The next morning, the villagers see a “slow-moving procession of coolies” tied together at the hands, marched through Kanthapura by policemen “to show who our true masters were.” The villagers know they must find Moorthy but cannot, and suddenly they hear a shout from the temple. They rush there and see all the pariah women and children trying to stop the coolies’ march with their bodies, singing that Moorthy has been taken away in the night and shall never return.
Moorthy’s final disappearance happens in secret, just like his reentry into the village after his first arrest. While his second arrest is invisible, the coolies, marched through Kanthapura like slaves, are hyper-visible. The fact that the pariahs shout from the temple (which they were never allowed to enter) demonstrates the complete inversion of caste in Kanthapura that has occurred.
As the adults clap and cry, the children throw stones at the police—one hits its mark, and the police start to round up the children. They beat Rachanna’s grandson “on the buttocks and head and spine and knee” and throw him down on the grass, and the women rush to him, but he does not speak.
One child breaks the Gandhian prohibition on violence, which leads the police to justify punishing all of the children with the severest forms of violence and cruelty they can muster.
The Gandhians call the police “butchers, butchers, dung-eating curs!” The police begin to chase the villagers, who cannot run fast enough—one beats a woman named Puttamma and tells her, “you know what I would do with you.” The others run away but think of her and feel they have to return, and when they do they see the policeman on top of her and yell for help. But nobody comes and all they can see in Kanthapura are policemen everywhere.
By raping Puttamma, the police continue to escalate their cruelty against the villagers, moving from mere beatings that the Gandhians can stand to more terrifying and egregious crimes that could never be justified as a means of breaking up a protest.
Another policeman threatens a village woman who goes to visit her elderly neighbor and knocks her down just as Achakka and a few of the other women arrive. He then chases them all out of the house.
Even innocent villagers become guilty by association, and for the first time in the book Achakka herself becomes a significant part of the narrative.
Achakka and the others hear shrieks from every corner of the village, and “the whole world seems a jungle in battle” as every imaginable animal screeches from the forest. They run from house to house seeking a place to hide, but in each “man after man had been taken away during the night, while we had slept the sleep of asses,” and their women were gagged and tied to pillars. Rangamma has also gone missing.
The animals around Kanthapura mirror its residents’ sense of terror, which suggests that the land remains deeply tied to the village’s people, as the natural world continues to feel their pain. Rangamma’s disappearance leaves the Gandhian movement without a clear leader of any sort, making it truly equal for the first time.
They decide that there is only one safe place in Kanthapura: the temple sanctum. On Rangamma’s veranda, they see an elephant crouching, wailing, surrounded by a crowd as its driver kicks it to rise. Some policemen see Achakka and the other women and chase them to the edge of town, where they see a police barricade on the Karwar Road and the coolies marching up the Bebbur Mound above the town.
As the heart of Kanthapura, the temple provides the women with both spiritual and physical security. The police abuse the elephant, forcing it to help them enforce the colonial law against its will, which reflects their cruelty toward the villagers.
They decide to go to the house of a sick (actually pregnant) woman named Radhamma, but on the way see her running through town from the police. Radhamma sees them and rushes over; they decide to go to Nanjamma’s back yard, but on the way Radhamma falls to the ground and begins to scream. “It’s only seven months,” another older village woman named Timmamma assures her, but Radhamma’s baby comes out and Timmamma cuts its umbilical cord with the fringe of her sari.
Radhamma’s child is born suddenly and prematurely, as though torn from her by the terror imposed by the colonial police. Nevertheless, the women save her baby as they hide from the police, recalling their insistence on balancing their traditional obligations as mothers and wives with their dedication to the Gandhian campaign.
They hear a yell in the post office and find Ratna laying on the ground there as a police officer runs off. Ratna tells the women how she fought off the policemen, and it turns out that they came just in time to stop him. They rest in the post office kitchen and Ratna washes up. Ratna tells them that “this is no safe place” and they must find refuge elsewhere, and Achakka hears “the voice of Rangamma in her speech, the voice of Moorthy.” Before they head to the temple, Ratna looks outside and brings the others to watch Bhatta’s house burning down. They hear the pariah women’s shouts grow louder and shriller, and they run toward the temple. They hear Bhatta’s roof fall and Satamma worries that her own house will burn down, but Ratna encourages her to be patient and they take refuge in the temple, where they call Siva to protect them and make offerings to the god.
Achakka feels Ratna expressing the same energy as Kanthapura’s wise Gandhian leaders, who have already been arrested the previous night. Ratna quickly begins to take charge among the women Volunteers, stepping in as the leader of the entire movement even though she started out as a widowed pariah girl. There is some poetic justice in the fact that Bhatta’s house burns first, since he was Kanthapura’s main representative of the colonial viewpoint and resistance to Gandhism. The women pray to Siva, who is associated with Gandhi and India as a whole, rather than their local goddess Kenchamma. This reflects their shift from an identity based on their village to one based on the nation for whose independence they struggle.
They hear “another crash from Bhatta’s burning house” and then the elephant spraying water onto it. But then the elephant runs for the town gates and the fire rises, bringing down the buildings where rice, cattle, and hay are kept. The women cheer, for “it is not for nothing Bhatta lent us money at 18 per cent and 20 per cent interest, and made us bleed.”
The police try to save the loyalist Bhatta’s house, but the elephant manages to escape, extending the metaphorical relationship between it and the protestors. Bhatta’s sizable house represents the wealth he squeezed out of the other villagers while pretending to defend their interests; thus, when it burns down, the villagers see the main symbol of their economic oppression fall.
They hear another “long cry” across town, this time from the Skeffington Estate coolies, who “raised a clamour to receive the coolies that were being dragged in” and seem to be coming to help the people of Kanthapura, too.
The coolies come to the Volunteers’ rescue, fully recognizing their shared interests with the villagers who were similarly (although less directly) impoverished by the colonial economic structure.
One woman feels feverish, and Ratna offers to fetch a blanket. Although the others protest, a policeman sees her as soon as she leaves the temple. She runs back in and the women barricade the door from inside as the policeman beats on it until he gives up and locks them inside. All afternoon, the women “cry and moan and beg and weep and bang and kick and lament” inside, but nobody comes for them and they hear nobody through the door. In the temple, they light the sacred flame and sing a bhajan for Lord Siva.
Ratna’s desire to help the sick woman ends up revealing the Volunteers’ position to the policeman, but together they find a strength superior to his. The women end up trapped inside the temple that serves at the core of their village’s collective and religious life, and now as both sanctuary and prison.
When the women can sing no more, Ratna tells the rest stories about women who marched for Gandhi in cities around India. They turned back to chanting and “forgot the pariahs and the policemen and Moorthy and the Mahatma” before dozing off to sleep, but started to see Siva and suddenly awake in terror, waking one another up and banging on the temple door until the morning, when Rachi, Pariah Rachanna’s wife, finally opens it and lets them back out into Kanthapura.
Ratna takes over the previous Congress leaders’ most distinctive job: telling stories to motivate the others and contextualize their struggles within the broader movement for independence. By focusing on the role of women in Gandhian politics, she demonstrates how women’s struggle for independence has also given them a freedom from their former social subservience in societies across India. Indeed, it is Rachi—a pariah woman at the bottom of the formal caste system—who liberates them from their imprisonment in the temple.
Puttamma, who Achakka and the other women saw the policeman assault in the bushes the previous day, is crying to her child in bed and lamenting that she has sinned. She thinks her husband will throw her into a well, but in fact he has been arrested. Pariah Siddayya had found the policeman with her and brought her to his backyard.
Puttamma fears that she was sexually polluted, as it were, when the policeman raped her. Although the women find strength and freedom among themselves, they recognize that they remain embedded in a patriarchal society that objectifies and evaluates them based on factors they can’t control.
That night, the women do not sleep, “for we knew our men were not far and their eyelids did not shut.”
In addition to staying vigilant, the women stay awake to remember, honor, and empathize with their disappeared loved ones. This parallels the way Achakka preserves and honors the story of her disappeared village by remembering the stories recorded in this book.