In the modern day, Mama and Papa have left home to attend a wedding. With few chances to be home alone, the now middle-aged Uma relishes the opportunity. She is in her room, cheerfully going through her jewelry and her other trinkets, when Ayah, her family’s servant, comes into her room and insists on brushing Uma’s hair. Ayah is complaining to Uma about her rebellious daughter Lakshmi, whom Ayah beat after the girl ran away from her arranged marriage. Ayah says that Lakshmi is trying to find work as a servant to support herself, for which Ayah beats her more. Uma gets angry and scolds Ayah for beating Lakshmi. Ayah complains that she sacrificed everything for Lakshmi, and shows Uma her tattered clothing as an example. Uma angrily throws a handful of new sari garments from her dresser at Ayah, who thanks Uma, and leaves the room.
As a middle-aged adult, Uma no longer tries to escape by going into the outside world. Instead, she escapes by finding freedom in her solitude. When Ayah speaks of beating Lakshmi for escaping her marriage, Uma’s anger must also include her own anger at her parents for not allowing Uma her own life. Because traditional Indian social rules dictate obedience to one’s parents, Uma can’t direct her anger at her parents. So, she channels it at Ayah, a servant. Uma’s treatment of Ayah betrays her own social status relative to her servant. To Ayah, a good marriage for Lakshmi is better than a life in servitude such as her own.
The novel flashes back to Uma’s childhood again, to her memories of visits from her distant relative Mira-Masi. To Uma’s great admiration, Mira-Masi, the widow of a disgraced family member, has dedicated her life to the god Shiva and spends her days traveling through the country, visiting different relatives and different Hindu temples. Uma loves Mira-Masi’s visits, even though MamaPapa disapprove of Mira-Masi’s traveling lifestyle, her vegetarianism, and her “old-fashioned” religious devotion. Uma recalls curling up around Mira-Masi’s feet and listening to her recite epic myths about the adventures of Hindu gods. Uma remembers wishing that real life were as magical and wondrous as the myths of gods.
Uma admires Mira-Masi because she leads the kind of life that Uma would like to have—free-roaming, untethered to either parents or husband. While MamaPapa see Mira-Masi as too old-fashioned in her religious fanaticism, she also represents to them the threat of female independence – which they see as too modern. Traditional ways aren’t necessarily more acceptable to MamaPapa. Uma’s love of Mira-Masi’s magical stories shows her desire to have any other life than the one she has.
Mira-Masi carefully cooks her food separately in her own stone oven outside, and while MamaPapa frown, Uma feels honored if Mira-Masi lets her help in her food preparation. Every evening, Mira-Masi goes down to the temple of Shiva to honor her chosen god in ritual prayer and blessing. Uma longs to feel the spiritual connection and magic that she perceives around Mira-Masi’s simple rituals, and she feels struck with emotion just hiding behind poles, watching Mira-Masi at the temple. One evening, MamaPapa reluctantly allow Mira-Masi to take Uma, Aruna, and Arun with her down to the river for her religious bathing. While MamaPapa have warned their children about the filth of the river and the danger of the big currents, only Aruna and Arun avoid getting in the water. But Uma fearlessly jumps into the water, eager to feel it wash over her, and nearly drowns.
The invisible power Mira-Masi attributes to her god Shiva frees her from feeling obligated to earthly authorities. Uma is drawn to the beauty and magic of religious ritual, and it represents to her a freedom from the weight of earthly authorities and rules. Her desire to wade thoughtlessly into the river is just like her desire to be consumed with religious fever – she longs to feel swept up, swept away with feeling. She wishes to be transported to another place, not just physically, but also inside herself. Unlike Arun and Aruna, Uma experiences an inner freedom from fear of nature and of danger.