Markandaya is known for pitting Western realism against Eastern spiritualism and for contrasting the views of white people with the views of nonwhite people. She wishes to expose the universal human traits of the Indian peasant people, and she does this by creating complex Characters like Rukmani, whose depth and substance reveals both her strengths and her weaknesses. That Rukmani begins her story talking about the comfort she feels with Puli, the leper boy she adopts from the city, and about her love of the land and her relief at returning to the village is significant. It is interesting that she speaks first of comfort and love, because her life has been fraught with devastating hardship.
Rukmani differs from the other peasant women in her village because she is literate and perhaps more astute because of it. She was not born into the agricultural caste, but rather married into it when her father arranged for her marriage to a tenant farmer. She describes herself as “without beauty and without dowry,” and other people describe her marriage as “a poor match.” But Rukmani knows differently. She settles into her new life feeling blessed to have a husband like Nathan. Nathan is hardworking and kind, and he built the small hut they live in himself, for Rukmani. He continues to give her everything he can, and she finds happiness in making a good home for him. She is loving and devoted to Nathan, as he is to her, and she begins tending the land and growing vegetables, content to please her husband and make him proud.
Rukmani wholly embraces traditional Indian beliefs, beliefs that some Westerners might consider backward. But Markandaya gives Rukmani enough depth and foresight to assure us that she is not ignorant. Rukmani was taught to read and write by her father, although Nathan is illiterate. Yet Rukmani respects her husband for his abilities and for the values he upholds, and he respects her. He is not resentful of her skill, but proud of it, and she strives to make him proud by using a skill she considers equally as important as reading-the skill of nurturing. Typical of women in traditional societies, Rukmani wants to produce sons for her husband-sons who will carry on his family name and help him farm the land. Rukmani becomes pregnant, but feels ashamed when she delivers a girl. She loves her daughter Irawaddy but feels a desperate need to have boys, and with the help of a British doctor named Kenny she eventually gives birth to six sons: Arjun, Thambi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, and Kuti.
Kenny is somewhat of an enigma, and Rukmani’s relationship with him is difficult to comprehend. We can surmise that Markandaya intends to make Kenny her model of Western imperialism and to set him apart from the Indian peasants by making him appear aloof and even somewhat callous, critical of the villagers’ ways and their traditional values. Kenny (Kennington) is a white, foreign doctor, most likely British, and he lives in the village to help the people, but disappears for long periods of time and tells no one where he goes or what he does. He cares for the villagers, but he gets frustrated with their seeming ignorance and he fails to understand their resistance to change. Rukmani respects Kenny, and she trusts in his medical ability to cure her infertility. Nathan does not approve of Rukmani’s visits to this foreign doctor, however, so she sees Kenny secretly, and she feels forever indebted to the doctor for helping her conceive after a seven-year period of infertility following Irawaddy’s birth.
Living in a quiet village as the wife of a tenant farmer and the mother of his children makes Rukmani happy, and when the land provides for them she feels blessed. She says of her life: While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?
She is content to accept age-old cultural mores that define lower-caste Hindu culture. Rukmani’s contentment stems largely from her spiritualism and her avid belief in the influence of higher powers. Markandaya highlights this spiritualism throughout the novel. Nathan panics when his pregnant wife touches a cobra in the garden. Rukmani’s mother gives her daughter a small stone lingam, a fertility symbol, to help her bear sons. Then when their daughter is born, they name her Irawaddy (Ira) after an Asian river, because water is so precious to them. They pray to the gods of rain to bring the water and they pray to the gods and goddesses of the fields to make their grain grow.
Rukmani’s spiritualism must make her believe that life is beyond her control, but it also gives her the strength it takes to cope with life’s hardships. In traditional societies, the gods have the power to make grain sprout from the earth, but they also have the power to destroy the earth with droughts and monsoons. Rukmani rides the cycles of birth and death, creation and destruction, accepts her lot, and makes the best of it. She faces adversity with strength, yet she is the epitome of woman as silent sufferer. Markandaya understands that Westerners tend to interpret Rukmani’s kind of strength as weakness, so she uses Kenny to voice the Western worldview. In a conversation with Rukmani, Kenny explains his absence to her by saying “I do as I please, for am I not my own master? I work among you when my spirit wills it…. I go when I am tired of your follies and stupidities, your eternal, shameful poverty. I can only take you people in small doses.” “Barbed words,” Rukmani says to herself, but she takes no offense at them. She understands that Kenny has trouble reconciling his world with hers.
Markandaya develops the friendship between Kenny and Rukmani to contrast the East with the West, and to emphasize how difficult it is for Hindu women to accept the changes that occurred when the English tried to convert the Hindu villagers to British way of life. Rukmani does not resist Kenny’s modern medicine to cure her infertility, but she does resist when Western industrialists encroach on their rural lifestyle and build a tannery in the village. She knows that this will undermine their traditional culture, and she knows that it will take work away from the villagers. As Rukmani watches, the traders fill their village with smoke and noise and the birds disappear, and she longs for the quiet, peaceful life she had before the tannery. A village woman named Kunthi, however, hails the tannery as a boon. Kunthi, like Rukmani, was also said to have married beneath her. But unlike Rukmani, Kuthi is critical of village life-and of Rukmani. She calls Rukmani a “village girl,” and says she is pleased that they will soon be living in a small town. Kunthi’s sons are among the first to begin work at the tannery, but later her husband’s shop closes and they move away. “Into the calm lake of our lives the first stone had been cast,” Rukmani had said when she first witnessed the tannery transform their village. By the next time she sees Kunthi, the truth of Rukmani’s words has become all too clear.
In an incident early in the novel, Irawaddy is running naked in the fields, as she always did as a child, but suddenly Nathan realizes that his daughter is maturing, and it is time she covered herself up in public. In retrospect, Rukmani says that the end of her daughter’s carefree days coincided with the building of the tannery. The tannery seems to corrupt the villagers in some way; they gradually lose their virtue just as Irawaddy loses her innocence. For the villagers, this loss means that they must forsake old traditions for new ones, and for Irawaddy it means she must leave home and marry. Old Granny, an elderly woman in the village, serves as matchmaker, and at the age of fourteen, Irawaddy is married and sent off to live with her husband in a village far away from home. Rukmani and Nathan remain at home and face the consequences of city industry and the consequences of nature’s wrath. They survive monsoons, then severe drought. They suffer from disease and near starvation but they plod on, and eventually the gods restore life to their soil and things get better.
As determined as Rukmani and Nathan are to maintain their traditional lifestyle and accept the limitations of their caste, their children feel differently. They recognize that being farmers puts them constantly at nature’s mercy. They are the younger generation, more accepting of change, and in a short while, Arjun and Thambi get jobs at the tannery. It is not that Rukmani does not realize that they have opportunity there, but she struggles with the fact that they discounted their agricultural caste to become tanners. She is disappointed that the boys do not want to continue in the family tradition, and Nathan is crushed when Thambi tells him why. “If it were your land, or mine, I would work with you gladly,” Thambi says. “But what profit to labour for another and get so little in return? Far better to turn away from such injustice.” Just as Rukmani feared, the tannery was gradually altering perspectives. Her sons were born into the farming caste, and she believed they should stay there, out of respect for their father if for no other reason.
If Rukmani understands the practical side of Western industrialism, she is unable to fully accept it. She remains devoted to village life and to her role as wife and nurturer. Markandaya makes us see both sides of the conflict by exposing Rukmani as a woman of strong convictions and high moral standards. She deeply loves her husband and respects him, and she would never sacrifice personal pride for money. Ira eventually rejoins her parents after being returned by her husband for being barren. But like her brothers, she, too, gets pulled in by materialistic desires. Rukmani goes to Kenny and asks him to help cure Ira’s infertility but, by the time his cure works, she has turned to prostitution in an attempt to make money, and the father of her child could be any of number of men.
Rukmani runs into Kunthi on her visit to Kenny, and learns that Kunthi, too, is a prostitute. It appears that the tannery brought chaos to the village in many ways. The villagers gradually become more materialistic and more willing to comprise their values. They turn the other cheek as shops close, as more and more people are forced from their land, and as the tannery continues to claim people’s livelihoods. Not only does the materialism that accompanies the building of the tannery conflict with Hindu philosophy, but the killing of the animals does as well. All of this goes against Rukmani’s value system and confirms her mistrust of Western views. Rukmani says of the tannery that “no man thinks of another but schemes only for his money.” This proves to be true. Problems arise when the tannery workers get greedy, and Rukmani soon learns that her own sons instigated a strike for higher wages. Arjun and Thambi decide that village life, and the tannery, can no longer meet their needs and desires. They leave the village, and their family, and go to work in the tea plantations of Ceylon. (Ceylon is now Sri Lanka.) Murugan leaves to work as a servant in a big city. Raja remains in the village, but is accused of stealing and killed by workers at the tannery while he is searching for food.
The typical Western response to the tannery is that big industry will bring prosperity to the villagers and release them from their bondage to the land. But Markandaya does everything she can to bring both sides of the conflict into focus. The tannery brings prosperity to some, yet it devastates many others, just as Rukmani’s reliance on the land brings spiritual contentment and yet can and does cause untold suffering. Greed transforms the villagers, and Kuti dies of starvation. Hunger plagues the village and causes severe chaos. Kunthi returns and threatens to tell Nathan that Rukmani has been sleeping with Kenny if she does not give her food. Rukmani has no choice but to give Kunthi what little she has, even though there is no truth to Kuthi’s accusations. Then Rukmani learns that Nathan too has been feeding Kunthi, also out of fear, because Nathan had fallen prey to Kunthi’s charms and fathered her two sons. But Rukmani continues to remain true to her husband. The power of their love helps them disable the power that Kunthi had over them, just as their strength and fortitude helps them conquer hardship after hardship.
At the end of Part I, we have come to realize that the values Rukmani and Nathan embrace keep them going until things get better. Ira gives birth to a son, Sacrabani, Kenny funds a hospital and begins training Selvam to be his assistant, and the drought ends and the earth renews itself. But soon the tannery buys the land that Nathan and Rukmani rent, and after 30 years, they are forced to leave the village. We know how they love the land, and we feel their devastation as they leave their home and family and travel to the large city where they believe Murugan works as a servant. We also understand their loss when they learn that Murugan has moved on, and when they realize that if they are to survive at all they must live as beggars in a temple. At this point, when things are at their worst, Markandaya brings her plot around full circle. A young boy named Puli enters their life, a homeless ten-year-old stricken with leprosy, but fearless and strong and perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Puli attaches himself to Nathan and Rukmani and they to him, and the boy leads them to a stone quarry where they can work and earn good money. But Nathan and Rukmani only want to return home, and they ask Puli to join them. Puli resists for a long time, but eventually ends up with Rukmani. Nathan dies in the city, battered and broken from years of hunger and hard work.
Rukmani lives at a crossroads of change, and she comes to realizations that help her breach two worlds. Rukmani coaxes Puli to return to the village with her by promising him good health. Kenny, she knows, will help Puli, as he has the ability to do so with his hospital and his Western medicine. Without that help, she also knows, the boy’s leprosy will worsen and gradually eat away at his limbs. “There is a limit to the achievements of human courage,” Rukmani says about Puli. So perhaps she has reconciled East with West, spiritualism with materialism. Earlier in the novel, when Rukmani visits Kenny to thank him for helping Ira, she finds that his wife left him, and she Questions this. Rukmani thinks that a woman’s place is with his husband, and a man should not deny her company as Kenny denied his wife company during his long absences. He tells Rukmani “You simplify everything, without understanding. Your views are so limited it is impossible to explain to you.” But then he adds that she has “strong instincts” and it is then that she sees the admiration in his eyes. Rukmani does have strong instincts, and apparently she understands much more than Kenny knows. By the end of the novel, we have reevaluated our definitions of strength and weakness. We have watched this brave woman’s response to pain and we have come to admire her courage and her values, the strength of her convictions, and the ease with which she speaks of comfort after a life of suffering.