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.