Rukmani says that nature is much like “a wild animal that you have trained to work for you.” It can be helpful if you are careful, but if you relax for just a moment, it can turn against you.
At the beginning of the novel, Rukmani glorified and trusted in nature without reservation. Now, she’s beginning to understand it doesn’t always function to her benefit.
In the bustle of Irawaddy’s marriage, Rukmani and Nathan neglected to prepare the hut for the rainy season or protect the land from flooding. Soon after the wedding, the monsoons arrive, more intense than ever before. The rising waters destroy the rice crop, and Rukmani and Nathan anticipate times of hunger before the next harvest. On the worst night of the monsoon, lightning strikes Rukmani’s coconut tree and destroys it.
Although Rukmani views farming as allowing her a tranquil and free life despite her poverty, her total dependence on the land actually makes her vulnerable to any natural calamity that occurs. Rukmani always elevates rural poverty above urban living, but it’s increasingly clear that farmers are just as defenseless as city dwellers.
The next morning, the rain suddenly stops and Rukmani ventures outside to survey the destroyed crops. Many of her neighbors, including Kali, have even lost their homes. Nathan brings out the family’s small savings so that they can buy rice.
The sheer loss of infrastructure that the rains inflict shows how precariously families like Rukmani’s hover to disaster, even at the best of times.
In the village, Rukmani sees that while the tannery is still standing, most of the workers’ huts have been destroyed. Trees and even bodies lie in the streets. All the shops are closed, and Rukmani has to cook gruel for her children. At night, drums beat in the town, announcing that a calamity has taken place. Rukmani cannot sleep; she understands that the drums signal “a vast pervading doom,” but right now, her own circumstances seem more immediate and pressing than the troubles of others.
It’s important that natural calamities harm poor farmers and laborers more than large companies, who have the resources to protect themselves. This is one of the few moments in which Rukmani can’t quickly reconcile herself to the trials she and her family must endure. While she chides herself for this reaction, it’s clear to the reader that her feelings are natural, understandable, and even healthy.
The next day, Rukmani and Nathan return to town. However, the shopkeeper they go to see says he has no rice left to sell and directs them to Biswas. Knowing that he can charge whatever he wants right now, Biswas gives them a pitiful amount of rice for the two rupees they can afford to spend.
Rukmani associates Biswas and his extortions with the rise of trade that the tannery has brought to town, but here he’s profiting off traditional power structures, in which rural farmers have no reserves to draw on in case of disaster.
On her way home, Rukmani runs into Kenny, who looks pale and grim. When he enquires after her welfare, she says bravely that the rice she’s acquired will last until better times arrive. Kenny explodes at her, shouting that times won’t be better for months, and meanwhile her family will starve. Kenny calls the villagers “meek, suffering fools” and asks why they don’t “cry out for help” or “do something,” instead of suffering in “ghastly silence.” Rukmani believes that he has gone mad, and she and Nathan quickly take their leave.
This is one of the key moments of conflict between Rukmani’s strategy of accepting and ignoring suffering, and Kenny’s insistence on struggling against it. Kenny sees Rukmani as foolish, rather than brave, and she sees him as insane, rather than genuinely grappling with horrifying realities.
Until the next harvest, the family lives on dried fish and roots which they gather from the forest. When they drain the fields to reap what remains and plant the next crop, the children catch dozens of fish in nets, and the family enjoys a feast. However, the rice crop is tiny and Rukmani knows she will have to sell many vegetables and be very careful in order to make their food last.
From this point on, food availability and famine will be a recurring problem in the novel. Once a benevolent provider, the land is slowly revealing itself as an unreliable source of sustenance.