Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1369
Arjun and Thambi, who have been working at the tannery for many months, lead a workers’ strike against the tannery owners to demand higher wages. Rukmani, who believes that their wage of one rupee per day is ample, does not understand their complaints. When the tannery announces that those who will not return to work will be replaced, Arjun and Thambi stick to their principles, but many others return. The strike fails, and Arjun and Thambi are left unemployed. Nathan becomes the sole provider for the family, and once again the family faces poverty.
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When word is sent that there is need of laborers in Ceylon, an island to the south of the Indian subcontinent and far from their village, Arjun and Thambi, rather than staying and “wasting [their] youth chafing against things [they] cannot change,” heed the call. In the meantime, Murugan, Rukmani’s third son, is sent by Kenny to work as a servant at a white doctor’s home in another faraway village. The family’s inability to sustain themselves solely by the land is causing them to disperse, to the sadness of both Nathan and Rukmani. Nathan, unlike Rukmani, is more accepting of their sons’ leaving. “You brood too much and think only of your trials, not of the joys that are still with us,” he says to Rukmani. “Look at our land—is it not beautiful? The fields are green and the grain is ripening. It will be a good harvest year, there will be plenty.” The paddy is beautiful, but it is greatly changed because of the coming of the tannery. While there had once been flamingoes and kingfishers and many other types of birds, the construction and pollution has driven them away, and now only crown and other scavengers are attracted to the area.
The year that Arjun, Thambi, and Murugan leave, the rains fail and completely wither the rice crop and the vegetable garden, leaving Nathan and Rukmani destitute and unable to pay their rent for the year. Nathan convinces Sivaji, the collector, to give him time to collect half the payment, and he and Rukmani sell all of their belongings in the town, including the wedding sari and the bullocks they use for plowing the fields. The rains finally come, but it is too late to do the shriveled and dead paddy any good. Rukmani, Nathan, and their family are left with no food and no means of making any money in the foreseeable future. They set to resowing the paddy field right away. Rukmani is forced to use her emergency store of grain, dividing the rice into twenty-four small handfuls, figuring that the family will then have something to eat for twenty-four days. Kuti, the youngest boy, is already sick, and it is clear that they are all slowly starving.
One day, Kunthi, who was starved to the point of looking like a skeleton, comes to the house and demands food from Rukmani, threatening to tell Nathan that Rukmani has been having an affair with Kenny. Although it is a lie, Rukmani gives Kunthi seven days’ worth of their ration out of fear. She now has enough left for nine days.
However, the next day when she goes to get the store, there is only a small handful left. Upon confronting her family, Nathan admits to having given rice to Kunthi. It turns out she blackmailed him as well. Nathan admits to Rukmani that he is the biological father of Kunthi’s two sons. Though she is angry with her penitent husband, Rukmani places the blame on Kunthi, whom she views as an evil temptress, rather than on her husband. The family continues to starve, with Kuti being the sickest despite Ira’s efforts to soothe him.
It is during this time of great want that the next-to-youngest son Raja is murdered by the guards at the tannery for attempting to steal a hide. The only sons left now are Selvam and the baby, Kuti, who has been very sick from lack of food, but as of late has been looking healthier. Rukmani believes his improvement is by the mercy of God.
One night, Rukmani awakens to see a woman creeping into their hut. She attacks her, only to discover that it is her own daughter Ira. Ira has been escaping during the night to prostitute herself in the town, and with her earnings she has been buying food for Kuti, which explains his sudden improvement. Her parents try to stop her, but she continues to go back to the town. And while Rukmani is grateful for the food she brings back, Nathan refuses to touch any of it.
Despite Ira’s desperate attempt to save him, Kuti does not survive. He dies before the harvest, and Rukmani grieves for her loss, although she is grateful that her son is finally spared his suffering. The harvest comes too late to save Kuti, but it is very plentiful, and Rukmani and her family, who have been reduced to skin and bones, are restored in hope and look forward to being restored in health. They have enough to pay their rent and have a surplus with which to purchase goods, to restock the paddy field with fish, and to save up for more difficult times in the future.
Rukmani and her husband find their children dispersing from the family home. Arjun and Thambi travel to another country to find work while Murugan is sent to another village to work as a servant. Their tenant farming life has not succeeded in providing a means for their sons to have families of their own. Arjun and Thambi leave the tannery after attempting a workers’ strike to demand more wages. While their mother, Rukmani herself, does not understand their greed, Arjun and Thambi nevertheless clearly detect the difference in lifestyle between those who manage and own the tannery, and its workers. For example, while Arjun and Thambi are able to provide for their parents and siblings to have a little bit extra material goods, they are unable to save enough to be able to hope for families of their own. On the other hand, they see the wives of the managers walking about the town laden in jewelry. Unfortunately, Arjun and Thambi are unable to succeed in raising their wages because the demand for work is greater than the demand for workers. Although Arjun and Thambi attempt to change their fate, the economic circumstances of their society are too large for them to overcome. It is significant that they are unable to change the unjust socioeconomic structure of their town; their attempt to force change serves somewhat as an answer to the question of why their parents, and the others in the village, firmly believe in the acceptance of their fate rather than try to cause change.
Despite the slow dispersal of their family, Nathan and Rukmani both take delight in the land, but it is the dependence on the land that brings them to the brink of starvation. Still, they are portrayed not as characters rebelling against their circumstances but as doing the best they can with what little they have—which, at its worst, amounts to just a few handfuls of rice to feed a whole family. While Nathan and Rukmani tend the land and continue to hope for the promise of a harvest, Ira is driven to desperate measures to try to save the family by becoming a prostitute.
There is a marked difference between the two prostitutes of this novel, Ira and Kunthi. Because Ira’s prostitution is based solely on need and not on a sexually wanton nature, she is portrayed as good and noble, and her prostitution is portrayed as an act of sacrifice. Kunthi, on the other hand, is portrayed throughout the novel as greedy, selfish, and mean, as well as vain. Her prostitution is a result not of need but of her sexually wanton nature and her pride in her physical beauty. While Ira is portrayed as good, Kunthi is portrayed as an evil temptress. It is because Rukmani sees Kunthi as evil that Rukmani is able to forgive her husband for his infidelity.