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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...

(The entire section contains 747 words.)

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