Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
It is not surprising, given the importance of village life in India, that Kamala Markandaya should have set her first novel in a primitive village, with peasants as her main characters. The admirable thing is that she crafted an international best-seller out of the story of a simple woman who never loses her faith in life or her love for her husband and children—despite her long, unceasing battle against nature, changing times, and dire poverty. The elemental plot is simple to follow and deeply moving.
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The narrator is Rukmani, a literate widow, who tells in flashback the major events of her life. Given in marriage to Nathan, a tenant farmer she has never seen before, she is taken to a small thatched hut, set near a paddy field, which is to become her home. A garland of mango leaves in the doorway, symbol of happiness and good fortune, hangs dry in the breeze and presages the barren periods that will often plague her and her family. Nathan patiently allows her time to adjust to life with him, but Rukmani’s education always places her a cut above her fellow women—particularly Kali, Janaki, and Kunthi, the three gossips.
After the birth of a daughter, Irawaddy (named after one of the great rivers of Asia), Rukmani becomes anxious about her failure to have sons. She is treated by Kenny, a foreign doctor, who is forthright and critical of Indian superstitions, even as he is compassionate to poor people. In due course, she bears several sons—Arjun, Thumbi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, and Kuti—and arranges the marriage of Irawaddy, who is barely out of puberty. Old Granny, a vegetable vendor, serves as a go-between, but the arrangement ends in failure when Irawaddy proves to be barren and is returned to her family by her husband.
Other problems abound. The tyrannically exploitative landowner sends Sivaji to collect his dues from Rukmani and her people. Sivaji is humane, but he cannot afford to ignore his master’s bidding. Besides this oppression and the savagery of nature, the villagers have to contend with a new tannery, a symbol of modernization. Rukmani, alone among her group, opposes the tannery for its disturbance of the pace and quality of village life. Her viewpoint is validated by the voracious expansion of the industry, which results in the loss of farmland and the appearance of a little colony of elite tannery officials, many of whom are‘Muslim and, hence, uncongenial to the Hindu villagers. Rukmani’s antagonism is sharpened when two of her sons desert the paddy fields to work in the tannery, and the “slow, calm beauty” of natural village life wilts in the blast from town. Rukmani finds herself rebellious, protesting, and restless.
Nature follows its relentlessly whimsical course, blighting the land with drought. Rukmani sells her best clothes to Biswas, the oily merchant, who casts aspersions on her friendship with Kenny. To compound her misery, Nathan is blackmailed by Kunthi and is forced to confess that he fathered two of her sons illegitimately years ago. Then Raja is killed by tannery watchmen in ambiguous circumstances, but the tannery evades legal censure. Life becomes a sequence of disasters and tribulations for Rukmani. Irawaddy, disgraced by her failed marriage, sells sexual favors and is brutally attacked. Rukmani’s youngest son dies of hunger; ironically, his death is followed by a period of bountiful harvest.
The novel has two disproportionate sections—the first being approximately seventy percent of the whole. By the end of the first part, the lives of Rukmani’s family have been altered irreversibly. Irawaddy falls pregnant out of wedlock and gives birth to an albino; Selvam leaves the village to train at a hospital; Murugan marries a girl from the town where he works as a servant; and Nathan and Rukmani are evicted when the tannery officials decide on expansion.
The second part of the novel opens with Rukmani and Nathan’s journey to the town where Murugan lives. Once again, the emphasis is on suffering, counterpointed by hope. The couple become temple-beggars who require the assistance of Puli, a leper boy, to find Murugan’s home. There, they discover that their son has deserted his wife and boy. Their courageous forbearance put to its fullest test, they reach a point of total exhaustion. Broken in both body and spirit, Nathan dies, and Rukmani returns to the village with Puli, whom she and Nathan adopted. The bittersweet ending sentimentalizes her courage.