Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081
Puli: An orphaned street child afflicted with leprosy who befriends Nathan and Rukmani.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
Birla: A female doctor for whom Murugan worked as a servant.
Das and his wife: Servants who work for Birla.
Ammu: Murugan’s wife.
Nathan and Rukmani pack their few belonging, sell what they do not need, and travel by bullock cart for several days to the city in which Murugan lives. The hustle and bustle of the big city, in which cars, bicycles, and bullock carts clog the roads, is much different from their small town and makes it impossible for Rukmani and Nathan to get around. Unable to find Murugan’s address, Rukmani and Nathan, both faint from lack of food, head towards the temple where the city’s poor go for a free meal in the evenings. Rukmani manages to push through the crowds to get a dish of food, which she shares with Nathan. However, in all the commotion, their possessions and money are stolen, leaving Rukmani and Nathan in a strange city with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They continue to try to find Murugan’s home, and during their wanderings, they meet Puli, a cunning street orphan whose fingers have been eaten away by leprosy. He offers to guide them to Murugan’s home in expectation of payment at a later date.
The doctor for whom Murugan worked, a woman named Birla, informs them that Murugan was a good worker, but he had left to seek better wages elsewhere. Nathan and Rukmani are both surprised by the fact that Birla is a woman and that she wears trousers instead of a dress. The doctor offers them a meal, which they take with Das, another servant, and Nathan and Rukmani are grateful for their kindness.
Nathan and Rukmani seek Murugan at the collector’s house on Chamundi Hill. Here they find Murugan’s young wife, Ammu, with their two children, but Ammu informs them that she has not seen her husband in two years and that she believes he will not return. She is bitter and blames his abandonment on the lure of gambling and whores. Rukmani and Nathan are heartbroken. They cannot stay with Ammu, who barely can support herself and her children, so they have no choice but to return to the temple where they face the resentment of the other poor for returning. Both Rukmani and Nathan long to return to their village and leave the bustling city that they have grown to detest, and in order to earn enough money to make the trip, Rukmani attempts to sell her skill as a reader and writer on the streets. She is only able only to earn enough to buy a small bit of breakfast for her and Nathan each day. In the meantime, Nathan’s health grows steadily worse.
One day, the orphaned boy Puli returns to Rukmani and Nathan to ask for the payment they owe him, but when he sees their dire situation, he shows them where they can earn money breaking stones at a quarry. The work is hard, especially for the sickly Nathan, but the two of them return to the quarry daily in order to save enough money to return to their village. In the meantime, Rukmani and Nathan grow fonder of Puli, who is both tough and independent, but still childlike. While the prospect of returning home is on the horizon, Nathan grows increasingly sick to the point of not being able to stomach even the small amount of food they have. Still, even though the incessant rains of the monsoon have come, he insists on working in the quarry with Rukmani, determined to earn enough money to return home.
But Nathan will not see his village again. One day, after work at the quarry is done, he collapses at the side of the road in the mud. Some people help Rukmani transport him back to the temple, but he dies later that night with his head in Rukmani’s lap.
Rukmani, now alone in the city, manages to finally earn enough money to return home. Having grown very fond of Puli, who has remained by her side compassionately after Nathan’s death, she entices him to return to the village with her by promising him healthcare at Kenny’s hospital. She arrives home with Puli and is greeted with joy by Selvam, Ira, and Sacrabani. It will come to pass that Puli will be healed and will grow into a healthy adult, and Rukmani will live to an age old enough to recount this story.
Throughout Part One of the novel, the time period is not made clear. The events could be occurring at any time during the British colonial period in India or it could be later. The lack of clarity regarding timing serves to make the messages and themes of the novel, including the portrayal of poverty, timeless. However, Part Two gives some clues to the time period. There are automobiles in the city, and Birla is a female doctor who wears trousers instead of a skirt. These small details place the novel well after the turn of the twentieth century.
Rukmani and Nathan are impoverished because they, as subsistence farmers, were unable to adapt to the economic changes that overtook their town. Also, as Nathan says to his Selvam, there are no laws in place to keep the tannery from turning him out of his home. However, with the change in scenery from the rural to the urban, Markandaya shows, through the masses of poor people Rukmani and Nathan encounter in the city, that poverty is a pervasive and more complex problem. The character of Puli, a young orphan who lives in the streets and is severely afflicted with leprosy, is representative not only of the poverty of the entire city but also of the unchecked but curable sickness and disease that Kenny is trying to combat through the building of hospitals.
The novel ends tragically with the death of Nathan, but also happily, for Rukmani has succeeded in making it back to her village and to her children and with her adopted son Puli. Kenny once remarked to Rukmani that although she was economically impoverished, she possessed the riches of a close family. The novel ends with Rukmani saddened by her husband’s death, but with the rest of her family surrounding her, and the bright potential for a new life for Puli.