Rukmani is the novel’s protagonist and narrator. She is a peasant farmer, wife, and mother living in rural India. At the age of twelve she marries a poor farmer, Nathan. She soon becomes a… (read full character analysis)
Nathan, Rukmani’s husband, is a kindly and gentle tenant farmer. Although Nathan and Rukmani represent archetypal Indian peasants, Nathan’s behavior as a husband helps combat widely held stereotypes about this demographic; Nathan is a… (read full character analysis)
Kenny is a British doctor who lives and works in the village. Rukmani first meets Kenny at her dying mother’s bedside, and she seeks treatment from him for infertility. A gruff man, Kenny claims… (read full character analysis)
Irawaddy is Rukmani’s eldest child and only daughter. When Irawaddy is born, Rukmani is disappointed because Nathan needs sons who can help him work the land. However, she and Nathan grow fond of their… (read full character analysis)
Arjun is Rukmani’s eldest son. While Nathan hopes his sons will join him on the farm, Arjun and his younger brother Thambi reject the idea of cultivating land they will never own, and find… (read full character analysis)
Murugan is Rukmani’s third son. Murugan moves to a large city to work as a servant, and eventually marries a woman he meets there, Ammu. Like his older brothers, he refuses to live… (read full character analysis)
Selvam is Rukmani’s fifth son. Like his older brothers, Selvam elects not to join Nathan on the farm; instead, he becomes Kenny’s apprentice and trains to work in the large hospital that Kenny… (read full character analysis)
Kuti is Rukmani’s youngest son. Kuti is born just after Irawaddy’s marriage collapses, and his older sister cares for him as if he is her own child. However, when he is a toddler… (read full character analysis)
Puli is a street child whom Rukmani befriends when she travels to the city in search of Murugan. Rukmani pities Puli because he’s homeless and his fingers have rotted away from leprosy; in turn… (read full character analysis)
Janaki is Rukmani’s neighbor in the village, Janaki is a tired and careworn from numerous pregnancies and the stress of providing for her family on slim resources. Janaki’s husband runs one of the village’s… (read full character analysis)
Rukmani’s father is a village headman and ostensibly the most powerful person in his town, but during Rukmani’s childhood his position becomes increasingly meaningless as local power concentrates in the hands of British colonial… (read full character analysis)
Thambi is Rukmani’s second son. Closest in age to Arjun, he follows his older brother to work in the local tannery and eventually in search of better jobs in Ceylon.
Raja is Rukmani’s fourth son. During a period of famine, Raja is searching for food in the town and a guard at the tannery kills him. Raja’s death fulfills Rukmani’s early predictions that the tannery, ostensibly a sign of development and progress, will bring only suffering to the town.
Kali is Rukmani’s neighbor in the village. A large and garrulous woman, Kali frequently annoys Rukmani, but she also helps her as she learns how to run a household and care for her children.
Rukmani’s mother. Although Rukmani leaves home at a young age, she visits her mother whenever she can and is present at her deathbed.
The local rent collector. His yearly arrival is a reminder that the land Rukmani and Nathan live and rely on is not actually their own.
A poor local fruit seller. Rukmani develops a friendship with the older woman, and eventually asks her to arrange Irawaddy’s wedding. Towards the end of the novel, Granny collapses of starvation and dies at the village well; her grim demise is a reminder of the harshness of rural poverty.
A local merchant and moneylender. Rukmani dislikes him because he uses his relative power and prestige to coerce villagers into predatory loans. However, during times of famine she’s forced to buy rice from him at exorbitant prices.
Murugan’s wife. When Rukmani and Nathan travel to the city in search of their third son, they find Ammu and her children living a hovel, having been abandoned by Murugan. Careworn and haggard, Ammu is clearly embittered by her husband’s disappearance and wants nothing to do with his parents.
A female doctor for whom Murugan works for a while.