Soon, Rukmani is pregnant. Around this time, Kunthi goes into labor on a day when only Rukmani is available to help. Kunthi pushes Rukmani away and begs her to leave, but Rukmani assumes the woman is delirious and frightened and sensibly stays until the midwife arrives. By the time Rukmani returns home, it’s night. Nathan greets her with unexpected anger, asking why she stayed so long and reminding her that she cannot overextend herself during her own pregnancy. Rukmani almost cries at this unexpected rebuke from her usually gentle and patient husband.
Rukmani’s dismay here emphasizes how tranquil her marriage normally is. However, Nathan’s uncharacteristic display of anger in this passage foreshadows the revelations that Kunthi will make later in the novel.
To protect her body during the pregnancy, Rukmani leaves more of the household chores to Nathan. In her leisure time, she practices her writing. Her father had taught her how to write, even though it’s very unusual for girls to have any education, and her mother always remarked that reading and writing are useless to married women. Kali and Janaki are surprised that Rukmani is educated, but not particularly impressed.
Rukmani has an interesting relationship to education—although she’s the most learned of her peers, and her tutelage later allows her children to pursue other careers than farming, she doesn’t seem to value it as anything more than a pastime, especially because it’s irrelevant to her duties as a housewife. Through behavior like this, Rukmani both defies and reinforces expectations of women.
When Nathan first sees Rukmani writing, he’s preoccupied; however, he strokes her hair and says that it’s good she is so clever. Rukmani is grateful that her husband, himself illiterate, does not resent her for this pastime. She knows that it must be hard for him to have a wife more educated than he is, and that he is humbling himself by supporting her.
Nathan’s acceptance of his wife’s education is extremely unusual for a man of his time, and it’s a touching display of his authentic love for Rukmani. Moreover, it’s an acknowledgement of his willingness to accept her as an equal partner.
Rukmani also tends to her small garden. She’s always excited to see each new crop, although Nathan tells her she’ll grow accustomed to it after many harvests. One day, Rukmani sees a cobra among her pumpkins. She knows she should be petrified, but she reaches out and touches it carefully. In the next moment, she comes to her senses and runs away screaming. Nathan cuts the snake into pieces, but tells Rukmani that if left undisturbed, such animals are usually harmless. He gently pokes fun at her for running through the fields with her heavy pregnant belly.
Rukmani is both attracted and repelled by the cobra, which could easily kill her with a single bite. Throughout the novel, Rukmani is interested in the calamitous events that occur around her, but also refrains from becoming too wrapped up in them in order to maintain her mental serenity.
Soon after, Rukmani goes into labor. She’s disappointed to discover that her firstborn child is a girl. Kali comforts her, saying that she has plenty of time to give birth to sons; her neighbor takes over the housekeeping for a few days, even tending to the garden. Watching her one morning, Rukmani imagines that the cobra is inside the house and starts screaming. When she tells the story to Kali, the other woman says that Nathan should not have killed the cobra, since they are sacred, but Nathan says that Kali is a superstitious fool. Rukmani eventually forgets about the incident, although while tending to the pumpkins she often imagines the cobra slinking through their wide leaves.
It’s interesting that the birth of Rukmani’s first child, ostensibly a joyful event, coincides with her unease about the cobra. Although Rukmani takes joy in her children throughout the novel, her love is balanced by an acute awareness of the various dangers they face and her inability to protect them from those dangers. It’s also important to note that while Rukmani’s reaction to her daughter’s gender may seem unfeeling, as a subsistence farmer she’s highly attuned to the necessity of bearing sons who can join their father in working the land.
Rukmani names her daughter Irawaddy, after a large river. At first, Nathan pays the girl little attention; he needs sons to work the land with him and “continue his line,” not daughters who will one day require dowries. However, as she grows up, he quickly becomes attached to her and dotes on her fondly. Irawaddy is a beautiful child, and people in the village are always happy to see her. Nathan thinks she takes after mother, but Rukmani notes dryly that he’s the only one who holds this opinion.
Although sons are technically more important, of all Rukmani’s children Irawaddy will be the most highly defined as an individual, with the closest and most complex relationship with her parents. Her position in the family helps contravene stereotypes about the oppression of women in traditional communities.
As she grows older, Irawaddy crawls behind her parents in the fields. While Nathan plows and Rukmani scatters the seed, the baby plays by herself or sleeps in a cloth hung from a branch. Rukmani’s mother often comes to visit, even though doing so involves long journeys in a cart. Rukmani rarely returns to her parents’ house, because she has so much to do.
Like most other aspects of Rukmani’s life, childcare is rudimentary. Rukmani’s love for her children is balanced by her inability to materially provide for them in more than the most basic ways.