Kenny is building a hospital with funding from India and abroad?). Ruku accepts this piece of news, and then turns her attention to Ira, who is now pregnant with the child of one of her clients.
In another blow, the family’s embarrassment is augmented when they learn that Ira’s baby has a rare skin pigment disease known as albinism. Though the village is curious, Selvam chides everybody for being foolish: a baby is a baby and deserves love and attention. Eventually, everyone learns to accept the baby in spite of the fact that he looks different.
The family, as usual, is cobbling a life together, when the worst news of all comes. Sivaji, the man who collects dues for the landowner, arrives to announce to Nathan that the land he (Nathan) has rented for thirty years has been bought by the tannery. The family must leave their home in two weeks.
Nathan and Ruku are distraught and shocked. Nathan is too old to work on the land, and he can’t imagine setting up a new place. The whole family must make new plans. Nathan and Ruku will have to move in with Murugan, their son in the city whom they haven’t heard from in years. Ira and her baby, Sacrabani, will stay behind and live with Selvam.
Ruku and Nathan make the long journey to the unnamed city, only to discover that their son Murugan has deserted his wife and is no where to be found. Murugan’s wife has turned the prostitution, so their first meeting with her is somewhat less than joyful. Simply put, there’s no way she’ll be able to keep them. The old couple is basically out on their own: all their goods and their money were stolen earlier on the journey, and they have nowhere to stay.
They end up taking refuge in a temple where the city’s destitute are fed dinner and given shelter. All they can think of is returning home. Ruku decides to make a little money by setting up as a letter-writer and reader in the market. Business isn’t great, but every little bit helps.
Things take a turn for the better when Puli, a street orphan whom Ruku and Nathan met on the way to find Murugan’s house, shows up again in their life. Puli is fiercely independent, but he has leprosy, a serious illness that has taken his fingers. He unofficially adopts Nathan and Ruku, and he comes up with the plan of working at a stone quarry, gathering rocks for pay. With this job, Ruku, Nathan, and Puli establish something of a family routine, and begin saving up money to return to their village.
Just as they begin to have enough money, Nathan becomes ill. In spite of his illness, Nathan insists on working at the quarry. One day as Ruku is following behind him home, she finds he has collapsed into a ditch in convulsions. Helpful onlookers carry Nathan back to the temple, and Ruku holds him in her arms through the night, ministering to him as he dies.
Ruku and Puli return to the village, where Selvam, Ira, and Sacrabani greet them. Ira immediately warmly welcomes Puli, while Selvam and Ruku walk a little behind them, addressing the conspicuous absence of Nathan. Selvam assures his mother they will find some way to manage.