Shortly after, Nathan leaves for a few days to attend a family funeral. Rukmani takes advantage of his absence to consult Kenny about Irawaddy’s infertility. She doesn’t think Nathan would approve of seeking medical care from a male foreigner, but she knows this is Irawaddy’s one chance to reclaim her marriage and have a family of her own. Rukmani explains the plan to Irawaddy, who assents mutely; she’s becoming listless, and rarely shows enthusiasm or looks anyone in the eye.
Although Rukmani rarely takes steps to alleviate suffering she personally experiences, her children’s suffering is the one thing that spurs her to action. Here, Irawaddy’s depression shows the consequences when indifference to suffering is taken too far—an inability to live a healthy or productive life.
Rukmani reaches Kenny’s office at the end of the day, when he’s “grim and tired” from long hours of attending to tannery workers. At first he tells Rukmani sternly that he can’t see her today, but when Rukmani pleads with him he agrees that she can bring Irawaddy to his office soon. He apologizes for frightening her with his gruff tone, and tells her she shouldn’t “act like a timid calf at [her] age.”
Kenny’s admonitory tone dismisses the cultural conditions under which Rukmani lives, which encourage her to be deferential to men and foreigners. Although Kenny wants to immerse himself in local culture, he can never fully do so.
Walking home from Kenny’s office, Rukmani encounters Kunthi in the path. Kunthi remarks insinuatingly that Rukmani keeps “late hours,” but Rukmani retorts that her reasons for doing so are better than Kunthi’s. Kunthi stands in Rukmani’s way and taunts her, implying that she’s been visiting other men in the city to assuage the “passion in [her] body” while Nathan is away. Rukmani is so enraged that she throws herself at Kunthi and pummels her.
Although Rukmani is pursuing independent action and keeping a secret from Nathan, she’s chagrined at allegations that she’s not fulfilling her role as a deferential wife and mother. This shows her ambivalence about the extent to which she departs from social norms for women.
In close proximity to Kunthi, Rukmani notices that she has tied her sari below her bellybutton, “like a strumpet,” and that she’s naked underneath. She has put sandalwood paste on her body and used makeup to make her breasts appear larger. Rukmani steps back and surveys Kunthi, who is unashamed. She warns her not to say anything, “or it will be the worse for you.” Kunthi seems unconcerned by this threat.
Rukmani—and to some extent, Markandaya—sees a clear distinction between Rukmani’s sexuality, which exists within marriage, and Kunthi’s, which is clearly extramarital. Rukmani’s insistence that female sexuality is only acceptable within socially sanctioned shows her ultimate adherence to traditional women’s roles.
After Kenny treats Irawaddy, Rukmani visits her daughter’s husband and entreats him to take her back. The husband informs her that he has already taken another wife, although he seems sad to lose Irawaddy. When Rukmani breaks the news to her daughter, Irawaddy barely responds. She begins to walk for hours by herself and does her chores in silence. Only Selvam can occasionally coax a smile from her.
While it’s clear that Rukmani is irreplaceable in her own marriage, regardless of her ability to bear children, Irawaddy’s husband seems to see her and other female partners only in terms of fertility. While Rukmani’s marriage helps break down stereotypes, the novel is careful not to paint too rosy a picture of Indian womanhood.
Meanwhile, Rukmani herself is pregnant again. Sometimes, she sees resentment in Irawaddy’s eyes and wonders if her daughter hates her for her ability to do what she cannot. When the baby is born, Rukmani names him Kuti. Although she worried he would irritate Irawaddy, his presence affects a transformation in her; she becomes “animated” and youthful again, and takes pleasure in caring for the baby.
Again, pleasure in the family unit helps Rukmani and Irawaddy endure the disasters that exist in the outside world. Throughout the rest of the novel, Irawaddy will evolve into a strong and fulfilled woman without marriage—but it’s the support of her parents and siblings that allows her to do so.
Nathan is happy to see Irawaddy recovering, saying they should be grateful for the present happiness, but Rukmani worries about her future; without a husband to provide for her when her parents die, Irawaddy may have to live on the streets like Old Granny.
Rukmani’s worry over Irawaddy’s marriage isn’t just about adherence to convention—it’s a very real worry for Irawaddy’s material security, since there are no acceptable methods for women to support themselves.
Old Granny often talks over the issue with Rukmani and tries to console her. She tells Rukmani that her life, while difficult, is “not unbearable,” and that she became accustomed to it over time. Rukmani reflects that Old Granny is right: “one gets used to everything.” Even Rukmani is used to the tannery, which she used to loathe. She tries to accept Irawaddy’s future in the same way, and to banish the worry from her mind; however, when she’s lying in bed at night she often finds herself “rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.”