Nectar in a Sieve Summary
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.
- Our heroine begins her narration in the present, though her story will be about the past. She begins by talking wistfully about her husband, who is no longer with her, except in her dreams.
- Her waking life, we learn, is peopled with loved ones: her daughter, a little boy named Puli (who has no fingers, and doesn’t actually belong to her family, though she keeps and loves him), and her son Selvam, who works with a man called Kenny in a hospital.
- The narrator explains she is an old woman now. She begins to tell us her story.
- Her father was a "headman" in her village, a position that became less important when a figure called "the collector "began to change the dynamics of village politics.
- Our narrator was the youngest of four daughters, and as her father’s importance dwindled, her own prospects for a suitable arrangement of marriage to a young man diminished too.
- Her parents could not afford a grand dowry (money given to the groom’s family by the bride’s family), and the best they can do was marry her to a poor tenant farmer.
- Though our narrator tells us her family lamented the match, she herself was happy with the arrangement. At the time of her marriage, she was twelve.
- The woman describes her simple union to her husband, Nathan. We learn that Nathan is gentle and caring. On the six-mile ride to her new home, she cries and gets sick. Nathan does his best to comfort her.
- She’s happy enough with the idyllic country ride, until she arrives at her new "home," which is really a two-room mud hut complete with thatched roof beside a rice paddy field.
- Our narrator tries to hide her displeasure, saying she’s worn out from the ride, but Nathan senses her unease and tries to comfort her. He promises a better future and presents her with handfuls of grain from a good rice harvest. On this, he says, they’ll rest their future.
- Our narrator then describes her adjustment to domestic village life – she does laundry in the river and meets some of the local women, Kali, Janaki, and Kunthi. In their talk with our narrator, we finally learn her name is Rukmani.
- From the women’s friendly gossip, Rukmani learns that Nathan was unbelievably excited about his marriage to Rukmani, and that he built their home with his own two hands, sometimes even neglecting his work in the field to provide the best home he could.
- Rukmani has a poignant moment of recognition as she learns what she means to Nathan. Nathan, in turn, demurs modestly when Rukmani confronts him about why he never told her that this house was his own handiwork.
- Rukmani-as-narrator then nostalgically glosses over those happy days, and she says she’s glad to have had those good times, as she can look back on them and remember that once her life was blessed.
- Rukmani then fills us in on more details: while Nathan doesn’t own the land he works, there is still a chance that he might one day have enough money to buy it. In the meantime, they eat well and are even able to store some rice from each harvest. Rukmani delights in trips to the market, meeting the local characters: a jovial old woman who sells guava and peanuts (named, fittingly, Old Granny), a shady moneylender, and Kunthi, her neighbor who is not particularly warm or friendly.
- Rukmani notes that people often say Kunthi married below. People might say the same of Rukmani, but even she admits she’s not much of a looker. Also she didn’t know much about how to work the land, so on all fronts, she wasn’t much of a catch.
- Rukmani then describes the things she learned from the friendly neighborhood women: milking the goat, planting seed, churning butter, and mulling rice.
- Rukmani’s first pumpkin plant is a particularly memorable victory: it yields generously, and when she brings a pumpkin in to Nathan, he’s tremendously proud of her.
- Flush with success and a bit of pride at her growing achievement, Rukmani grows different kinds of plants, and the eating is good.
- Our heroine helps Kunthi give birth to her child: Rukmani is the lone helper as the midwife is nowhere to be found.
- When Rukmani finally returns home to Nathan after a long day’s birthing, Nathan is very cross: his wife is pregnant herself and shouldn’t put herself or her baby in danger.
- Since she is pregnant, Rukmani now has time to do non-work activities. We learn that her father taught all of his children to read and write. Perhaps he educated his children for prestige, but it is more likely it is because he knew reading and writing in difficult times could be a gentle pleasure.
- Reactions to Rukmani’s literacy vary: her mom is not behind all this fancy book-learning, especially for girls. Kali (the gossipy village lady) scorns Rukmani’s writing as something she’ll have to give up once she’s busy with real women’s work.
- Nathan’s reaction is best though. Nathan watches Rukmani write, leaves to ruminate on it, and then returns, stroking her hair and praising her for her cleverness. Rukmani notes that his reaction demonstrates his maturity – though he is illiterate, he can be comfortable with his wife’s strengths – different though they are from his.
- We get a garden update too: as the plants grow, Rukmani shares that she is utterly delighted with the garden, where each tiny seed protects the secret of life. After a startling (but harmless) encounter with a cobra in her garden, Rukmani’s own tiny seed soon comes springing into the world. She gives birth to a baby girl, and she weeps over the misfortune.
- The couple names the little girl Irawaddy, after one of Asia’s great rivers, the rationale being that water was the most precious thing in the world. Though Nathan, too, would have preferred a boy to be his heir and namesake, he grows to love Ira as soon as she learns to say "Apa," meaning father.
- As a child, Ira is a marvelous beauty, which is a bit puzzling for her ordinary-looking parents. She is energetic and good-natured, too, and entertains herself while her parents go about their domestic and rural duties.
- Ira is actually such a joy that Rukmani’s mother often endures the long ride to come and see her. Rukmani notes that she unfortunately does not go to see her mother that often, because she’s busy at home. Her mother, far from being angry, understands.
- Ira is now approaching her sixth birthday, and she is still an only child. Rukmani quietly worries that she and Nathan will only have one child, and a girl at that.
- The village women gossip and pray, and Rukmani’s mother even gives her a tiny stone sculpture for good luck. Unfortunately, nothing seems to work.
- Ruku’s mother begins to die of the consumption. Kennington, affectionately dubbed Kenny, is a doctor who mysteriously appears. Kenny speaks their language and strives to makes himself useful.
- Kenny is the first white person Rukmani has ever seen, so she stares at him. Ruku’s appreciates Kenny’s efforts, but believes that he’s powerless to actually do anything useful.
- Rukmani’s mother passes away peacefully, and Rukmani goes to thank the doctor. Kenny somehow understands that Rukmani is having fertility issues."
- At first, Rukmani hesitates to tell Kenny anything. In the first place, he’s a strange man she doesn’t know. More importantly, however, she hasn’t told anyone about what’s going on. Finally, though, Rukmani’s grief pours out as she explains she has only one child, and a daughter at that.
- After her confession, Rukmani shrinks away from being so open, as she realizes she’d never seen a doctor of his kind before. Kenny senses her fear and calls her foolish. Rukmani slinks away, but eventually comes back to seek treatment.
- Soon after, Rukmani has her first child in seven years and it’s a boy. Even though he is quite advanced in age, Rukmani’s father journeys six miles in a bullock cart just to see his grandson. Nathan is overjoyed and organizes a big feast so that the whole village can meet the new son.
- There’s cooking and eating and music, and even Kunthi (who has grown distant with time) came to celebrate the new child. Rukmani is happy during the feast, but she notes the absence of the person she most wished to see: Kenny. It was the doctor, after all, who made the baby possible.
- Rukmani then reveals that she hasn’t been honest with Nathan about the medical help she got from Kenny. Initially, she didn’t know what Nathan’s reaction would be. She reasoned that she would tell her husband about her visits to the foreigner only if she succeeded in having a baby.
- Of course, now that Rukmani has had the baby, were she to tell Nathan about he help she had, Nathan would wonder why she had deceived him. Basically, to not have to deal with admitting a lie, Rukmani decides to keep lying. She then asserts that it isn’t lying so much as "preserving silence."
- Rukmani proceeds to have five sons in a row. Thambi, Murugan, Raja, and Selvam follow Arjun. Ira, meanwhile, is growing up. Rukmani confides that Ira only began to wear clothes when she turned five. Since that time, Ira has been a tremendous help in raising the boys, especially as she is so good with children.
- With six kids to feed, things really begin to change around Ruku’s house. Rukmani begins to sell the best vegetables she grows, keeping only the bruised and spoiled ones to feed her family. Old Granny (remember the old lady who sells at market?) is Rukmani’s chief buyer, and she’s always full of praise for Rukmani’s healthy vegetables.
- Rukmani is happy to do business with Old Granny too, until the day when she is stopped by Biswas, the crude moneylender. For her vegetables, he offers her nearly twice what Old Granny pays. Though Rukmani is reluctant to change her allegiance, money talks. Rukmani begins to sell nearly everything to Biswas, leaving only a little for the old woman out of kindness. Old Granny never complains, though Rukmani feels compelled to explain that things are getting harder at home.
- Recently, they’ve been cutting down on nicer things, like milk (except for the baby) and butter (except on special occasions). Still, unlike many other families, they’ve never gone hungry. They grow their own plantains and coconuts, and they always manage to put aside a little rice from the harvests. There’s even fish to be had from the rice paddy fields. With a little resourcefulness, they are getting by, and Rukmani seems especially grateful that every month, she can even save a rupee or two for Ira’s dowry.
- Construction begins on a tannery (where animal hides are cured for other uses) in Rukmani’s village. The building of the tannery is quite a spectacle. Lots of men from the outside world come in with carts and bricks. The colonial structure is in place here, too: there is an Indian boss oversees the builders; a white man oversees the entire operation.
- The tannery changes how people work in the village: the building workmen are paid well, and the village people are occupied in supplying their mounting needs, from rope and bricks to fruit and sweetmeats. The workmen bring in their families and live in little huts with them, mostly isolated from villagers.
- In two months, the tannery is completed, and the workmen suddenly disappear. Everything is quiet in the village for a while, which gives people time to reflect on the influence of the workmen. While Rukmani resented the noise brought with them, she, like many others, benefited economically from being able to sell to the workers.
- Rukmani regrets that the tannery has come to her village. Nathan assures her that they will be back, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Sure enough, Nathan is right: new men replace the men who left. They bring their wives and families, but they also bring pollution, the stink of liquor brewing, their noisy habits, and all-around calamity.
- The tannery also results in new parental restrictions for Ira. Up until this time, Ira had been allowed to roam freely, but neighbors notice that suddenly the men are paying attention to the young girl. She is beautiful, if only thirteen. Rukmani and Nathan suddenly curtail her freedom to protect her from the workmen, and to protect the family from gossip. Though Ira resents the new limitations, she is obedient.
- Rukmani and Nathan live as tenants on the land that belongs to a Zemindar, (landowner). Still, the couple has never actually met the Zemindar, because a messenger named Sivaji acts on his behalf. Sivaji is kind and judicious and treats the tenants fairly. He doesn’t demand bribes or steal from the fields.
- Rukmani is collecting dung from the fields one day when she spots Kenny, whom she hasn’t seen in a long time. She and Kenny have a characteristic exchange – sharp but still light. Kenny notes that the dung belongs to the land, and is good for it, but Rukmani has a quiet rejoinder. The dung is used as a fuel and seal for the houses, and protects them from damp, heat, and pests. While Kenny criticizes the negative environmental impact, he has no response when Rukmani’s asks what else the people might use.
- Kenny then visits Rukmani’s modest home. He’s gracious, especially with Nathan, and compliments him for having a household rich in good women and many sons. Rukmani hears this and panics, because she still hasn’t told Nathan about the fertility treatments. To date, Rukmani has only spoken of Kenny as a great help to her parents.
- Kenny quickly becomes a friend of the house. While he is quiet about his own personal life, he adapts easily to of the love of Rukmani’s children for him, and he returns it in his own quiet way. He would even bring gifts, such as coconut. Kenny also learns that things are getting harder for Ruku’s family. They’ve had to sell the goat and cannot otherwise afford to buy milk. As a result, Ruku is still breast-feeding her three-year-old son. Kenny does not pity them openly, but he then brings milk for the baby when he can.
- For all this new friendship, Kenny remains mysterious. As far as Rukmani knows, he works for the tannery on occasion and spends his long days tending to the sick, only to go return to his empty house. Kenny also has a penchant for disappearing without explanation. No one knows where he goes, but it’s clear that he returns in a worse mood every time.
- Irawaddy is fourteen, two years older than Rukmani was when she married. Rukmani can no longer put off the girl’s wedding, and begins to look for a suitable matchmaker. She chooses Old Granny, who is old and experienced in such matters. Though Rukmani has not done business with Old Granny for years, the old woman bears her no grudge and is happy to help.
- Because Rukmani’s family is not well-off, Ruku worries they’ll not be able to find a suitable match for Ira. They can only afford a dowry of 100 rupees. Their daughter is beautiful, though, and this is worth a lot. Old Granny is able to find a handsome young man who is sole heir to his father’s generous portion of land.
- Ira is agrees to the marriage, but she is clearly wistful. Though Ruku is happy that she’s found a good match, she can’t help but reflect on her own marriage as a young girl. Ruku knows that Ira will have to bear the pain of separation, and the jolt of a new place. Still, Ruku promises to visit her daughter two or three times a year.
- The wedding is a joyous celebration of food and music, though Nathan insists on having nothing they can’t afford easily, as he hates the idea of debts. Rukmani has put aside a fair share of delicacies she’s been saving up month by month for the occasion. Still, there’s a reminder of hard times when she sees her son Arjun with a little bundle. He’s not eating heartily at the feast itself, but has hoarded a little bit for later.
- Ira looks younger than her years in her makeup and her mother’s red wedding sari. She looks frightened by the whole affair, especially when the time comes for her to depart with her new husband. A happy crowd lifts her and her husband into the air, decking them with flower garlands and good wishes.
- After Ira leaves, the crowd melts and the clamor dies down. Ruku returns to her home. There is work to be done tomorrow, mending and cleaning, but as Ruku returns to her husband’s side for the night, she lays awake, thinking. It is the first night her daughter has not slept under their roof.
- With all the preparation for Ira’s marriage, Nathan did little to weatherproof their house and prepare for the coming monsoon season. Rukmani notes that nature is like a wild animal that strikes when you’re unprepared. Ironically, the rains strike early and more fiercely than ever.
- The rain is incessant, and the hut itself (made of mud walls) would have been washed away had Nathan not built it on high ground. The house is filled with vessels to catch the rainwater, but soon leaks outnumber pots in the house. The family tries to make do with a little firewood left over from Ira’s wedding, but their problems do not end.
- As the rain worsens, the paddy fields drown and the crops become destroyed. Nathan, characteristically lean of words, simply declares that there will be little eating this year. There was already a shortage of food, and the prospect of having even less breaks the boys, who sit in a huddle on the wet floor and weep.
- The storm gives way to lightning on the eighth night. The paddy fields are already ruined, and now the coconut tree, which fed the family often, is struck by lightning. Yet another food source is lost.
- After the fiery night, the world seems to have calmed, and Rukmani and Nathan come out to survey the damage. The garden, the cornfield, and the rice paddy are now gone.
- Many neighbors lost even more: six men died and Kali’s hut is completely destroyed. Kali even comes to Ruku’s house to ask for some coconut palms so that she might thatch her house again. Rukmani cannot help, as what little is left of the burnt coconut tree must be used for her own home.
- Nathan and Rukmani prepare to go to the market to get rice and palm leaves from the village.
- Nathan inspects their bundle of money buried in the granary, and Rukmani remembers how it was once heavy at the time of their wedding. Now it is a limp and sad bundle, amounting to only twelve rupees. They plan to use no more than two rupees for the repairs.
- The couple set off to market. On the way they survey the debris of the storm. Shacks and huts, trees, sticks, and stones lie in a ruckus on the streets, but the tannery building stands strong.
- As Nathan and Rukmani encounter more signs of the disaster that has struck the village, they decide to return home, as it’s likely no one will yet have anything to sell.
- At home, they meet their hopeful children empty-handed, and again the children weep from despair and hunger. With nothing to tell the little ones, Rukmani simply lays awake and listens to the drums of calamity beating doom over the whole land.
- The couple set out again the next day, and find Hanuman the rice merchant. They try to negotiate a fair price for the rice. Food is in short supply, though, and everyone is seeking it: their two precious rupees must be spent on a mere two pounds of rice. Even this is a bargain, Hanuman contends, as the workmen from the tannery would pay more.
- On the way home, Nathan and Rukmani run into Kenny, who looks a straight mess. Despondent but straight-shooting, he concludes that this family is starving and hears Rukmani reply that they have a little rice, enough to tide them over for now. Kenny flares up at this, and then begins to curse them for their meekness. He contends that things won’t get better quickly, and that they should be crying out for the help they so badly need.
- Kenny seems in utter despair about the country of India and the people who live here. Rukmani and Nathan interpret Kenny’s outburst as pure madness. They leave him to his raving.
- Things start to look better at home though: there is ample fish in the drowned paddy and some of the grain has survived. Still, there is not much available food.
- The family stays up late cleaning the fish and separating the rice grains from the husk. When they eat, it is with a pleasant surprising feeling that they have enough food for now. Rukmani dreams of what their food stores, and the new vegetables she’ll grow. She falls into a deep peaceful sleep.
- Things are less than ideal with the village neighbors. Kunthi’s two eldest sons have begun working at the tannery, and the woman insists that this business is a great boon.
- Of course, Rukmani is less happy about the tannery. This shouldn’t surprise us though, because Kunthi and Rukmani are opposites in just about every way. Rukmani is proud to be a woman of the earth, while Kunthi claims she can never be such a simple and natural creature.
- The other great scandal is that the beautiful Kunthi has been walking the town and attracting the attention of men. Her husband does nothing to rein her in, and she’s quickly walking down the road to harlotry.
- Janaki has troubles of a different sort. Janaki’s husband’s shop has not been doing well, because it can’t withstand the competition from the big shopkeepers funded by the tannery.
- Rukmani recounts with some wistfulness the day that Janaki’s family suddenly came to say goodbye, with their meager belongings on their back. Who knows what new life they’ll find. Rukmani, however, has no time to consider such things, and soon enough Janaki and her family are forgotten.
- We get some more detail about the tannery. Besides white men, the tannery has brought in Muslims, who live in a separate compound. The Muslims' compound is markedly wealthier than the one inhabited by the other villagers.
- Rukmani notes that the Muslim men are hard workers, but the women are more mysterious creatures. These women employ servants to do their errands outside of the house, and when they travel they do so in the head-to-toe veil of the bourka.
- Rukmani feels sorry for these women, who are kept shuttered in their houses away from the sunlight and green fields that she so loves. Still, Kali points out, they live lavishly, and without need. Kali’s husband notes that it’s a trade-off,.
- Rukmani meets a Muslim woman when she (Rukmani) is asked to make a house visit to sell vegetables. In order to see what she is buying, the woman removes her veil.
- Unlike the other women of the village, this woman is pale and dainty. On the Muslim woman’s hands are rings that could easily feed Ruku’s family for years.
- Still, Rukmani is disturbed by the quiet sadness that pervades the shuttered house, and never goes there again.
- Rukmani is pounding chilies one morning when she spots Ira and her son-in-law approaching. She’s ready to greet them joyfully, but soon realizes that they are not on a happy errand.
- Ira’s husband is courteous but cool. He explains that it has been five years, and Ira has not given him a child, let alone a son. As she is unable to fulfill her chief wifely duty, she is no wife. Her husband leaves her behind.
- Nathan takes this rejection of his daughter in stride, saying her husband cannot be blamed because he’s already been patient. Rukmani remembers the grief of her barren period and sees her daughter’s pain as her own. She tries in vain to comfort her. Her mind wanders to Kenny, and wonders if he can help.
- Two more blows fall on Rukmani’s family. Much to Ruku’s dismay, her two eldest sons, Arjun and Thambi, decide to work at the tannery. Arjun had taken to the learning his mother had given them, and even eventually surpassed his mother in reading and writing. When he announces his decision to work in the tannery, he justifies it as a way to bring food to their family.
- Arjun notes that there is never enough to eat, especially since Ira has returned home. Rukmani is crestfallen at his criticism, but knows there is nothing she can do to stop him. A second injury comes from Arjun’s insistence that he can get a tannery job with help from Kunthi’s son. Rukmani has grown distant from Kunthi, and she (Rukmani) doesn’t want to be indebted to her neighbor.
- Rukmani quickly volunteers to have Kenny help. Arjun suggests that the closeness Rukmani feels for Kenny is more than friendship, implying that his mother has been unfaithful with Kenny.
- Thambi, Rukmani’s second son, has always been very close to Arjun, so his decision to follow Arjun to work at the tannery is no surprise.
- Thambi launches a further insult at Nathan. Nathan says he’s always wanted sons because they could work beside him on the land, but Thambi cruelly points out that the land is the Zemindar’s, so anyone working on it only helps to fill the Zemindar’s pockets.
- Nathan is crushed: Thambi’s words confirm the sad suspicion that neither he nor his sons will ever own the land on which they’ve worked for so long.
- Despite the terrible circumstances under which the two boys gain their employment, the family still benefits from the money they earn. Once again the family can eat properly, and Rukmani can even keep a little food on the side. She is able to keep some chilies, which offset the plainness of their rice diet. Also, she can finally fix the thatch of the roof.
- She’s even able to buy new clothes, including garments for the children, a sari for herself, and a dhoti for Nathan, who badly needed one. She notes that she and Nathan still had the nice clothes they wore at Ira’s wedding, but they are preserving those for the happy days of their sons’ weddings.
- In spite of everything, Rukmani looks hopefully to the future.
- It is time for Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, and the entire village is in a celebratory mood.
- Flush with the new wealth of her sons’ work in the tannery, Rukmani indulges in the extravagance of fireworks. Her qualms about spending are calmed by the children’s joy.
- They celebrate at home, eating well and playing with sparklers and fireworks. Soon their celebration moves to the town.
- Selvam, Ruku’s youngest, is the most serious and stubborn of the boys. Frightened by the noise of the celebration, he stays behind at the house with Ira. (Ira has been trying to stay away from the town’s gossip, and seems happy to have the distraction and excuse of caring for her little brother.)
- Rukmani describes the joy of the town’s bonfire. It seems that people are putting their differences behind them: the workers from the tannery are celebrating with the villagers. The women are covered in flowers and bangles, with silver rings on their toes, and everyone generally looks joyous.
- Rukmani is captivated by the fiery crackle of the bonfire, and she loses herself in the crowd.
- When she finally finds Nathan, he is prancing about joyously, carrying his sons on his shoulders and hips.
- Ruku teases him that he’s mad with drink. Nathan insists that he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol, and hoists her joyously in the air, much to her embarrassed amusement. Nathan embraces the celebratory spirit and rejoices over his simple life, obedient children, and amazing wife.
- That night, once they return to the calm of home, Nathan’s joy spills out into bed, and the two conceive their last child.
- Nathan leaves the village to attend a male relative’s funeral, and Rukmani finally gets the chance to seek fertility treatment for Ira. (Incidentally, we learn she has still not told her husband about Kenny’s help.) Rukmani waits all day to see Kenny, and when she finally catches up with him, he is exasperated by the continued helplessness of the people around him.
- Still, he and Rukmani have their usual exchange, warm, but with an edge. Kenny says he will try and help Ira, but makes no promises. As Ruku is leaving Kenny, she hears someone from the shadows whisper her name.
- To her surprise, she finds Kunthi, who taunts Rukmani cruelly about her whereabouts. She suggests that Rukmani is a passionate woman and implies that she has been unfaithful to Nathan. When Kunthi hints that she might confess all to Nathan, Ruku loses control of herself, and claws at her neighbor.
- In the scramble, Kunthi’s sari slips from her body, and Rukmani is surprised to find she wears the marks of a prostitute: a low tied sari, and sandalwood paste smeared on her hips and below her breasts.
- Ruku is shocked, but she warns Kunthi to keep quiet about her night visit to Kenny, threatening that she can make things even worse for Kunthi. Kunthi slyly replies that she now has a powerful secret that could ruin Ruku and her husband. Kunthi then slinks back into the night.
- Ruku, back in the happy fold of a home, goes to Ira’s husband to see if he’ll take her back now that the infertility problem has been treated. Sadly, he grew tired of waiting and decided to remarry. Meanwhile, Ira has been in terrible spirits all this time; there is no trace of the happy girl she once was. The possibility that her husband might take her back only temporarily lightened her mood.
- We learn that Ruku is pregnant again. Ira only grows more foreign to her mother as Ruku blossoms in pregnancy. This ironic situation serves as a constant reminder of the one thing Ira cannot have. Ruku finally delivers the baby, and as he is tiny, he gets nicknamed "Kuti." The birth of Kuti brings out Ira’s maternal instincts--she treats him as if he were her own.
- Ruku is happy for Ira’s maternal transformation, but she is still troubled about Ira’s future. They have no dowry for the girl, and it now common knowledge that she has lost her virginity and cannot conceive.
- Old Granny is upset about Ira’s situation and tries to the distraught mother. She notes that she herself is an older woman living alone, and that she is doing fine. Ruku is not pleased at the prospect of Ira ending up the same way. Still, Old Granny insists she is fine. Ruku slowly stops grieving about Ira’s future, though it occasionally torments her in her sleep.
- Things seem to be going well at home. The family is able to live: Rukmani’s sons dutifully bring her home their rupee per day, and Nathan continues to work the land. Ruku is able to put food aside for her family. She does, however, finally resign herself to the fact that she cannot save up for another dowry for Ira.
- Things take a turn for the worse when Ruku and Nathan visit Arjun and Thambi at the tannery. The parents learn that the workers (including the boys) are creating strife.
- Arjun and Thambi explain that they’re being punished for agitating for better wages. The boys add that they are only doing what’s right: they’re thinking of their own livelihoods and the desire to start their own families.
- The workers’ strife escalates, and eventually the boys join the other workers on strike. Ruku believes the boys have become spokesmen for the strike movement because they know how to read and write. Arjun and Thambi are out of work for a week before the tannery calls a meeting for scabs to replace the striking workers.
- Ruku rails that it is futile to continue to fight, but the boys are prideful, and they say people will never learn if they cave in.
- Kali’s sons have also been caught up in the strike, and she comes to complain. Nathan silences the squabble: the boys have made their own choices and that’s that.
- Arjun and Thambi begin to come and go as they please, visiting the town at all hours. Their parents have lost control of them. One day, Selvam announces that new drums are being beaten in the town, and they are calling for workers. The boys go to investigate.
- When Arjun and Thambi return home, they speak with their parents, and confirm that the drums indeed beckoned workers. Nathan warily replies that he heard they were looking for workers in the far-off land of Ceylon.
- The boys are unperturbed – Ceylon or not, the wages are good, and the company will pay for the travel.
- Rukmani pleads that money isn’t everything, but the boys counter that money is enough, especially since they have no land now. They are young, and work abroad calls. It does not suit young men to be idle.
- Arjun and Thambi assure their mother they will be back, but Rukmani fears they only make empty promises. She knows that if they leave, she will never see her two sons again. By the next morning, they are gone.
- We learn that Rukmani’s third son, Murugan, has also left. He’s gone to a city two days away to be a servant, and Kenny has helped him to get there with a recommendation.
- Nathan does his best to comfort Rukmani, who is near despair. He sits her down in the sunlight on the earth, and has her look around at the beauty of the land that keeps them. She notes that the tannery has driven away much of the wildlife.
- Still, Nathan shows her the grain growing in the rice stems, and once again encourages her to trust in the land, which promises a good harvest. Together, the two make hopeful plans to eat well this season and even to make enough to visit their sons.
- Kenny later meets Rukmani and brings good news that Murugan’s employer is happy with him. In the closeness of the moment, Ruku inquires if Kenny does not have his own family he should be tending to. She momentarily seizes in a panic about being so forward, but Kenny responds. He wonders why it’s taken her so long to ask.
- Kenny reveals that he has a wife and children back home. They wish he were not abroad, but has resisted their attempt to constrain him. He comes and goes as he pleases and is free to pursue his interests abroad. Still, he says he can only handle all the traveling in small doses.
- Kenny catches himself too, and saying he has revealed too much, and makes Ruku promise to never reveal the very personal information he has told her. He slinks away, and she only wonders after the mysterious, lonely figure.
- The family hits yet another crisis, as the rains fail and the crops dry out. The time for harvesting arrives, but there is nothing to show for it. Sivaji, the man who collects dues for the Zemindar, arrives promptly to ask for Nathan’s rent. Of course, there is nothing to give him.
- Hearing that Nathan has nothing to offer, Sivaji threatens that the land will be rented to another tenant who can pay.
- Nathan and Rukmani plead and argue, and finally Sivaji relents deciding that they can pay half now and the other half later.
- As Sivaji leaves, Nathan has a rare moment of angry despair: he curses that men like Sivaji are hired to protect the overlord from seeing the fact that people must starve in order for him to be fat. Rukmani gently reminds Nathan that Sivaji is only doing his job.
- With this small hope of making half the rent to keep their land, Nathan and Rukmani count up all of the things they have to sell: pots, vessels, the eldest boys’ shirts left behind, the bullocks that plowed the land, the new clothes bought for Deepavali, the last of their reserves of food, and even their wedding clothes, which they were saving for the boys’ weddings.
- Basically, everything they had, except the land, is to be sold. The land, they hope, will eventually provide enough for them to recover.
- Rukmani bundles up all the goods and takes her bundle to Biswas, the cruel moneylender, to see what she can get. He delights in how far she’s fallen, and he has little sympathy for her since everyone is in a similar condition of desperation.
- Rukmani is not to be out-smarted though, and when he undervalues her goods at 30 rupees, she demands 75, saying she knows a Muslim woman that will pay that much for them (which she doesn’t). Ruku nearly walks out after she’s made the bluff, but Biswas takes the bait and begrudgingly pays what she asks.
- When Rukmani sums up what she and Nathan have sold they count out 125 rupees, less of half of what is owed. Rukmani and Nathan then have a rare fight: Nathan would sell the seed they have left for a few rupees, while Rukmani says that would mean they would have nothing to harvest. It would be sacrificing the future for an uncertain present. Nathan finally comes down on Rukmani’s side, and in the morning they face Sivaji with less than half of their promised sum.
- Again, there’s a bit of a tiff with Sivaji. The collector eventually agrees that next time Nathan will pay what’s owed and then some. As he is leaving, Sivaji has a moment of pause, and apologizes for his harshness. He explains gently that he only does what he must to feed his own family. He wishes them the best, and Rukmani, humbled by his humility, returns his warm wishes in hard times.
- The rains finally come, but everything in the fields has already died. It is too late.
- With the rains back, the family plants the little seed they have, and waits. There is nothing left to sell, nothing has grown to eat immediately, and Rukmani is forced to pull out the little reserve they have left.
- In the granary, she has buried about ten pounds of rice. Measuring it out day by day, she worriedly realizes they have enough food to eat for only 24 days. She hopes God will provide after that.
- Rukmani and Nathan are plagued with worry about what will come. Rukmani thinks of going to Kenny for help, but he has disappeared again. They’re on their own.
- One day Kunthi shows up and demands food from Rukmani. Ruku’s neighbor is utterly delusional: her husband has left her, and it’s clear she’s delved deeper into prostitution. Kunthi declares she will be well once she is restored by the food that Rukmani must give her.
- Ruku explains that Kunthi’s sons should take care of her, as Ruku has her own family to worry about.
- Kunthi cryptically says "My sons are not mine alone," and then begins to make bold threats against Ruku. Kunthi implies that Rukmani has had an affair with Kenny. Our heroine quickly thinks her honesty will defend her.
- Rukmani then remembers, though, her son’s strange suggestion that white men have power over women and Ira’s strange looks whenever Ruku was so eager to visit Kenny. Ruku also recognizes that she has deceived Nathan already about her infidelity treatment. Once Nathan learns of one lie, he can rightfully imagine many more.
- She’s overcome with doubt and shame, and as she weeps, Kunthi hangs over her.
- Rukmani gives up seven days of rations to Kunthi and is made miserable by the thought that not much food remains. Haunted by the thought, she goes to the grain’s hiding place to count the remaining rice. Imagine her surprise when she finds just one day’s worth of rice!
- Rukmani is distraught, and immediately realizes that while Kunthi knew of the grain in the granary, no one but her family knew of this other secret hiding spot. Basically, if anyone took the rice, it must’ve been someone in the family. She crouches over the empty spot until dawn, when she goes in to her house accuse her own children.
- She takes the littlest one, Kuti, outside, and returns to begin screaming at the other three, Ira, Raja and Selvam. Nathan comes in from the fields, drawn in by Kuti’s crying outside and the shouting within the house. Rukmani is cruel with madness, and Nathan intervenes.
- To Rukmani’s shock, Nathan breaks down. He admits that he is the one who took the rice, and sobs that it was not for himself. He confesses that he had no choice to give it to someone else. Immediately, Rukmani goes to him to comfort him, but he pours out his heart, which is heavy with guilt.
- Nathan admits that he’s the father of Kunthi’s two sons. He gave all the rice to Kunthi, who blackmailed him into giving it away.
- Rukmani goes through a series of feelings, "disbelief, disillusionment, anger, reproach, pain." She calms herself by remembering that Kunthi is capable of evil. She then takes this as an opportunity to come clean about her own lies. Rukmani tells Nathan the truth about Kenny’s help with her infertility, and of Kunthi’s extortion.
- With the truth out, the air is now clear. Rukmani notes that Kunthi has been robbed of her power over them. More importantly, with the rice gone, there can be no more obsession and worrying of how to stretch it out over days. There’s a freedom in this certainty.
- The family turns to desperate measures to eat – roaming the countryside for dropped fruits, catching crabs and even going through the gutters for food. Rukmani notes they were not alone in this desperation; hunger has turned neighbors and friends into competitors.
- Rukmani describes the onset of starvation in detail: hunger is a numbing that makes it impossible to think of anything but food. It also becomes impossible to eat since food becomes so unfamiliar.
- Rukmani watches the people around her literally become skin and bones, and imagines she must look the same. The entire family, the village, everyone it seems, is suffering, but Kuti, the tiny baby, takes it hardest of all. He weakens to frailty, no longer asking for food, but simply weeping.
- Ira offers her paltry breast in solace – only that can silence the starving child.
- One day, Raja doesn’t come home as usual. Eventually he’s brought home dead. The two men who carried Raja home mutter an unsatisfying explanation about something having to do with money, and the fact that Raja fell as soon as they laid hands on him, as he was weak from hunger. Rukmani is too shocked by this point to hear their explanation, and Ira has begun to cry.
- Ruku at first chastises Ira, saying she should save her strength for more than tears. Soon, though, Ira’s grief pools and flows in Rukmani.
- She observes Raja’s body with an incredible degree of detachment. She explains though, that what she sees before her is only the body. She will worry only about caring for his body: tying up the jaw before rigor mortis sets in, and closing his dead eyes.
- Rukmani is matter-of-fact about the washing and bandaging of Raja, because the thing that matters is the spirit. The spirit of her son is gone, and it is for his spirit that the mother grieves.
- Rukmani describes the cremation of Raja. (Note the sudden present tense of her narrative.) Nathan prepares the funeral bier to carry the body, and the funeral drums summon neighbors and friends to the service. At sunrise, the men leave with the body to burn it, and the women stay behind. With the last beat of the funeral drum, the women know the body is all ashes. Raja is gone.
- Less than three days later, two men from the tannery come to see Rukmani and Nathan. They excuse that the tannery’s no role in Raja’s death. One man says the watchmen were only doing their duty to protect their property. Raja had stolen a calfskin, and only the necessary amount of violence was used against him.
- Rukmani notes her son would’ve had no use for a calfskin, but she does concede that it might have brought some money. She admits they themselves have no wealth.
- The real truth of the men’s visit comes out finally as they batter Rukmani with reason: her sons were known troublemakers. Raja shouldn’t have stolen anything, but he was caught and had to pay the consequences.
- Ultimately, the tannery is worried that Rukmani will bring some legal claim against them, perhaps seeking compensation. They came to make it perfectly clear that Raja’s death was his own fault, and that they can be blamed for nothing.
- Rukmani is confused, as there is no compensation possible for death. The more timid of the two watchmen speaks up finally. He says very gently that Raja wasn’t brutally treated; he was just tapped with a bamboo stick, and he fell, likely from hunger and weakness combined. He tries with quiet desperation to show sympathy and sorrow for Rukmani.
- The other man, though, is hell-bent on emphasizing that Raja’s death was not the tannery’s fault, as if he fears any sorrow on their part is some admission of guilt.
- The meaner man goes so far as to suggest that it’ll be a little easier for Ruku, with one less mouth to feed. The thinner, meeker man makes a sudden and surprising act of raising his hand to check his more aggressive companion.
- Things simmer once Rukmani, still in shock, agrees with the aggressive man that the tannery is not to blame.
- As the men ready to leave, it is Rukmani who must do the comforting. The smaller man is clearly uneasy about the sleazy work they’ve just done. Ruku assures him that it does not matter, but the man quietly replies that he is terribly sorry for her. He leaves, visibly clouded by shame and misery.
- As usual, life is difficult. Rukmani in particular worries how they’ll be able to harvest this season’s rice, as they’re significantly weakened by starvation. The real concern, though, is that the paddy won’t be ready for harvest for another three weeks.
- They’ve all endured thus far, but they worry that Kuti, who is not yet five, won’t make it. He goes hungry, like the others, but he also can’t sleep because of a horrible rash that covers his body and makes him claw at his skin, leaving sores and blisters. Ruku is concerned that he might die at any time.
- Suddenly, Kuti seems to be getting better. He stops whimpering and even sleeps. Rukmani is certain that the gods have answered their prayers for Kuti, and she goes to sleep peacefully. Waking before daylight, she hears footsteps approach the hut. All she can think is that the steps belong to Kunthi, who must have come back to take what little is left to steal.
- In a panicked fit, she quickly gets out of the hut, and hurls herself against the woman she sees approaching. Rukmani loses control of her senses, and throws her anger and hatred into beating the living daylights out of the intruder. She’s shaken from that stupor as her pummeled victim cries, "Mother! Mother!" Nathan has rushed out to pull Rukmani from their daughter, Ira.
- Ira is badly beaten, and Nathan is furious at Rukmani for not recognizing their own daughter. Rukmani can only mutter in her defense that she thought it was Kunthi.
- The biggest surprise of the evening is that many of Ira’s wounds and gashes came from the breaking of the glass she was wearing. Where she managed to get glass bangles, and why she’s walking around with them at night only has one possible explanation: Ira has turned to prostitution.
- As Rukmani takes Ira’s sari to the river to wash off the blood from the squabble, she sees a shining rupee drop from the folds of the garment into the water. As Ira rests, recovering from the wounds, and Kuti whimpers, ailing from hunger, Rukmani can no longer deny that her daughter has been dancing in the street for money.
- Rukmani wrestles over her concern for Ira, never speaking of it explicitly, but quite obviously pained. Ira has made up her mind to sell her body, however, and will not be deterred.
- Nathan is harsh with his daughter. He runs into Ira as he comes home from the fields at sunset, and the girl is dressed and ready for the night shift. He calls her out as a common strumpet, and a harlot, but she is unmoved. So long as there is hunger, Ira will find work, even if it’s of a distasteful sort.
- Ira’s parents have done their best to forbid her work, and she has decided to be disobedient. Rukmani resigns herself to the fact that there is nothing else to be done. With Ira’s money, they can afford to eat again. Still, Nathan will not touch any of the food bought from the girl’s work.
- The baby Kuti, though, is less discerning about where food comes from. He seems to get better in the first few days of Ira’s patronage, but he begins to weaken again. One evening, he cries out to his mother weakly that he has lost his sight. Ruku is frightened but tries to calm him.
- Rukmani goes to Kuti when she hears him turn over. She notices that he’s looking towards Ira with unseeing eyes. Rukmani holds him and sings to him, seeming to forget in those painful moments that it’s clear the life has left his body. In his death, the marks of suffering have gone from his face. Rukmani notes painfully that she could not have wished for him to come back to the life of suffering that he has left.
- Kuti is gone, and in a cruel twist of fate, the harvest is splendid that season. Their bounty is unexpected: it’s the second time the field has been planted that year, and the family anticipated meager returns because the land had had no time to rest.
- The family spends days preparing the rice. One episode leaves them in tears of laughter: they’re standing amidst all the food that will feed them, with enough left over to sell, and observe each other, emaciated and sallow. Their appearance, and the promise that this starvation is in the past, is enough to break them into cathartic fits of laughter.
- Ruku and Nathan happily plan for the future, thinking of the crops they’ll sell and vegetables they’ll grow. Rukmani notes that nothing compares to standing before a good, gathered harvest, especially after so much strife. Far from resenting everything that befell them before the harvest came, the family is full of prayers of gratitude.
- Rukmani is coming back from the market one day when Biswas (remember the mean moneylender?) stops her. Rukmani has not done business with Biswas in a long time, as other shopkeepers pay better prices, and she doesn’t have to endure the sly scorn Biswas tends to treat her with.
- Biswas delivers the news that Kenny has returned. He tries his best to insinuate that Ruku had an affair with Kenny, saying he has heard proof of it from Kunthi. Ruku retorts that the words of a prostitute aren't very trustworthy. Though Rukmani is rankled by Biswas’s malicious suggestion, she calms herself, dismissing him as slippery and worthless.
- Then, Ruku goes to Kenny, bearing a welcoming garland and a lime for good luck. At Kenny’s cottage Ruku suddenly feels embarrassed about her little gifts. Kenny’s reception is cool, but the two soon fall into easy talk, punctuated with laughter and the occasional dark moment.
- Rukmani relates the deaths that have come with the hard times, and Kenny informs Ruku that his wife has left him, and his sons have been taught to forget him. Apparently, everyone has troubles. Ruku takes a moment to wrap her mind around how a wife could leave a husband, since her place to be beside him.
- The two then have a loaded symbolic talk about colonialism: India is Kenny’s home, but not his home at all. Kenny is also confused about which is his country.
- Talk then turns to Ira, and we get the happy news that she’s pregnant, but doesn’t know who the father is. Kenny is unsurprised by the news of Ira’s chosen career of streetwalking.
- Rukmani does a veiled and subtle job of defending her daughter’s decision. She implies Ira’s prostitution was only for the purpose of feeding Kuti. Furthermore, the girl was inexperienced in sexual matters, and got pregnant not knowing what she needed to do to guard against it.
- Kenny is philosophical about the matter: any baby, once it is born, must be loved, no matter what. Kenny insists that Ruku’s shame about what people will say is foolish. On the walk home, Ruku ruminates on what Kenny says, as it is fairly similar to what Nathan thinks. A baby is a baby.
- Selvam, the last son with the family, comes home one day to announce that working the land is not for him. He has been patient with it, but the land doesn’t take to him, nor he to the land. Rukmani is naturally worried about what Selvam will do to sustain himself after his parents are gone, but then comes the big news.
- Kenny is building a hospital, and he’s invited Selvam to be his assistant. Selvam took to the little education he got from Ruku, and surpassed her learning through his own effort and enthusiasm. He reasons that he’ll be a good assistant, and anything he doesn’t know, Kenny will teach him.
- Mother and son then have a frank conversation. Selvam has already gotten his dad’s good wishes to proceed with Kenny, but he hesitantly prods the question of whether his decision displeases his mother.
- She admits she’s a bit disappointed, as his decision means none of their sons will go to the land that has been the mainstay of their parents’ lives. Still, Rukmani assures Selvam she knows that this is the best thing for him.
- There’s a moment of quiet recognition between the two of them: Rukmani pauses, wondering in her mind whether she should tell Selvam that people will talk, and say that Kenny’s favor to Selvam is because of the "special relationship" Kenny has had with Selvam’s mother. She decides not to say anything because she doesn’t want to put a damper on his achievement and optimism.
- Selvam, though, is wise beyond his years. Without ever explicitly bringing up the rumor of Rukmani’s infidelity, he assures his mother that he knows what gossip he might face, and he doesn’t care. He insists that everything will be fine, so long as Rukmani keeps the strength to ignore such talk. Most importantly, Selvam says he trusts his mom. The two share a silent smile of understanding and relief that the topic has been addressed.
- Ruku then visits Kenny and thanks him for the favor to Selvam. Kenny shows her the plans for the new building—a big hospital, fit for the needs of the growing town. Rukmani doesn’t quite grasp the details, but she gets that this is a big deal.
- She wonders where the money will come from the finance the thing, and Kenny announces that he has thousands of rupees. Rukmani is reasonably surprised, as Kenny has been living in poverty like the rest of the village people, but Kenny explains that the money isn’t his. He’s been raising funds from abroad and from within India.
- Then there’s a big "meaning of life" talk – Ruku is puzzled at why people who don’t know them would care enough to contribute money to a hospital to help the poor town.
- Kenny gets exasperated and goes into the old refrain that people who need help should cry out for it.
- Rukmani thinks to herself that this is foolish – man is given a spirit to rise above his needs. She thinks people should just accept want as a reality, and not ask for help from others.
- Though she doesn’t speak a word of this, Kenny seems to sense that she’s thinking it. He becomes irate as usual at the self-imposed suffering that he never can seem to understand. He argues that he doesn’t grasp why the people around him seem to think of suffering as noble.
- Ruku counters that the people learn to bear suffering, as the priests have taught them to, and all of the suffering is central to cleansing the spirit.
- Kenny then proverbially throws up his hands, essentially admitting that he’ll never understand the ways of the people around him.
- It is time for Ira to give birth, and Rukmani prepares the house. She puts bamboo outside of the hut (a traditional warning to her husband and son that a birth is occurring in their one-room home). She cleans the house, puts down wet dung, and takes out the straw pallet women lie on to give birth, the same one she had used to give birth to Ira and all of her children.
- Rukmani then contemplates how many births the house has seen, and notes that this is the first that is not her own.
- As she thinks on it, she is plagued by doubts about the origin of Ira’s baby. A man takes his wife gently, and watches over her in pregnancy, but when a baby is born out of wedlock, there is no guarantee that the baby will be clean, or the mother safe.
- Rukmani notes that Ira seems unperturbed by such concerns, and concludes that if she ever does worry, she wouldn’t do it in front of her mother.
- Rukmani delivers Ira’s baby, which confirms all of her fears about the strangeness of a baby born from a strange situation.
- Ira’s baby is an albino, with white skin and pink eyes. She hands the baby to Ira and is shocked when Ira seems completely unfazed by the baby’s oddity.
- Rukmani is confused: either Ira has gone mad, or her own pride as a mother gives her the strength to ignore the abnormality of the baby. She treats the baby as though it were perfect.
- Nathan is particularly perturbed by the whole affair, and he blames himself for letting this happen. To him, the baby is wrong, and his weird physicality is a reflection of just how wrong the situation is.
- Rukmani tries to comfort him with the fact that Ira is OK with everything, but the parents dwell on the fact that the baby, with his sensitive albino eyes and skin, shrinks from the sunlight. The same happy sunlight that reared her children is a bane to this baby.
- The town gets news quickly of Ira’s strange baby, and people come flooding in to see him as if he is a local curiosity. People are either sympathetic or they delight in the family’s misery.
- Nathan finally can’t take it anymore, and he declares they should have the traditional ceremony to name the child, which will remove all excuse for the "well-wishers" to make their visits of curiosity. On the tenth day after the birth, Old Granny arrives.
- The older woman gives a rupee to the baby, and Rukmani later learns it was her last. Old Granny blames herself for Ira’s misfortune, because Ira’s failed match was her doing.
- Rukmani realizes no one is to blame. Kenny has assured her that the fact that the baby is albino is not the fault of the father, but just a freak occurrence. Rukmani accepts that trying to lay blame is futile.
- It is when Kali finally comes to visit the baby that all of the concerns are blown open and put to rest. As Rukmani’s most garrulous neighbor comes in to peer at the curiosity, Kali says what everyone has been thinking – the baby is simply not normal. Nathan is sour, Ira looks hurt, and everyone is silent and uncomfortable until Selvam puts them all to shame.
- Selvam is not even sixteen, but he is sensible. He declares that a pink-eyed baby is just as much a baby as a brown-eyed one. He chides Kali harshly, saying her own maternal instinct should have told her this.
- With this declaration made, he comforts the baby, who smiles at him. Kali, meanwhile, has slinks away, appropriately shamed by her own insensitivity.
- Selvam becomes increasingly occupied with the building of the hospital, and Rukmani wistfully notes in retrospect that the hospital would take seven years to build, though none of them knew it at the time. Kenny and Selvam have poured their hearts into the project, and the delays leave them frustrated, though they plow on.
- Rukmani seems pained as she says if the hospital had been built faster, perhaps Old Granny would’ve had a decent place to die. She had lived on the street and died on the street, without relatives or anyone to care for her. The people of the town could see it happening, but it was easier to have a surface relationship than actually ask how the old lady was doing.
- Old Granny’s body had been found outside, on a path near a well. She had died of starvation.
- Many from the town and village attended the cremation. Rukmani wryly notes that even if no one is there to take care of you in life, many show up for your death. Death removes the frightening responsibility that anyone might have had to take on for your ailing life.
- Rukmani takes Old Granny’s death especially hard, as she knows now that the rupee Old Granny gave to Ira’s baby, Sacrabani, was her last one. Nathan scolds her for being foolish, as that one rupee wouldn’t have held her long.
- Rukmani sadly wishes Old Granny could’ve gone to the hospital, but Nathan cuts her off sharply – hospitals are for the sick. For the old, there is nothing.
- The hospital carries other troubles besides building delays. Even as it is only being built, people begin to harass Kenny, Selvam, and even Ruku, trying to secure a spot once the facility opened. Rukmani is pained by the fact that not even a tenth of those seeking help can get it – there is just too much need. These fears go unspoken, and Ruku does the best she can.
- The building process is plagued by hiccoughs: the contractor is changed twice, alternating shortages of labor and materials, the theft of bricks, a fire, and inexplicable work stoppages. Kenny and Selvam are increasingly frustrated, and Ruku doesn’t seem to know how to talk to either of them about what’s going on.
- Finally, Ruku talks to Selvam and learns that when Kenny goes away, he’s still collecting money for the project.
- Rukmani again marvels at what she sees as foolishness. There is no purse big enough, not enough compassion in the world, to help all those who are in need. She concludes Kenny is wrong for his optimism in people. She doesn’t understand how Kenny and Selvam manage to fund the project, but the work always seems to crawl on anyway.
- Ultimately, Selvam begins his actual training with Kenny in Kenny’s whitewashed little cottage. Selvam picks up quickly, and by his second year he’s able to treat less complicated cases himself. Kenny begins to pay Selvam a small wage when he can. Rukmani one day questions Kenny about how he will manage to pay a full staff, but Kenny is brash and darkly hopeful. He is certain he will find ways and means.
- The family operates in strange ways. Rukmani notes that Ira and Selvam have always been close, and Ira has always treated Selvam more as her own son than just another brother. It seems that as the children have gotten older, they have become distant from their parents, but never from each other. Kali, ever helpful, suggests that it is because the children are better educated than their parents, but it seems to really be something deeper than that.
- It’s particularly notable that Selvam has always loved Ira’s baby, whom he treats as totally normal. Nonetheless, Rukmani describes how such a charade is doomed to failure. Sacrabani does not play with the other children, because their games are in the sun, which hurts him. He looks strange, his reactions to being outside are pitiable, but he endures the stares of children and adults alike.
- Finally, one day Sacrabani confronts Ira with the inevitable question about what it means to be a bastard. Ira is blind-sided, she can only imagine how much he knows, or what inspired him to ask this question. She flounders before explaining that bastards are children who are unwanted, and his mother loves him dearly. Still, Ruku notes Ira’s voice is pained, as she tells us Ira had indeed sought an abortion early in her pregnancy.
- Ira is again discomfited when later, Sacrabani asks if he has a father. Ira is startled, but quickly says of course he has a father, but his father is away, and will visit when he can. Ira delivers the standard "you’ll understand when you’re older," and shoos Sacrabani out to play.
- Left alone with their daughter, Ruku helpfully offers that she would’ve said Sacrabani’s father was dead, so as to end all the questionings. Nathan is gentler, saying it is for Ira to deal with the matter as she sees fit. Ira is clearly hurt, though, and counters that the boy is only a baby. She thinks he wouldn’t understand such complicated matters as death. It’s clear these questions are being fed to him from the outside.
- Ira wanders outside of the hut, and they decide it’s best to let her do her own thing for a while. Eventually, though, Nathan goes to his daughter. Moved by his gentleness, it seems Ira is finally comfortable enough to cry. Ruku hears her weep for a long time.
- We learn that Murugan, the son who had gone away to a city to work as a servant, has married. Ruku and Nathan could not afford to attend the wedding, but more importantly, Nathan was too sick to make the trip.
- Nathan is approaching 50, and is plagued by rheumatism and fevers that leave him increasingly weak. As a result, Nathan is unable to work the land. Though Ira and Rukmani try as they can to tend to the earth, they cannot make as much of an impact as Nathan did.
- Kenny cares for Nathan, and tells Ruku that the man hasn’t been eating well enough. Rukmani points out that they eat as well as they can.
- Kenny also thinks that Nathan worries too much, which only makes him weaker. Rukmani says he is right to worry, as his whole family depends on him for their livelihood. She immediately regrets saying this to Kenny, as she doesn’t want to seem selfish. Ruku acknowledges, though, that this is the truth, and even Kenny cannot deny that.
- Talk then turns to whether Ruku’s many sons can support the family. Rukmani notes that her sons have made their lives elsewhere, and almost instantly, Kenny crumbles. He knows he has taken the last of Rukmani’s sons from her, and he is stricken by it. Still, Rukmani assures him that she wants for Selvam what Selvam wants for himself.
- Kenny asks Rukmani if she never plans for the future, and she gently points out the obvious. Under conditions like these, no plans can be made. Rukmani declares that they are all in God’s hands.
- Before long, Nathan begins to get better, almost miraculously.
- Then, everything takes a turn for the worse.
- Rukmani comes home one day to find Sacrabani cowering in a corner, looking with terror and curiosity at his grandfather, who is sitting on the floor gazing into nothingness. Rukmani thinks Nathan has just had one of his attacks again, and she gives him water to drink, tending to him gently.
- Nathan then announces the worst news of all: Sivaji has paid a surprise visit, and their land is to be sold to the tannery. The thirty years they’ve spent on the land doesn’t matter because the tannery will pay more. What’s more: the deal has already been completed and the family only has two weeks left.
- Rukmani is naturally in shock, and wonders where they’ll go, and what they’ll do. She finally admits that they are surrounded by mad chaos.
- Rukmani and Nathan are both in shock, and they distractedly discuss what on earth the tannery will do with this little land that is only good for rice growing. Rukmani helpfully the fact that at least they won’t have to carry much, in consolation.
- Rukmani then wanders into her own thoughts about the tannery, declaring that she always knew it would be their ruin. Some have benefited from it, no doubt, but many more have suffered, it seems. Her family once had prosperity from the tannery, but those days seem to have long since passed.
- Rukmani then pauses in her reflection to admit that the tannery is not entirely to blame. The land is a fickle thing, and people who make their living on it must live with the uncertainty that there will be times of plenty, and times of nothingness, glut and dearth in equal parts, both equally impossible to anticipate.
- With the land gone, Rukmani knows they have nothing. She walks into the hut, and surveys the long history of what has happened there.
- Selvam comes home later that night, and when Nathan breaks the news to him, he is thoughtfully silent. Rukmani has a moment of weakness and wonders whether Selvam’s silence is because he does not care. She immediately remembers Selvam is a quiet, thoughtful man and quickly is ashamed of herself.
- When Selvam finally speaks, he is furious. Like his brothers before him, he has an acute sense of justice, and he declares that it is simply not right that the tannery should do this.
- His parents are more pliable to bad fates, choosing not to shake their fists at heaven in futility. Nathan declares they will go to Murugan in the city. He’s too old now to be able to guarantee hard work and profit – no one would sell land to him under that kind of uncertainty. Rukmani’s optimism rails against Nathan’s harsh words, but he insists that they are true, and must be said.
- Nathan comforts Rukmani, and in a tender moment, he lays his hands on her temples. It becomes clear to her that they suffer for each other more than for themselves. It might be easier to not have to worry about each other, but they couldn’t bear their other worries if they didn’t have each other.
- Rukmani’s head is unclear, and she leaves the practical arrangements of their future to her husband and son.
- Rukmani breaks out of her blurred thinking when she hears Selvam speak. In a profound moment of self-sacrifice, Selvam offers to return to the land. He and his father can work it together, and perhaps they might live as they once did. Nathan brightens for a moment at the prospect, but his generosity matches his son’s. He knows what he would be taking away from Selvam by putting him back on the land, and Nathan’s final verdict is that Selvam should pursue his hospital work.
- Then there is the question of Ira and Sacrabani. Though Nathan and Rukmani are sure they must go, Ira declares she and her son have a home here, as uncomfortable as it may be. People are used to her and her strange son, and she does not want to start a new life somewhere else.
- Selvam vows to care for Ira and Sacrabani, though it pains him that he has nothing to give his parents. Taking care of his sister and nephew is the best gesture he can offer.
- It is settled that Selvam will take care of her and her son. In the end, it is decided that only Nathan and Rukmani will go, leaving behind what’s left of their family.
- Faced with leaving, Rukmani begins to collect the few belongings they plan to take with them. She packs their sleeping mats, a little food, and two bowls. Then she begins to survey the implements of the kitchen that she cannot bring.
- Wistfully, she notes that her cooking days are over, and she thinks fondly of the daily rituals of food preparation in which she will no longer participate. The journey to Murugan and his wife will take two days, so she takes the proper supplies: bellows for the fire and six dung cakes, (for cooking fuel on the journey).
- Rukmani goes to the granary and digs up the bundle of money that is left. It’s sixteen rupees total, three of their own, three from Selvam, and a ten-rupee note sent from Kenny.
- The bullock cart arrives in the morning (already packed with skins from the tannery), and Nathan and Rukmani climb in. Selvam, Ira, and Sacrabani see the cart off. Nathan and Rukmani look back at all they’re leaving behind. The journey is long and dusty, and Nathan and Rukmani are comforted by each other.
- Finally, on the second day, the driver of the cart announces he has taken them as far as he can. Rukmani and Nathan are a little daunted: they are faced with three roads and have no idea how to find their son. They choose a road at random and trust they’ll find their son with the kindness of strangers’ directions.
- When they finally run into somebody who can direct them, they hear the bad news that the street they’re looking for, Koil street, is some fifteen miles away. They are crest-fallen, but they have no choice except to continue. While they walk, many carts pass them. No one offers them a ride, though, because the carts are already full.
- Nathan and Rukmani are growing weary of their bundles, which seem to get heavier. They stop frequently to marvel at how busy and bustling the city is. There are people and traffic far greater than they’d ever seen.
- Finally, they reach the city center, and, knowing Koil Street is still some six miles away, they stop to rest. After a light meal of plantains, darkness falls around them, and they know they have stayed too long. A man they saw sleeping in a doorway earlier tells them that they can go to a nearby temple for food and a place to sleep. Rukmani and Nathan are buoyed by the prospect of some proper rest.
- The temple complex is bustling, and it seems the temple is a familiar place to many others who are also heading there for food and shelter. The atmosphere is jovial and familiar enough for the people who are used to it. Nathan and Rukmani chat with the other pilgrims, eagerly talking of visiting their son, though no one has heard of him.
- The couple arrives at the inner part of the temple, and they stop to pray in a service led by two priests. During the service, Rukmani is distracted. As she tries to focus on her prayers, all she can see are the images of her past: her children, her hut, Old Granny, Kenny, Sacrabani. Finally, her mind calms, and she prays amid the reverent silence.
- The atmosphere of the place entirely changes once the prayers are over. The people for whom this is a nightly routine know that the food offerings placed before the gods and goddesses in the temple are given to the poor after the food is blessed. There is a throng of people who push and jostle for a place in the line for handouts.
- Rukmani makes it into the crush, but Nathan, who has never been one for crowds, stands to the side with the old and crippled. She thinks she can ask for her husband’s portion to be given to her, but when she finally makes it to the front of the line, she is sharply rebuked for asking for a second portion. The people who hand out food chastise her for "making capital of charity," and in the end Rukmani walks away with only one portion to share between her and Nathan.
- Still, it’s good to have food. After she and Nathan have eaten, they contentedly feed the temple goats the banana leaf plates and cups that held their evening’s meal. Only then do they remember their bundles, which they’ve forgotten in the temple.
- Along with a small party of helpers, they search for the bundles in vain. They know it was foolish to leave the bundles unattended, but they aren’t accustomed to the city, where nothing is safe.
- Though they resign themselves to their loss, Rukmani is terribly uneasy – she will go to her daughter-in-law like a beggar without so much as a cooking pot. She decides she will spend a little of their money on wares to bring to her daughter-in-law, and she settles into an uneasy sleep. While sleeping, she’s awakened twice by the feeling that fingers are tugging at her arms and face. The first time, she thinks it’s only Nathan, but the second time, she finds she cannot go back to sleep.
- Awake in the dark, she marvels at the statues in the temples. They almost seem to move, and only with the falling light of the dawn does it seem that the figures return to their carved stillness.
- Nathan awakes from a good sleep. He notes how it seems Rukmani has had a harder time getting rest. They set off, but it’s not long before Nathan is eyeing up all the savory food being sold from the stalls. They know it’s a splurge, but Nathan thinks they should spend a little money on food.
- Rukmani resolves to buy something to eat, and only when she reaches for the pouch tied into her waistband does she realize the money is gone.
- They return to the temple to look for the money on the floor where they slept, but it is not there. A few people in the temple recognize them from the last night and cruelly tease them that free food is only given in the evening, not the morning too. When they hear of the stolen money, they soften a little, but the general consensus is that this is the usual stuff that happens in the city. Their money is definitely gone, and they have only the clothes on their back.
- Nathan and Rukmani steel themselves from hunger enough to continue their journey. Since the city is a big and confusing place, they feel utterly lost and are constantly misdirected.
- Finally, they stop to rest at a roadside, where they watch about a dozen street children at play. The children are merry in spite of their apparent malnourishment.
- Though they play enough like children, they turn into animals when a scrap of bread is dropped, snarling and scrapping amongst each other for the smallest morsel. When they see rich men, they become beggars, knowing the wiles of what the street requires.
- Rukmani can’t help but compare these street urchins to her children. Though she knows that her own children have been this hungry, she feels comfort that her children acted quite like this.
- After watching a while, Nathan suggests they ask one of the street-smart kids for directions. They find one who explains that there are actually three or four Koil Streets (hence all the confusion). The little boy is able to work off of the detail that Murugan works for a well-known man named Birla. Though he doesn’t know Murugan, he says he’ll take Nathan and Rukmani to Birla. If they prosper there, they can pay him for his trouble.
- The little boy announces that he is called Puli ("lion"), after the king of the animals. He says he is well known, and from the way he deals with the other children, it’s clear that he’s the leader of the pack. For all his confidence and impudence, Nathan and Ruku find something really appealing about this clever boy, who could well be one of their own grand-children.
- Only then do they notice that the boy has stumps where his fingers should be. He is diseased leprosy, which will continue to eat away at his body. Puli leads them to a street with a whitewashed house and church, and he tells them that this is the end of their journey.
- Some servant men come to shoo away Nathan and Rukmani, whom they take for beggars. Nathan explains that he’s looking for his son Murugan, only to learn that no one living there has that name. With no further information, the servants try to rush away the couple, especially as the doctor is just arriving back to the house.
- Nathan has not come so far to turn back now, and he insists he’ll speak to the doctor. To Nathan and Rukmani’s surprise, the doctor is a woman. She remembers Murugan, and asks for news of their village hospital and Kenny (who sent Murugan to her in the first place).
- Sadly, though, she tells them that Murugan hasn’t worked for her for two years. She senses their desperation and says that he was a good worker, but that he went to seek higher wages working for the well-known Collector, who lives on Chamundi Hill. She promises anyone can direct them there.
- Rukmani and Nathan are at the gate, about to continue on this harrowing journey, when the doctor calls them back. She can tell they look hungry, and she invites them to have a meal. They are taken to the servants’ quarters by a manservant, named Das, and he brings them to a woman (presumably his wife) who is busy preparing a meal.
- The young woman is nursing a chubby baby, and she warms immediately to Nathan and Rukmani, hearing that they are the parents of the one whom her husband replaced. For Rukmani, the woman’s kindness is a breath of fresh air, and the old couple is comforted for the first time in a long while.
- They wash up, and Ruku fills us on in the filthiness of the latrine (a thing she has never used before). This bathroom doesn’t provide the cleanliness of nature alone. Nathan tells her she’ll have to get used to things being like this in city life.
- Back at the cooking pot, the rosy young woman holds the baby on her hip, and she introduces three more babies. Ruku holds the baby, a little girl, as the woman scoops out generous portions of rice for her guests.
- The woman informs the couple that they are given free rice and dhal from the doctor, and the doctor has sent her extra on account of the unexpected company. Ruku eats happily, especially once she knows she’s not taking food from a family that already had so many little mouths to feed. Das’s wife is so kind that she convinces Nathan and Ruku to spend the night, and sleeping mats are soon spread out for them.
- They leave in the morning after thanking the lady doctor, as well as Das and his wife. Ruku says when she thinks of Das’s wife now, she sees her just as then, surrounded by her children, sunny and warm, a bit of comfort in an unfamiliar world.
- Nathan and Rukmani go to the Collector’s house on Chamundi Hill in search of their son. It’s a fine and beautiful house, but as the old couple approach, a man immediately runs out to shoo them away, taking them for beggars.
- They announce they are not beggars, but have come to look for their son, Murugan. Hearing this, the man immediately softens, and brusquely delivers them to Murugan’s wife’s godown before rushing off. ( A "godown" is a tiny section of a warehouse that can be used as a home.)
- Murugan’s wife’s dwelling (one small square room set in a long row of similar rooms) is not too different from the one Das and his family kept.
- At the threshold, Rukmani and Nathan hesitate, overcome with excitement and a kind of shyness. They think about being reunited with their son, whom they haven’t seen for so long, and finally meeting his wife, whom they’ve never known. They can’t quite bring themselves to step into the door, so they call for Murugan’s wife from the threshold.
- A thin girl with "untidy hair" answers them at the door, and their reception is shockingly cold. She wants to know who they are and what they want. Once more, Ruku is embarrassed that she and Nathan must look like beggars. Nathan explains that they aren’t beggars at all, but Murugan’s parents.
- Hearing this, the woman, (we find out that her name is "Ammu"), lets them in, but she looks strangely uncertain about what to do with them. It turns out her discomfort stems from the fact that Murugan has left her. He’s been gone two years, and she safely assumes that he isn’t coming back.
- Of course, Nathan and Rukmani are shocked – they’ve come this far for nothing. It’s clear the girl is struggling on her own just to feed the two babies she has. There’s no way she’ll be able to take care of them too.
- Her demeanor with them is cold, likely because she understands that they came to get help. Ammu seems accusatory of the old couple. Ruku understands this coldness because the blame is partly theirs: had they raised him better, he would not have deserted this woman and his child.
- Ammu announces that she’ll be going off to do her work (cleaning houses) but Nathan and Rukmani can stay until she gets back to reach the children. The baby she has on her hip begins to cry as soon as she puts him down. Ruku wants to hold him to see if he’ll quiet down.
- Ammu is fine with that, but she adds sharply that Rukmani should know the child is not her grandchild. She defensively says "One must live," expecting Ruku to have some scolding for her, but of course Ruku doesn’t. (It seems Ammu, driven by hunger like Ira, turned to giving away her body for money. The baby must be less than two years old, and was thus conceived after Murugan left.)
- Ammu returns from cleaning houses (where she earns fifteen rupees a month and gets free housing) at midday, and Rukmani can tell that she and Nathan were not really supposed to take up Ammu’s invitation that they stay for a meal.
- Their meal is made with half-hostility. It’s clear the girl has some concern for what will happen to these old people, and where they’ll go, but she can’t take on their burden in addition to her own. The sooner they leave her, the better.
- As Nathan explains that they’ll be on their way back to the village, he qualifies that they only came to the city for their son. There’s added awkwardness as Rukmani tries weakly to defend Murugan’s desertion, saying he must have had some reason. Ammu is infuriated by this, and says Murugan only left to chase women and gambling.
- Nathan diffuses the tension a little by assuring Ammu that they’ll go back to their son and daughter in the village. He worries for her though: she will face one challenge after another as a young woman fending for herself and two babies. Ammu is cold in her replies – she’s sure she can take care of herself and her children just fine. Rukmani can tell the girl has been hardened, and can anticipate that Ammu will only receive more challenges.
- There’s only so long one can hang around in awkwardness and hostility, even when one has no place to go, so soon enough Nathan and Rukmani leave.
- Rukmani notes that the parting is sad, even though the meeting was a bit weird. She’s saddened by the prospect that she’ll likely never see this daughter-in-law and these children again.
- Lost in their thoughts, Rukmani and Nathan wander to the wrong exit. One of the servants screams behind them that they’re supposed to use the servant’s exit, and they should remember that for next time. Nathan (who still has his usual gracious dignity) replies that they are not servants, and there will be no next time.
- After their disappointing encounter with Ammu, Nathan and Rukmani return to the temple. The regulars among the destitute have mixed reactions, grumbling that the city temple should feed its own poor without having to cater to all of India’s poor. The harsh reality is that each new arrival means a little less food for the others.
- Soon enough, Nathan and Rukmani become regulars themselves. They grow accustomed to the cruelties that make the temple-goers competitors: crippled people have their crutches kicked from under them, and the weak are separated from their supporters so there’s more food to go around for those who can stand the crush of the line.
- In all of this, Rukmani often has to get a single portion and share it with Nathan, as he does not adapt well to the temple crowds.
- As each night descends, Nathan and Ruku plan their journey back to their village. If they’re going to live in destitution, it might as well be in the place they call home. Still, they have no money to make the journey.
- Rukmani then has the idea that she can make a little money using her education as a reader and writer of letters. This opportunity gives the old couple some hope.
- Still, Rukmani is a woman, and people in the city often stop to marvel at her as she sets up shop in the market. A literate woman is an unusual thing. Business isn’t terribly good, but Ruku earns enough for them to eat rice cakes in the mornings.
- It’s a new year, and Nathan and Ruku find themselves still living in homeless poverty in the city. Nathan’s rheumatism has begun to act up again, and they become increasingly desperate to return home.
- One day, as Rukmani returns to the temple from the marketplace, a little boy calls after her. It’s none other than Puli, the street child who gave helped them find Murugan. Puli speaks like a man, and Ruku still finds him charming. He demands payment for his past service to Rukmani, and to show him that she has nothing she takes him to the temple with her.
- There, Puli shares the single portion of dinner with Rukmani and Nathan, and to Ruku’s surprise, he also nestles next to them to sleep. Ruku worries that he should go home to his mother, but he tells her he has no home, and no mother to worry about him.
- Rukmani knows this street-smart boy is perfectly fine on his own. She worries for him, though she lacks the resources to take care of him herself. Still, Nathan echoes her practical concern when he chides Ruku that they can’t add the boy to their burden, whether he is "whole" of body or not.
- In the morning, though, Puli shows he can earn his keep. He tells them about a nearby stone quarry where anyone can work. They can break small rocks off the big stones, and will be paid by the sack, earning much more than Ruku is currently making as a letter writer. Puli can’t do it himself because he can’t hold a hammer, (he has lost fingers as a result of his leprosy). Still, he’ll direct their work.
- Puli leads Nathan and Ruku to the quarry. It’s hard work, and noisy, especially when the sheet rock is exploded into smaller bits by gunpowder, as is often done. Nathan and Rukmani don’t have hammers, and are not as experienced as the other workers at using stones to chip off other stones.
- Puli sits and watches them, but he comes in handy when he rescues them from their own distraction. The hoisting of a red flag signals impending explosions at the quarry, and Puli once pulls Nathan and Ruku to safety away from the blast when they don’t notice the flag. This ragged threesome has become something of a team.
- After their first day’s work, Rukmani has a bit of difficulty figuring out exactly how the payment process works. As she’s in line waiting to present her stones, she sees that Puli has brought out a begging bowl, and changed his voice, asking onlookers to take pity on this orphaned leper.
- When she finally presents her and Nathan’s basket of stones to the overseer, she gets eight annas, which amounts to four times what she made in a day at the market. Suddenly, going home to the village seems something of a possibility.
- Puli, Nathan, and Ruku set up a routine of sorts: working at the quarry and sleeping at the temple. Though Puli is wily, Ruku entrusts their money to him, as he’s far more able to take care of it than either of them are. Calculating what they might make at the quarry, they figure that they could return home within two months.
- In this excited planning, Nathan asks Puli if he’ll come with them to the village. Puli reminds them that the city is his home – he knows the place like the back of his hand, and has made a name for himself here.
- Besides, Puli chides, if Nathan and Ruku are returning to poverty in their village, he might as well enjoy the poverty he already knows in the city. He’s happy to live just as he did before the old couple arrived.
- Still, Rukmani begins to worry about what will happen to Puli when the leprosy that took his fingers begins to claim other parts of his body, making him increasingly disabled. She respects Puli’s independence, and appreciates that he puts up with their dependence on him. Still, she knows there are limitations as to what one can do under miserable circumstances.
- It was a particularly good day at the quarry, and Nathan and Ruku managed to earn one whole rupee. Rukmani is elated, they’ve already earned six, and their journey back to their village seems to be closer than ever.
- There is a pleasant drizzle as the three walk back from the quarry. Nathan says he is tired, so he’ll go ahead to the temple, but Rukmani and Puli go to the bazaar to buy the usual rice cakes.
- The vendor Rukmani usually buys rice cakes from is kind to her (even though she can’t buy much) and he sometimes even gives her a little butter for the cakes. He’s happy for Ruku’s little extra earnings when she announces today she might be able to buy some more than usual.
- Ruku and Puli eye all of the delicacies they usually avoid looking at, and they finally settle on buying fried pancakes, spending ten annas (more than a usual day’s earning) on pancakes and rice cakes.
- On the walk home, Ruku and Puli spot a hawker selling little pull carts carrying drums. Puli is enamored of the toys, and he begs Ruku to stop and watch them for a bit.
- The hawker is smooth-tongued, and Puli is desperate, so before long he’s convinced Rukmani to spend two annas on the cart for him.
- Rukmani softens when she remembers he is only a little boy, and he’s had a hard life. As thoughts of home have been on her mind, she adds one more extravagance, deciding to buy a cart for her grandson, Sacrabani too. She thinks of how it will excite him, and make Ira smile.
- In the end, Ruku is left with two pull-carts, pancakes, rice cakes, and only two annas for the day’s work. She’s panicking in her mind over how to explain this wastefulness to Nathan, but when she sees him she realizes there are bigger problems to address.
- Rukmani tries to present the pancakes to Nathan with fake cheer, but already he’s looking ill. When he returns from vomiting, Nathan says seeing the food made his stomach turn. He admits he’s been sick and feverish since the morning.
- They eat the rice cakes in silence. As the rain gets heavier and Nathan’s chill worsens, Rukmani tries to convince him to stay out of the rain at the temple. Nathan refuses to stay behind, because the rain is likely to go on for days and he doesn’t want to miss work. In the end, he goes to the quarry with them, still sick.
- The quarry is a big muddy wet mess. While the wealthier people could afford slickers to cover themselves, Nathan and Ruku are exposed to the downpour. It’s been seven days of continuous rain. Even when Puli decides he won’t go to the quarry, Nathan insists on going to work in the bare hillside in the pouring rain beside Rukmani.
- One rainy day, without Puli, Nathan, and Ruku are at the quarry, and dusk is falling. Nathan tells Ruku she should go collect their day’s pay, while he goes home without her. Ruku, left on her own, can’t keep thoughts of home out of her head. She wonders whether home will still be there, and wonders wistfully whether Puli will stay behind after all.
- Rukmani then stumbles down the wet hillside, and halfway down she notes a small crowd of people. At first she ignores it, until one of the crowd calls out to her that she must come see to her husband, who has fallen.
- Rukmani’s senses leave her for a moment, but she’s soon by Nathan’s side. He’s been carried to the side of the road, where he’s lying in the mud, jerking, twitching, and breathing hoarsely. His body is cold to the touch.
- It continues to rain mercilessly, and Ruku tries to pull off some of her sari to cover him, but it gives way to her touch, as it is so old. No others have anything to lend Nathan to cover himself – they are all in equally pitiful circumstances. Finally, two men begin carrying Nathan to the temple, hoisting him by his arms and legs. A knot of women follow behind with Ruku, saying comforting things, but Ruku is so distracted and numb that it’s as if nothing is said at all.
- Only when Ruku licks her lips from the rainwater does she realize that she’s been crying.
- Rukmani makes an unusual switch from the past tense of the narrative here, and recounts her feelings in the present. She remembers this particular night in painfully meticulous detail, and recounts it to her reader.
- As the men carried Nathan’s shivering body to the temple, Ruku follows behind and notices that the insistent rain has squelched the flame usually burning on top of the temple. Rukmani remembers crying out repeatedly like a madwoman, "Fire cannot burn in water."
- The men lay Nathan down on the pavement of the temple, and Rukmani sinks down at his side. Someone brings them a lamp, someone brings them water, and Ruku wipes down Nathan’s mud-caked body. Finally, it’s just Nathan and Ruku alone. The helpers all slip away as they begin to see the inevitable.
- Nathan lies with his head in Ruku’s lap, and he twitches, muttering about his sons. Ruku evaluates the sad state of his feverish, skinny body. His mind is also beginning to slip into delirium.
- His senses seem to return to him momentarily at midnight. He reaches out and touches Ruku’s face, wiping away her tears with his hand and telling her, "What has to be, has to be."
- Rukmani is defiant, and tries to tell Nathan that he’ll get better. But Nathan knows it isn’t true. He tells her not to force him to stay, now that it’s his time. He also tells her not to grieve.
- Rukmani points out that she doesn’t grieve for him. She fears that she cannot live on after him: he is her love and her life.
- Nathan tries to comfort her, and says he will live on his children. They share an incredibly poignant moment as Nathan reminds Rukmani that they have been very happy together. With her face laid on his, Rukmani listens to his soft breathing, until he turns his face towards her and dies.
- Without much detail, Rukmani tells us how she strove to pull together the pieces of her life, but Nathan’s absence continues to loom.
- For comfort from loneliness, she turns to Puli. She makes promises about his health, saying his condition would improve if he returned to her village with her. Puli eases her pain gradually, and eventually he decides to come home with her.
- Rukmani glosses over the bullock cart ride home, and she tells us seeing the land is life to her starving spirit. She weeps from happiness, and the hard past begins to drop away from her.
- Selvam and Ira both run out to greet her. Puli stands to the side, clutching his pull-cart with the drum. She calls to him, and shows him to Selvam and Ira, announcing that he too is her son, as she and Nathan adopted him.
- Ira immediately takes Puli’s arm, and tells him to come with her. She says he looks hungry, and tells him he should rest while she prepares some rice.
- Ira and Puli walk ahead, while Ruku stays back with Selvam, struggling to say the unutterable. Selvam assures her they’ll manage, and sensing her difficulty, he tells his mother she doesn’t need to talk about what happened.
- Ruku tells her son Nathan’s passing was gentle, and that she’ll tell him about it later.
- And on that look towards the future