One day, Rukmani’s son Raja doesn’t come back from his scavenging rounds. At night, some men from the tannery bring his body home; his head is soaked with blood. The men lay the dead boy in front of Rukmani, who can’t believe she is looking at her own son. They explain that he had been “caught,” and they say “something about money,” but Rukmani is too dazed to understand. Irawaddy starts to sing and cry, but Rukmani numbly tells her to stop and preserve her strength.
Raja’s death is one of the famine’s major tragedies. It’s notable that Rukmani’s stoicism towards suffering prevents her from mourning fully, as Irawaddy does. It also prevents her from enquiring into the causes of her son’s death, which always remain unclear.
Rukmani wonders why she gave birth to sons only to see them lying dead in the dirt. Mechanically, she closes his eyes and goes about the tasks of washing the body and preparing it for burial. She feels that Raja’s body has no connection to the soul for which she mourns.
This is one of the few instances in which Rukmani questions the reasons behind the suffering that occurs in her life, rather than accepting it as inevitable.
Nathan prepares a bier and puts Raja’s body on it. In the morning, funeral drums summon friends and neighbors, and the men take the bier away to be burned while the women wait in the house.
The community’s adherence to ritual links Raja’s death to other milestone events like weddings and births, placing tragedy in the context of the ongoing life of the village.
Three days later, two tannery officials visit the house. They tell Rukmani that Raja tried to steal a calfskin, and that the guards did their duty, only using violence to protect their property. Further, they say that Rukmani’s sons have always been “troublemakers,” and that they don’t want any trouble from her now. The altercation was Raja’s fault, and she has no “claim” on them now. Perplexed, Rukmani says she has no idea what they’re talking about and that she hasn’t made any claim.
The tannery officials understand that Raja’s death was preventable and that there can and should be repercussions, even though they’re trying to evade responsibility. Their visit underlines Rukmani’s conception of tragedy as inevitable, and the extent to which this worldview makes her unable to advocate on her children’s behalf.
The second, quieter man, points out that Raja wasn’t “brutally treated”—the guard just “tapped” him with a stick, and Raja fell. Rukmani says that he had been working hard and eating very little. The first man reiterates that the tannery is not responsible and Rukmani can hope for no compensation. He even says that Rukmani may even be better off with one less mouth to feed. The other man looks appalled, but Rukmani just nods. She finds “no sense in agreeing or disagreeing” with this man who is so different than her.
While Rukmani is sometimes impractical concerning her children—for example, she willingly gives birth to more than the farm can support—her attitude still contrasts favorably to the official’s cold-hearted pragmatism. It’s clear that Rukmani’s inability to act for her children doesn’t prevent her from valuing them much more than this man does, despite his education and “modern” attitudes.
The first official whispers audibly to the second that Rukmani has been “reasonable”; the second lingers behind to tell Rukmani that he is sorry for her loss, and leaves awkwardly.
The tannery official mistakes Rukmani’s grief and numbness for complicity with his agenda. His arrogance underlines the enormous psychological gap between the poor and those who exploit them.