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Part One, Chapter 1
1. Rukmani’s relatives are not happy with the match between her and Nathan because Nathan is of a lower class. However, because Rukmani’s family has no dowry for her, he is the best match they can get. From Rukmani’s own description of her marriage to Nathan in this chapter, do you think that his class mattered to her? If so, does her view change over time, and if so, what accounts for the change?

2. The chapter opens with Rukmani as an old woman looking back at her life. How does the opening paragraph work to entice the reader to read further

Part One, Chapters 2-4
1. The arrival of the tannery brings big changes to the village and prompts many reactions. Compare the reactions of Rukmani, Kannan the cobbler, Kunthi, and Nathan to the arrival of the tannery. How are their reactions different? What accounts for their differences?

2. Although all of the construction workers at the tannery site are Indian, the foreman of the tannery construction is white. As Rukmani observes, the foreman treats the villagers like strangers in their own village. “In our maidan, in our village he stood, telling us to go,” she incredulously notes. The foreman is, presumably, representative of British interests in India. How does the author use his presence to symbolize the British presence in India?

Part One, Chapters 5-11
1. In Chapter 11, Rukmani says, “It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and the smell of the tannery … had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast from the town … so now I accepted the future and Ira’s lot in it … only sometimes when I was weak, or in sleep while my will lays dormant, I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.” Throughout the novel, the characters are confronted with severe economic and social hardships, yet Rukmani does not complain, but instead strives to accept them. Do you think that the author advocates the philosophy of accepting one’s fate that Rukmani tries desperately to keep to? Why do you think it is important to these characters to be able to accept their fate?

2. Nathan is hurt by his sons’ decision to leave the farming life for the tannery. What makes Arjun and Thambi different from their father? Using specific examples from the text, compare and contrast Nathan’s philosophy towards life and society with that of his sons.

Part One, Chapters 12-17
1. There are two prostitutes in this story: Kunthi and Ira. However, their circumstances of prostitution are very different. Describe the differences between these two women. How does the author contrast these two characters? Is the author commenting on the role of women in Indian society?

2. Indian society is structured around a strict caste, or class, system that does not allow for social mobility, but rather dictates a person’s economic status based on their birth. Arjun and Thambi, although born to a tenant farmer, are able to get jobs in the tannery, but when they try to organize a strike to force better wages and more equality between the managers and the workers, they do not succeed. How does the idea of caste figure into the failure of their strike?

Part One, Chapters 18-23
1. Throughout the novel, Rukmani constantly reiterates her need to accept both the fortunes and the misfortunes that come to her and her family as a matter of fate. Even though she faces much suffering, she never actually complains about the poverty of...

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her life, but rather consistently tries to make the best of it. Kenny, however, offers a sharp contrast to Rukmani. Contrast Kenny’s philosophy with that of Rukmani. Why do you suppose that the author provides this contrast? Do you think that the author sides more with Rukmani or with Kenny?

2. A double standard in Rukmani’s society is revealed when Ira’s son grows up to be ostracized by the village. Describe this double standard. Is this situation unique to a poor, Indian village? To the developing world? Do you think it is a double standard?

Part Two, Chapters 24-30
1. The novel opens with a scene that could easily be the closing scene of the novel: Rukmani is an older woman, almost blind, but with the security that her family provides; Puli is a grown man, healed of his leprosy; and Kenny and Selvam work successfully at the hospital. Instead of closing the book with this scene, Markandaya chooses to close the novel with Rukmani returning from the city to her family without her husband. Why do you think Markandaya structured the novel in this way?

2. The novel takes its name from its epigraph, a line by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Read the epigraph. Why do you think that Markandaya chose this line, and how does it relate to the novel?


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