After the rains cease, Rukmani and Nathan take their seed to be blessed at the temple and plant a new crop. As the new shoots grow, they bring hope with them, but Rukmani is constantly in fear that their food supplies won’t last until the harvest. Soon, they run out of dried fish, and they no longer have any savings. Rukmani brings out a secret stash of rice, which will provide tiny meals for almost a month.
Never before has starvation threatened the family so acutely. Rukmani’s current predicament shows how strong a reality suffering and hunger is in the lives of poor Indian farmers.
At night, the children sleep restlessly because of their hunger. Once, Nathan wakes up shouting from a nightmare and Rukmani has to comfort him before he falls asleep. Rukmani dreams that a strange figure breaks into the hut and steals her rice. She becomes increasingly distrustful, feeling that their food stores could vanish at any moment. She buries half of it away from the hut and keeps the other part in the granary. Sometimes she thinks of going to Kenny for help, but she hears that he has gone away from the village.
Rukmani is normally tranquil even when threatened by hardship, but the stress of this period is disrupting her strength of mind and her faith in those around her. The novel makes it clear that excessive suffering does not ennoble its victims—rather, it makes them increasingly less able to function in the world.
On the eighth day of rationing, Kunthi arrives at the cottage. Rukmani has not seen her since their encounter in town, and she has changed greatly—she has lost weight and become wrinkled and aged. Kunthi inspects Rukmani’s pot and asks if she still “has [her] husband”; she has become estranged from her own husband, she says, and he is living with another woman. Rukmani surveys her with pity, and Kunthi says violently that she doesn’t want such pity.
The collapse of Kunthi’s family is unclear and never explained. While Rukmani will grow to despise and condemn Kunthi, it’s important to note that the other woman has never been anchored by a strong familial unit as Rukmani has. Without understanding the complexity of Kunthi’s individual life, the reader can’t judge her actions.
Kunthi asks for a meal; Rukmani gives her some rice water but explains that she cannot spare any rice, as she has to feed her children. Kunthi insists on having some rice, saying that “the damage will never be repaired while I hunger.” Rukmani says that she should seek help from her sons, who have wives and homes of their own, but Kunthi says she will never beg from them. She can take care of herself, she says, “but first the bloom must come back.”
Kunthi implies that she “cares for herself” by working as a prostitute, but can’t do so when she’s rendered unattractive by starvation. Kunthi’s dire situation points out the repercussions when society provides no legitimate methods for women to support themselves and earn a living.
Kunthi threatens to tell Nathan that Rukmani lacks virtue if she doesn’t give her any rice. Rukmani protests that Nathan won’t believe anything she says, but Kunthi points out that she’s seen Rukmani visiting Kenny illicitly in the city, and that he often gives her milk and food, presents that “men make to the women they have known.” Rukmani closes her eyes to think; she never told Nathan about consulting Kenny, and because of this lie, he may believe she’s been lying about other things. Meanwhile, Kunthi waits by her side “like a vulture.”
Kunthi is alert to and able to manipulate the one crack in Rukmani’s strong relationship with her husband. In this way, Kunthi and her extramarital sexuality come to represent a threat to the conventional family unit, as Rukmani would never have seen Kunthi in the city if she weren’t there for her own nefarious purposes. Even while the novel uplifts Rukmani’s sexuality, it unequivocally condemns Kunthi’s.
Eventually, Rukmani gives Kunthi seven days worth of rice. In the middle of the night, worried that Kunthi is still lying in wait, she goes out to retrieve her buried store of grain. However, she finds that most of it is gone; only a day’s worth of rice remains. Rukmani feels dizzy with despair and anger. She returns to the cottage and shouts at her children, demanding to know who has stolen the rice. All the children look at her as if she is crazy. Kuti cries desperately.
Normally, Rukmani is an extremely tender mother. That she’s moved to anger now signifies the gravity of the situation, as well as the extent to which Kunthi disrupts the family unit and threatens to destroy its integrity.
Nathan comes into the hut and tells Rukmani not to admonish the children. Sobbing, he admits that Kunthi forced him to give her the rice. He is the father of both of her sons, and she threatened to reveal this to Rukmani. Rukmani feels acute “disillusionment” to know that her husband carried on an affair in the first blissful days of their marriage. Nathan tries to justify himself, saying that Kunthi is “a skillful woman” and he “did not see the evil for the beauty.”
This major revelation complicates the portrait of Rukmani’s marriage, which until this point has been almost perfect. Although Nathan knows what he did was wrong, he doesn’t accept any culpability for it, painting himself as Kunthi’s victim. With this revelation, it’s clear why Nathan was so disturbed earlier in the novel when Rukmani helped Kunthi through her first childbirth.
Finally, Rukmani says tiredly that Kunthi is “evil and powerful” and they should forget about the whole affair. She tells Nathan that Kunthi blackmailed her as well. After they have come clean to each other, she feels that “a new peace” has come to their marriage.
Perhaps because of her preexisting antipathy towards Kunthi, Rukmani is eager to accept Nathan’s explanation. This way, she can continue to think of herself as paramount in importance to him. Although Rukmani is an unusually independent woman, here she draws on misogynistic tropes condemning women who exercise sexuality outside marriage.
Rukmani also feels a strange sense of relief now that they have run out of rice; she no longer has to scheme about stretching out their supplies. Instead, the boys roam the land scavenging garbage or plants; sometimes they eat grass, even though it makes them sick. Hunger is always with them, so painful that it banishes all other thoughts and eventually makes them empty and listless. Rukmani wonders if they will be strong enough to work when the harvest time comes.
Here, it becomes evident that “living off the land” isn’t really a tenable possibility; even when cultivated, the land doesn’t provide enough resources to support the family.
Kuti is most strongly affected by the famine. He has always been a sickly child, and now he cries all the time and refuses to eat even what they have. Irawaddy is tirelessly gentle with him, soothing his wails and coaxing him to eat most of her own food.
Even though she can’t have children of her own, Irawaddy is highly maternal and invested in the fate of the family. While her failed marriage links her to Kuti, her conventionally feminine behavior differentiates her from the other woman.