As an elderly woman, Rukmani often imagines that her husband, long dead, is sleeping beside her. During the day, she sits outside with her adopted child, Puli. She can see the hospital building where her older son, Selvam, works, and she is content.
Rukmani begins to tell her life story. She is born the daughter of a village headman and the youngest of four daughters. As she watches her sisters get married, she dreams of her own extravagant wedding, although her mother gently warns that hers will be much more modest; because she’s the youngest girl, little money is left for her dowry. When Rukmani turns twelve, her family marries her to a tenant farmer named Nathan, a match that many think is beneath her. When Rukmani leaves home in her husband’s cart, she’s nervous, and even vomits once during the journey; however, Nathan is kind and soothes her fears. Rukmani is dismayed to see that Nathan lives in a mud hut, but in order to avoid hurting her kindly husband she pretends to be pleased with her new home.
Rukmani quickly becomes acquainted with her neighbors: garrulous Kali, careworn Janaki, and the pregnant and beautiful Kunthi. Rukmani becomes close with Kali and Janaki, but Kunthi always keeps her distance. Rukmani is aware that, without many practical skills, she’s more hindrance than help to her husband; however, Nathan is patient and praises her lavishly for every accomplishment.
When Kunthi goes into labor, Rukmani is the only neighbor at home; Kunthi entreats Rukmani to leave her alone, but Rukmani assumes the other woman is delirious from pain and fear and stays on to attend her. When she finally returns home, Nathan is unusually cross, telling her not to forget about her own new pregnancy and exhaust herself. Rukmani starts practicing writing, even though it’s considered useless for a girl. Rukmani vows to teach her own children to read and write as well. Nathan is illiterate, and he admires his wife’s abilities; Rukmani appreciates this; many husbands would be uneasy with an educated wife and even forbid them to read. Soon, Rukmani gives birth to a daughter, Irawaddy. She’s upset that her first child is a girl, but soon grows fond of her. Nathan also dotes on his daughter, even though many fathers aren’t fond of girls.
Rukmani doesn’t conceive another child for six years. Each time she visits her parents, she and her mother pray fervently at the temple for more children. Rukmani confesses her fears of infertility to a British doctor named Kenny, who treats her, and Rukmani soon becomes pregnant with a son, Arjan. Everyone in the village celebrates, but Rukmani never confesses to Nathan that she sought help from a strange doctor. In the following years, Rukmani gives birth to four more sons—Thambi, Murugan, Raja, and Selvam. While she’s relieved to provide Nathan with sons, they stretch the family’s resources thin and force Rukmani to sell most of her vegetables.
One day, young Arjan runs into the house to tell Rukmani that change is coming to the village: hundreds of men have arrived and are building a tannery in the village square. For months the building progresses, until one day the tannery is complete and the workers depart. Some people are sad to see them go, because they bought lots of local goods, but Rukmani is relieved; their presence drives prices up and makes the town unsafe for children. Nathan cautions that workmen will surely return to operate the tannery. Rukmani no longer allows Irawaddy to go to town on her, curtailing her daughter’s freedom because of the influx of strange men.
Soon after, Rukmani is collecting dung for fuel when she sees Kenny arriving for a visit. Kenny scorns Rukmani’s country habits, like burning dung, but he’s very polite to her children and addresses Nathan gravely in their local language. From this point, Kenny comes to the house frequently, bringing sweets for her children and sometimes goat’s milk for Selvam. Rukmani knows that he treats workers at the tannery, but she has no idea what he does when he travels away from the village, or if he has a family.
Eventually, the time comes to select a husband for Irawaddy. Although Irawaddy has a small dowry, she’s very beautiful, and manages to secure a good husband who will one day inherit a lot of land. Ira is nervous to leave home, but accepts her parents’ decision without protest. At the end of the wedding, as Rukmani watches Irawaddy drive off with her new husband, she can’t quite believe that she no longer sleeps under her roof.
That year, the monsoons come early and are very rough on the crops and the cottage. When the monsoons cease, Rukmani takes some of their small stash of rupees to buy rice, but she’s astounded to see that prices have risen sharply because of damage from the monsoon.
Five years after Irawaddy’s wedding, Rukmani is surprised to see her return home with her husband; Irawaddy is barren, and he’s returning her home in order to take another wife. Irawaddy is depressed by the collapse of her marriage. Around this time, Arjan and Thambi seek jobs in the tannery; with Irawaddy at home, there’s not enough food to go around. With the wages the boys bring in, Rukmani is able to provide better meals for the family and start saving up for their weddings.
When Nathan leaves home to attend a funeral, Rukmani walks into town to consult Kenny about Irawaddy’s infertility. He tells her to send her daughter to see him. On her way home, she encounters Kunthi in an alley, and the woman insolently suggests that she’s been taking advantage of her husband’s absence to clandestinely visit other men. Rukmani slaps her and then notices that Kunthi is wearing a revealing sari and has sandalwood paste spread sensuously over her body. She hurries home.
Arjan and Thambi leave home for good to work on tea plantations in Ceylon, and Murugan leaves to work as a servant in a large city. It’s a dry year, and the crops die from lack of water. When the rent collector, Sivaji, arrives, Nathan doesn’t have the money to pay him. By selling the few possessions they have, the family scrapes together half the rent and agrees to pay the rest soon. When the rains finally come, the family plants again, but they’re almost out of food. Rukmani carefully portions out their remaining rice and guards it closely, carrying some on her person and burying the rest. One day, Kunthi arrives, gaunt and ragged. She blackmails Rukmani into giving her food, threatening to tell Nathan that she’s seen her alone in the town. Rukmani soon finds that the buried stash of rice has gone missing as well, and Nathan admits that he gave it to Kunthi; she blackmailed him as well, threatening to tell Rukmani about an affair they had at the beginning of their marriage. Nathan is the father of both Kunthi’s sons. Rukmani is devastated, but she also feels that they’re finally free from Kunthi.
Soon after, the village men bring Raja’s dead body home from the village. He had been looking for food near the tannery, and a watchman struck and killed him. Rukmani is numb and silent throughout the funeral. Two officials from the tannery inform Rukmani that the tannery isn’t responsible for Raja’s death and warn her against pressing charges. Rukmani has no idea how to take legal action, so she doesn’t understand their visit.
As the days go on, everyone in the family becomes weaker, especially Kuti. One night, Rukmani hears someone moving in the night; thinking Kunthi has come back to steal more, she attacks the stranger, only to realize it is Irawaddy. By her daughter’s scanty attire she realizes that she’s been working as a prostitute in order to buy food for Kuti. Rukmani is devastated and Nathan is angry, but they realize they can no longer compel their daughter to obey. Irawaddy buys food for the family, but Kuti dies of malnutrition.
Rukmani sees Kenny, who has been away for several months, in the village; she tells him that two of her sons have died, and he confesses that his wife has left him and he’s estranged from his sons. Rukmani says that a woman should stay with her husband, and Kenny replies that she is too simple to understand the situation. Before leaving, Rukmani tells Kenny that Irawaddy is now pregnant with an illegitimate child.
One day, Selvam informs his parents that he doesn’t want to stay on the farm; instead, he plans to apprentice with Kenny, who is building a new hospital in the town. Kenny excitedly shows Rukmani his plans, telling her he’s raised funds from donors in Britain. Over time, Selvam spends more time with Kenny and less with his own family. He’s becoming much more knowledgeable about the outside world than his own parents, and takes on many of Kenny’s beliefs. Progress on the hospital is slow, and it seems like Kenny’s funds may prove insufficient, but he vows to finish the project.
Sivaji arrives and informs them that the landlord is selling their farm to the tannery; the family has two weeks to move out. Devastated, they decide that Selvam and Irawaddy will stay in the town while Rukmani and Nathan travel to the city to seek out Murugan. It takes them two days to find his house, and they have to sleep in a temple. During the night, thieves steal their small bundles of possessions and all their money.
A street child named Puli directs Rukmani and Nathan to Koil street, where Murugan lives. However, when they arrive they find he no longer works there. The new servants direct them to another house, and they search the servants’ quarters for their son. Instead, they find his wife Ammu, and her sons; Murugan has abandoned her and she has no idea where he is. Ammu is exhausted and embittered from supporting her children alone, and Rukmani is ashamed that Murugan has been a bad husband.
Rukmani and Nathan don’t know what to do next, since they don’t even have enough money to return home. Rukmani decides to work as a scribe and reader in the marketplace, and sets up a little stall; however, few people believe that a woman can actually read, so she makes barely enough money to buy rice. Well-versed in the city’s ways, Puli suggests that Rukmani and Nathan work in the stone quarry, where they can make more money. Over time, Puli attaches himself to the family, guiding them around the city and guarding their store of money. Rukmani offers to take him home as well, but he scornfully tells her he doesn’t want to live in a small village.
One day, Rukmani finds Nathan burning with fever. He dies the next day. Convincing Puli to come with her, Rukmani uses her small savings to pay for the journey home. Selvam and Irawaddy welcome her return with joy and relief.