As Rukmani pounds chilies one morning, she sees two figures approaching the house. As they grow closer, she makes out Irawaddy and her husband, but understands immediately from their troubled faces that something is wrong. Irawaddy goes inside the house, and her husband announces that he is repudiating her because she is barren. Rukmani points out that they haven’t been married long, but the husband counters that he cannot afford to wait longer for sons. He departs.
Just as Irawaddy repeated her mother’s young marriage, now she shares Rukmani’s struggles with possible infertility. While Rukmani eventually overcame this with the help of her husband’s unusual forbearance, Irawaddy shows how these issues play out in marriages that are weaker and less affectionate.
Nathan says that the husband’s decision is understandable, but Rukmani points out that he himself was far more patient with her. Meanwhile, Irawaddy seems exhausted and depressed. She tells Rukmani that it’s easier to endure this disappointment than to anticipate it, as she’s been doing for some time. Rukmani comforts her, saying that her parents will never blame her for something that isn’t her fault. She decides to visit Kenny and see if he can help.
Although the collapse of Irawaddy’s marriage shows how women are undervalued and mistreated in Indian society, Rukmani’s maternal tenderness and unconditional acceptance demonstrates the novel’s strong faith in individual familial bonds.
In his teens by now, Arjun has far surpassed Rukmani in reading and writing. Even though he’s never been to school, he manages to obtain books and frequently practices his reading and writing. Rukmani is proud of him, but she’s disappointed when he announces his intention to work in the tannery. He points out bluntly that he’s tired of going hungry and seeing the rest of the family without food as well. Especially since Irawaddy returned, food has been scarce. Rukmani has to admit he’s right, even though she hates to acknowledge that she can’t provide for her children as well as she would like.
Ironically, although Rukmani wants her son to stay on the land, it’s her teaching that has allowed him to question his father’s occupation and seek another future. Rukmani is both proud of her son’s intellect and disappointed that it leads him away from her. Interestingly, she and Nathan rarely question their children’s decisions, insisting on their right to act for themselves even though they always sacrifice personal desires for the family.
Arjun says that Kunthi’s son will procure him a job, but Rukmani counters that she will ask Kenny, since she doesn’t want to be indebted to her neighbor. However, Arjun doesn’t want to ask a white man for help, saying bitterly that white men already have too much power.
Rukmani takes Kenny’s superior social status for granted, but Arjun questions it. His nascent political consciousness stems from his education, however rudimentary.
Soon, Thambi joins Arjun at the tannery. Nathan is devastated, because he expected his sons to help him on the farm. However, Thambi says that he’s unwilling to work land that neither he nor his father owns. His son’s brief speech stuns Nathan, reminding him of his failure to realize the dream of buying his own land.
While Rukmani and Nathan usually dwell on the pleasures of farming even amidst calamity, their sons point out the pitfalls of agricultural life and force their parents to acknowledge facts they’d rather ignore, like their lack of security on their own land.
Still, Thambi and Arjun remain loyal to their parents, always bringing home their earnings. With the increased money, the family begins to eat well again, and Rukmani is able to keep her vegetables instead of selling them to pay the rent. She buys clothes for her children and even outfits for herself and Nathan.
Although Arjun and Thambi have begun to make their own way, it’s clear that the integrity of the family unit is still of paramount importance to them.