As an old woman, Rukmani often imagines that her deceased husband, Nathan, appears to her in her sleep, and they pass the night peacefully together. In the morning, he always vanishes.
From the beginning, Rukmani emphasizes the importance of family. However, by juxtaposing this moment of tenderness with the knowledge of her husband’s death, she also recognizes the ephemeral nature of such relationships.
As the sun rises, Rukmani greets her children, especially Puli, whom she has adopted and brought home to her native village. When she asks if he is happy with her, he always nods. Anyway, Rukmani knows it’s useless to question her decisions: “what’s done is done.” Puli’s hands have been destroyed by leprosy, but the local doctor, Kenny, and Rukmani’s son Selvam have prevented the disease from spreading to Puli’s limbs.
Here, Rukmani displays remarkable equanimity when reflecting on big decisions (adopting a child) and contemplating calamity (Puli’s mutilated hands). Throughout the novel, she will use such stoicism and composure as a coping mechanism against the suffering she observes and experiences.
Rukmani’s sight is fading, but she can still see the hospital where Selvam and Kenny work together. The hospital has been growing slowly over the year, constructed by “men’s hopes and pity.”
The hospital is not just a building but a reflection of Kenny’s determination to strive against suffering, rather than passively accept it.
Rukmani’s memory drifts to her childhood. She grows up watching the weddings of her three older sisters. The first one is lavish and lasts for many days, as her father is a village headman. The second wedding is also lovely, but the third much smaller, as the family’s cannot afford large dowries for so many daughters. Rukmani’s mother frequently sighs over her, lamenting the fact that with so little money, Rukmani won’t secure a rich or landed husband.
Rukmani’s description of her childhood shows that she grows up in a very conservative and traditional Indian household, in which marriage is the climactic event of a woman’s life, and partnerships are determined by family networks and considerations of wealth and social status.
When Rukmani hears her mother say things like this, she childishly insists that she will have a large wedding, which everyone will remember. She deserves it, because her father is head of the village. Her mother laughs at this, but her older brother chides Rukmani, saying that headmen are now unimportant compared to the government tax collectors that visit once a year. Rukmani is startled and frightened to hear that her father is no longer “of consequence.”
Markandaya never specifies exactly when the novel takes place, but she does hint at the political issues at play. Here, it’s clear that power is slowly shifting from local authorities to representatives of the British imperial government. Rukmani will see the increasing centralization of authority when the tannery takes over her village later on.
When Rukmani is twelve, her parents marry her to Nathan, a tenant farmer; everyone in the village says the match is beneath her. Like most women, Rukmani remembers her wedding night vividly, but as she describes it, she notes that she prefers to dwell on other nights later in her marriage, when she “went to [her] husband matured in mind as well as body.”
When the time comes to finally leave home, Rukmani’s mother stands in the doorway, trying not to cry. Rukmani herself feels sick, and after a few minutes of driving in Nathan’s bullock cart, she vomits. Nathan cares for her gently, telling her not to be embarrassed and placing her next to him on the seat. The new couple drives the entire day in order to reach Nathan’s village.
There’s an uncomfortable distance between Nathan and Rukmani here—he’s an adult, while she’s clearly still a scared child. At the same time, the gentleness with which he soothes her contravenes stereotypical male behavior and presages good things for their marriage.
During the drive, Rukmani falls asleep. Nathan wakes her up excitedly when they reach his farm, which is comprised of a paddy field and a small mud hut. Nathan is clearly anxious that Rukmani should like her new home, but she is unprepared for such a primitive house and sinks down on the floor, pretending for Nathan’s benefit that she’s only tired. When he says that in a few years they can save up money and build a better house, Rukmani assures him bravely that she’s not frightened and that she likes the house. Nathan shows her a handful of rice from the storeroom. The grains are fat and bountiful, and Nathan declares that with harvests like this, Rukmani can have anything she wants.
Rukmani’s eventual love for her agricultural lifestyle is especially notable given that she initially finds it daunting. However, she’ll soon adopt Nathan’s habit of deriving not only sustenance but emotional comfort from the fruits of the land. Moreover, her concern for Nathan’s feelings and acceptance of the house shows her conception of herself as part of a familial unit, even though she’s only just met her husband.
Rukmani does her laundry at a brook near her new cottage. After scrubbing the laundry in the water and laying it out to dry, she sees her neighbor, Kali, walking toward her with two other women, all carrying washing with them. Before long, Rukmani comes to know all three. Kali is plump and talkative, always making jokes; Janaki, the shopkeeper’s wife, is tired and careworn from many pregnancies; Kunthi, the youngest, is beautiful and graceful despite being very pregnant. Now, Kali makes raunchy jokes about Kunthi’s pregnancy and Kunthi shrugs disdainfully.
Although Rukmani doesn’t dwell on hardship, it’s clear that her daily life is difficult—even simple tasks like laundry involve hours of hard work. Like her neighbors, Rukmani will become completely absorbed in the concerns of running a household and raising children; however, unlike them, Rukmani will react to events around her with insight and thoughtfulness.
Kali begins gossiping to Rukmani, telling her how excited Nathan has been for her arrival. She tells Rukmani that he built their hut with his own hands, allowing no one to help. Rukmani feels ashamed of her initial dislike for such a lovingly built home. A month later, she asks Nathan why he never told her about this. She says she is proud that he built their home, and Nathan tells her that she’s grown since their marriage and is no longer a child.
This passage shows Rukmani and Nathan’s mutual commitment to their family. Even before he met her, Nathan took pains to build a house where Rukmani could live safely and comfortably. Similarly, even though she didn’t like the house at first, Rukmani commits herself to accepting it just as she accepts her marriage.
In this period of her life, Rukmani is deeply content. The weather is good, allowing for easy farming and good harvests. Nathan finds her extremely beautiful, and they are quickly growing to love each other. Rukmani gets up at sunrise every day and enjoys her quiet life. As an old woman looking back on her life, she compares this period favorably to the “clamor which invaded our lives later.” Although Nathan doesn’t actually own the land he works, they dream of saving enough money to buy it, and they are proud to own their own animals.
The fact that Nathan is a tenant farmer seems insignificant at first, but will grow more important as the novel unfolds. It’s this lack of ownership over their own land that prevents the couple’s farming lifestyle from being liberating and empowering, as it initially seems, and keeps them trapped in poverty and hardship.
Once a week, Rukmani goes into town to buy vegetables and other provisions. People in the village are generally friendly; Rukmani gets along especially well with Old Granny, a poor woman who sells fruit on the road. Janaki and Kali often drop by to give Rukmani advice, but Kunthi keeps her distance; she’s much quieter than the other woman and no one can make friends with her. Like Rukmani, Kunthi’s marriage is “beneath” her, and she’s not adjusting to it very well.
Rukmani and Kunthi demonstrate two attitudes towards traditional women’s roles—Rukmani accepts what she is told to do, whereas Kunthi resents it. While Rukmani is happy in her own marriage and doesn’t have much sympathy for Kunthi, it’s easy to understand how a woman in Kunthi’s position might be unhappy, regardless of her husband’s social position.
However, Rukmani notes that in these kinds of marriages, it’s actually the husband who suffers, as she and Kunthi are unfamiliar with basic farming chores. Rukmani has to learn how to milk the goat and plant a garden, and she’s grateful for Nathan’s patience as she masters this task. When she raises her first crop of pumpkins, Nathan praises her profusely, even though he’s been farming for years. Encouraged, Rukmani plants a full vegetable garden, and the young family eats better than they ever have.
By the end of this chapter, Rukmani has acclimated herself to life as a farmwife. Although she’s technically the subordinate party in her traditional marriage, she’s becoming more of an equal partner with Nathan. Throughout the novel, Rukmani’s vegetables will bring in money and make the difference between abundance and hunger for her family.