The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695

Rukmani and Kenny are the novel’s most memorable characters, because they are poles apart in their fundamental attitudes to life. Rukmani, in one sense, defies credibility as a character, for she uses a diction that is overwhelmingly Western and far too sophisticated for her background. Markandaya obviously needed an articulate voice for the description of conflicts, and Rukmani’s eloquence highlights the gallantry of her struggle. At heart, however, she is a peasant, for she never loses her appreciation of the land or village life; nor does she make an attempt to repudiate nature. A knowing victim of the vagaries of nature, she exhibits a characteristically Indian acceptance of custom, duty, and fate. In this, she is bolstered by Nathan’s patience and persistence and by an innate pastoral sense that is drawn to “the sweet quiet of village life,” untampered by modern technology. Although there are periods when her composure cracks and she becomes restlessly rebellious, she is not an adversary of tradition. She is bound to the very land that claims her husband and sons, and although her optimism is her grace, it is also her constraint. Where every agony is borne with the implicit conviction that nothing can really change, the hope in survival is simply a weak bargain with fate. Certainly, she endures. Certainly, her spirit is strong—but does her poignant suffering redeem the tyranny of nature or lessen its sting?

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Kenny, the foreign doctor, embodies a challenge to Rukmani’s philosophy of acceptance. Although he is not given the sort of dramatic force he deserves, he is the outsider cast in the role of critical witness. His love for children and his chosen vocation draw him into village suffering and soften his personality, which would otherwise be brittle and taciturn. With children, he is a kind of Pied Piper without music; with adults, he is more withdrawn. He comes and goes when he likes, and he resists the usual encumbrances that men have—wife, children, home. His strange nature is not a cold one; it is simply that his sensitivity to suffering is counterpointed by his anger at the victims’ passive acceptance of custom, history, and fate. He tires of the villagers’ follies and stupidities, their “eternal, shameful poverty.” He can, he confesses, take Indians only in small doses.

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What is striking about Kenny, besides his passionate indictment of Indian docility and acceptance, is his privacy. It is only more than halfway through the story that his private life is revealed in any measure—and that only through laconic revelations that his wife has left him and that his son has been taught to forget him.

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Were he less vulnerable himself, Kenny would not have as much appeal as he does in the novel. When he sounds bitter and weary, his forlorn spirit touches that of Rukmani. The fact that he has his own miseries and doubts puts his aloofness in perspective and makes him seem credibly realistic. There is an aching poignancy about his earnest desire to alleviate the suffering of a people who, to him, simply condemn themselves to perpetual affliction by their meekness and simplistic view of life.

The third major character is Nathan—the honest, patient laborer, illiterate but eloquent in his acts of love, sacrifice, and hope. It is he who incarnates the idea of hope, for in the midst of the most calamitous upheavals of nature or man, he points to the joys and comforts that sustain him. A man of few words, his example is all, and it teaches Rukmani an important lesson of life. When he suffers from nightmares, he has only to turn to his beloved wife to allay his fears. Nature often shows blind indifference to his fate, and he is often relegated to the background in the plot, but Nathan’s role is to be the beloved, the one who wins pity for his trials and admiration for his strength of purpose.

The other characters, while not without their interesting qualities, are rather automatically presented as foils to the three major characters and serve only to further the plot or dramatize the conflict between hope and fear.

Characters Discussed

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Rukmani

Rukmani, or Ruku, the female narrator, who nostalgically recounts the story of her life, beginning with her marriage at the age of twelve to a poor tenant farmer in a South India village and ending with the poignant death of her husband in the city and her subsequent return to the village. Although she is in her early forties, she calls herself an old woman who has helplessly witnessed the destruction of the pristine beauty of her quiet village and of a way of life by the onslaught of industrialism in the form of a tannery set up near their village. With her unbounded faith and capacity for love, sacrifice, suffering, and endurance, this simple woman of heroic courage goes through the fires of life and survives not only the calamities of nature but also many personal sorrows: the shock of her husband’s infidelity, the deaths of her two sons, her daughter’s turning to prostitution for survival, her eviction from the land they had farmed for thirty years, and, above all, the agonizing loss of her husband. Finally, she returns to her village and finds peace in taking care of a young leper boy whom she and her husband had adopted in the city.

Nathan

Nathan, Rukmani’s husband, older than her, an illiterate tenant farmer who, having no knowledge or skill except those related to farming, cannot live except by the land. Unlike his wife, however, he readily accepts the forces of change and heralds the tannery as an inevitable step of progress. Although he is a loving husband and an affectionate father, he betrays his wife by having an illicit relationship with the village slut, Kunthi. As the size of his family grows and nature becomes more and more relentless, he feels powerless to provide for his family. Beaten by flood and famine and victimized by the landlord, he eventually is forced to leave the land and move to the city with his wife in a futile search for their son, Murugan. There he works as a stone breaker in a quarry, but before they can earn enough money to return to their village, he dies from strain, starvation, and sickness.

Dr. Kennington

Dr. Kennington, often called Kenny, an English doctor with a missionary zeal who works in a dispensary near the tannery. A friend of Rukmani’s father, he treats the problem of infertility in both Rukmani and her daughter Ira. Tall, pale, and emaciated, he is a private, lonely man who was deserted by his wife and children. He makes frequent trips away from the town to raise funds for the charitable hospital that he builds for the poor near the village. He trains and hires Rukmani’s son Selvam as his assistant. Opposed to Rukmani’s philosophy of suffering, endurance, and resignation, he exhorts the village people to cry out for help if they want to ameliorate their condition of squalor and poverty.

Irawaddy

Irawaddy, or Ira, the firstborn daughter of Rukmani and Nathan, named for a famous river in India. Fair, dimpled, and lovely, she is married to a young man as soon as she reaches the age of puberty. Abandoned by her husband as barren, she returns to the village and resumes living with her parents. During the drought, to save her younger brother and her parents from starvation, she resorts to prostitution and in the process becomes pregnant and gives birth to an illegitimate albino son. Her love for her parents and siblings balances any faults.

Puli

Puli, a leper boy, an impudent street beggar who becomes attached to Rukmani and Nathan when they live in the city temple. He guides them through the city in their desperate search for their son and helps them find work as stone breakers in the quarry. After Nathan’s death, Rukmani takes him to the village in the hope that Kenny will treat his leprosy.

Selvam

Selvam, the youngest son of Rukmani and Nathan. Hardworking and conscientious, but with no love for the land, he works at Kenny’s hospital as an assistant and takes care of his sister and his son, as well as of his mother and Puli when they return to the village.

Kunthi

Kunthi (koon-TEE), a village slut who had an affair with Nathan and has two sons fathered by him. Abandoned by her husband, she behaves like a common strumpet. When the crops fail, she blackmails Rukmani and demands rice from her, threatening that otherwise she will tell Nathan that Rukmani had illicit relations with Dr. Kenny. She also extorts rice from Nathan by threatening to reveal his betrayal to Rukmani.

Kali

Kali, Rukmani’s neighbor, a big, plump, loud, garrulous, and self-opinionated woman who teaches Rukmani how to do the chores of a farmer’s wife in the early days of her marriage.

Janaki

Janaki (JAHN-kee), the wife of the village shopkeeper, a homely woman with a sagging figure.

Themes and Characters

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Markandaya is known for pitting Western realism against Eastern spiritualism and for contrasting the views of white people with the views of nonwhite people. She wishes to expose the universal human traits of the Indian peasant people, and she does this by creating complex characters like Rukmani, whose depth and substance reveals both her strengths and her weaknesses. That Rukmani begins her story talking about the comfort she feels with Puli, the leper boy she adopts from the city, and about her love of the land and her relief at returning to the village is significant. It is interesting that she speaks first of comfort and love, because her life has been fraught with devastating hardship.

Rukmani differs from the other peasant women in her village because she is literate and perhaps more astute because of it. She was not born into the agricultural caste, but rather married into it when her father arranged for her marriage to a tenant farmer. She describes herself as "without beauty and without dowry," and other people describe her marriage as "a poor match." But Rukmani knows differently. She settles into her new life feeling blessed to have a husband like Nathan. Nathan is hardworking and kind, and he built the small hut they live in himself, for Rukmani. He continues to give her everything he can, and she finds happiness in making a good home for him. She is loving and devoted to Nathan, as he is to her, and she begins tending the land and growing vegetables, content to please her husband and make him proud.

Rukmani wholly embraces traditional Indian beliefs, beliefs that some Westerners might consider backward. But Markandaya gives Rukmani enough depth and foresight to assure us that she is not ignorant. Rukmani was taught to read and write by her father, although Nathan is illiterate. Yet Rukmani respects her husband for his abilities and for the values he upholds, and he respects her. He is not resentful of her skill, but proud of it, and she strives to make him proud by using a skill she considers equally as important as reading —the skill of nurturing. Typical of women in traditional societies, Rukmani wants to produce sons for her husband—sons who will carry on his family name and help him farm the land. Rukmani becomes pregnant, but feels ashamed when she delivers a girl. She loves her daughter Irawaddy but feels a desperate need to have boys, and with the help of a British doctor named Kenny she eventually gives birth to six sons: Arjun, Thambi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, and Kuti.

Kenny is somewhat of an enigma, and Rukmani's relationship with him is difficult to comprehend. We can surmise that Markandaya intends to make Kenny her model of Western imperialism and to set him apart from the Indian peasants by making him appear aloof and even somewhat callused, critical of the villagers' ways and their traditional values. Kenny (Kennington) is a white, foreign doctor, most likely British, and he lives in the village to help the people, but disappears for long periods of time and tells no one where he goes or what he does. He cares for the villagers, but he gets frustrated with their seeming ignorance and he fails to understand their resistance to change. Rukmani respects Kenny, and she trusts in his medical ability to cure her infertility. Nathan does not approve of Rukmani's visits to this foreign doctor, however, so she sees Kenny secretly, and she feels forever indebted to the doctor for helping her conceive after a seven-year period of infertility following Irawaddy's birth.

Living in a quiet village as the wife of a tenant farmer and the mother of his children makes Rukmani happy, and when the land provides for them she feels blessed. She says of her life,

While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?

She is content to accept age-old cultural mores that define lower-caste Hindu culture. Rukmani's contentment stems largely from her spiritualism and her avid belief in the influence of higher powers. Markandaya highlights this spiritualism throughout the novel. Nathan panics when his pregnant wife touches a cobra in the garden. Rukmani's mother gives her daughter a small stone lingam, a fertility symbol, to help her bear sons. Then when their daughter is born, they name her Irawaddy (Ira) after an Asian river, because water is so precious to them. They pray to the gods of rain to bring the water and they pray to the gods and goddesses of the fields to make their grain grow.

Rukmani's spiritualism must make her believe that life is beyond her control, but it also gives her the strength it takes to cope with life's hardships. In traditional societies, the gods have the power to make grain sprout from the earth, but they also have the power to destroy the earth with droughts and monsoons. Rukmani rides the cycles of birth and death, creation and destruction, accepts her lot, and makes the best of it. She faces adversity with strength, yet she is the epitome of woman as silent sufferer.

Markandaya understands that Westerners tend to interpret Rukmani's kind of strength as weakness, so she uses Kenny to voice the Western worldview. In a conversation with Rukmani, Kenny explains his absence to her by saying, "I do as I please, for am I not my own master? I work among you when my spirit wills it.… I go when I am tired of your follies and stupidities, your eternal, shameful poverty. I can only take you people in small doses." "Barbed words," Rukmani says to herself, but she takes no offense at them. She understands that Kenny has trouble reconciling his world with hers. Markandaya develops the friendship between Kenny and Rukmani to contrast the East with the West, and to emphasize how difficult it is for Hindu women to accept the changes that occurred when the English tried to convert the Hindu villagers to British way of life. Rukmani does not resist Kenny's modern medicine to cure her infertility, but she does resist when Western industrialists encroach on their rural lifestyle and build a tannery in the village. She knows that this will undermine their traditional culture, and she knows that it will take work away from the villagers. As Rukmani watches, the traders fill their village with smoke and noise and the birds disappear, and she longs for the quiet, peaceful life she had before the tannery. A village woman named Kunthi, however, hails the tannery as a boon. Kunthi, like Rukmani, was also said to have married beneath her. But unlike Rukmani, Kunthi is critical of village life—and of Rukmani. She calls Rukmani a "village girl," and says she is pleased that they will soon be living in a small town. Kunthi's sons are among the first to begin work at the tannery, but later her husband's shop closes and they move away. "Into the calm lake of our lives the first stone had been cast," Rukmani had said when she first witnessed the tannery transform their village. By the next time she sees Kunthi, the truth of Rukmani's words has become all too clear.

In an incident early in the novel, Irawaddy is running naked in the fields, as she always did as a child, but suddenly Nathan realizes that his daughter is maturing, and it is time she covered herself up in public. In retrospect, Rukmani says that the end of her daughter's carefree days coincided with the building of the tannery. The tannery seems to corrupt the villagers in some way; they gradually lose their virtue just as Irawaddy loses her innocence. For the villagers, this loss means that they must forsake old traditions for new ones, and for Irawaddy it means she must leave home and marry. Old Granny, an elderly woman in the village, serves as matchmaker, and at the age of fourteen, Irawaddy is married and sent off to live with her husband in a village far away from home. Rukmani and Nathan remain at home and face the consequences of city industry and the consequences of nature's wrath. They survive monsoons, then severe drought. They suffer from disease and near starvation, but they plod on, and eventually the gods restore life to their soil and things get better.

As determined as Rukmani and Nathan are to maintain their traditional lifestyle and accept the limitations of their caste, their children feel differently. They recognize that being farmers puts them constantly at nature's mercy. They are the younger generation, more accepting of change, and in a short while, Arjun and Thambi get jobs at the tannery. It is not that Rukmani does not realize that they have opportunity there, but she struggles with the fact that they discounted their agricultural caste to become tanners. She is disappointed that the boys do not want to continue in the family tradition, and Nathan is crushed when Thambi tells him why. "If it were your land, or mine, I would work with you gladly," Thambi says. "But what profit to labour for another and get so little in return? Far better to turn away from such injustice." Just as Rukmani feared, the tannery was gradually altering perspectives. Her sons were born into the farming caste, and she believed they should stay there, out of respect for their father if for no other reason.

If Rukmani understands the practical side of Western industrialism, she is unable to fully accept it. She remains devoted to village life and to her role as wife and nurturer. Markandaya makes us see both sides of the conflict by exposing Rukmani as a woman of strong convictions and high moral standards. She deeply loves her husband and respects him, and she would never sacrifice personal pride for money. Ira eventually rejoins her parents after being returned by her husband for being barren. But like her brothers, she, too, gets pulled in by materialistic desires. Rukmani goes to Kenny and asks him to help cure Ira's infertility, but by the time his cure works, she has turned to prostitution in an attempt to make money, and the father of her child could be any of a number of men.

Rukmani runs into Kunthi on her visit to Kenny, and learns that Kunthi, too, is a prostitute. It appears that the tannery brought chaos to the village in many ways. The villagers gradually become more materialistic and more willing to comprise their values. They turn the other cheek as shops close, as more and more people are forced from their land, and as the tannery continues to claim people's livelihoods. Not only does the materialism that accompanies the building of the tannery conflict with Hindu philosophy, but the killing of the animals does as well. All of this goes against Rukmani's value system and confirms her mistrust of Western views. Rukmani says of the tannery that "no man thinks of another but schemes only for his money." This proves to be true. Problems arise when the tannery workers get greedy, and Rukmani soon learns that her own sons instigated a strike for higher wages. Arjun and Thambi decide that village life, and the tannery, can no longer meet their needs and desires. They leave the village, and their family, and go to work in the tea plantations of Ceylon. (Ceylon is now Sri Lanka.) Murugan leaves to work as a servant in a big city. Raja remains in the village but is accused of stealing and killed by workers at the tannery while he is searching for food.

The typical Western response to the tannery is that big industry will bring prosperity to the villagers and release them from their bondage to the land. But Markandaya does everything she can to bring both sides of the conflict into focus. The tannery brings prosperity to some, yet it devastates many others, just as Rukmani's reliance on the land brings spiritual contentment and yet can and does cause untold suffering. Greed transforms the villagers, and Kuti dies of starvation. Hunger plagues the village and causes severe chaos. Kunthi returns and threatens to tell Nathan that Rukmani has been sleeping with Kenny if she does not give her food. Rukmani has no choice but to give Kunthi what little she has, even though there is no truth to Kunthi's accusations. Then Rukmani learns that Nathan too has been feeding Kunthi, also out of fear, because Nathan had fallen prey to Kunthi's charms and fathered her two sons. But Rukmani continues to remain true to her husband. The power of their love helps them disable the power that Kunthi had over them, just as their strength and fortitude helps them conquer hardship after hardship.

At the end of Part I, we have come to realize that the values Rukmani and Nathan embrace keep them going until things get better. Ira gives birth to a son, Sacrabani, Kenny funds a hospital and begins training Selvam to be his assistant, and the drought ends and the earth renews itself. But soon the tannery buys the land that Nathan and Rukmani rent, and after thirty years, they are forced to leave the village. We know how they love the land, and we feel their devastation as they leave their home and family and travel to the large city where they believe Murugan works as a servant. We also understand their loss when they learn that Murugan has moved on, and when they realize that if they are to survive at all they must live as beggars in a temple. At this point, when things are at their worst, Markandaya brings her plot around full circle. A young boy named Puli enters their life, a homeless ten-year-old stricken with leprosy, but fearless and strong and perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Puli attaches himself to Nathan and Rukmani and they to him, and the boy leads them to a stone quarry where they can work and earn good money. But Nathan and Rukmani only want to return home, and they ask Puli to join them. Puli resists for a long time, but eventually ends up with Rukmani. Nathan dies in the city, battered and broken from years of hunger and hard work.

Rukmani lives at a crossroads of change, and she comes to realizations that help her breach two worlds. Rukmani coaxes Puli to return to the village with her by promising him good health. Kenny, she knows, will help Puli, as he has the ability to do so with his hospital and his Western medicine. Without that help, she also knows, the boy's leprosy will worsen and gradually eat away at his limbs. "There is a limit to the achievements of human courage," Rukmani says about Puli. So perhaps she has reconciled East with West, spiritualism with materialism. Earlier in the novel, when Rukmani visits Kenny to thank him for helping Ira, she finds that his wife left him, and she questions this. Rukmani thinks that a woman's place is with his husband, and a man should not deny her company as Kenny denied his wife company during his long absences. He tells Rukmani, "You simplify everything, without understanding. Your views are so limited it is impossible to explain to you." But then he adds that she has "strong instincts," and it is then that she sees the admiration in his eyes. Rukmani does have strong instincts, and apparently she understands much more than Kenny knows. By the end of the novel, we have reevaluated our definitions of strength and weakness. We have watched this brave woman's response to pain and we have come to admire her courage and her values, the strength of her convictions, and the ease with which she speaks of comfort after a life of suffering.

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