Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997
Irawaddy (also known as Ira): Nathan and Rukmani’s first-born child and a girl of exceptional beauty.
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Kennington (also known as Kenny): A white doctor who befriends Rukmani and her family.
Biswas: The village moneylender, described by Rukmani as oily and unpleasant in character.
Old Granny: An old vegetable lender who lives in the streets of the village.
Arjun, Thambi, Raja, and Selvam: The sons of Nathan and Rukmani.
Kannan the chakkli: A cobbler who lives in Rukmani’s town.
Rukmani, herself now pregnant, helps her neighbor Kunthi give birth to her first son, in spite of Kunthi’s mysterious but adamant attempt to refuse her help. Implored by Nathan to rest for the duration of her pregnancy, Rukmani takes up writing which her father had taught her. It is a skill that is rare and even nonexistent in her village and which her neighbors view with both curiosity and scorn. Nathan, who cannot read or write himself, nevertheless encourages her, much to Rukmani’s gratitude. She tends her garden as well, an activity that provides her with an endless source of wonderment.
After being frightened by a cobra, Rukmani goes into an early labor and delivers, to her and Nathan’s dismay, a girl; in their society, girls, who require a dowry and are married off to live with other families, are far less desirable than boys, who can help their fathers work the land and look after their parents in their old age. They name her Irawaddy, and she grows to be a child of exceptional beauty to the surprise of Rukmani, who admits that both she and Nathan are not handsome people. Despite their initial disappointment, they both grow to love their daughter deeply.
However, Nathan and Rukmani become worried when the years pass and Rukmani is unable to conceive another child. When Ira is about six years old, Rukmani meets a white doctor, Kenny, who had tended to her mother until she died of consumption. When he hears of her fertility problems, Kenny suggests that Rukmani come to him for treatment. Despite her misgivings about white doctors and her reluctance to deceive her husband, Rukmani takes his treatments out of desperation and successfully bears a son, whom she and Nathan name Arjun. She then goes on to bear four more sons in as many years—Thambi, Murugan, Raja, and Selvam. Nathan never learns of the fertility treatments, and Rukmani lives with the nervous fear that he will hear of it some day.
To provide for her growing family, Rukmani no longer keeps the vegetables she grows, but sells them in the village—first to Old Granny, a poor vegetable vendor, then to Biswas, the moneylender, whom she dislikes but does business with because he pays a much higher price. Because of her dealings with Biswas, Rukmani is able to slowly save money for Ira’s dowry. In the meantime, she and her husband continue to harvest the rice as well as the fish that swim in the rice paddies and the coconuts from their tree. Though her family does not have vegetables and milk anymore, they still are able to eat well.
One day Arjun, the oldest of the boys, brings word back from the village that there is a great commotion: hundreds of workers have arrive in bullock carts, set up their camps, and have begun building an enormous building that will eventually house a tannery. The workers, who are Indian, work beneath a white foreman. The construction continues for two months and brings great changes to the village; the villagers are able to sell their produce to the workers at a higher price, but at the same time, the prices are driven too high for them to be able to afford the goods they once could buy. When the workers leave, Rukmani is happy to see them go because their arrival has made her family’s lives difficult, but her husband reminds her that workers will return to run the tannery and that she must learn to accept the changes.
Nathan is right; workers do eventually return, and the village grows into a small bustling town. Rukmani’s neighbor Kunthi, who had not been brought up as a villager and has always held her nose up at their way of life, is glad to see the growth, but Rukmani still holds disdain for the bustle, dirt, and odd smells the new town brings, and she is upset at how her peaceful and clean village has changed. She seems to understand that the coming of the tannery is a direct threat to their farming way of life and, therefore, to their security.
To Rukmani, the farming life and the land that they depend on are not just sources of livelihood but are also a source of beauty, wonder, and perfection. She writes of her garden: “With each tender seedling that unfurled its small green leaf to my eager gaze, my excitement would rise and mount; winged, wondrous.”
However, Chapter 4 opens with the words, “Change I had known before, and it had been gradual.… But the change that now came into my life … blasting its way into our village, seemed wrought in the twinkling of an eye.” Rukmani speaks here of the construction of the tannery in the village and of all the changes that brought to the culture and livelihood of her family and neighbors. The sudden creation of the town and Rukmani’s description of its bustling business, its smells, and its coarse people is contrasted sharply with her earlier descriptions of the tranquility of her farm and garden. Her family’s innocence is even marred by the arrival of the tannery. Ira, at age thirteen, cannot go about with the carefree freedom to which she is accustomed because there are now too many strange men around. The restriction of Ira’s innocence mirrors the loss of the village’s purity with the arrival of the tannery.