Rukmani had hoped for a good harvest, but the rains fail to come. For weeks, she and Nathan look at the sky anxiously and watch as the water in the paddy fields drains away. By harvesting time, there is nothing to reap. When Sivaji, the rent collector, arrives, they are unable to pay him. Sivaji is sympathetic, but the landlord has ordered that the land be given to someone else if they are unable to pay. Nathan asks how they could possibly live without the land, and Sivaji is unable to reply. Eventually, they agree that if Rukmani and Nathan can come up with half of the rent now, they can pay the rest later.
Before, Rukmani never emphasized or even talked about the process of paying rent—she doesn’t like to dwell on the evidence that she doesn’t own her land and isn’t secure in possession of it. Her status as a tenant farmer is the major pitfall in rural life, and prevents it from providing security or prosperity to her family.
Rukmani collects what meager possessions they have, even the sari she wore to her wedding, to sell. Nathan says that it’s better to sell everything than to lose their land and “wander like jackals.” Rukmani takes her goods to Biswas, who insincerely commiserates with her plight. Although she bargains with him skillfully, she only gets seventy-five rupees. Nathan sells their bullocks, but they still don’t have enough for the rent.
Nathan’s emphasis on the importance of the land, especially relative to possessions, stresses his strong faith in agriculture, even in light of the recent crop failure. To him, the land is still the only way to achieve a modicum of security.
Nathan suggests that they sell the seed they’ve been saving for the next crop. He can earn some money to buy more seed before planting time. Rukmani thinks this is a bad idea, because it’s nearly impossible to find work these days, and Nathan is becoming an old man. In their anger and fear, they begin to argue and shout at each other.
It’s notable that although the land is supposed to support the family, it’s the only thing capable of driving Nathan and Rukmani to a rare quarrel.
Eventually, Rukmani convinces Nathan not to sell the side. Instead, she pleads with Sivaji to take the money they have and take full repayment after the harvest. Sivaji assents, saying that he doesn’t want to be strict but “must think of [his] own.”
In this situation, Rukmani takes the lead, making decisions and acting for the family. In many ways, she’s a much more active character than Nathan, although he’s technically in charge.
The drought goes on for weeks, causing the landscape to wither and dry up. Rukmani has to wait for water at the tannery reservoir, where people jostle and quarrel over supplies of water. Long after the crops have failed, the clouds gather and rain falls furiously. However, it has come too late to help the family.
Rukmani is beginning to see that the land functions impersonally, rather than for her benefit. However, she can’t (and doesn’t want to) alter her life as a result of this, and so natural disaster will continue to harm her.