The tannery is, among many things, a symbol of modernity. It transforms the village environmentally and economically. It also transforms the relationships between the people within the village. People like Kunthi are glad for the tannery, while Rukmani sees its filthiness and commercialism as a threat to village life. Rukmani loses three sons to the tannery.
As a company, the tannery provided Arjun, Thambi, and Raja each with a different way to deal with their dire poverty. Without this opportunity Ruku’s sons might well have turned to the land, rather than turning away from their family. As a symbol of modernity, the tannery allows the boys to think of the larger developments going on in the world. This inspires two of them to leave their own home searching work elsewhere. Just as the tannery represents possibility beyond the family land, it also subtly degrades the importance of family life.
In addition to an economic role, the tannery has a social role in the novel. By working at the tannery, Ruku’s sons are breaking caste, or their fixed role within Hindu society. Just as the tannery ignores the tradition of agriculture on the land, it also ignores the tradition’s that family’s pass down from father to son. With the advent of the tannery, all bets are off. The values of family and tradition are supplanted by the possibilities that come with sprawling industrial modernity.