Years pass after Irawaddy’s birth, and Rukmani cannot become pregnant again. The neighbor women tell her not to worry, but it’s easy for them to say, as they have many children of their own. Only Nathan says nothing, even though Rukmani knows he’s deeply worried. Whenever Rukmani visits her mother, they visit the local temple to pray fervently for more children.
Rukmani’s anxiety shows just how much a woman’s position within her family depends on her ability to bear sons. While Nathan is a notably patient husband, Rukmani’s worry now highlights the plights facing women in traditional communities.
When Irawaddy is six, Rukmani’s mother becomes ill with consumption and draws near to death. Rukmani returns home to care for her, and her father summons a foreign doctor who has recently settled in the village. When Kenny arrives, Rukmani stares at him openly, having never seen a white man before. Speaking the local language, he dryly asks her to show him the patient when she’s done staring at him. Kenny can do nothing for her mother, but by treating her with “understanding and respect” he eases her suffering and allows her to die peacefully.
Kenny, a British doctor, is the novel’s only white character. Although he represents the nation that’s currently exercising oppressive colonial rule over India, he will have a rich and complex relationship with Rukmani over the course of the novel. Gruff and sometimes rude but also compassionate and altruistic, Kenny is neither a colonialist oppressive nor a hero of the people.
After her mother has died, Rukmani thanks Kenny, saying that her home is open to him always. Scrutinizing her, Kenny guesses that something is wrong with her, too. Reluctant to share her concerns with a stranger but impressed by his insight, Rukmani confesses that she’s unable to conceive sons. Kenny tells her to visit his office, where he might be able to help her. At first, Rukmani refuses, but later she seeks him out for help. Tactfully overlooking her previous fear, Kenny treats her, and Rukmani soon becomes pregnant again.
Rukmani usually avoids seeking help for her problems—she considers doing so a sign of weakness and inability to quietly bear suffering alone. It’s only Kenny who challenges her views on this subject. Their differing views on what and how much should be done to appease suffering are a recurring tension throughout the novel.
Irawaddy is seven when Rukmani’s first son, Arjun, is born. She’s very interested in the baby and happy to have a companion, since Kali and Janaki’s children are much older, and Kunthi remains distant. Overjoyed, Nathan invites everyone in the village to celebrate and they prepare an enormous meal to share. Kunthi plays on the tara, a string instrument, and the music causes Arjun to wake up and start screaming.
Unlike Irawaddy’s birth, Arjun’s arrival is a moment of unmitigated celebration. The family’s observance of naming rituals shows their capacity to celebrate and enjoy life regardless of their material poverty. However, Arjun’s negative reaction to Kunthi helps reinforce Rukmani’s wariness towards her neighbor.
Rukmani had hoped that Kenny would come to the celebration, but he never arrives. Nathan notices her anxiety and asks why she’s so worried about the foreign doctor. Rukmani fibs that she’s grateful for his treatment of her mother. She doesn’t want her husband to know she sought medical care from a foreigner, and she feels that no harm is done if he never finds out.
Rukmani’s growing friendship with Kenny highlights her independence and ability to act on her own behalf. While she embraces these qualities and often uses them to her family’s benefit, she’s also somewhat ashamed to depart from traditional female docility, as her uncharacteristic evasiveness shows.
As Rukmani bears more and more children, the family’s resources are stretched thin. Irawaddy and Arjun are fed well during their childhood, but the succeeding sons—Thambi, Murugan, Raja, and Selvam—grow up on small portions. Luckily, Irawaddy is very capable with children and helps Rukmani manage the household.
The paradox here is that while children are necessary and desired, they also make the family’s life much more difficult. This tension shows that tenant farming is ultimately an untenable occupation that cannot provide security or comfort for families like Rukmani’s.
To make more money, Rukmani sells most of her vegetables in the village, usually to Old Granny. One day, Biswas, a moneylender whom Rukmani dislikes for his oily personality, offers to pay her much more for the vegetables. Rukmani doesn’t like selling to him, but since she needs the money she agrees. The family eats sparingly, but they don’t go hungry, like many of their neighbors. Every month, Rukmani stashes away a little money for Irawaddy’s dowry.
Rukmani always elevates agricultural occupations over anything concerning trade, which she usually associates with Biswas. To her, agriculture is more honest and valuable because it’s connected with a tangible product, while traders like Biswas engage chiefly in manipulating and taking advantage of others. This mindset will influence her reactions when trading companies like the tannery arrive in town.