Rukmani and Nathan never see the Zemindar, or landowner, who owns their farm. Instead, they pay rent to his agent, Sivaji. They are grateful that he is a kind man and does not demand bribes or extra grain like many agents.
The landowner’s absence allows Rukmani and Nathan to feel as though they effectively own the land; however, the landowner’s absence also emphasizes the impersonal nature of the forces that control them, and the precariousness of their ostensibly secure lifestyle.
One morning, Rukmani is gathering dung from the fields for fuel when she sees Kenny approaching. In a gesture of respect, she bends to his feet, but he retreats quickly, telling her that he’s not a “lord.” Rukmani announces proudly that she has five sons thanks to him, and invites him into her house. As they walk, Kenny criticizes her for collecting dung, rather than letting it nourish the land. Rukmani quietly points out that there’s no other way to heat the houses and strengthen the walls.
Kenny’s discomfort with Rukmani’s display of respect shows that he doesn’t want to enact the stereotypical relationship between colonizer and colonized. At the same time, his assumption that he knows how to manage the land better than she does shows that he maintains a certain level of prejudice and arrogance, despite his good intentions.
Rukmani is proud that her children behave well in front of the guest, and that Irawaddy gracefully pours a bowl of rice water. Nathan is taken aback to see Kenny in the house, but when the white man greets him formally in his own language, Nathan quickly warms to him. Rukmani worries that Kenny will admit that he treated her for infertility, but the doctor says nothing.
Kenny’s ability to fit in with the family, and even to appeal to Nathan, emphasize his tact and cultural sensitivity. At the same time, it’s Rukmani who has the serious friendship with Kenny, not Nathan—this emphasizes her role as the leader of her household.
Kenny becomes a frequent visitor at Rukmani’s house. She wonders where his own family is, but out of politeness never asks. He is always patient with her children and brings sweets when he comes, and even milk for Selvam, which Rukmani normally can’t afford. Rukmani doesn’t understand much about Kenny’s work; she knows that he treats the workmen at the tannery, but he often disappears from the village for days or months at a time, and no one dares to ask where he’s been.
Rukmani’s deep rootedness in her family and community contrast with Kenny’s apparent solitude and wandering lifestyle. Although Kenny often criticizes Rukmani’s worldview, it’s apparent to her that he doesn’t have anything to match the satisfaction that she derives from her children.