Rukmani has experienced change before, but what happens now in the village seems unusually fast and drastic. One morning, Arjun runs breathlessly up to the house with the news that dozens of men have arrived to construct a mysterious village. Nathan says that they are building a tannery; he has heard rumors of this before. He leaves his work and takes the family into town to see what is going on.
Arjun’s excitement highlights how small and sleepy the town has been. Although its size seemed to guarantee residents a measure of control and freedom, the arrival of the tannery without warning or explanation shows that rural farmers have very little say in what happens on or around their land.
Everyone has clustered around the maidan, or town square, and all is chaos. The workmen have a strange accent, and they are directed by an Indian overseer and a white man, who eventually tell the crowd to disperse. For two months construction proceeds; villagers make money by firing bricks and making rope, and the workmen build huts for their wives and children in the square. One day, the building is finished and the workmen depart. Everyone wonders what will happen next, but as the building remains unoccupied for some time, they soon forget about it.
Before the tannery, there are few social distinctions among the villagers. However, Rukmani immediately notices a strong hierarchy among the workmen and the racial privileges enjoyed by the white overseer. Although she doesn’t overtly criticize this, she will later resent the tannery’s abrogation of control within the town.
Some people are sad that the workmen have departed, as they paid high prices for goods and food. Rukmani is relieved, and hopes they never return; she points out that they drive prices up, making it impossible to buy many things. Nathan warns that people will soon return to use the tannery, and she must accustom herself to change in the village. Angered, Rukmani says that she will “never accept” it—she doesn’t want to barter for expensive goods and see her children go without hearty food.
Skeptical of the “advantages” the tannery brings, Rukmani implicitly criticizes profit-minded conceptions of economic growth. Although the tannery means that more money flows through the town, it does not guarantee a higher standard of living for residents.
Soon, different workmen arrive at the tannery with their families, under the direction of the same white foreman. Rukmani stays out of the village, glad that her house is far from “the smell of their brews and liquors.” Kunthi says she should be glad that the village is becoming a town, and it will soon contain shops and tea houses; contemptuously, she says that Rukmani is a village girl with no understanding for the ways of the world. Kali and Janaki are also bewildered, but Janaki is happy that the tannery can employ some of her many sons, and Kali thrives on the excitement. Only Rukmani mourns the past.
Rukmani’s strong antipathy towards the tannery contrasts with her calm acceptance of most other calamities. This reveals that the tannery—and the loss of personal freedom and intrusion of outside forces it represents—is outside the range of everyday suffering.
Before the tannery was built, Irawaddy was allowed to come and go from the village as she pleased, just like her brothers. However, Kali points out that strange men often look at her. Wary, Rukmani is more cautious about her daughter and restricts her freedom. She feels sorry for Irawaddy’s restlessness, even though her daughter doesn’t complain.
Although progress of all sorts is supposedly good for women, it’s interesting that the town’s development actually makes it seedy and unsafe for Rukmani and her daughter.