Rukmani's brother says that their father is "no longer of consequence," even though he is the village headman. He says,
"There is the Collector, who comes to these villages once a year, and to him is the power, and to those he appoints; not to the headman."
Although the story is not placed in a specific timeframe, it is clear that it takes place in a time of change, most likely in the years immediately following the departure of the British in the mid-twentieth century. Rukmani, who is the fourth daughter in her family, is promised to a poor tenant farmer, as her father has used up his limited resources providing dowries for her older sisters. Rukmani's mother bewails the fact that there is nothing left for her last-born daughter, and Rukmani cheers her mother by declaring that she shall have
"a grand wedding...such that everybody will remember when all else is a dream forgotten...for is not (her) father head of the village?"
Rukmani's optimism has the desired effect of lifting her mother's spirits, but her brother, who overhears the exchange, sharply brings them back to the reality of the situation, pointing out that the position of village headman means nothing anymore in these changing times (Chapter 1).