The novel is set in an unnamed farming village in south India, most likely in the 1950s, just after India gained independence from Britain. Rukmani and her family live in a one-room hut with mud walls, a thatched roof, and an earthen floor. It is situated on swampland near a rice paddy where they can grow rice when conditions are favorable, and sometimes plant vegetables to enrich their diet and to sell at the market. Nathan and Rukmani do not own the land, but rather rent it, and they must constantly struggle to pay their rent and to produce enough food to feed their large family.
Markandaya uses the agricultural village Setting to highlight the harsh conditions south Indian tenant farmers face while trying to retain the traditional values that define their culture. When monsoons and drought devastate their land, they persevere, hesitant to forsake family tradition and disregard their caste. Markandaya contrasts agricultural life with industrialism, the quiet village with the noise of the tannery. The tannery is portrayed as a noisy, disruptive intruder, and Markandaya’s descriptions of big industry mirror what the villagers feel towards the British imperialists who inundated Indian culture with Western views.