On their day off from the tannery, Arjun and Thambi return to the farm to help Nathan. Nathan loves to see his sons working beside him and to impart his knowledge to them. Although the sons are more educated and have more skills than Nathan, in matters of farming, he is an expert and he has “no master.”
Arjun and Thambi’s higher education and worldliness contrasts with their father’s knowledge of farming. For Nathan, a rural life allows him to feel fulfilled and in control even without material advantages or education.
On the other days, Arjun and Thambi work long hours at the tannery. Rukmani is proud that they bring all their wages home, instead of spending them on prostitutes like other boys. However, she’s unable to save much money because she has to buy clothes for the boys, who are expected to wear shirts in the factory.
Although the tannery theoretically brings opportunity to town, it’s important that it doesn’t really improve local quality of life. Instead, it concentrates profit in the hands of company owners.
Sometimes Nathan accompanies Rukmani when she goes to the market; on these days, they visit the tannery to talk with their sons during the midday meal. One day, they arrive at the tannery to find the gates closed and guarded. When Rukmani timidly asks what’s the matter, the guard dismisses her rudely. Eventually, another guard tells her that there is trouble among the workers. Rukmani and Nathan go home and wait anxiously until their sons come home, long after dark.
Rukmani’s powerlessness against the guard shows the extent to which large companies abrogate local control and even governance. While the town’s isolation and primitive character sheltered it from outside intervention, it also makes it vulnerable to exploitative takeover.
Arjun and Thambi say that the tannery workers asked for better wages, and the bosses retaliated by taking away their lunch hour. Rukmani is mystified, asking why they need more than they already get. The boys answer flatly that they need more money to stave off hunger, and to save for families of their own one day. To Rukmani, her sons seem like grown-up strangers. Nathan says that he and Rukmani are too old to understand, and shouldn’t interfere in the boys’ affairs.
Arjun and Thambi are becoming politically active—it doesn’t take that much education to realize the inherent injustice of the wage-slave system in which they’re working. However, their new principles align them with progressives like Kenny, and against their parents, who believe that external events, whether natural or social, cannot and should not be altered.
As it turns out, Arjun and Thambi have been spokesmen in the workers’ disputes. Soon, the workers decide to go on strike; Thambi explains that they will not return until they are paid more fairly, although Rukmani doubts they can force the powerful posses into doing anything.
Rukmani views powerful companies much as she does nature—as entities that act impersonally, for better or worse. This attitude provides an inner calm for that her sons lack, but prevents her from acting for her own benefit.
After a week, the tannery threatens to replace the striking workers with others; most workers return to their jobs, and the strike fails. Arjun says that “the people will never learn,” echoing what Kenny has said to Rukmani earlier. She doesn’t understand what either man is talking about. To her, it seems useless to fight against large odds and risk losing what one already has.
Rukmani’s attitude towards suffering begins to clash not only with Kenny’s but with her own sons’. It’s important that traditional stoicism towards suffering seems to correlate with lack of education, while knowledge usually leads to the development of progressive tendencies.
Arjun and Thambi are without work, as are Kali’s two sons. Kali frequently bemoans their lack of “sense,” in striking, but eventually Nathan lashes out at her, saying that “our children must act as they choose to, not for our benefit.”
The freedom which Nathan and Rukmani grant their children is remarkable. As parents, they’re able to unite an emphasis on familial integrity with a touching acceptance of their children’s choices.
With Nathan the family’s only provider, food supplies quickly dwindle. Rukmani has to stretch her supplies to ensure they will last until the harvest. Arjun and Thambi spend more and more time in town, refusing to tell their mother what they do there.
While Rukmani wanted to have a large family in order to provide labor for the farm, it’s clear that subsistence farming can’t actually provide food for so many children.
One morning, Selvam rushes into the house to announce that drums are beating in town. Rukmani remembers the morning when Arjun made a similar announcement about the tannery workers’ arrival, and feels a sense of dread. As it turns out, some people have arrived in town to recruit laborers for tea plantations in Ceylon. Arjun and Thambi see this as a good opportunity for them, a way to escape “hunger and idleness.”
Throughout the novel, Rukmani associates the tannery with disaster for her family. Here, although the tannery isn’t implicitly involved, there are parallels between it and the arrival of recruiters who will lure away two of her sons.
Nathan and Rukmani are extremely reluctant to see their children go so far away, asking how they will make such a long journey and what they will do if their employers break their promises. Rukmani points out that money is not everything, but Arjun counters that they cannot make even a meager living as things stand in the village, and that they are wasting their youth here. In the morning, after kissing their parents’ feet, the boys leave. Rukmani knows she will never see her sons again.
Nathan and Rukmani prioritize familial unity over everything, even physical survival. While Arjun and Thambi seem more hardhearted, their motivations are pragmatic and understandable. Nathan and Rukmani’s refusal to question the system that keeps them in poverty prevents them from ever improving their circumstances.
Nathan consoles Rukmani that the boys must grow up and make their own way. Still, she’s despondent to see her family dispersing. Murugan is leaving as well, to be a servant in a nearby city; Kenny has procured the job for him. Nathan says that Rukmani “broods too much,” and that she should reflect on the beauty of the land and the promise of a good harvest. Together, they walk outside and survey the land. Once, many birds had lived in the paddy fields, but they no longer come because of the tannery’s proximity.
Rukmani once saw the land as eternal and unchanging, but its evolution as a result of the tannery shows that it’s not actually very reliable. Still, her faith in her life as a farmer is still strong enough that it consoles her somewhat for the loss of her sons.
After Murugan has been gone some time, Kenny brings good news of him; he is succeeding in his new job, and Rukmani shouldn’t worry about him. Rukmani feels sudden pity for Kenny, sitting solemnly in her hut, and asks if he has a family, or if he is as alone as he seems. Kenny admits that he has “the usual encumbrances that men have—wife, children, home” but that he has not allowed these things to “put chains about [him].” Instead, he’s committed himself to wandering and doing as he pleases. Rukmani is silent, absorbing this. Kenny demands that she keep secret what he has told her about his personal life, and leaves. Rukmani reflects that he has “a strange nature.”
Kenny’s revelation shows how sharply his personal circumstances and worldview contrast with Rukmani’s. While Rukmani derives ultimate fulfillment from having and maintaining a family (and expects that Nathan do so as well), Kenny views these things as detracting from his ability to live a fulfilling life. Even though Kenny is committed to alleviating the suffering of others and feels sure he knows how to do so, it’s clear that he can’t arrange his own affairs satisfactorily, while Rukmani is highly content with her personal life.