While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for? (1.39)
Here Rukmani describes her ideal life. She delights in simple pleasures, and her ranking of important things includes food to eat and the beauty of the land. A happy life is made up of countless external factors, and while Rukmani is grateful for many of them, she can endure with only a few if she must.
"You chatter like a pair of monkeys," said Kali’s husband, "with less sense. What use to talk of ‘exchange’ and so forth? Their life is theirs and yours is yours; neither change nor exchange is possible." (8.14)
Kali’s husband thinks that there’s no use in reflecting on and examining one’s life, especially not relative to other people’s. It’s interesting that while Ruku is usually on the side of passively accepting what life brings to her, she can still judge the lives of others. She pities the Muslim women locked up at home. Though she doesn’t understand them, they are actually in parallel situations, each having equally pitiable external circumstances over which they have no control.
"Whatever will they say?" I said, my face burning as he let me down again. "At our age too! You ought to be ashamed!"
"That I am not," he said, winking, to the vast delight of the onlookers. "I am happy because life is good and the children are good, and you are the best of all."
What more could I say after that? (10.17)
Nathan, like Ruku, sees life simply. He and his family are in the most joyous part of their lives, celebrating Deepavali together, and Nathan is overcome with emotion. His happiness doesn’t rely on material goods, but rather he sees life as the sum of a good family and a good wife above all. It makes sense, then, that even in darkest times, Nathan can be incredibly happy and loving with his wife. She is probably the most central part of his life.
"Why fear?" said the old lady. "Am I note alone, and do I not manage?"
I thought of her sitting in the street all day long with the gunny sacking in front of her piled with a few annas’ worth of nuts and vegetables; and I thought of Ira doing the same thing, and I was silent.
"It is not unbearable," said she, watching me with her shrewd eyes. "One gets used to it.:
It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and the smell of the tannery; they no longer affected me. I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast from town, and I grieved no more; so now I accepted the future and Ira’s lot in it;… (11.47)
Faced with Old Granny’s poverty and isolation, Ruku has to admit that life is inescapably hard, especially for lone women. However, Old Granny offers the view that life is about adaptability and the ability to get used to anything. Ruku relinquishes her worry a little bit about this: one cannot strive in the face something against which one is powerless. Life is about change, and no amount of worrying will change that.
What was it we had to learn? To fight against tremendous odds? What was the use? One only lost the little one had. Of what use to fight when the conclusion is known? (12.23)
Rukmani disagrees with the assertion of Kenny and her sons that people must learn to fight for what they want. Ruku is not a risk-taker. To her, the potential consequences must out-weigh the potential risks. It’s important here to note that it isn’t that Ruku doesn’t understand that one can fight. Rather, she has thought about it and still decides that fighting isn’t worth it. In this passage, she proves she isn’t just a mindless pushover – instead she sees her life as a balance of the desired and the possible.
"Would you have us wasting our youth chafing against things we cannot change?" (12.51)
Ruku’s sons are very different than her and Nathan. Arjun responds sharply to her that the idea of wasting away one’s youth working against impossible odds is foolish. Of course, this is similar to what Ruku and Nathan have done, sticking their heads in the sand when life seems to offer them no options. The difference is not that they are less ambitious than their sons, but perhaps that they are less angry, and more accepting. Nathan and Ruku decided long ago that it is easier to stay and bear poverty in a place they know, than to set off to ills they know not of elsewhere. Even if it’s a poor life, this is their life.
"Let us not sacrifice the future to our immediate need."
"What is the alternative?" he shouted. "Do you think I am blind and do not see, or so stupid as to believe that crops are raised without seed? Do you take me for a fool that—"
He was not shouting at me, but at the terrible choice forced upon us; (13.57)
This is only one of the many such choices that Ruku and Nathan have to make – faced with the problem of alleviating immediate poverty, they are essentially forced to cut off their hands to pay for their feet. Whether they’re selling their seed for the land or collecting dung off the land to fuel their stoves instead of letting it be fertilizer, they’re constantly sacrificing the present for the future.
Hope, and fear. Twin forces that tugged at us first in one direction, and then another, and which was the stronger no one could say. Of the latter, we never spoke, but it was always with us. Fear, constant companion of the peasant. (14.3)
Rukmani accepts that fear rules her life. Hope is a salve, but fear is the far more overpowering of the two. Ultimately, it feels like hope is the kind of thing one tells oneself in worst moments, a gentle lie to stave off the impending darkness.
Privately I thought, Well, and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creatures indeed to be so weak, for is not a man’s spirit given to him to rise above his misfortunes? As for our wants, they are many and unfilled, for who is so rich or compassionate as to supply them? Want is our companion from birth to death, familiar as the seasons or the earth, varying only in degree. What profit to bewail that which has always been and cannot change? (19.36)
Rukmani vacillates between viewing her acceptance of the world as a strength and as a weakness. She has a noble spirit, choosing to endure in the face of adversity. On the other hand, her nobility is the necessary consequence of her life. Maybe she could give in to the hopelessness around her, but what would that accomplish? In the end, perhaps what seems like nobility isn’t that at all – just the necessary lens, a lie one tells oneself.
So it had been with my sons, so it was now with Old Granny, one day it might be the same for me, for all of us. A man might drift to his death before his time unnoticed, but when he was dead and beyond any care then at last he was sure of attention… (21.3)
Death is indeed an expected end to life. But it may also be a welcome reprieve. The meticulous care a deceased person is painful to Rukmani because it sharply contrasts the fact that such care is missing in life. It’s as if the care people wish they could give to each other is reserved for one big farewell, once a person is no longer there to make demands.
"At least it stood until the worst was over," said Kali to me, "and by God’s grace we were all spared." She looked worn out; in the many years I had known her I had never seen her so deflated. She had come to ask for some palm leaves to thatch the new hut her husband was building; but I could only point to the blackened tree, its head bitten off and hanging by a few fibres from the withered stump.
"We must thatch our roof before the night," I said. "The rains may come again. We need rice too." (7.12)
Usually, suffering inspires empathy and sympathy from others. In this situation, though, everyone is suffering, and it seems no one has anything to share or give each other. Ruku deals with this delicate situation in a rather matter-of-fact way by denying help to her friend. It might seem a little harsh to us, but in desperate times, everyone’s pretty much on his own. It’s a bit jarring, and it makes us think that when Ruku’s family falls on hard times, no one will be there to help them. Still, Ruku expects to be treated that way, so maybe it’s not a big deal when she treats others that way.
"Times are better, times are better," he shouts. "Times will not be better for many months. Meanwhile you will suffer and die, you meek, suffering fools. Why do you keep this ghastly silence? Why do you not demand—cry out for help—do something?" (7.44)
For Kenny, the solution to suffering is to cry out. He thinks the people don’t cry out because they somehow think the suffering is noble. What he does not realize is that sometimes when you cry out, there’s no one there to help or listen. To Kenny, something must be done about suffering. To Ruku, it’s all well and good that something should be done, but that doesn’t mean anything will, be done. She reasons that it is best to grin and bear one’s burden, rather than be disappointed when no help arrives.
How heartless are the young! One would have thought from his words we had purposefully starved him, when in fact of what there was he always got the biggest share after my husband.
"So," I said, "we do not do enough for you. These are fine words from an eldest son. They do not make good hearing."
"You do everything you can," he said. "It is not enough. I am tired of hunger and I am tired of seeing my brothers hungry. There is never enough, especially since Ira came to live with us." (9.22)
Rukmani knows that she’s been trying her best, and that her best is not enough. Still, she resents this fact being pointed out. To her, suffering is an opportunity for everyone to put their lot in together, and really get through it as a group. Arjun has less romantic notions about suffering – he’s hungry, and while his mom might get an "A" for effort, that’s not filling his empty belly. He, like Kenny, thinks there are ways to get around suffering instead of accepting it nobly.
Nathan said not a word. There was a crushed look about him which spoke of the deep hurt he had suffered more than any words could have done. He had always wanted to own his own land, through the years there had been the hope, growing fainter with each year, each child, that one day he would be able to call a small portion of land his own. Now even his sons knew it would never be. (9.37)
Suffering in this book is bigger than the small failures of crops and harvests. Nathan’s whole life is wrapped up in the land. When his sons cruelly point out that they won’t work on the land because the land will never be theirs, they aren’t just getting out of fieldwork. They’re crushing their father’s spirit. Suffering doesn’t only come from droughts and monsoons – sometimes it’s the people closest to you that can hurt you the most.
"Enough!" he shouted. "More than enough has been said. Our children must act as they choose to, not for our benefit. Is it not enough that they suffer?"
The veins on his forehead were bulging. I had never seen him so angry before. Kali went away. Then the men went too, father and sons, leaving me alone who had no understanding. (12.30)
In Nectar in a Sieve, father and sons suffer in different ways. Ruku doesn’t grasp any of it, perhaps because it is the quietly desperate suffering of men who cannot provide for their family. Because this burden does not belong to Ruku, she cannot understand this problem. Nathan likely feels impotent because he cannot provide for his family. Still, the desertion of his sons only adds to his suffering and his wounded pride. He must now go at it alone, and they have robbed him of both physical help and morale.
"That is why he and his kind are employed," Nathan said bitterly. "To protect overlords from such unpleasant tasks. Now the landlord can wring from us his moneys and care not for the misery he evokes, for indeed it would be difficult for any man to see another starve and his wife and children as well; or to enjoy the profits born of such travail." (13.23)
It seems that suffering only exists in the world because people who are not suffering can close their eyes to it. It would be hard to eat your dinner while watching one of those "Save the Children" commercials, but it is pretty easy to change the channel. Sivaji the Collector is essentially the means for the Zemindar to not have to see the suffering he causes others.
There we were, the four of us, hysterical, released, rocking with laughter and gasping for breath which ran out as fast as we sucked it in. The hollow cheeks and bulging stomachs, the grotesque, jutting bones, became matter for laughter; already, though they were still with us, in our minds they belonged to the past—to the painful past that we thrust from us with all our force; and the laughter was in some measure born of relief that we could do so. (17.2)
At some point, the degree to which this family suffers is actually absurd. It seems like there is always something devastating occurring: starvation, losing daughters to prostitution, monsoons, drought, etc. The characters of this story seem to only be able to make sense of it through laughter. Their laughter is strange: in some ways it’s triumphant, but in other ways, it’s really just an opportunity to recognize the utter insanity and great irony of everything that’s happened to them. Laughter takes power and gravity away from suffering, but it also might be the only way one can react to a suffering that is inexplicable and unjustifiable.
Nevertheless, after a little while he did go to her and his gentleness melted her last remnants of control, for she began to weep. I heard her crying for a long time. (22.30)
Ruku is at first alarmed that Ira shows no signs of horror or revulsion at her own child. When Ira finally does break down, Rukmani doesn’t go to her. Is this Ruku breathing a sigh of relief that her daughter is not crazy? Does Ruku feel ashamed at all for not alleviating any of Ira’s suffering?
For all their play they looked as if they had never eaten a full meal in their lives, with their ribs thrusting out and bellies full-blown like drums with wind and emptiness; and they were also extremely dirty with the dust of the roadside and the filth deposited upon it; and the running sores many of them had upon their bodies were clogged with mud where blood or pus had exuded. But they themselves were forgetful of their pains—or patient with tem as the bullock had been—and played naked and merry in the sun. (25.16)
Suffering isn’t the only emotion present in the novel. Even in the most awful situations, there are moments of joy to be snatched from the clutches of despair. These street kids have the same desire for joy that other kids do, even if they don’t live totally normal lives and are reduced to scrapping over crusts.
There is no touching this girl, I thought. Misfortune has hardened her, which is just as well, she will take many a knock yet. (26.50)
Ammu’s approach to suffering is essentially the exact opposite of Ruku’s. While Ruku bears her suffering with piety and an obstinate hopefulness, Ammu has decided to view the world as one big place full of people trying to take advantage of her. Still, you might not be able to blame the girl for being so harsh – Ruku always has Nathan to share the burden, while Ammu suffers alone.
How quickly children grow! They are infants—you look away a minute and in that time they have left their babyhood behind. Our little girl ran about in the sun bare and beautiful as she grew, with no clothes to hamper her limbs or confine her movements. Then one day when she was five—long before Arjun was born—Nathan pointed her out to me as she played in the fields.
"Cover her," he said. "It is time."
I wanted to cry out that she was a baby still, but of course Nathan was right; she had left infancy forever. (3.38)
From the moment that Ira stops being an infant, she is burdened with what it means to be a woman in this society. Her life will change: her parents will clothe her, and the restrictions on her behavior and movement will increase until she’s finally sent off to be married. Though her parents make these changes and restrictions against her with the best of intentions, nothing will protect her from the world.
Change I had known before, and it had been gradual. My father had been a headman once, a person of consequence in our village: I had lived to see him relinquish this importance, but the alteration was so slow that we hardly knew when it came. I had seen both my parents sink into old age and death, and here too there was no violence. But the change that now came into my life, into all our lives, blasting its way into our village, seemed wrought in the twinkling of an eye. (4.1)
Ruku has a million reasons to resent the tannery, but she suggests that it’s the swiftness of the transformation it brought about that’s hardest to bear. It’s not just the tannery itself that bothers Ruku. What upsets Rukmani most is the fact that even from its earliest building stages, it was clear that the tannery would change the pace of village life. It’s almost as if the changes brought about by the tannery bleed into nearly every facet of Ruku’s life.
"Besides, you will not want me so often," I said. "This home, your brothers, are all you have known so far, but when you have your own home and your own children you will not miss these… (6.8)
A woman traditionally leaves her father’s house for her husband’s house. Rukmani knows that Ira will miss her, but she seems pretty comfortable with Ira essentially trading her old family for a new family. Rukmani can be wistful about this, but the reality is that her daughter’s success will require cutting ties with her past and setting up shop elsewhere. Rukmani seems to accept this change glibly, as she does with most things that pain her deeply.
Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew—or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be. (10.5)
Rukmani can’t afford to think of the fates of the people whose lives are changing around her. She’s just on the cusp of great disaster herself, and if she thinks of Janaki she’ll be forced to remember the instability and uncertainty they all share, relying on the land. Pushing away thoughts of Janaki is Rukmani’s futile attempt to pretend the current happiness and stability she’s having are going to last.
"I will have an answer."
"I can give you none."
Nathan’s brows drew together: she had never before spoken to him in this manner. Looking at her, it seemed to me that almost overnight she had changed; she had been tender and modest and obedient, now she had relinquished every one of these qualities; it was difficult to believe she had ever been their possessor. (16.52)
Before she turned to some way to make a little money, Ira was just moping around the house, ashamed of her barrenness. Her change of attitude is actually pretty understandable. In the face of the other changes she experienced, such as losing her husband, Ira was a passive victim. With this change of career, Ira is actually making her own choice: she’s transformed from a victim to an agent of her own fate. It’s kind of empowering, even though her choice leads to an illegal activity.
Not in the town, where all that was natural had long been sacrificed, but on its outskirts, one could still see the passing of the season. For in the town there were the crowds, and streets battened down upon the earth, and the filth that men had put upon it; and one walked with care for what might lie beneath one’s feet or threaten from before or behind; and in this preoccupation forgot to look at the sun or the stars, or even to observe they had changed their setting in the sky: and knew nothing of the passage of time save in dry frenzy, by looking at a clock. But for us, who lived by the green, quiet fields, perilously close though these were to the town, nature still gave its muted message. Each passing day, each week, each month, left its sign, clear and unmistakable. (20.1)
The center of the town changes dramatically, but the outskirts remain village-like. The transformation of the seasons is still visible in the village areas – though the people of the town can’t afford to notice it. The seasons will continue to happen reliably, whether or not people recognize them any longer.
He understood her well, better than I did who was her mother; in fact, I wonder whether parents ever know their children as they know one another. (22.1)
Ruku’s children are her joy and pride – indeed she wasn’t a happy woman until she had sons. The fact that Ruku begins to recognize the closeness her children share with each other signals a change in her own thinking. Her children do not really belong to her. Ruku resigns herself to the fact that they’ll do what they want, and that she’ll never be able to rely on knowing who they are. Ruku’s realization helps her deal with her children as they evolve from obedient boys and girls to independent, and sometimes rebellious, men and women (i.e. when Selvam chooses to leave the land, and Ira turns to selling her body).
"What can we do? There are many like ourselves who cannot provide for the future. You know it yourself."
"Yes; I know…. I do not know why I asked; it was needless. There is no provision at all," he said, speaking half to himself, "neither for old nor young nor sick. They accept it; they have no option." (23.22)
This is the first time Kenny admits that Ruku has a point. He seems a bit worn down by the desperation, suffering, and uncertainty around him. He’s finally able to admit that maybe people around him are in insurmountably difficult situations. It’s interesting that he doesn’t sound broken, just realistically resigned to reality.
There had been a time when we, too, had benefited—those days seemed very remote now, almost belonging to another life—but we had lost more than we had gained or could ever regain. Ira had ruined herself at the hands of the throngs that the tannery attracted. None but these would have laid hands on her, even at her bidding. My sons had left because it frowned on them; one of them had been destroyed by its ruthlessness. And there were others its touch had scathed. Janaki and her family, the hapless chakkli Kannan, Kunthi even…. (23.57)
Ruku looks at the tannery as a major force of negative change in her life. It’s notable that she has all of this angry feeling towards the tannery, but later she’ll admit that nature has as much of an effect on her wellbeing as the tannery. She seems to be more accepting of nature’s impact, whereas she really resents the tannery for its influence. We’ve got to wonder how this is justifiable in her mind, when they are both just external circumstances over which she has little control.
As it was we said no more—not that night at any rate, although subsequently we had more discussions than I can recount—accepting only that we were to go and that our children and grandchild were to stay. (23.94)
This is a major change in roles of the family – the parents can no longer take care of the children, but the children cannot yet take care of the parents. There’s pain in the separation, but it’s also painful to think of how much Nathan and Ruku sacrificed for their children, only to come to this point. The land they’ve worked so hard for, in the end, is a thing they have to leave.
Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you. So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat. (7.1)
Ruku’s thinking about nature might be a little naïve. Whether she’s looking at Nature or not, it’s going to do what it darn well pleases. Of course she and Nathan have little effect on the land (like, crops will grow where they plant seed) but ultimately nature has the final say.
"Words and words," said Kunthi. "Stupid words. No wonder they call us senseless peasant women; but I am not and never will be. There is no earth in my breeding."
"If there were you would be the better for it," said I wrathfully, "for then your values would be true." (8.1)
Nature is equated with moral goodness in Ruku’s mind. For Kunthi, Nature’s simplicity is reflective of a lack of urban sophistication. Each woman interprets nature differently. Where do these beliefs come from? This is akin to a chicken/egg situation: maybe they get their beliefs from their observations of nature, or maybe they selectively see in nature only what confirms their beliefs.
"Two more mouths to feed," she complained. "Only one of my three sons had the sense to go back. I do not know what is to become of us, for the land cannot sustain us all. So much for reading and writing," she said, accusing me with eye and finger. (12.25)
Kali blames Ruku for her own difficulties: she (Kali) complains that the land can’t sustain her family. It is interesting to note that this would have been true whether or not Ruku had educated her kids. Kali is presenting a false dichotomy, as if the incompatibility of nature and learning is to blame her troubles. (It is actually the tannery, and its refusal to pay properly, that are at fault).
He coaxed me out into the sunlight and we sat down together on the brown earth that was part of us, and we gazed at the paddy fields spreading rich and green before us, and they were indeed beautiful. (12.63)
When Ruku and Nathan are disappointed by the external circumstances of their life, particularly their sons’ choices, they turn to the land for spiritual healing. It is almost as though the land is as much a part of them as their own children.
I took the paddy from him and parted the grass and there within its protective husk lay the rice-grain, just big enough to see, white, perfect, and holding in itself our lives. (12.65)
Ruku and Nathan minister to the land and often talk of how they see it as a part of themselves, but here we get the hint that actually Nature is in control. The seeds metaphorically hold their lives, but the land is literally in control of their lives – if they do not harvest they do not eat.
…before long the rain came lashing down, making up in fury for the long drought and giving the grateful land as much as it could suck and more. But in us there was nothing left—no joy, no call for joy. It had come too late. (13.73)
Nature alone cannot provide happiness, even if it is forgiving after it has been so cruel.
The sowing of seed disciplines the body and the sprouting of the seed uplifts the spirit, but there is nothing to equal the rich satisfaction of a gathered harvest… (17.9)
Ruku is continually hurt by the drought as it slowly kills her loved ones. Here we see her tactic for endurance: she constantly rationalizes, as though her interaction with the land is part of her own personal development. This kind of rationalization may be dangerous, but it is perhaps the only way Ruku can survive against these terrible odds. The rich harvest is not a given consequence of discipline and an uplifted spirit, it’s just a joyous coincidence that has more to do with luck than with anything else.
This is one of the truths of our existence as those who live by the land know: that sometimes we eat and sometimes we starve. We live by our labours from one harvest to the next, there is no certain telling whether we shall be able to feed ourselves and our children, and if bad times are prolonged we know we must see the weak surrender their lives and this fact, too, is within our experience. In our lives there is no margin for misfortune. (23.58)
Ruku recognizes that the yield of the land is rather arbitrary – sometimes it delivers and sometimes it doesn’t. When she’s frank like this with us, it puts the rest of her philosophical talk about the religious value of suffering and endurance in perspective. It’s as though she knows, deep down, that this isn’t about a moral or philosophical life, but about simply feeding one’s family. The moral and philosophical stuff is just a way to deal with the arbitrarily cruel forces of nature, almost a self-delusional pacification, and Ruku seems to concede that here.
With each passing day the longing for the land grew; our plans were forged against a background of brown earth and green fields and the ripe rustling paddy, not, curiously, as they were, but as we had first known them… fresh, open and unspoilt, with their delicate scents and sounds untainted, with skies clear above them and the birds finding sanctuary in the grasses. And at the same time, keeping pace with these longings, our distaste for the city grew and grew and became a sweeping, pervading hatred. (27.9)
Ruku and Nathan’s remoteness from their land has allowed them to romanticize it – they think of it fondly because they only remember the good times there, not the bad times that drove them to the city in the first place. They’re basically suffering from emotional and economic dislocation, and they use their dislocation from the land as a proxy for their frustrations. They well know that Nature is not a magically happy place, and returning to it will not solve anything, but while they’re away from it, they can dream of it being better than it actually was, because it’s definitely better than where they are now. (Or is it?).
I remember looking up for the flare that had ever burnt on the top of the temple, and it was quenched; and the black demons of fear came shrieking at my ear and would not be silenced, for all that I repeated like a madwoman, "Fire cannot burn in water." (29.2)
Ruku knows Nathan is dying. Of all the things she’s endured in her life, this one alone cannot be rationalized. We see if she hadn’t been doing that the whole time, she might have been driven to madness. It brings to mind Hamlet’s potent line to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (For more on Hamlet, see our module.) Ruku could bear the cruelty of nature to her harvests and livelihood, but she cannot bear nature’s inevitable touch of death. Like her other philosophical moments, she’s philosophizing on the truth of nature, but this philosophy doesn’t bring her any comfort – it only exposes that man is powerless in the face of natural events.
To the children I handed out two annas apiece, to be spent on fireworks. I had never been able to do so before -- in previous years we had contented ourselves with watching other people's fireworks, or with going down to the bonfire in the village, and even now I felt qualms about wasting money on such quickly spent pleasures; but their rapturous faces overcame my misgivings. It is only once, I thought, a memory. (10.1.)
Ruku is usually very frugal, so her decision to spend on a little extravagance is quite meaningful. It’s a reminder of what it really means to be in poverty, and it helps the reader to see the characters as more than archetypes of people living in dire poverty, anonymous faces crowded together in food lines at refugee camps. Poverty is about worrying how you’ll provide simple necessities for your family. This is why things that are small, like fireworks or the dum-dum cart, are so meaningful. Though they seem like nothing, they come at great costs.
"What is it that calls you?" I said. "Is it gold? Although we have none, remember that money isn’t everything."
"It is an important part of living," he answered me patiently, "and work is another. There is nothing for us here, for we have neither the means to buy land nor to rent it." (12.50)
Ruku has resigned herself to living in poverty, and she says it’s because she’s come around to realizing that money isn’t everything. From her narrative, we know she enjoys living on the land, and she gets her pleasure from it. Her sons, by contrast, show no such proclivity for the land. Because they do they not share her pleasure in the land, they don’t share her comfort with the consequent poverty of living on the land.
At one time there had been kingfishers here, flashing between the young shoots for our fish; and paddy birds; and sometimes, in the shallower reaches of the river, flamingoes, striding with ungainly precision among the water reeds, with plumage of a glory not of this earth. Now birds came no more, for the tannery lay close—except crows and kites and such scavenging birds, eager for the town’s offal… (12.63)
Poverty is bigger than just economic poverty. The novel mainly focuses on the financial troubles of Ruku’s family caused by the tannery, but the tannery’s impact is even greater. The land has been robbed and become poverty-stricken by the tannery’s actions. The birds are gone, the water is polluted, a stench pervades the town – ultimately the landscape suffers as irrevocably as the people.
She had no relatives left—no person on whom she had any claim—certainly there was no one to enquire whether she made a living or how much longer she could continue to do so. Better to avoid such questions, better to pass quickly by with a cheerful word than to stop and ask, for who would lightly take on the burden of feeding another mouth? And so one day she quietly disappeared. They found her body on the path that led to the well, an empty mud pot beside her and the gunny sacking tied around her waist. She had died of starvation. (21.2)
Old Granny was alone in her poverty, and Ruku had to be remote from her because of Ruku’s own poverty. Poverty not only makes you unable to help yourself, it puts you in a position where you can’t help others, no matter how much you want to. Ruku lives in a community beset by poverty, and its crippling effect often incapacitates the community. It costs friendships and lives, and there is nothing to be done in the face of it. One can only walk by and pretend to ignore the hungry bellies of others, as if unable to hear over one’s own rumbling stomach.
"I would do so if only it were in my hands. But what comfort can one offer a man who sees his family wholly dependent on him and no one else to see to them?" (23.7)
Ruku worries that she sounds selfish when she says Nathan has good reason to be worried because his whole family relies on him. Still, she knows it’s the truth. The family lives in poverty, in some part, because of Nathan’s choice to stay on rented land (and his inability to buy it). They rely entirely on Nathan to just get by. Ultimately there’s little anyone else in the family can do to get them out of poverty, as Ruku says the land is a man’s domain. As the other men in their life have deserted them, their poverty rests on Nathan’s shoulders. The cultural and physical bounds of society (where only men can do valuable economic work on the land) are intertwined with the economic reality of poverty.
"We must go to Murugan. He has a good job—I am sure he will welcome his parents."
"It is a long way. With respect, you are not as young or as fit as you were."
"Yet the effort must be made," said Nathan, "for we cannot live except by the land, for I have no other knowledge or skill; and as you say I am getting on and for me it would be impossible to find another landlord. Who indeed would rent his land to such as I am, past hard labour and uncertain of paying what I owe?" (23.71)
Poverty is crippling – you work and work to make just enough to get by, and in the end you sacrifice your future. Nathan has been able to keep his family afloat with the work of his body – still, he has not made enough to protect them in the time when his body is broken. In the end, his only recourse is to beg for charity from his son. Work kept his family just shy of poverty, so once he is unable to work, his family ends up in dire straits. This isn’t just a Third World problem of the past; it’s the plight of the modern poor who don’t make enough for retirement, and who can’t pay their medical bills once they no longer work. Again, poverty is a feedback loop, you can’t get out of it once you’re in it, and there’s no lifesaver but charity.
Merry, that is, until a crust of bread fell on the road or a sweetmeat toppled from an over-ambitious pyramid when, all childishness lost, all play forgotten, they fought ferociously in the dust for the food. (25.16)
Poverty has taken childhood away from these children – they’re reduced to mere animals. In spite of the happiness they find in play, their poverty is ultimately a greater defining force in their lives.
"Outsiders should not be allowed," they grumbled. "Are there not enough destitute in this city without the whole of India flocking in?"
We looked at them resentfully: were we not as hungry as they? Soon we were looking at newcomers with a fearful eye, wondering with each fresh new arrival how much less there would be. (27.6)
We see in the novel how poverty breeds isolation, competitiveness, pettiness, and suffering. When Ruku has these simple fears when she looks at other poverty-stricken people, the problem suddenly becomes a lot clearer. There simply isn’t enough to go around, and even what little people get from charity is only going to be diminished by the ever-expanding need for charity.
But how? We have no money. My husband can till and sow and reap with skill, but here there is no land. I can weave and spin, or plait matting, but there is no money for spindle, cotton or fibre. For where shall a man turn who has no money? Where can he go? Wide, wide world, but as narrow as the coins in your hand. Like a tethered goat, so far and no farther. Only money can make the rope stretch, only money. (27.11)
Here we see the vicious cycle of poverty – without a little money, it seems one can’t make a little money. Poverty is a dead end; and it adds insult to injury that one can see the road to riches, but can’t take the first step onto it.
Plans, everyone had plans. They were all built on money. Save enough to keep dry, save enough to cast one’s chains, save enough to go away. (28.39)
Poverty often hinges on making enough to get by, but provides no buffer. For the people striving to make a living (literally just enough to live on) the only safety buffer they have is making plans about what they’ll do when they magically make a little extra money. Of course, this money will never come (and Ruku tells us as much here), but it seems these delusional and optimistic plans are necessary to keep one going in the face of certain poverty. Nathan used to lie to himself about buying a little land, Ruku used to think of saving for Ira’s second dowry; it’s only when Ruku sees other people making plans that she has the objectivity to realize they’re all only fooling themselves. Poverty is their lot, and planning for an optimistic future is their soothing lie.
A few days after our conversation the shop finally closed down. Nobody asked: "Where do you go from here?" They did not say, "What is to become of us?" We waited and one day they came to bid us farewell, carrying their possessions, with their children trailing behind, all but the eldest, whom the tannery had claimed. Then they were gone, and the shopkeepers were glad that there was less competition, and the worker who moved into their hut was pleased to have a roof over his head, and we remembered them for a while and then took up our lives again. (8.9)
In order to maintain her own home, Ruku cannot afford to worry about the homes of others. This is an important moment to recognize that the home is a self-contained unit. People don’t compete like they do in the city, but each woman must fend for her home and her home alone.
My husband especially had been looking forward to the day when they would join him in working the land; but Thambi only shook his head. (9.35)
Nathan envisions his sons will continue on the tradition of their agricultural profession. Their rejection of the land is more than a career choice. When they walk away from the family land, they’re walking away from their family and their place in the home. (Ironically, Nathan had wanted sons to work alongside him, and he endures and sacrifices to raise them, only to be deserted by them.)
They spoke soothingly—of how much they would earn, and how one day they would return—as one does to a child; and I listened to them; and it was all a sham, a poor shabby pretence to mask our tortured feelings.
They left at first daylight, each carrying a bundle with food in it, and each before he went kissed Nathan’s feet, then mine, and we laid our hands on them in blessing. I knew we would never see them again. (12.56)
The eldest boys, who had almost specifically been bred to work alongside their father, and keep up the family tradition and home, are the first to leave. Ruku knows she’ll never see them again, but she is silent about their desertion. Ironically, while boys were supposed to stay and keep the family, girls were meant to go off and become part of their husband’s families. While Ruku slowly loses son after son to one thing or another, Ira is the one left behind (with Selvam) to hold together the family.
"I have the usual encumbrances that men have—wife, children, home—that would have put chains about me but I resisted, and so I am alone. As for coming and going, I do as I please, for am I not my own master?" (12.77)
Kenny, interestingly, will be echoed by Puli, who will later say he has no mother to worry over him or to worry him. With Kenny, there’s always the tendency to interpret his words thinking about race or colonialism. When we think about what it means that Kenny and Puli share some of the same tendencies, we might recognize that both are just boys with wanderlust – they have no sense of home, maybe because they never could, or maybe because they didn’t want it.
"We can do without these, but if the land is gone our livelihood is gone, and we must thenceforth wander like jackals." (13.25)
When the land actually is sold much later in the novel, Rukmani takes the time to reflect on all the memories she’s had in her home. Nathan, by contrast, shows here that he’s perhaps more practical and less romantic. Nathan’s first concern is a roof and a livelihood – the home means a different thing to him than to Rukmani.
"…You live and work here, and there is in your heart solicitude for us and love for our children. But this is not your country and we are not your people. If you lived here your whole life it still would not be."
"My country," he said. "Sometimes I do not know which is my country. Until today I had thought perhaps it was this." (18.56)
The only thing that changed today was that Kenny actually arrived back in the village. It seems deep down, he has a tendency towards romantic optimism, as evidenced by his undying hope about building the hospital. Kenny likely thought of India as his home while he was away in his England because he didn’t fit in there either. Kenny is perhaps too judgmental of every place to really comfortably fit in anywhere. He’s at home in his own dislocation.
"I will not be a burden to you. I am happy enough here, people are used to me and to my son. I cannot start a new life now." (23.85)
Ira is at home in the village, even though it has been an unhappy place for her. Home is not always where one is joyful, but rather where one is comfortable. Ira has grown accustomed to hardship, and she’d rather face it at home than go seek it elsewhere. Ironically, her parents will also come to the same conclusion.
The promise of shelter had been kept however: food, and somewhere to sleep. (24.80)
The bundles contained the last remnants of Nathan and Ruku’s old life. Losing them is a symbolic break with the old home. The new requirements for comfort are not as major as a place for family, security, and joy. Now, even basic accommodations, like food and shelter, are a comfort.
The children giggled delightedly, wriggling with pleasure. Their mother was peering into one of the pots on the fire, stirring and tasting. "Ready now," she said with satisfaction, wiping her streaming eyes with the corner of her sari. (25.74)
Markandaya subtly paints a picture in this paragraph. Rukmani is essentially observing an idyllic home, and you can bet she’s imagining what it would be like to be sitting across from Ira, surrounded by her own grandchildren with a warm full pot on the stove. It’s enough to comfort Ruku for the moment, but it’s still a shining example of what Ruku and her family never will have.
"You had better go home," I said, nudging him. "What will your poor mother think if you stay here all night?"
"I have no mother, poor or otherwise," he said. "There is no one to worry about me and none to worry me either, which is a good thing," and turning on his side he fell instantly asleep. (27.54)
It’s funny that after declaring he likes to be without an anchor in the world, Puli becomes attached to the old couple. Ruku’s narration makes it seem like they depend on him more than he does on them. In the end, however, Puli returns to the village with Ruku. Though the boy is without an actual dwelling, he finds something of a home in the care and love of Rukmani and Nathan.
"You are too young to understand," said Nathan. "This is not my home, I can never live here." (27.125)
Nathan links his notion of home to his age. Strictly speaking, Nathan doesn’t actually have a home to return to – no land belongs to him, and his hut is no longer a roof for his head. Home is metaphorical, more a memory from a past time than any certainty Nathan actually has to return to.
My spirit ached with pity for her, I longed to be able to comfort her, to convince her that in a few months’ time her new home would be the most significant part of her life, the rest only a preparation… (6.9)
On the one hand, Rukmani is giving away her first-born child, but on the other, she went through this same process of being given away. It’s bittersweet that a mother must think on her own abandonment by her mother as she gives away her daughter. When a daughter does set up her new home, she will focus more on her new family than her old. We can’t tell if Rukmani accepts this reality about "losing" the love and attention of her daughter because that’s the way it is, or whether she’s sad even though she knows Ira must go.
"I do not blame him," Nathan said. "He is justified, for a man needs children. He has been patient."
"Not patient enough," I said. "Not patient like you, beloved." (9.10)
Nathan shows himself to be a wonderful lover to Ruku. His observation here shows that he knows his "rights" as a man, or at least what he can deservedly expect out of a wife (namely children). But even as he admits that, it’s still clear that he has sacrificed for Ruku, and to him it’s been worth the wait. Ruku, too, acknowledges that she appreciates Nathan’s patience and understanding. Their relationship is one of equal maturity, respect, and even adoration. Only this kind of loving devotion could sustain them in hard times.
Words died away, the listening air was very still, the black night waited. In the straining darkness I felt his body moving with desire, his hands on me were trembling, and I felt my senses opening like a flower to his urgency. I closed my eyes and waited, waited in the darkness while my being filled with a wild, ecstatic fluttering, waited for him to come to me. (10.21)
The passion that’s in Ruku and Nathan’s relationship is quite beautiful – they are more than economic and financial support for each other, they’re real lovers.
As my pregnancy advanced she turned completely away from me. Sometimes I saw her looking at me with brooding, resentful eyes, and despite myself I cold not help wondering if hatred lay behind her glance. (11.39)
It seems like the reasonable thing for a loving mother to do would be to reach out to Ira. Though Ruku went so far as to bring Ira to Kenny for fertility treatment, it seems she treats Ira like a lost cause since her husband won’t take her back. Perhaps Ira has hard feelings because she can feel that her life is essentially over. Ruku doesn’t seem to do anything to dispel those feelings – it’s a little surprising how little comfort and love she seems to give Ira in these hard days.
"It is as you say a long time ago," I said wearily. "That she is evil and powerful I know myself. Let it rest." (14.80)
Ruku and Nathan have already built their life together. They’ve known each other long enough that it’s worth it to look over the indiscretions (Nathan’s children with Kunthi, Ruku’s visits to Kenny) if they want to sustain their marriage. Ironically, the relationship they’ve built is why they stay together, even though they’ve learned that relationship was built on some lies. Apparently the good parts of love are enough to get them through the bad parts. They’re emotionally mature, but they’re also really comfortable with each other.
"A baby is no worse for being conceived in an encounter."
"You may be right," I said bitterly, "but you do not realize the shame of it. People have not spared us." (18.69)
Rukmani has chosen to concern herself with the talk of others, instead of choosing to do right by her own daughter. She always knew Ira was meant to be a mother, and she knows what drove Ira to prostitution. Still, she cannot bring herself to be happy or supportive of her daughter. Again, her love of Ira seems compromised, perhaps because she values her own feelings above her love for Ira.
"I am not unaware," he said quietly. "But is it not sufficient that you have the strength and I have the trust?"
"It is indeed," I said with relief. "I wanted only that you should know."
We smiled at each other in perfect understanding. (19.17)
The love between Ruku and Selvam goes beyond that of mother and son. It’s not just obedience or familial obligation that bonds them, but a real understanding of each other. This sheds some light on Selvam as a son, especially as he’s different from his brothers. Ruku admits that she doesn’t know him completely (like Ira does), but at least he sticks around. By contrast, her other sons, (whom she didn’t know completely either) took this isolation from her as a good excuse to abandon the family. Selvam, though he has grown beyond the family, still stays with his parents out of love. The kind of understanding exhibited here is good proof that not just obligation, but real love, is what makes his relationship with Ruku work.
The woman is his, his wife, not only now for this surging experience, but tomorrow and next year. She will carry his seed and he will see her fruitful, watch while day by day his child grows within her. And so he is tender and careful, and comes to her clean that their fulfillment may be rich and blessed. (20.6)
Ruku worries that since Ira has no such love, her baby and her life are not going to be as blessed as what comes of a loving partnership. Ironically, she’s thinking of her relationship with Nathan, even though she knows that Nathan has fathered two of Kunthi’s children (which he obviously hasn’t raised with the attention he’s given his other children). Love is not a given for men, and even her own beloved man has fathered two children outside the bounds of love. Ruku doesn’t think of this as she worries over Ira, but it’s something to think about in the backdrop of these thoughts.
"Would you hold me when my time is come? I am at peace. Do not grieve." "If I grieve," I said "it is not for you, but for myself, beloved, for how shall I endure without you, who are my love and my life?" "You are not alone," he said "I live in my children." (29.9)
Ruku’s love for Nathan is overwhelming. After most of their family has left them, and they’ve been forced to abandon their home, it’s only reasonable that she should think of him as her only anchor in the world. Nathan’s words here are a bit suspect. Of their seven children, three have disappeared, two are dead, and one has ruined her life as a prostitute. Nathan’s comment should give us pause. We might wonder whether he only says it to comfort his wife (and doesn’t believe it), or whether his love for his children and his family (in spite of everything that’s happened) is still deep enough that he’s willing to feel good that they are all he has as a legacy.
"My son," I said. "We adopted him, your father and I."
"You like tired and hungry," Ira said, taking his arm. "Come with me and rest, I will prepare the rice." (30.5)
Ira eases the situation of Puli’s acceptance by being her usual loving self. That Ira takes him in immediately is another mark of her incredible emotional generosity (which is actually in stark contrast to her mother’s attitude towards her). Ruku hesitated to accept Sacrabani, and even didn’t want to sign on to taking care of Puli, but Ira will unhesitatingly love all children. Her gentle love promises to be an important part of holding the family together.
"Why do you not demand—cry out for help—do something? There is nothing in this country, oh God there is nothing!" (7.44)
Kenny seems to think that one only needs to cry out for help in order to receive it. Rukmani, however, knows what it is to struggle for her and her own, and often believes that struggling against the inevitable is futile. Kenny’s declaration that there is nothing in this country amounts to hopelessness; Ruku, by contrast, knows there is nothing in the country for people who are not willing to help themselves. Kenny, ever needing help and trying to help others, is engaged in a project that goes against the many values of his adopted country. His hopelessness is Ruku’s reality. Even if he understands that, he still resents it.
"I waited all day," I gasped. "I must see you. My husband will be back soon and then I cannot come."
His frown deepened. He said coldly, "You people will never learn. It is pitiful to see your foolishness." (11.5)
Kenny judges Ruku’s hesitation to be open with Nathan as "foolishness," and he ties that foolishness into her whole culture with "you people." Cultural sensitivity doesn’t matter at all to him – in his eyes, whether this is about Indian culture or not, it’s stupid. It’s hard to tell whether Kenny’s judgment of Indian culture implicitly assumes that he knows better, or comes from a superior culture.
"What has happened?" we ask with trepidation. They are still our sons, but suddenly they have outgrown us. (12.10)
Rukmani doesn’t understand how the boys could agitate for more money, but it’s interesting that she thinks of it as them having surpassed her and Nathan. She’s basically the opposite of Kenny – her sons are doing something she doesn’t understand, and she assumes it is because they are superior or have some greater understanding than she does, not because they’re being foolish. Rukmani feels like she doesn’t know the boys anymore, and she can’t do anything about it. Her own children are adopting values that are foreign to her tradition, and so the boys have become foreign to her.
A strange nature, only partly within my understanding. A man half in shadow, half in light, defying knowledge. (12.83)
The relationship between Kenny and Rukmani is a strange one – Kenny seems to reveal things to Ruku that even he is surprised about. It’s as if talking to her sometimes leads him to conclusions or realizations about himself. We get the sense that it’s not just that Ruku doesn’t understand Kenny; Kenny seems to actually be quite foreign to himself.
…Other farmers and their families, in like plight to ourselves, were also out searching for food; and for every edible plant or root there was a struggle—a desperate competition that made enemies of friends and put an end to humanity. (14.83)
The struggle against starvation has made people remote from their own humanity. Hunger has turned them into people they themselves don’t even recognize, and it’s also made them alien to each other. Their reliance on their natural surroundings has failed them and, ironically, has made them unnatural creatures, foreign to their natural selves.
"You simplify everything, being without understanding. Your views are so limited it is impossible to explain to you."
"Limited, yes," I agreed. "Yet not wholly without understanding. Our ways are not your ways."
"You have sound instincts," he said.
For the first time since I had known him I saw a spark of admiration in his eyes. (18.52)
Ruku reminds Kenny gently that they are not better or worse than each other, but they simply understand things differently. Her humble relativism checks his glib cultural superiority, and he knows it.
"Yet our priests fast, and inflict on themselves severe punishments, and we are taught to bear our sorrows in silence, and all this is so that the soul may be cleansed."
He struck his forehead. "My God!" he cried. "I do not understand you. I never will. Go before I am too entangled in your philosophies." (19.39)
There’s a tension here: Kenny might not understand the foreign religious principles of Hinduism, or he might understand them and still disagrees with them. Here, we see that he avoids delving too deeply into the issue. Instead of exploring what Ruku believes and why, he’d rather dismiss her whole belief system as foreign. This is a glimpse of Kenny as convinced by his beliefs, and maybe lacking the interest, or the energy, to challenge them. He doesn’t understand the ways of other people, but he has his own understanding of how they need help, and how he can help them. We’ve got to wonder if it is right for him to impose his values on people, decide what they should want and give it to them? Is that really helpful?
Apart from this he burnt easily, even an hour or so in the sun would bring up red, scaly patches about the neck and forehead and make him fretful, whereas my children had grown up in the open and thrived on it. (20.22)
Sacrabani is foreign to Ruku because he looks different from other children. In Ruku’s mind, he already carries the shameful mark of being an illegitimate child – his albino deformity is just the icing on the cake. For Ruku, it’s almost as if his physical strangeness is an appropriate reflection of the moral strangeness under which he was conceived.
Each night was a struggle, more fierce now that we were daily engaged in it. I saw, night after night, what I had not observed before: the lame with their crutches knocked away from them so that they fell and were unable to rise; the feeble separated from their supporters so that their numbers were halved. (27.8)
The city is foreign to Nathan and Ruku geographically, environmentally, in terms of customs. But its most glaring foreignness comes from the way it transforms people into creatures that are entirely different from people Nathan and Ruku have encountered before. Humanity as Nathan and Ruku have known it, is altered. The natural setting they once lived in fostered a natural relationship between people. In the city, people are foreign to each other, but they’re also entirely foreign to human kindness. It’s like they’re living in an altered landscape, where the rules of humanity have changed.
He himself did not appear to find any difficulty in managing without, except that once or twice he had to use both hands, and there was a certain awkwardness in his handling of the food. Despite myself I could not keep my eyes off his hands; the harder I tried to keep my gaze fixed elsewhere, the more it fastened itself to those stumps. Puli, seemingly unaware, continued eating stolidly. He is used to it, I thought. He knows and accepts the shameful probing curiosities of human beings. (27.52)
Human beings have a natural curiosity about people that are different. Ruku doesn’t judge Puli for his difference, but his experience is foreign to hers. Besides his physical deformity, which she can’t help but look at, she is also enamored of Puli because he’s so different from her. His can-do attitude, brashness, and self-assurance, are a comfort to Ruku because these characteristics are so foreign to her own personality. Puli’s ways make him comfortable in this foreign place, which is in turn a comfort to Ruku. In a strange twist of events, she’s found comfort in his foreignness.
Nathan at first paid scant attention to her: he had wanted a son to continue his line and walk beside him on the land, not a puling infant who would take with her a dowry and leave nothing but a memory behind; but soon she stopped being a puling infant, and when at the age of ten months she called him "Apa," which means father, he began to take a lively interest in her. (2.49)
As Kenny later reminds Ruku about Ira’s own baby, a child is a child. Al children will no doubt engender love accordingly, regardless of the circumstances of their births. Ruku and Nathan are not excited about having a girl first, but they learn to be excited about Ira being Ira. Nathan is a loving man – he learns to love Ira just the way he learned to love Ruku. He’s not one for big concern about gender roles and expectations; he loves his women in spite of what society says they should do or be.
I did so, and as soon as the door was closed the woman threw off her veil the better to select what she wanted. Her face was very pale, the bones small and fine. Her eyes were pale too, a curious light brown matching her silky hair. She took what she wanted and paid me. Her fingers, fair and slender, were laden with jeweled rings, any one of which would have fed us for a year. She smiled at me as I went out, then quickly lowered the veil again about her face. I never went there again. (8.15)
Rukmani does not feel a connection to this woman, though they are both keepers of their homes. Instead, the woman’s alien culture and lifestyle are more important defining aspects in Ruku’s eyes. She has culture in common with Kali, Janaki and Kunthi, and perhaps this is an important aspect of them being a community of women.
"Neighbors, women… and I a failure, a woman who cannot even bear a child."
All this I had gone through—the torment, the anxiety. Now the whole dreadful story was repeating itself, and it was my daughter this time. (9.16)
It’s interesting that Ruku agrees that a woman’s importance largely rests in her ability to bear a child. Ruku didn’t ever overcome these feelings to find her self-worth as a woman – she got over them by bearing children. She suffers because of Ira’s failure to conceive, and her only solution to Ira is not a philosophical one about a woman’s greater worth. Instead, she’ll seek to fix Ira’s biological problem.
I was getting more and more worried about her: she moped about, dull of hair and eye, as if the sweetness of life had departed—as indeed it has for a woman who has been abandoned by her husband. (11.1)
Ruku’s personal and cultural views admit that a woman’s worth is largely defined by her relationship to her husband. Ira has been abandoned by her husband, and this defines her worth as a woman. Her husband leaving her affects her own views of herself, and her mother doesn’t do much to ease that grief, likely because her mother understands and believes Ira is actually lessened by this abandonment.
"She is happy with the child," I replied, "but I do not know what is to become of her in the future."
"Always worrying," he chided. "It is a mercy that she is young again, should one not be grateful?"
He was a man and did not understand. (11.44)
Nathan is less burdened by cultural norms about abandoned women than Ruku is. To him, what matters foremost is Ira’s happiness. He doesn’t understand (or doesn’t believe) that Ira’s entire happiness should rest on her worth to a man. It’s hard to discern though, whether he’s unconcerned because he doesn’t understand the full brunt of the culture’s evaluation of women, or because he disagrees with it.
Under her faded sari her breasts hung loose; gone was the tense suppleness that had been her pride and her power. Of her former beauty not a vestige remained. Well, I thought, all women come to it sooner or later: she has come off perhaps worse than most. (14.17)
A woman’s beauty is an aspect of her value. Ruku married below her caste in part because she wasn’t a beautiful woman. Kunthi is notable because of her beauty, and ironically she sells her beauty to prostitution. Kunthi wants food because she thinks health will bring her beauty back. Ruku has never had to worry about her beauty so she seems more comfortable with the fact that beauty will go.
"Yes, of course, darling," Ira cried, and all the guilt of her efforts to have an abortion was in her voice. "I would not lose you for anything. Why do you have to ask?" (22.9)
Ruku is adding commentary here – she knows she would’ve traded Ira for a boy, so she can be less forgiving and gentle in her harsh (but honest) assessment of Ira’s position. The love for the child is immaterial to Ruku – the important thing is that Ira’s womanhood has left her in a particular societal position, and an abortion would’ve been preferable to being a marked woman who is also the single mother of an albino.
Ira and I did what we could; but the land is mistress to man, not to woman: the heavy work needed is beyond her strength. (23.1)
While cultural values dominate much of how women are viewed in the novel, Ruku brings up a physical reality here. It’s not society, but biology, that limits Ruku and Ira when it comes to the land. While social strictures are regrettable, some of a woman’s limitations are simply insurmountable.
The doctor meanwhile was approaching. Under the thin shirt I saw the figure of a woman and I whispered hastily to my husband: "Be careful—it is a woman." Nathan turned bewildered eyes on me. "The trousers—" he began, but there was no time to say more and he stopped short, confused and stammering. (25.47)
Ruku is as surprised as Nathan at the high position of this woman in their society. Here Ruku reveals that she buys into all the cultural norms about what women can and should aspire to be. A woman doctor is an aberration, and Ruku sees her as an alien creature, one to be feared (hence her warning to Nathan).
"One must live," she repeated, defiant, challenging, sensing reproach where none could be; for it is very true, one must live. (26.36)
Prostitution is a reality for women in the book, and Ruku eventually accepts it without judgment. Ruku’s society’s limitations on women left them few other choices when they were faced with poverty. Moral norms no longer really factor in for Ruku’s regard of prostitution, as she’s come too close to the practical economic reality faced by poor women. (Interestingly, many First World women that are hard-up today make the same choice.)
The following week I sold almost my whole basket to him, keeping only a little for Old Granny. I did not like selling to him, although he paid me a better price. It was business and nothing else with him, never a word of chaff or a smile—or perhaps it was the flattery I missed—and I would much rather have had it the other way; but there you are, you cannot choose. (3.52)
Ruku is powerless to choose her buyer – this is the nature of business. Regardless of how she feels, she has to go to where she gets the best price. It’s interesting that the money she earns gives her some economic power. Has she has given up personal power in order to earn it?
About this time Arjun was in his early teens. He was tall for his age and older than his years. I had taught him the little I knew of reading and writing; now he could’ve taught me and most other people in the town. (9.19)
Arjun’s education will give him power, but ironically his power will only end up crippling him. His literacy allows him to lead the movement for higher wages at the tannery. His literacy is not persuasive against the tannery because there are many more people to fill the spots left empty by the strike. There are limits to the power of literacy; it cannot always assure one a higher position or greater leverage when dealing with people in power. Ultimately, literacy only gives one power to know how far one could go, but in this case, it does not provide the power to get there.
"I will ask Kenny to help you. White men have power."
"Indeed they have," he said bitterly. "Over men, and events, and especially over women." (9.31)
Ruku’s admission is startling but true. Though they are foreign to this society, white men seem to have greater power than non-white men. Her son resents this (with reference to the tannery), but he also resents the ripple of white power over other aspects of society, especially as white people have changed the social dynamic (with regard to his belief of the rumor of his mother’s infidelity with Kenny). White folks have just waltzed into their society and believed they can do what they want politically, economically, and personally.
Sandalwood paste smeared her swelling hips, under her hips were dark painted shadows which gave them sensuous depth, the nipples were tipped with red.
I released her. She stood there before me panting, with her hair shaken loose and coiling about her shoulders.
"Guard your tongue," I said, "or it will be the worse for you."
She said nothing for a moment, while she rearranged her garments, recovering herself a little; then once again that maddening, insulting half-smile curved her lips.
"And for you," she said, with knives in her voice, "and for your precious husband." (11.27)
Ruku and Kunthi are in a battle over who has greater power. Kunthi’s sexuality is far more powerful than Ruku’s – not only is she more beautiful than Ruku, but her body paint and nakedness seem to assert her ownership of her own body as a sexual creature. Ruku, by contrast, rests on the power of her status as an honorable married woman and mother. Kunthi represents woman’s power as an object of sexual desire, while Ruku is a powerful figure of the domestic woman. That’s also why Kunthi specifically threatens Ruku’s family life, talking about her husband. Everyone might know Kunthi is a prostitute, so her sexual power (and social inferiority) are certain, but Ruku’s power as a family woman might be more compromised by Kunthi’s knowledge, both about Ruku’s visits to Kenny and also about Nathan’s fathering of Kunthi’s children.
When a whole week had passed thus, the tannery officials called a meeting to announce that those who did not return to work would be replaced. My sons came home from that meeting even more silent, if possible, than they had been in the past. This was the test, and it failed. The next morning the tannery had its full complement again, most of them workers who had gone back, the remainder men who were only too glad to obtain employment. (12.20)
Power is often not aligned with principles. Ruku’s sons have chosen to use what they think is their bargaining power to stand up against the tannery. In the end, the tannery gets its power from people whose needs compromise their principles. For the poor, the power of conviction has no chance against the power of necessity.
So we stood and argued and begged, and in the end Sivaji agreed to wait. He took the money and turned to go, then he hesitated and said, a little wistfully: "What I do I must, for I must think of my own…. I do not wish to be hard. May you prosper."
"May you prosper too," I whispered, hardly able to speak, for his words had left me defenseless. (13.69)
The power of human kindness sometimes shines through even in the darkest moments of practical reality. Sivaji has to do his job, and Ruku and Nathan condemn him for his acceptance of the cruelty his job requires. When they see Sivaji as just an agent of a remote power, they can hate him, but when he shows kindness and empathy, he reminds them that he too is just a guy struggling to make ends meet. Power is a chain, and it’s easy to resent those that are right above you until you remember they too are just below someone else.
It became possible for me to speak as well. I told him of her earlier visit and the grain she had extorted from me also; and it seemed to me that a new peace came to us then, freed at last from the necessity for lies and concealment and deceit, with the fear of betrayal lifted from us, and with the power we ourselves had given wrested finally from Kunthi. (14.81)
We realize here that it wasn’t Kunthi’s power that was in control of Nathan and Rukmani. Actually, it was the power of their own secrets. The lies and concealment were more about Nathan and Rukmani’s fear of being found out in their betrayals of each other. Kunthi only had power as a possible means by which the truth might come out, while the real power lay in the delicate lies on which Nathan and Ruku had built their relationship.
"I must know," I said, imploring. "It is better that I should know than that I should imagine."
Ira gave me a sidelong glance: "Your imagination would not travel that far." (16.45)
The power of the imagination is greater than the power of the truth. Ruku labors under not knowing the truth, and so her imagination is allowed to run wild, ultimately leading her to darker things than even might be true. Ira, by withholding the actual truth, has power over her mother and forces her mother to imagine the worst.
"It is a long time since," she said. "You had better have a meal here before you go." She called to the servant and spoke to him rapidly, and he came, looking none too pleased, to lead us to where we had to go. (25.63)
It’s interesting that the lower classes seem to begrudge each other a little help. The servants at the doctor’s house initially tried to shoo away Nathan and Rukmani, taking them for beggars. The servants continue to be disdainful, and it’s only the doctor, who is better off than all of them, who offers a little charity. There’s no empathy among the poor, perhaps because they’re struggling to be better off than somebody, perhaps because they see each other as competitors, or perhaps because familiarity breeds contempt.
Yet I thought, what I did not wish to think, of the time when the disease that had claimed his fingers would creep up, eating away his limbs—or attack some other part, his feet or his eyes. What then of this bright fearless child who boasted that he stood alone? There is a limit to the achievements of human courage. (27.132)
Puli may have power over how he approaches the world, but in the end, he is powerless to stand up against his disease. No amount of street smarts can save him from his illness. If he’s going to be saved, he needs to submit to the help of others. (This is particularly painful for him because he is continually proud he is of being able to take care of himself.) Still, sometimes it’s more courageous to ask for help than to stubbornly do things on your own, especially if not asking for help means certain death from leprosy.