The beggars at the temple recognize Rukmani and Nathan and tease them, asking if they’ve encountered trouble with their son. The couple stays there for several days, not knowing what to do. Every night, Rukmani fights for a single portion of food to share, as Nathan is too weak and listless to enter the fray. After the meal, they rest in the stone corridors wondering how to escape from the city. Nathan has no way to make a living except through farming, and Rukmani has been a housewife all her life.
By this point, Rukmani is both physically and mentally stronger than Nathan. Although she hates urban life, she’s not debilitated by it in the same way that Nathan is. While Rukmani is ostensibly still subservient to her husband, it’s she who is responsible for making decisions, and she who takes on the dominant role in the relationship.
One day, Rukmani decides to set up a stall as a scribe in the market. Nathan is skeptical, pointing out that no one will believe a woman can read. However, it’s their only hope, so the next day she sets out. For weeks she works in the market, but no matter how loudly she hawks her trade, she only makes enough money to buy food for the next morning.
Although Rukmani has depended on Nathan for sustenance all her life, now she has to provide for him. Even though it’s stressful and demanding, the role reversal that urban life demands of the couple helps explore new models of family life.
Rukmani grows increasingly worried about Nathan, who frequently has bouts of fever and rheumatism. One day, as she’s returning to the temple, she encounters Puli, who says he’s coming for payment. Smiling at the child, she tells him she has no money but brings him to the temple to share their evening meal. Puli eats with difficulty, owing to his lack of fingers, but seems unselfconscious about his disability.
Even though she’s removed from her old role of housewife and mother, Rukmani retains her maternal tendencies, wanting to provide for Puli despite her dire lack of resources. This shows her desire to maintain a family structure, which gives her peace of mind in these bewildering new circumstances.
To Rukmani’s surprise, after finishing the meal, Puli stretches out next to her and falls asleep. Rukmani knows that Puli is better equipped to navigate the city than she is, but she still feels a maternal responsibility for him.
Throughout their relationship, there’s a tendency between Puli’s superior street wisdom and his desire to be treated like a child, which he shows here by attaching himself to Rukmani.
In the morning, Puli suggests that Rukmani and Nathan work at a stone quarry outside the city, where they can make more money. He leads them to the quarry, which is situated on a bare and craggy hill. Everywhere, people are chipping at the rocks; they work independently, and the quarry owners pay them based on how much they collect. Although he can’t help because of his maimed hands, Puli explains what to do, and Nathan and Rukmani work with difficulty all day.
This work is extremely hard, especially since Rukmani and Nathan are weak and growing old. Even though they’re making some money, this occupation shows that Indian society forces impoverished classes into backbreaking and inefficient labor, without providing any social security net for the elderly and disabled.
At the end of the day, Puli helps Rukmani gather the stones in a sack and bring them to the overseer for payment. Their work earns them eight annas, four times what Rukmani usually makes in a day. Puli, who has been begging, rejoins them. He says sneakily that he’s only garnered one coin, but many rattle in his pockets.
Rukmani’s dogged efforts contrast with Puli’s sly begging. Although the child sometimes seems untrustworthy, he will prove a loyal friend and companion. A nuanced character, he gives complexity and depth to the stereotypical image of a street child in a developing country.
Accompanied by Puli, Rukmani and Nathan work in the quarry every day. They always give their earnings to Puli, since he can safeguard them best. They calculate that they can make enough money to return in forty days. They try to coax Puli into joining them, telling him how peaceful and beautiful the countryside is, but Puli points out that they don’t even know how they will survive when they return. Anyway, he knows how to take care of himself in the city.
While Rukmani and Nathan feel themselves constitutionally unsuited to urban life, Puli has these same feelings about the country. While the novel is sympathetic towards Rukmani’s preference for the countryside, it insists through comparisons like these that rural poverty exposes people to the same dangers and injustices that urban life does.
Nathan tries to explain the country is his home, and he can only be happy there, even if he has to starve. He asks Puli what he will do when they leave, and Puli says he’ll return to begging and stealing from the market. He says proudly that he’s never been caught in his petty crimes; on the other hand, in a small country village, he “would know neither where to hide nor where to seek.”
Puli’s language here poignantly contrasts his youth and independence. He’s in the unfortunate position of providing for himself at a young age, and does so capably; but by childishly phrasing his precarious lifestyle as a game, he reminds Rukmani how young he really is.
Rukmani has become attached to Puli, and is saddened by the thought of leaving him. She also worries about the progression of his leprosy, which seems inevitable. Eventually it will attack his feet or eyes, and his courageous spirit will be helpless against it. To her, Puli demonstrates the “limit to the achievements of human courage.”
As when misfortune strikes Irawaddy, Rukmani has a hard time accepting the inevitability of Puli’s suffering. Her reflections here give some credence to Kenny’s earlier assertion that suffering doesn’t ennoble anyone, or have any moral value.