Kamala Markandeya - Nectar in a Sieve




The novel begins with Ruku (Rukmani), the narrator, as an old woman reflecting on her past. Ruku tells us that she is now at peace although things have not always been so. After briefly mentioning those important to her (her now dead husband, her son and daughter, Puli and Kenny), she begins to tell the story of her life.
As a young girl living in a rural Indian village, Ruku had big dreams of fancy wedding. Her three older sisters had progressively less lavish weddings, and Ruku’s mother was left to wonder what would happen to her youngest, Ruku, who would have little for a dowry. Ruku believed her father’s position as village headman would secure her a husband; she is unsure how to feel when her older brother tells her the village headman is now of little importance in Indian life. With no money for a dowry and little in the way of looks, Ruku’s family is forced to marry her to a poor tenet farmer whom she has never met.
Only 12 on her wedding day, Ruku remembers feeling more afraid than overjoyed but hints that other nights of her married life were pleasant and sweet. After the wedding ceremony, Ruku and her new husband travel by bullock cart to her new home in his village. Afraid and uncertain about her future, Ruku throws up along the way. Ashamed, she expects her new husband, Nathan, will reprimand her; instead, he comforts her and dries her tears.
Ruku begins to feel more comfortable with her husband and soon falls asleep on the cart. Nathan wakes her when they arrive at their new home - a small mud hut with a thatched roof. Used to her father’s house, Ruku nearly collapses into tears again at the sight of the small hut; however, the hurt in her husband’s eyes causes her to disguise her disappointment. Nathan brings in a handful of rice and promises that after a few good harvests they will be able to afford better.
Ruku begins to settle into married life and sets about learning the domestic duties she expected to perform as a wife. She recalls doing her washing in the river near the hut using washing powder given to her by her mother. It is there she first meets several of the village women who will become important in her life: Kali, the plump and boisterous wife of her neighbor; homely Janaki, wife of a shopkeeper; and Kunthi, a beautiful woman of Ruku’s age who is expecting her first child.
Kali jokes that despite their young age both Kunthi and Ruku will be mothers soon. She also reveals to Ruku that Nathan had built their hut with his own hands and had spent weeks excitedly preparing for her arrival. Ruku treasures this knowledge and asks Nathan about it after they are married for a while. She tells him she is proud to live in a house he built himself; he replies that she has grown much and is no longer a child.

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Ruku remembers the first months of her married life as a time of joy and hope. Although her husband did not own his land, they had hopes to buy it after a few good harvests. They have plenty to eat during this time as well - rice, dhal, wheatcakes, vegetables, ghee, milk and sugar. Ruku enjoys going into the village and is becoming friendly with those who live there. She finds the pregnant Kunthi to be different from the other women - somewhat cold and distant. Village talk says Kunthi “married beneath her” and is bitter. They say the same of Ruku but she feels that nowhere could one find a better husband.
Ruku recalls also her ignorance of the basics of running her household. She depends on Kali and Janaki to teach her how to milk the goat and churn butter, to plant seeds and grow her garden and to mull rice. After growing her first pumpkins from seeds, Ruku proudly shows them to Nathan who declares her “clever”. Full of pride and a new confidence as a wife, Ruku continues to tend her garden. Life is good for the new couple.

Ruku tells the story in the novel through first person point of view. Aside from a few brief paragraphs, the novel is told as a flashback - Ruku is recalling the many events of her life. Her opening statements foreshadow some of the events to come: the death of her husband, her adoption of Puli who suffers from disease, and the work of Kenny and her son Selvam in building a hospital. She also hints that her life was full of sufferings although she has “no fears now”.
Her marriage at the age of 12 is not unusual nor is the fact that she did not know her husband. Child marriage was very common in India and girls younger than Ruku often found themselves as brides. Marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom and often depended on the bride’s dowry. A dowry (which might consist of money, land, livestock or other goods) was necessary to secure a husband. The larger the dowry, the better the husband a family could get for their daughter. As she is the fourth daughter and is not a great beauty, Ruku’s family is forced to settle on a poor farmer who owns no land of his own.
Ruku’s belief that her father’s position as headman will guarantee her the grand wedding of her dreams shows her childish innocence about the truth of things. Her older brother tells her that the headman is no longer of “consequence,” a sign of the changes in Indian society that will soon impact Ruku in drastic ways.
As a grown woman, Ruku realizes that she was too much of a child to appreciate her wedding night and hints that the fear she felt on that day gave way to joy in her marriage later. Her biggest memories of the day were her sense of confusion, her mother’s tears, and her nausea on the wagon ride to her new home. These indicate that she was indeed a child and experiencing an understandable fear at leaving the only home she had known for life with a perfect stranger. Not only would she be a day’s journey from her family, she will also be expected to perform all the duties of a wife - her childhood must forever be put behind her.
Nathan, Ruku’s husband, proves to be a gentle companion from the start. Ruku comments that she only ever called him “husband” as was fitting for a wife - she lived in a patriarchal society that expected women to submit to their husband’s will. Ruku’s reaction to the poor, simple mud hut Nathan has built is one of revulsion and shame. She cannot imagine living in such poor conditions but would not dare to shame her husband by saying so. After she learns Nathan built the hut himself and eagerly awaited her arrival, she feels even more ashamed of her reaction; now she feels pride because of his love for her.
We are also introduced to some of the village women who will play a role in Ruku’s life. Kali and Janaki, who are older and experienced, help Ruku to learn her duties as a wife. The gossip, Kali, especially becomes a surrogate mother to Ruku and helps her to adjust to her new life. Kunthi, a girl Ruku’s age, is already pregnant. Ruku senses Kunthi is different and her unease around Kunthi foreshadows things to come.
At the close of the chapter, Ruku recalls the plenty and hope of her first months of marriage. They have much to eat and Nathan believes they may soon afford a better home and land of their own. This too foreshadows hardships to come as Ruku remembers that her belly was not always so full and her heart not always so full of hope.
The pumpkin Ruku proudly presents to Nathan is treated with great reverence. Her pride in successfully growing her first vegetables mirrors Nathan’s pride in her accomplishments as a wife. At least for now, Ruku and Nathan seem to have a promising future.

When Kunthi goes into labor, Ruku is forced to tend to her as Janaki is ill and Kali away. Kunthi protests but Ruku stays anyway. After Kunthi’s son is born, Ruku returns home to find Nathan is angry at her for having neglected her own health in staying so long - Ruku, too, is now pregnant.
Nathan insists Ruku takes things easy now that she is expecting and she uses her down time to practice her writing - a skill she was taught by her father. Although Ruku’s mother had found her father’s lessons foolish (she could not write), Ruku intends to teach her own child when the time is right. Janaki is amazed by Ruku’s skill but Kali finds Ruku’s writing a foolish waste of time. Nathan, who cannot read and write himself, encourages Ruku to continue her practice and finds her clever for having the skill. Ruku realizes this must cost her husband a great deal to say as in her culture it is not right for a woman to be more learned than her husband.
Ruku continues to hone her skills in the garden and is constantly amazed at the way in which things grow and change. One day while tending her pumpkins, she uncovers and accidentally touches a cobra. Ruku’s frantic flight and screams bring Nathan who kills the cobra and laughs good-naturedly at the sight of his heavily pregnant wife running through the field.
A few days later, Ruku gives birth to her first child, a daughter. Although the baby is healthy and strong looking, Ruku cries over the disappointment of having a girl. Kali tries to consol her that there will be others but Ruku doesn’t feel comforted.
Kali remains to help Ruku adjust to the first few days of motherhood. While in the garden, Ruku’s fear over her cobra encounter comes flooding back and she relays the story to Kali. Kali comforts her but says it’s a pity the cobra was killed as they are sacred - Nathan disagrees with the wisdom of allowing even a sacred snake to harm his wife. Ruku considers destroying the pumpkin patch; fortunately she doesn’t, as the patch produces wonderful pumpkins from then on.

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Ruku and Nathan name their daughter Irawaddy after an important river although she is soon nicknamed Ira. At first Nathan is not interested in Ira as she is a girl, but soon he is taken in by her charms. Despite the fact that neither Ruku nor Nathan are blessed with good looks, Ira is a beautiful little girl and grows quickly.
Life continues well for Ruku and Nathan who remain busy with their crops and home. Ruku notes her visits with her mother become more infrequent as her responsibilities as a wife and mother grow.

Kunthi’s strange attitude towards Ruku appears here again. Although Ruku tries to comfort her, Kunthi seems agitated or annoyed by Ruku’s presence. For now, Ruku remains at a loss as to what this behavior might mean.
Nathan’s care of the newly pregnant Ruku is apparent in both his annoyance at her long stay with Kunthi and his insistence that she not help in the fields. This was somewhat unusual, as women often worked at heavy labor right up until giving birth. But Nathan feels his wife is special and treats her accordingly.
Ruku’s ability to read and write is very unusual for a rural villager and even more so for a woman. Ruku’s mother and Kali hold the attitude of many that a woman has no time for reading and writing when she has a home and children to tend to. However, Ruku’s father was forward thinking and thought that this skill was the least he could give to his youngest child as he had little to give for her dowry. Most husbands in Nathan’s position would have allowed their shame at having a wife more learned than they to cause them to put a stop to her practice. Instead, Nathan expresses his pride in having a “clever” wife and encourages Ruku to continue. Once again, Nathan shows his true care and consideration for Ruku as it was within his rights as her husband to force her to stop if he wanted. Ruku understands and appreciates “what it cost” Nathan to allow her to continue and the bond between the two grow.
Ruku’s wonder at the growth of her garden shows her appreciation of the simple miracles of life. The episode with the cobra demonstrates Nathan’s practical side - although the cobra is a sacred animal in India, he kills it in order to protect his wife.
The birth of her first child should have been a joyous occasion for Ruku; however, the baby was a girl. In India, boys were far more valued than girls, especially as the firstborn. Ruku’s initial disappointment soon gives way to pride and joy; the baby is blessed with beauty and a charming personality. Nathan, too, gives in to the baby’s charms again showing his somewhat unusual male behavior. In naming the baby Irawaddy, after a river, Ruku and Nathan acknowledge the importance of water in their lives. As we will soon see, water is the one thing they cannot survive without.
As time passes, Ruku becomes more and more at home with Nathan and slowly grows apart from her family, as it is difficult to travel the distance that separates them. Although this saddens her, she is happy and satisfied with her life with Nathan and Ira.

Six years pass and despite her constant hoping, Ruku has no more children. Ruku goes to visit her mother who is dying of consumption; Ruku’s mother prays with her, assures her sons will come and gives her a fertility symbol to wear.
While at her mother’s, Ruku meets for the first time Kennington or Kenny, a white doctor who Ruku’s father had summoned to ease his wife’s pain. Since she has never seen a white man, Ruku stares at this visitor with curiosity, but soon learns that he is kind and caring. After Ruku’s mother dies, Kenny asks her what causes the troubled look on her face. After some hesitation, Ruku tells him of her lack of sons. Kenny instructs Ruku to come and see him, as he may be able to help; despite her fears of trusting a foreigner, Ruku eventually does go to see him.
Less than a year later, Ruku gives birth to her first son, Arjun. No one is more pleased than Nathan, who after seven years of waiting, spares no expense in throwing a celebratory feast to show off his new son. Ruku’s own happiness is dampened slightly by Kenny’s absence and by the fact that she has kept hidden from Nathan her visit to Kenny’s clinic.
Over the next few years, Ruku gives birth to several more sons: Thambi, Murugan, Raja and Selvam. Daughter Ira acts as a second mother to the quickly growing boys. Although they are pleased with their expanding family, Ruku and Nathan can no longer afford to feed the family with milk and plenty of vegetables as they once had. Instead, Ruku sells much of her produce to Old Granny in the market. One day, Ruku is stopped by Biswas, the local moneylender. He offers to buy her vegetables at nearly twice the price Old Granny paid. Despite her dislike of the moneylender and her feelings of loyalty to Old Granny, Ruku begins doing business with Biswas. To her surprise, Old Granny does not seem to bear her a grudge.
Although times are tight, the family still has food enough to eat. Ruku even manages to save a rupee or two a month for Ira’s future dowry.

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Like many Indian families, Ruku and Nathan eagerly anticipated the birth of their first son. Although Ira was beautiful and well loved by her parents, she could never fulfill the role of the firstborn male child. Ruku’s quiet suffering during her six childless years illustrates the silent resolve she has throughout the book.
The introduction of the white (presumably English) doctor, Kenny, sets up one of the central problems in the novel. Ruku’s initial wariness of Kenny comes from her lack of exposure to people from outside her culture. Over the course of their long friendship, Kenny will challenge Ruku’s “ignorance” about the world; in return, she will attempt to teach him a more simplistic way of thinking.
Ruku’s hesitation to go to Kenny for help and her decision to keep the visit secret from Nathan is due to the fact that she feels it is not culturally acceptable for her to share her troubles with a stranger, especially a male stranger. What Kenny does to help Ruku is never fully explained but his medical knowledge allows her to have not one but five healthy sons in quick succession.
Two other characters are introduced in this chapter that will play small but important roles in Ruku’s life: Biswas, the moneylender, and Old Granny. Ruku notes that moneylenders are not well thought of - they charged high rates to their generally poor clients and grew rich off the misfortune of others. As an old, unmarried woman, Old Granny must fend for herself by trading vegetables in the village market. Ruku’s guilt-ridden decision to sell to Biswas instead of Old Granny is only the first of many difficult choices she will have to make to care for her family.
With more mouths to feed, Ruku and Nathan must adjust their standard of living. Nathan’s dream of owning his own land and building a better home for his family seems to have been put on hold as he works to keep food on the table. While they are not starving, the family can no longer afford “luxury” food items. This demonstrates the thin line for families such as Ruku’s - one failed harvest or family crisis and the family will go hungry.
Ruku’s enduring hope is illustrated again in her plans for Ira’s future. Even though the family has little to spare, Ruku sets aside money for her daughter’s dowry. Perhaps remembering her own girlish dreams of a fancy wedding, Ruku hopes to be able to make a strong marriage match for her daughter when the time comes.

Change is the subject of this chapter as Ruku’s quiet village life is shattered by young Arjun’s excited announcement of the arrival of hundreds of men and carts of bricks at the village maidan (a communal field). Ruku and her family rush to the village center to observe the chaos; they learn that a tannery (a facility for processing animal hides) is being built. The construction crew consists of men with strange accents and ways of dressing. Soon, Ruku and the other villagers are asked to leave; some, such as Kannan the cobbler, see this as a bad sign for the village.
For two months the noisy construction proceeds. Although she doesn’t care for the commotion, Ruku benefits from the higher prices the workers are willing to pay for her produce. After the workers leave, Ruku expresses her relief to Nathan who quickly points out that others are sure to soon take their places. Ruku stubbornly refuses to acknowledge this change is inevitable and laments the loss of their quiet way of life.
As Nathan predicted, workers soon return to staff the new completed tannery. When Ruku expresses her dislike of the tannery to Kunthi, Kunthi laughs and calls Ruku a “village girl” - in her eyes, the tannery will transform their small village into a town with increased opportunities for shopping and entertainment. Ruku’s friends, Kali and Janaki, share her dislike of the disruptions to their quiet village but soon make the best of it and adapt to the changes. Janaki realizes that the tannery will provide a livelihood for her sons and the gossip Kali enjoys the increased audience for her tales.
The arrival of the tannery brings changes for 13 year-old Ira as well. Kali warns Ruku that the beautiful Ira attracts unwanted attention from the tannery workers. Wanting to protect their daughter’s reputation, Ruku and Nathan decide to keep her closer to home.

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The chapter begins with Ruku’s remembrance of previous changes she has experienced - her father’s decline in importance in their village and the aging and deaths of her parents. Those changes were gradual ones, she says, that allowed her so much time to adjust she didn’t feel affected. The abrupt arrival of the tannery is different; Ruku describes it as “blasting” into the village forever changing their lives.
For a small rural village, the arrival of the tannery meant big changes. The influx of strange workers brought higher prices and drove out some local businessmen. Because many of the workers were young, single men, the social fabric of the village is disrupted. Ruku recalls the loud noises and smells of alcohol from the workers’ camp, all disruptions to her previously innocent and safe life.
At first, Ruku stubbornly clings to the past, waiting for the day when the workers will leave and the village will once again be sleepy and quiet. Nathan advises Ruku to adapt: “Bend like the grass, that you do not break.” He understands there is no going back and they must learn to live with the changes or else will not be able to live at all.
The cobbler Kannan’s remarks about the tannery builders pushing the villagers out of their own maidan symbolizes the way in which the tannery takes over the village and molds the people there to suit its needs. Ruku’s fears about the tannery will be realized as it drastically alters the future of her family.
Not everyone is angry at the tannery’s arrival. The usually aloof Kunthi expresses excitement over the changes it will bring. This once again highlights the differences between Ruku and Kunthi and sets up future events between them. Kunthi is the type who always demands more and is never satisfied; Ruku is simple and easy to please.
Kali’s warnings concerning Ira foreshadow the tannery’s impact on Ira and her family. As Ruku laments, their carefree days ended with the tannery’s arrival. Obedient Ira accepts her parents’ new rules without complainant. Ruku, too, must find a way to adjust to the changes she faces.

Ruku recalls that their land agent, Sivaji, was a good man who set fair rates and allowed them to collect the dung from the land. At the start of the chapter, Ruku sets out on the early morning task of dung gathering - she can both sell the dung and use it in her home. As she finishes, she encounters Kenny whom she greets as her benefactor. While he rejects the title, Kenny gently teases Ruku about the number of sons she has had. As they go to the house to see her children, Kenny questions Ruku’s decision to take dung from the land. He feels it should be left as fertilizer; she replies they have no choice but to use it for fuel and for patching their homes against the damp.
At Ruku’s hut, Kenny is welcomed as an honored guest and in return praises Ruku’s children. When she introduces Kenny to Nathan, Ruku again feels the guilt of her secret - she still has not told her husband of how Kenny helped her with her infertility.
After that day, Kenny becomes a frequent visitor to Ruku’s home, often bringing treats for the children. When he sees Ruku is still nursing her three year-old son for lack of cow’s milk to give him, he supplies that as well.
Ruku recalls that Kenny never spoke of his family and that she never knew where he went or what he did when he was gone from the village. Because she fears offending him, Ruku never asks questions but continues to nurture this unusual friendship.

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Ruku briefly mentions Sivaji, their landlord’s agent - a reminder that she and Nathan ultimately are at the mercy of those who own their land and can not make decisions about the land on their own. They are fortunate and have a landlord who does not extract every penny as some do.
While we may find it unpleasant to think of gathering cow dung, families like Ruku’s knew the dung had valuable uses - it provided fuel, patched cracks in their mud walls against rain and insects and could be sold. Kenny’s questioning of Ruku’s decision to take the dung instead of allowing it to fertilize the fields, shows a misunderstanding between them. He thought like someone who could afford the luxury of fertilizer; Ruku understood that, although it wasn’t best for the land, her family needed to put the dung to other uses. The poor often must make choices that will hurt them in the long run - this is only one of several Ruku’s family will make.
Even though they have a budding friendship, Ruku still shows deference to Kenny - she calls him “benefactor” and refrains from asking questions about his mysterious personal life. The precious rice and salt Ruku offers Kenny when he visits, demonstrate Ruku’s pride - she wants to do her best for guests - and generousness - she shares even what she cannot afford to share. There is also a comfortable banter between the two as Kenny teases Ruku about her “excesses” in having five sons.
Kenny seems to adopt Ruku’s family as he brings her family necessities - such as milk for the youngest - as well as treats for the older children. Presumably, Kenny spends his time working among the poor of various villages. Ruku knows only that he disappears for long periods of time, perhaps to work elsewhere or to return to his home. Ruku senses that home life is unhappy for Kenny, as he seems withdrawn when he returns from his trips.

Now that Ira is 14, Ruku decides she has waited long enough to plan her only daughter’s marriage. She goes to Old Granny to make the match. Ruku has managed to save 100 rupees for Ira’s dowry and hopes that Ira’s beauty will also help to make a good match. After weeks of considering possible husbands, Ruku and Nathan decide on a young man who will one day inherit land; although Ira’s dowry is small, her beauty helps seal the deal.
As the wedding day draws near, Ira puts on a brave face. Despite promises of visits, both Ruku and Ira know that the distance of Ira’s new home will make visiting difficult. Ruku assures Ira that she will soon forget to miss her old life while enjoying her new home and husband.
On the wedding day, Ruku helps Ira dress in her own red wedding sari. The guests arrive. Despite their poverty, Ruku has managed to lay away enough food for a wedding feast. Everyone remarks on the handsome wedding couple and congratulates Old Granny on her matchmaking skills. The young couple seems overwhelmed and sits without looking at each other.

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At the end of the celebration, Ruku and her guests see the young couple off. Afterwards, Ruku returns home to her hut, littered with remnants of the days feasting. Saddened by the Ira’s departure, Ruku lays down for the night, unable to sleep.

Like her mother before her, Ira will marry at a young age to a boy she’s never met. Ruku chooses Old Granny as the matchmaker; although she worries Old Granny will refuse because Ruku no longer does business with her, Old Granny gladly accepts. The matchmaker was responsible for finding eligible families and “selling” them on each other.
Although Ira is from a poor family and has a relatively small dowry, her looks help to make a good match with a boy who will one day inherit land. Ruku hopes her daughter will have an easier life as the wife of a landowner than she has had. Ruku is reminded of her own feelings as a child bride and tries to reassure her daughter. Ira, quiet and uncomplaining, worries only about the frequency of her mother’s visits. Both know the distance will keep them apart.
As she dresses Ira in her own wedding clothes, Ruku is again reminded of her own fear on her wedding day. Everyone seems to enjoy the feast Ruku has prepared, except the newlyweds who sit as strangers. The match seems perfect, but Ruku, the narrator, remarks: “none of us could look into the future.” This foreshadows Ira’s trouble to come.
After the wedding feast, Ruku returns to find her house a mess. The disarray reflects her inner feelings - she is happy her daughter has married well but saddened that she will no longer have her close.


The monsoon rains come early and stronger than usual - it pours rain for days and Ruku and Nathan watch helplessly as their rice crop succumbs to the floods. On the last night of the storm, a lightening bolt claims their coconut palm tree as well, leaving them with little of value.
When the storm finally subsides, Ruku learns that many of her neighbors have also suffered greatly. Kali’s hut was destroyed in the storm and a group of village men was killed by a lightening strike.
Nathan and Ruku take two of their precious rupees to town for rice and new palm leaves to thatch their roof before the rains return. Nearly everything, save the brick and cement tannery, lies in tatters, the villagers wonder aimlessly about, picking up scraps of their possessions. They return home empty handed.
A second trip to the village for rice brings them to Biswas, the only one in town with anything left to sell. He sells them rice at a high price but they have no choice - it’s buy or starve. On the way home they encounter Kenny who shouts at them for continuing to suffer in silence. Not understanding his anger, Ruku and Nathan continue home.
The family struggles on until it is time for the fields to be drained for replanting. There are plenty of fish to be caught during the draining, and for a while at least the family has full bellies. Ruku falls asleep with dreams of saving and planning once again for the future.

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Ruku begins the chapter by comparing nature to a wild animal you have trained to work for you. India experiences annual monsoon rains - without them people die from lack of water; if they are too heavy, people die from flooding and ruined crops. This year the monsoon brings devastating floods, which destroy the rice crop. Because they have no ability to save for the future, families like Ruku’s suffer greatly and hunger is unavoidable.
The suffering is not Ruku’s alone; her trip to the village shows few have escaped unscathed. Only the tannery stands nearly untouched - a force so strong not even nature can stop it.
Like many poor people, Nathan and Ruku are faced with a difficult choice - do they spend their scant funds on overpriced food and delay hunger or do they save and hope to find food elsewhere? They decide to buy a bit of rice to tide them over until better times. Biswas, the moneylender, represents those that take advantage of their own less fortunate neighbors.
Ruku’s encounter with Kenny illustrates one of the fundamental differences between them. He is angry that Ruku and her neighbors do not “cry out” against injustice and ask the world for help in their time of need. Ruku, on the other hand, lives in a culture that teaches suffering in silence - one is expected to quietly bear the burdens one is given. What Kenny sees as weakness or failing in Ruku is actually a source of her strength; she will endure much more in her life but never once seems to pity herself or begrudge those who are more fortunate.
The chapter ends on a note of hope. With her family’s food problems solved at least temporarily, Ruku allows herself to once again dream of the future. She sees only bright possibility where many would see despair.

Kunthi seems to be one of the few Ruku knows who appreciates the arrival of the tannery. Her sons have gone to work there and Kunthi herself spends much of her time in the village among the tannery workers. As a result, she is developing an unsavory reputation; Janaki calls her a trollop and there are plenty of whispers about her need for attention from strange men.
Janaki’s family falls victim to the tannery; her husband, the owner of a small shop, can no longer compete with the bigger businesses brought in by the tannery and so the family must leave.
The tannery continues to expand and Ruku marvels at the amount it produces. More workers are brought in, including Muslim supervisors. Ruku wonders at the lives of the Muslim women; they have money and wear rich jewels but can never show their faces in public and rarely leave their homes. Although Kali says she would gladly trade freedom for a life of ease, Ruku disagrees and feels her own life is better.

Kunthi continues to remain a bit of a mystery. She and Ruku had an uneasy start to their relationship for reasons unclear to Ruku. Kunthi’s desires to be more than just a poor village woman are apparent as the revels in the changes brought by the tannery. Her desire to flaunt her beauty before the men at the tannery hints at her ultimate fate and reveals her questionable morals.
The tannery’s unfettered growth does benefit those who work for it but takes a toll on those who try to avoid it as is demonstrated with Janaki’s family. Ruku remarks that Janaki’s departure was soon forgotten, a fact that illustrates their need to adapt and move on.
The arrival of Muslim workers at the tannery is something of a novelty. Most Indians, like Ruku are Hindu; she is baffled by the Muslims’ unfamiliar customs such as the veiling and seclusion of women. Although Kali feels freedom is a fair price to pay for wealth and servants, Ruku pities the Muslim women who never enjoy the simple pleasure of feeling the sun on their bare skin. This demonstrates Ruku’s simple nature - she has no desire for material things but rather finds joy in the simple pleasures of life.

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Several years after her marriage, Ira returns to her parents’ home along with her husband. Her husband is divorcing her as she has yet to bear him any children. Nathan does not fault her husband’s decision; it is, after all, a woman’s duty to bear children. Ruku feels sharply her daughter’s pain and decides to ask Kenny to help Ira as he once helped her.
Meanwhile, Ruku’s oldest son Arjun announces he is taking a job at the tannery. Ruku is dismayed as he should be a farmer like his father, but Arjun sees no future in that path. Ruku has taught her children to read and write and Arjun has used this skill to gain insight about his situation - he tells his parents he is tired of hunger and struggling for survival. Ruku offers to have Kenny help secure Arjun a job but he will not have it.
Thambi follows his brother to the tannery, telling his father he will not work the land that does not belong to his own family, as it will bring them nothing. Nathan is hurt by his sons’ words and rejection of his lifestyle but does not protest their decision.
The family benefits from the increased income and is once again able to afford a few luxuries such as new clothing. Ruku notes that she and Nathan have their best clothes tucked safely away for the day when their sons marry.

Children, especially sons, were of utmost importance in Indian families. A wife that did not bear children was a failure, no matter what her other skills may be. Ruku points out to Nathan that he had great patience during her own years of infertility but, sadly for Ira, most men were not so understanding. Ruku hopes that Kenny will be able to help her daughter as he helped her but does not stop to consider the fact that Ira’s husband has already abandoned her.
Arjun and Thambi’s decision to work in the tannery hurts Ruku and Nathan. Ruku abhors everything about the tannery and doesn’t want to become dependant on it. Nathan would like to see his sons follow in his footsteps. The caste system in India dictates that a man is supposed to follow in his father’s profession - thus Ruku’s comment that her sons are not of the tanner class and society will not like their decision to work as a tanner.
Unlike their parents, Arjun and Thambi see no point in laboring on land they can never hope to own. Although they do not speak of it, Ruku and Nathan must now realize their old dream of owning the land is dead. In educating her children, Ruku has given them the tools to reach beyond the life of a simple peasant - Arjun’s mysterious scribblings and secret readings suggest he may be doing just that. Arjun resents his mother’s offer to ask Kenny for help; his comment that white men have power over women shows his distrust of those he perceives as being in power.
The extra money is welcome. Sons are expected to help provide for their families and Ruku’s sons hold true to their family responsibility. The money is spent frugally. Ruku’s continued hope is seen in her insistence in setting away their wedding finery for the day when their sons marry.

The family enjoys the Deepavali festival; Ruku splurges and allows her children to buy their own fireworks for the first time. With the exception of Ira and Selvam, the family goes into the village to enjoy the bonfire and other festivities. For a brief moment, Ruku’s happiness is marred with the thought of her friend Janaki but it soon passes.
The celebration is exhilarating; dancing, the bonfire, and shouts of laughter are everywhere. The usually reserved Nathan surprises Ruku with his dancing and joyous behavior. To the amusement of the crowd, he sweeps her off her feet, remarking that he has much to be joyous about. The happy family returns home; the tired children fall quickly asleep but Ruku and Nathan enjoy an intimate, happy moment.

This is the most carefree and joyous chapter in the novel. Deepavali, or the festival of lights, is an annual Hindu celebration of the triumph of good over evil. Traditionally, it is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks. Ruku’s good mood persuades her to splurge on her children; she feels it is a frivolous use of money but wants to create a happy memory for them.
There are two brief moments of sadness: Ira’s reluctance to join in the celebrations shows her continued depression over her failed marriage, and Ruku’s remembrance of her friend Janaki reminds her of the ill effects of the tannery. However, the overall mood is one of extreme joy.
Even Nathan joins in the revelry. His unabashed declaration of love and public display of affection for his wife and children cause Ruku to blush but inwardly she feels very blessed. The chapter ends with the tired but happy family settling in for the night under the open sky with Ruku and Nathan enjoying the passion of their marriage. Although their marriage was arranged, it has blossomed into a true love match.


Ruku takes advantage of Nathan’s absence to take Ira to see Kenny; she worries that Nathan would not approve of his daughter being treated by a white man. Ruku finds Kenny near the tannery where he has been treating patients. He does not recognize her at first and shoos her away. When he does recognize her, he reprimands Ruku for her timidity in coming to see him. He also smiles to see Ruku’s belly once again big with child.

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On the way home, Ruku encounters Kunthi who is dressed seductively and wearing makeup. Kunthi insinuates that Ruku has been seeing Kenny in a romantic way. Ruku responds by angrily striking at her; she accidentally knocks Kunthi’s sari down and notices that Kunthi has painted herself like a whore. With last threats to each other, the women part.
Ruku later goes to Ira’s husband and asks him to take her back but he cannot as he has already remarried. Ira becomes increasingly withdrawn, expressing interest only in her brother Selvam. Ruku worries that Ira resents her for the baby she carries.
When the baby is born, he is nicknamed Kuti as he is small. Ira takes a great interest in the boy and becomes like a second mother to him. Although Nathan feels Ira has recovered from her melancholy, Ruku still worries about her daughter’s future. A visit to Old Granny reminds Ruku further of her daughter’s possible fate - to be abandoned without a family and a means to care for herself.

The fact that Ruku has kept secret from her husband her visit to Kenny all those years ago still hangs heavy on the narrative. She still believes her husband will not understand or approve of his wife and daughter being treated by a white man, so Ruku takes Ira to Kenny in secret.
Kenny again expresses his failure to understand Ruku’s ways when he scolds her for coming to him in secret. He does not understand why she must keep this from her husband but promises his help anyway. Although it is not mentioned, it seems Ira does go to Kenny for the same treatment her mother once received. What exactly that treatment was is never clarified.
Kunthi has been slinking in the shadows for the whole novel as well. The rumors about her immoral behavior seem well founded as Ruku catches her painted like a “strumpet” and sneaking around late at night. Whatever grudge Kunthi bears for Ruku causes her to threaten to spread rumors about Ruku’s behavior with Kenny, turning an innocent friendship into something immoral. Ruku strikes back at Kunthi with uncharacteristic anger. She feels Kunthi threatens not only her but also her family and so she lashes back. Kunthi’s threats make clear this is not over yet.
Ira’s husband cannot take her back despite Ruku’s efforts. Ruku worries as her daughter slips deeper into depression, especially as she herself is about to give birth. Ira clearly has a strong desire to be a mother as is evident in her behavior towards Selvam and later towards Kuti. Even though Kuti’s birth seems to brighten her spirits, Ruku still worries. With no dowry and a failed marriage, Ira will be hard pressed to get a new husband. Without one, she remains dependant on her parents. Ruku wonders if Ira will become like Old Granny, dependent on strangers for her survival.

The years pass. Arjun and Thambi continue to work at the tannery, pausing once a week to work the land with their father. Ruku says they are good sons who turn all their earnings over to the family instead of spending it on drinking or women. Ruku had still hoped to set money aside for Ira but now realizes that is an impossibility.
One day, Nathan and Ruku go to have lunch with their sons at the tannery only to find the gates locked. The workers have asked for a raise and are being punished. Neither parent understands but it is clear their sons have a part in organizing this effort. The workers have been plotting for some time and eventually stage a strike in hopes of having their demands addressed.
As a result of the strike, Arjun and Thambi lose their jobs. Ruku cannot understand why they are fighting against forces they cannot hope to defeat. Nathan doesn’t understand either but respects the decision his sons have made.
Selvam brings news that drummers are calling for men in the village. Arjun and Thambi go and return with the announcement that they are leaving for Ceylon to work on tea plantations. The journey is long and costly and they all know parents and sons will not meet again. Ruku protests but her sons are adamant - there is no future for them in the village.

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Soon afterwards, Ruku loses her third son, Murugan, to the city. Kenny secures him a job as a servant there. Nathan consoles her by reminding her of the beauties and joys they do have - in each other and in nature. The crop will be ready soon and there is still hope for the future.
Kenny visits with word that Murugan has settled well in his new job. Ruku asks Kenny about his own family and gets a curt and cryptic reply - he says he had a wife and children and a home but left them and is now alone. This information only deepens Ruku’s sense of bafflement at Kenny.

Arjun and Thambi represent a generation of young Indians who wanted to free themselves of colonial rule and take charge of their own futures. Markandaya was a young woman during the fight for Indian independence and was surely familiar with those feelings expressed by these characters. These young men see no hope in the path their parents have chosen but believe in fighting for their rights and a better life. In this respect they are like Kenny; Ruku understands neither.
The call of the drummers and Selvam’s excited message, echo the young Arjun announcing the arrival of the tannery. Like the tannery, Arjun and Thambi’s departure signals a major change in Ruku’s life. Unlike daughters, sons were expected to stay close to the home; despite their promises, Ruku knows the distance to Ceylon is too far for her sons to ever return. Indian Hindus went to Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) to work on the tea plantations there. For men like Arjun and Thambi, this provided an opportunity to perhaps better their life; we never learn of their fate.
Ruku must also say goodbye to her third son who, like his brothers, seeks a new profession elsewhere. Nathan’s attempts to comfort her again show the close bond between them. Like Ruku, he is able to see the joys in life’s simplest things such as the ripening rice grains that will soon be harvested.
Ruku does not understand why Kenny appears so often in their village and wonders if he has no family of his own. She asks and learns that he did have family; apparently they left him when he became more devoted to his work than his marriage. For Ruku, family is the most important thing so once again she is left mystified by Kenny’s remarks.

This year the monsoon fails and Ruku watches helplessly as the crop dies before the harvest. Not even prayers bring rain. When Sivaji, the landlord’s agent, comes to collect the rent he is touched by their plight and offers to collect only half of what is owed now and the rest later. If they cannot pay, they will lose the land. Nathan bitterly remarks that landlords hire agents like Sivaji so they can avoid seeing the suffering they cause in difficult times.
Nathan and Ruku gather together their meager possessions to sell for the rent money. Even Ruku’s wedding sari and the family bullocks must go. Ruku goes to Biswas as he is the only one with money to buy such things in times of famine. After some hard bargaining, Ruku gets the money needed for the land dues.
Still there is not enough. Ruku and Nathan argue over whether not to sell the seed they will need for the next planting. Nathan wants to sell, as it will do them no good if they lose the land. After much yelling, he gives in to a wailing Ruku and keeps it.
Sivaji returns and again Nathan must beg him to give them more time. Sivaji agrees and the land is safe - at least until the next year.

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The drought continues and all around is death and suffering. Fights break out over the village’s last water supply. Finally, when all is dead and past recovery, the rain falls; even Ruku can find no joy.

This chapter begins the most trying period in Ruku’s life - the drought and it’s aftermath. With the loss of their year’s crop, Ruku and Nathan have no means to pay the rent. They take a gamble in selling all they have but to lose the land would be worse as they would have no hope of ever supporting themselves. The argument over selling the seed symbolizes the tough choices they must make - if the seed is gone they may save the land but risk having nothing to plant; if they save the seed they may lose the place to plant it.
Ruku’s encounter with Biswas shows her quiet shrewdness and her ability to “get an attitude” when the wellbeing of her family is at stake. Biswas is quick to remind Ruku that only his favor towards her gets her the money. In much the same way, it is only Sivaji’s kindness that buys Nathan the chance to save his land. Those in Ruku and Nathan’s position often find themselves at the mercy of others.
The utter hopelessness of the situation is seen in the squabbling over what little water there is. When the rain comes, it is almost a cruel joke as the fields are long dead and past saving. For Ruku and her family, the difficult times have just begun.

After the rains, planting begins. Now the family must wait for the rice to mature; in the meantime, they will go hungry. With no money left, Ruku turns to her emergency supply of rice - 10 ollocks or about 10 pounds. She says this must last 24 days and then they will be in God’s hands to survive.
Nights and hunger conspire to bring nightmares and suspicions. Ruku counts her rice obsessively, wondering it will be enough to sustain them until the harvest. She considers going to Kenny for help but cannot find him. They can only wait.
On the eighth day of the rice ration, a half-starved Kunthi stops by and demands food from Ruku. For a moment Ruku pities her adversary; Kunthi’s husband has left her and she has lost all of her good looks. She demands food from Ruku who offers her rice water but no more. Ruku suggests Kunthi look to her sons for help but Kunthi refuses; they are married now and have families of their own. Besides, she believes she can care for herself if her looks return. Kunthi threatens to go to Nathan with lies about Ruku and Kenny. Ruku, who fears her husband may believe such lies, gives in and provides Kunthi with 7 days worth of their rice.
That night, Ruku returns to her rice stash; instead of the 9 days worth she plans to find, only a day’s worth is left. Enraged and crazed with hunger, Ruku turns on her family - one of them must have taken the rice. Finally, Nathan admits he was the thief but that it was taken for another. Kunthi had threatened him too.
Nathan reveals he fathered Kunthi’s sons, the first before his marriage to Ruku but the second afterwards. Ruku admits Kunthi had blackmailed her as well. Neither feel anger, but only relief - Kunthi no longer holds power over them and now that the rice is gone, there is no worrying about how long it will last.

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The next weeks are spent searching for whatever scraps of food can be found. They even eat grass in an effort to stop the pangs of hunger. Ruku describes the stages of starvation - first pain and then a dull ache and then utter exhaustion. All of them suffer and turn to near skin and bones but little Kuti suffers most. Ira tries to soothe him but there is little left to do.

At the sight of the newly sprouted rice, Ruku feels pulled by both hope and fear - hope that the future will bring better fortune and fear that this crop too will die and the family along with it. Ruku’s rice ration comes out to about 1/2 cup of rice a day per person. The starchy cooking water is used to try to trick the stomach into being full.
Hunger affects the family physically and mentally. They are plagued by nightmares in their sleep and suspicions and short tempers during the day. When the rice is gone, they desperately eat anything remotely edible and even things that aren’t. Ruku describes hunger as a stalker, a presence that cannot be escaped.
The mystery of Kunthi is finally solved in this chapter and a shocking truth revealed. Kunthi clearly is nearly mad; she has become a whore and has been abandoned by her family. Ruku gives in to Kunthi’s demands out of an irrational fear. Because she never told Nathan the truth about her visit to Kenny about her infertility, she fears he will believe Kunthi’s lies about her alleged affair.
Ruku’s shock at learning her husband took the missing rice pales in comparison to her shock at his admission he fathered Kunthi’s sons. Suddenly, it all makes sense - from the beginning, Kunthi was cold towards Ruku; now we know why. The child Ruku helped her deliver was actually Nathan’s son. To think that gentle loving Nathan was unfaithful to his beloved wife is shocking. However, Ruku finds forgiveness easily and is relieved to reveal her own long held secret.
Their relief at escaping Kunthi’s shadow is followed by their relief at the end of the rice supply. Odd as it sounds, they now know there is nothing more they can do to save themselves. Only mental resolve will hold them until the harvest; Ruku only hopes that time comes before it is too late for Kuti.

Two men from the tannery bring Raja’s body home. Ruku, weak with hunger and overcome by grief, barely understands that her son died while trying to steal from the tannery. She and Ira prepare the body and the funeral bier is lit. Only ashes remain of her son.
Three days later, two tannery officials visit Ruku and Nathan. They explain Raja had been caught stealing and collapsed when the guards tried to stop him. They claim he was weak and collapsed even though the guards barely laid a hand on him. They warn the grieving parents they have no claim on the tannery and no claim for compensation for Raja’s death. Ruku and Nathan are confused and don’t understand the officials’ meaning.
As they leave, one of the men remarks perhaps the family is better off with one less mouth to feed. The cruel remark has little effect on the dazed parents. One of the men seems sorry for the family and wears a face of shame; the other wishes to make a hasty retreat and glows with satisfaction that the family puts up no fight.

Raja’s death at the tannery is suspicious to say the least. Even if had had been caught stealing and was weak from hunger, he must have been badly beaten to cause his death. The tannery clearly is concerned that the family may file the equivalent of a wrongful death suit and claim compensation for Raja’s death. However, those fears are unfounded as Ruku and Nathan are too stunned by Raja’s death and too ignorant of their rights to do so.
If Kenny or Arjun had been present in this scene, surely they would have cried out against this injustice. As it is, Ruku once again suffers in silence knowing only that her son is dead and she is powerless to change that fact. Like many others in their position, Ruku and Nathan are at the mercy of those with power and money - in this case, those who run the tannery.

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It is still three weeks before the rice can be harvested. Ruku worries they may not have the strength to complete the harvest when the time comes but Nathan assures her they will find a way. Most of all, Ruku worries about her youngest Kuti, the weakest of them. She finds herself wondering if death might be more welcome than the pain he suffers.
Over the next few days, Ruku begins to notice a change in Kuti - he rests easier and his face shows less pain. At first, she thinks this is the last flicker of life before death but the improvement continues.
As Ruku lays in her bed thinking of her hopes for the future, she hears someone tip-toeing around the hut. Her thoughts go to Kunthi; only she would have the nerve to do such a thing. When Ruku sees the shadowy form of a woman, she attacks. Nathan pulls her off, screaming. The woman she attacked was her own daughter, Ira. Confused, Ruku tends to her daughter’s wounds, including many cuts from the broken bangles Ira had been wearing. When Ruku takes Ira’s blooded sari to wash in the river, she catches sight of a rupee as it slips from the cloth into the water.
Kuti cries when Ruku returns to the hut. Ira tells her mother to use the money in her sari to buy food for Kuti. Ruku now understands that Kuti’s improvement was due to Ira’s efforts - but where had she gotten the money?
Ira prepares to leave again. Ruku begs her to stay, but Ira insists she must do something to help her dying brother. Ruku demands to know where Ira is going; Ira does not answer. Ruku follows her to the alleys near the tannery. Ira tells her she would not like to know the truth and sends Ruku away.
Nathan too confronts his daughter, telling her he will not have his daughter work as a whore. Ira defies her father and stubbornly insists she will do what she must so as not to starve. Despite her parents’ efforts, Ira continues to go out into the night. Ruku says they grow accustomed to this too as they have so much else.
Ira uses her earning to buy food for the family but Nathan stubbornly refuses to touch it. Despite the milk Ira buys for him, Kuti continues to grow weak. Soon he dies, too weak to sit up and his sight taken by hunger. Ruku cries but feels relief that her youngest child suffers no more.

As Kuti dies, Ruku recalls that he was conceived during one of their happiest times - the Deepavali festival. Now they have only sorrow. Still she is glad that her child no longer suffers.
Ira’s decision to become a prostitute was one made in desperation; out of love for her brother, Kuti, she sold the one thing she had of value. She had always been an obedient and docile daughter, which is why her parents are so shocked when she defies them and continues to work. When Ruku follow Ira into the village, Ira tells her “the truth is unpalatable” - those words echo those of the tannery official who came to report Raja’s death. Perhaps it would have been better for Ira’s parents to remain ignorant of her nighttime activities and to continue to believe it was divine intervention that caused the improvement in Kuti.
Sadly, even Ira’s decision to sell herself can’t save her brother. The remaining family members can benefit from her sacrifice as she feeds them with her earnings. Only her father refuses to eat the food she brings. Ruku wonders if this is Nathan’s way of punishing himself for failing to provide for his family or if it is his way to protest Ira’s shameful defiance. Certainly if Ira had not made the decision she did, more members of the family easily could have starved to death as well.
Ruku notes that she and Nathan grow accustomed to Ira’s comings and goings as they had adapted to so much else. Although this is difficult for them to accept, it must have been even harder for Ira. Unlike a woman like Kunthi who turned to prostitution for her own fulfillment and self-preservation, Ira sacrifices her honor to save those she loved. Her decision is all too common in parts of the world where there is much poverty and suffering as women have little other option to earn money for themselves or their families. Ira’s fate as a single women is now sealed; not only was she rejected as barren by her husband, but now she will be seen as damaged goods fit for no man.

The rice is finally harvested and the yield is good. As Nathan predicted, the family finds the strength to complete the work. After it is done, they break down in an exhausted laughter at the sight of their skeletal frames streaked with dirt and sweat.
The mood is once again hopeful and joyous. There will be enough money to pay the land dues and enough for all to eat. Ruku makes plans to start her garden again. After selling the rice at market, the family gives grateful prayers of thanks.

After the horror of famine, the loss of two sons and the shaming of their daughter, Ruku and Nathan finally have a moment of joy. Ruku says their thin bodies are reminders of the hardship they have just suffered but that those difficult times are already being put behind them. Exhilarated by the successful harvest, the four remaining family members plan, once again, for a hopeful future.

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Ruku’s garden has done well and she goes to town to sell her surplus. She no longer does business with Biswas but he stops her with the news of Kenny’s return. He also insinuates that Ruku should be especially pleased at this news - Kunthi has told him her lie about Ruku and Kenny. Ruku grows angry but decides Biswas is a snake not worth her time and goes on.
Despite the messenger, Ruku is glad of the news and goes at once to find Kenny. When she arrives she feels somewhat foolish; she had brought him a garland of welcome and sees that others before her have done the same. She welcomes Kenny anyway and relates to him the troubles of the drought and the death of her sons.
Ruku asks Kenny about his own family. He tells her his wife has left him and taken their sons. Ruku understands Kenny’s absence caused the break up of his marriage but also tells him that his wife should have come with him wherever he chose to go. For Kenny, this is overly simplistic and he rejects it. Ruku explains to Kenny that their ways are different and that she knows he will never fully understand them no matter how long he is in India. Kenny responds with admiration for Ruku’s simple wisdom.
As she leaves, Ruku tells Kenny Ira is pregnant. He offers congratulations but she wonders if it would have been better if Ira had remained barren. The child’s father is unknown, one of Ira’s many customers. Kenny does not condemn Ira’s prostitution and reminds Ruku that a child is always a blessing. Ruku is unsure, remembering the shame filled glances and whispers of neighbors. Kenny responds that the opinions of others aren’t important - Ruku recalls Nathan had told her much the same thing.

Ruku shows her temper once again in her encounter with Biswas when he suggests Kenny is more than a friend. Kenny and Ruku’s friendship is rare - they have little in common and the only reason that most would see for a white man spending time with an Indian women would be for sexual reasons. The conversation that follows between Ruku and Kenny shows that this is not the case.
Kenny has always struck Ruku as a troubled man; her instincts seem well founded as Kenny tells her his marriage is over. His comments about his lack of country suggest he is an unsettled person trying to find his purpose. It seems he has made it his mission to tend to the poor and helpless in a country far from his own.
Although Kenny doesn’t see it at first and often rebukes Ruku for her childlike thinking, Ruku does have wisdom. She reminds Kenny that her lack of knowledge does not equate to stupidity and that the two of them will not agree on certain things (such as whether his wife should have left him) as they are culturally light-years apart.
Ironically, Ira’s prostitution has given her the one thing she’s always wanted - a child. For Ruku, the lack of a father is a source of shame - the neighbors have been talking. Kenny does not judge Ira’s decision - he understands it was one made out of necessity - and reminds Ruku the child will still be a blessing. Whatever Nathan’s feelings about his daughter’s behavior, he seems to have forgiven her and, like Kenny, tells Ruku not to be bothered by the judgment of others but to welcome Ira’s child as a blessing.

Ruku’s son Selvam decides he cannot be a farmer as he lacks a “green thumb.” Kenny offers to train Selvam to be his assistant at the hospital he plans to build in the village. Ruku is pleased; like his brothers, Selvam has shown an aptitude for learning and will do well with this opportunity. Although she and Nathan are sad to see their only remaining son leave the land, they know it is for the best. Ruku warns her son that some may accuse him of getting this opportunity because of Ruku’s relationship with Kenny, but Selvam understands the truth of that relationship.
Ruku goes to thank Kenny for the chance he has given Selvam. He shows her the plans for the hospital - she sees it will be large and asks Kenny where he will find the money. He tells her those in his home country who wish to help have donated the money. For Ruku, this is a puzzle; why would strangers wish to help them? Kenny reminds Ruku again of the need to cry for help when you need it.
Ruku considers this but believes it is best to accept the suffering one has been given and not to wish for changes that cannot come. Kenny dismisses her - he cannot understand Ruku’s belief that spiritual grace comes through suffering.

Ruku’s decision to teach her children to read and write has paid off well for Selvam. By now, Ruku and Nathan realize the land is a dead end for their children. Now Selvam has an opportunity to further his learning and rise out of poverty - and he will remain close to home. Ruku is briefly concerned that the old rumors about her and Kenny will resurface to harm Selvam but he is not bothered.
Ruku’s village must have grown greatly in the 20 some years she has lived there, as it is now large enough to support a hospital. Kenny’s comment that the sick are dying in the streets and babies are born in the gutters, shows that poverty is not unique to Ruku’s family. Indeed, they may be more fortunate than many.
We are accustomed to donating money to help the poor around the world. Ruku shows that those who receive the aid do not always understand such generosity. For Ruku, suffering is to be accepted; she believes that one’s spirit will be strong enough to carry through hardship and that to cry out (as Kenny would have her do) is a sign of weakness. From Kenny’s perspective, this is madness; if one is in need, one should ask for help. Once again, their cultural differences tangle their friendship but do not break it.

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Ira goes into labor. Ruku sends the men away and prepares the hut for the birth. Ruku worries about the future of the child. She considers a child born in marriage to be blessed with the love of both mother and father, conceived out of love and care. Ira’s child, however, was born out of a business transaction - she wonders if this lack of love and care will affect the child. Ruku has seen Ira shed no tears over her fate - either she has done so in private or is too overjoyed at finally becoming a mother to care about the way it happened.
The baby is born. Ruku tries to hide him at first from his mother as the baby is albino. When Ira sees him at last, she acts as though nothing is wrong and rocks and sings to him as a mother in love with her new child. Ruku and Nathan are both concerned - can Ira not see her child’s abnormality. For them, the baby’s defect can only be a result of its conception. It is clear that this baby will have a difficult life; even as an infant, he shies away from the sun because of his pale skin and weak eyes.
Curious neighbors flock to the house to see the strange albino baby. Nathan decides they will have a naming ceremony for the child despite his fatherless state and his unusual appearance. Everyone comes, including Old Granny who, still feeling guilty over the failure of the marriage she arranged for Ira, gives the baby her last rupee.
Kali comes to see the baby as well and has nothing but unkind words, calling the baby “peculiar.” Everyone sits in silence, not knowing how to respond. Ruku realizes that Ira is aware of her child’s defect but chooses not to let it affect her feelings for her son. Kali’s remark has stung Ira deeply. Selvam rebukes Kali reminding her that the child’s skin and eye color are his only difference and that despite those oddities, he is still a child to be loved.

Ruku’s fears about the ill effects of Ira’s baby’s ill conception seem to come true when the baby is born. He is albino - a genetic disorder that affects all ethnic groups and causes one to lack skin, hair and eye pigmentation. As a result, the child has unnaturally pale skin (which will cause him to burn easily) and pink eyes that cannot tolerate bright sunlight. Ira’s motherly instincts overlook her child’s abnormality; although her parents think she is blind to it, she sees it but loves him all the same.
Like Ruku, many in the village attribute the boy’s abnormality to the fact Ira worked as a prostitute - some sort of divine punishment. Kenny explains that it is merely a fluke of nature but that doesn’t stop the curiosity seekers from coming or the hurtful comments from being spoken.
Nathan’s decision to have the naming ceremony demonstrates his efforts to accept the child. Nathan still blames himself for Ira’s decision to work as a prostitute. In spite of his own misgivings about the child’s appearance and future, he does what he can to help his daughter. It seems the family’s hardships are never ending. For Ruku, it is a cruel irony that Ira, who wanted nothing more than motherhood, should become a mother in such a way.
Selvam shows his wisdom and maturity in his comments to Kali and quiets the town gossip. He rightly points out that coloring is only a matter of perspective and who is to know how one should be colored. The baby will do well to have an uncle and protector like Selvam. With no father and a condition that will prevent him from leading a fully normal life (as much of their lives are spent outdoors), he will need the guidance and support Selvam can offer.

Construction begins on the hospital but the going is slow. Selvam continues to live with his parents but is consumed with the building of the hospital. Ruku says the building will take 7 years although they did not know this at the outset.
Old Granny dies alone in the street. She had no relatives to turn to and died of starvation. Ruku bitterly observes the mourners at her funeral and remarks that only in death is one sure of attention.
Ruku feels especially saddened by Old Granny’s death since she had accepted the rupee from her for Ira’s son, Scarabani. Nathan tells her not to be foolish. Ruku wonders if the hospital had been completed if Old Granny might not have had to die in the street. Soon, it becomes clear that the hospital will not be able to meet the demands of the villagers as already they are lining up and it is nowhere near completed.
Over the next few years the building continues in fits and starts. Selvam begins his medical training as well and soon treats some patients on his own. Ruku still wonders why people give and wonders if there will ever be enough money to finish the project. After all, you can cry out for help, but you cannot force people to listen and to help you.

The death of Old Granny hits Ruku hard. Perhaps her old fears about Ira’s fate resurface - she can imagine her daughter old and homeless, dead in the street. Ruku’s comment that only in death is one sure of attention connects to her later statement about those who would donate to the hospital. She recognizes that despite Kenny’s advice to cry out for help when you suffer, it is likely that no one will bother to listen when you call.
Several years pass in this chapter as the hospital is slowly built and Selvam settles into his new path in life. Clearly, he is forward thinking and intelligent despite his humble upbringing. It seems that at least one of Ruku’s children will find some measure of success in life. In the meantime, the need for a hospital grows clearer, as the poor and sick beat down the door before it is even up. Although Kenny is well intended, his efforts may not be enough to save everyone.

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Although they are years apart in age, Ira and Selvam have a close brother sister relationship. Ruku feels she does not fully understand her children and wonders if it is because they have become more educated and knowledgeable about the world than she is.
Even though his mother and his uncle Selvam accept him and treat him as a normal child, Scarabani cannot have a normal childhood. Ostracized for his appearance and limited by his weak skin and eyes he cannot fully participate in childhood activities.
One day, Sacrabani comes to Ira with a question she has dreaded: “What is a bastard?” Ira responds it is a child whose parents did not wish for his birth. Ruku notes the pain in Ira’s voice at the question and remembers Ira’s attempts to abort her pregnancy.
Days later, Sacrabani asks his mother about his father. She lies and tells him his father is away and that he will understand when he is older. Ruku suggests Ira should have told the boy his father was dead. Ira is clearly upset; she was not prepared for her young son to ask such difficult questions. Ira leaves; Nathan later goes to comfort her and Ruku hears her daughter crying.

Sacrabani is doubly cursed - he cannot led a normal life as being an albino forces him out of the sun and he must deal with fact he is a bastard child in a society that is not accepting of children born out of wedlock. Ira tries to protect her son and lies to do so but it is clear that one lie leads to another and that one day, the painful truth must be told.
We also see further that Ira has struggled with the consequences of her prostitution and in fact tried to abort her baby. Outwardly to her child she is strong, but relies heavily on the support of her family to deal with the difficultly of being a single mother to an albino child.
Ira is fortunate to have a family who chose to support her instead of turning their backs on her as many would have done. Her brother Selvam increasingly acts as her protector and confidant and a surrogate father to her son. Her parents too are supportive, even her father who clearly disapproved of her prostitution, comforts her in her time of sorrow.

Ruku’s son Murugan gets married but she and Nathan are unable to afford to go. Ruku notes that Nathan’s health is starting to fail and Kenny tells her Nathan needs more to eat than plain rice every day. Ruku replies that this is all the family can afford. Kenny also believes Nathan’s health is affected by his worrying over Ruku and the children; Ruku tells him there is no one but Nathan to care for the family now that their sons are all gone. Kenny expresses guilt over taking Selvam from the land but Ruku tells him this was for the best as Selvam was no farmer at heart. Ruku concludes that they can do little to plan for the future and must take their lives as they come.
Nathan recovers and all seems well again. Then one day while Ruku is out in the fields, Sivaji comes with terrible news. The land is being sold to the tannery owners and the family has only days to pack and leave. Ruku is in disbelief - the tannery, which has plagued them for so long, has finally dealt them a deathblow and taken away the only way they know how to live.
Even though Ruku finds much blame in the tannery and curses the changes it brought to the village, she realizes that their hold on the land had always been weak. As tenant farmers, they were always at the mercy of the landlord who could sell at any time. Weather, too, had played a role in much of their misfortune and made it difficult if not impossible to ever get ahead.
As Ruku looks around the mud hut that has been her home for over 30 years she wonders at the cruelty of those who would force her from her home.

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Selvam does not understand why his parents have made no protest against the sale of their land. He sees injustice where they do not. Nathan says they will go to Murugan in the city, as he is too old to rent another piece of property and beyond learning another skill. Selvam offers to quit his job with Kenny and help his father farm but Nathan will not hear of it. Ira declares that she and her son will stay in the village where at least people are now used to them. Selvam pledges to look after his sister and her son.

Just when things were looking stable for the family, they get the word that their land has been sold. The threat of it had hung over them their entire lives and yet the shock of it actually happening throws Ruku off balance.
At first her blame falls squarely on the tannery, which caused so much change and now takes from them the only thing they have left. Even Ruku must admit that people such as they who live hand to mouth and rent their land are easily affected by all forces of change whether natural, like drought, or man made, like the tannery.
Nathan’s poor health and advancing age (50 is old in a society where physical labor and poor nutrition abound) leave them little alternative for the future. As it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to do the necessary farm work, he knows no one will rent him a new patch of land. As is custom, they must rely on their sons in their old age. Since Murugan has a job in the city, it is to him they will go.
Selvam nobly offers to sacrifice his own future to help his parents stay in the life they’ve always known but they refuse his offer knowing that their time has passed and his is yet to come. Ira has no wish to start over again with stares and uncomfortable questions and so she too will remain behind.
This is the story’s climax, the final breaking point for Ruku. The only life she’s ever known is over and she must find a new way in the twilight of her life.


Ruku sadly packs up her few possessions and realizes that in living with her son and his wife, she will no longer have responsibility as mistress of the house. Even though the work is hard, she will miss it. Shortly before leaving, she ties what little money they have snugly around her waist. Selvam, Ira and Sacrabani come to see them off. Ruku and Nathan have secured a ride on a bullock cart carrying finished animal hides back to the city. Ruku notices the bullocks pulling the cart have sores from their harnesses. The cart driver tells her he cannot afford to rest them and drives the pitiful creatures onward.
After two days, they arrive on the outskirts of the city. Ruku and Nathan ask for directions to the street their son lives on and are told it is another 15 miles. They set out on foot. The going is slow and the traffic, noise and dirt of the city overwhelm them. Nathan pulls Ruku aside and they sit to rest, the rush of the city passes them by. An old man nearby suggests they go to the nearby temple for food and shelter as they still have far to go and darkness has already fallen.
On the way to the temple, Ruku and Nathan find themselves a part of a crowd of regulars - mostly the old and disabled. The smells of food they pass along the way make their stomachs turn in hunger. At the temple, Ruku sees statues of the god and goddess with food offerings at their feet. A woman tells her that after the food is blessed it will be served to the poor who have gathered there. As the priests pray, a rush of images from her past floods Ruku’s mind.
After the ceremony, a line of pushing, hungry people forms by the food. Ruku and Nathan are separated and Ruku decides to ask for Nathan’s portion as well as her own. The food server yells at her and accuses her of trying to take a double portion. She leaves with only her own share of rice and lentils to split with Nathan.
Even this small bit of food refreshes them. After throwing their plantain leaf plates to the goats, Ruku remembers their bundles - they have left them against the wall in another portion of the temple. After much searching they realize the bundles are gone. Sympathetic by-standers tell them that even in the temple there are thieves.

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Ruku is upset about going empty handed to her son’s home and she promises herself she will go to the market in the morning. After checking her bundle of money she lays down by Nathan to sleep. But her sleep is troubled as she wakes up often with the sense that something is brushing over her.

For Ruku and Nathan, moving in with their son means not only giving up their farming way of life but also relinquishing responsibility and decision making to the younger generation - a difficult thing to do no matter where you are from.
Even after the changes brought by the tannery, life in the village is calm and quiet compared to the bustling city Ruku and Nathan land in. They are quickly overwhelmed by its size and crowdedness and the difficult task of locating their son based only on the name of a street. Nathan’s ill health makes the task harder - surely they feel very helpless as they try to navigate in this alien environment.
The temple provides a place of refuge, something like a homeless shelter/soup kitchen. Based on the conversations of those around her, Ruku deduces that many there are regulars, people whose very survival depends on this charity. Although she is not one to ask for help, Ruku is all too grateful for a somewhat familiar refuge (it is a temple after all) in the midst of the confusing chaos of the city.
Ruku’s inexperience and ignorance of the ways of the city become clear in the temple. She expects honesty and charity and is shocked to be rebuked by those serving the food. Ruku doesn’t realize that there are those who would lie to get a bigger handout. Her naivety is even more apparent in her decision to leave her bundles unattended. The trusting country couple is quickly robbed of their last possessions. One can only wonder what Ruku felt brushing her in the night.
Nathan’s health is clearly becoming a greater issue. He must frequently rest and is unable to push through the crowd to get his meal. Ruku knows she must stay strong for her husband.

The next morning, Ruku and Nathan set out once again to find their son. They pass by a food stall and decide to buy some potato pancakes. When Ruku goes for her money to pay, she realizes it’s gone. They return to the temple but find only casual comments of sympathy. Ruku realizes pickpockets must have struck in the night. They hurry on to find their son, hoping no more misfortune comes their way.
Ruku and Nathan wander the city aimlessly, asking directions but feeling more lost with each passing minute. They stop to rest and watch street children playing nearby. The children have bellies blown with hunger and are covered in dirt and sores, yet they still play with the freedom of childhood. Ruku notes that they quickly turn savage when food drops near them and fight over it or turn sweet with beggars’ eyes when someone with money passes by - these children are no innocents. Ruku wonders if they too will be reduced to begging.
Nathan asks one of the boys for directions and learns that there are several streets by the name they are seeking - thus the cause of their confusion. Nathan gives the boy the name of the doctor Murugan works for; the boy claims he knows the place and offers to take them there for a price. When Nathan tells him he has no money the boy offers to show them the way in exchange for the promise of future payment. He tells them his name is Puli and that he is well known on the streets and the leader of the boys. Ruku notices that his fingers have been eaten away by disease and that he has only nubs.
Puli leads them to the house. The servants try to send them away at first, thinking they are beggars, but then seeing that they carry no begging bowls, they ask what they want. They ask about their son and are told he does not work there. The doctor arrives - Ruku and Nathan are shocked to see the doctor is a woman and wearing pants. They learn their son has taken a new job at the Collector’s house on Chamundi Hill.

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Before they go, the doctor instructs them to have a meal with the servants. A man named Das and his wife welcome the tired couple warmly. Before the meal, Ruku goes to wash up and is baffled by the latrine she finds - the ways of the city are indeed foreign to her. Das and his wife tell Ruku the food is provided by the doctor, so she feels no guilt in sharing a meal with these kind people. They persuade Nathan and Ruku to stay the night and rest before trying to find their son the next day.

Ruku and Nathan once again fall victim to thieves. Ruku cannot imagine such dishonesty, especially in the temple, a holy place. Now the search for Murugan grows more desperate or they will be reduced to begging like the children they see playing in the filthy streets.
The beggar children strike Ruku as at once innocent and wise beyond their years. It is apparent they have had hard lives - they are dirty, hungry and experienced beggars - yet they still can play with the carefree air of children. Puli, their leader, is clever and a quick talker but, as Ruku notices, suffers from leprosy - a disease that literally eats away at the flesh. Ruku has always known poverty, but the poverty of the city seems harsher and more cruel as here there is no clear sky overhead or kind neighbors to help in your time of need.
The doctor proves quite a surprise. Life in the city is more advanced than in the rural villages; here women not only wear pants but also can become doctors - both things traditionally associated with males. Although they don’t find their son, Ruku and Nathan do finally find some kindness in the welcome from Das and his wife.
Ruku’s latrine experience illustrates yet another difference in city and country. Although many might consider the use of a latrine more “advanced” than using a hole by a river, Ruku finds it foul and unclean. She’s right too; with little sanitation and open sewers, poverty stricken cities are hotbeds of stench and disease.

Ruku and Nathan easily find the Collector’s house; it is large and stands on a high hill. When they arrive and ask for their son, the servant at the gate takes them around back to Murugan’s wife Ammu. Ammu greets them coldly, a small boy at her side and a baby at her hip. Ruku feels shame that she has arrived empty-handed. Ammu does not smile and tells them Murugan left her over two years before.
Ruku realizes they have come far for nothing; they cannot stay here as Ammu hardly has enough to feed herself and the children. Ammu tells them it is no use looking for Murugan as he has left the city. She goes to work and tells Ruku and Nathan they can stay until she returns for lunch. Ruku offers to take the baby; Ammu reminds her the baby is not her grandchild (the older boy is) - she has had to do what she had to in order to survive.
When Ammu returns for lunch, Ruku senses she wants them gone as quickly as possible. Ammu tells them Murugan left because of women and gambling. Her tone changes and becomes softer when she asks where Ruku and Nathan will go now, but she makes it clear they cannot stay with her. Ruku pities this girl, hardened by misfortune and abandoned by her son, but they must go. Nathan says they plan to return to the village to Selvam and Ira and so they leave.

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On the way out, Ruku and Nathan are yelled at by a servant for using the front gate - their appearance is like that of beggars and they must not be seen there. Sadly, Nathan tells him they will remember for next time although they don’t intend to be back.

Once again Ruku and Nathan are met with disappointment. Their son has abandoned his wife and shamed his parents with his behavior. The encounter they have with Ammu is doubly uncomfortable. She feels an obligation to her husband’s parents, bad husband that he is, and they feel a responsibility to the woman their son abandoned and her children. Ammu makes it clear through her tone and looks that she has no intention of having them stay. Ruku wishes she could help her as well. Both sides know that their mutual pity can help neither.
Ruku must see parallels between Ammu’s situation and that of her daughter Ira. Both have children out of wedlock but Ira has been fortunate in having the support of her family. Ammu is alone in the world and despite her slight frame and girlish appearance is hardened beyond her years. Ruku is finding life in the city to be more cruel than that in the village she left behind.
Their search for Murugan ended, Ruku and Nathan are left with little choice. If they stay in the city they will become beggars out of necessity. If they return to the village, they will at least have the support of their remaining children and the familiar comforts of home. The city has proven too alien and unwelcoming for them to stay.

Ruku and Nathan return to the temple; at least there they can get a meal and have shelter for the night. Although some welcome their return, others greet them with the same selfish hostility Ammu did. There are few resources to feed the many poor. Ruku witnesses acts of violence against those unable to defend themselves - the sick, the crippled and the old.
Each night they sit wondering how they will be able to return to the village. The city has nothing but hatred to offer them. But where to get the money? Ruku decides to offer her services as a reader and writer of letters. Although Nathan doubts anyone will hire a woman, she plans to offer lower prices to attract customers. They count the days until there will be enough, 10 rupees, for the return journey.
The first day does not go well. Ruku sits by the road calling for business all day but attracts mostly laughter and crude remarks. She makes only enough to buy rice cakes for their breakfast. Time passes; Nathan’s old illness returns and Ruku grows more desperate to earn the money.
One evening on the way back to the temple, Ruku encounters the boy Puli who claims he has come to collect his payment. Puli follows Ruku back to the temple and shares their dinner and their sleeping space. Ruku asks if he will not worry his mother; he tells her he has none. Ruku feels a motherly instinct to take care of the child, especially because of his deformed hands, but Nathan points out the boy is probably better able to survive in the city than they are.
Ruku tells Puli she earns a bit of money by her letter writing. He tells them of work at the stone quarry where they could earn much more. The work is hard but anyone can do it - they must break and collect stone in exchange for pay. Because of his hands, Puli cannot do the work himself, but he leads Nathan and Ruku there and shows them the ropes.
All sorts are working the quarry, breaking the rocks into fist size pieces. With no hammer the work takes some practice. Puli sits and watches and scolds Ruku and Nathan when they fail to run when the blasting whistle sounds. At the end of the day they must go to the overseer’s hut for sacks to bring back the stones in. While there, Puli breaks out his begging bowl. Ruku thinks he will be unsuccessful but to her surprise he soon has coins rattling in his bowl. Although they were slow with the work, they earned more in one day than Ruku earned in a week with letter writing.

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Puli continues to stay by their side, begging while they work in the quarry. Ruku and Nathan turn their money over to Puli; they trust that he will be able to keep it from thieves as clever as he is. They figure that in two months they will have enough to return home. Nathan offers Puli a home in the village but he claims he will stay in the city - village life will be too small and quiet for him. Puli wonders how they will fare better in the village. Nathan tries to explain that at least there he will starve among his familiars and not die unnoticed in the unfriendly, overcrowded city.

The longer they are in the city, the more Nathan and Ruku see the cruel struggle for survival among the poor there. Even in the temple, there is theft and violence against the helpless. They are determined to return to the village where they can at least die in peace but have no money for the return trip.
Letter writers and readers were common as most people could not read and write for themselves. A woman reading and writing was uncommon and thus Ruku receives more rude comments than customers. Luck gives them a good turn, however, with the return of the child Puli.
Ruku feels a mixture of pity and awe for Puli. His disability and his youth are pitiable but his cheerful spirit and quick mind are enviable. Nathan correctly observes the boy is well equipped to care for himself in the city, but Ruku is also correct that the boy craves nurturing - why else would he adopt Ruku and Nathan as his own. Soon it as though they have always been together and Ruku even trusts Puli enough to give him their money for safekeeping. The affection is mutual as Puli could easily have gone on his way but Ruku’s motherly feelings for him keep him near. Even Nathan feels for the boy and tries to convince him to return to the village as their kin.
Puli’s knowledge of the city allows Ruku and Nathan to find work at the quarry and a quicker way to earn their passage home. Again, Puli demonstrates his resourcefulness by collecting alms even from the poor quarry workers. Hope grows as the money Puli hides away increases slowly but surely.

The money Puli holds continues to grow. Ruku’s spirits are high as they return from a profitable day at the quarry. Nathan, who is tired, returns to the temple and Ruku and Puli go to the market for dinner. Ruku decides her good mood deserves a special dinner and she splurges on food at the market.
On the way back to the temple, they pass a hawker selling dum-dum carts. Puli is enchanted and giggles with delight at the toy. He begs Ruku for the money for it. She resists but considers the hard life the boy has and buys it for him. She buys a second, thinking of her little grandson at home and the smile it would bring to his face and Ira’s.
Ruku wonders how to explain her foolish spending to her husband but before she can do so he is sick and sinks to the ground. Ruku chides him for working so hard and encourages him to rest.
The next day is raining. Ruku tries to convince Nathan to stay behind as he is clearly not well but he knows it will rain for days and it will mean more time before they can go home. As Nathan predicted, the rain lasts for days - it is the monsoon season. The work is even harder in the rain and Nathan’s breathing grows labored. Still, he works on, promising Ruku he will rest when back in the village.
Ruku goes to collect their day’s pay, thoughts of her homecoming whirling in her mind. A clump of people nearby calls to her; Nathan has collapsed and lies motionless in the rain soaked ditch. Sympathetic strangers help carry Nathan back to the temple. Ruku realizes the rain on her face is mingled with tears.

Ruku’s splurge at the market shows her joys at the simple things. The light she sees in Puli’s eyes as he plays with the dum-dum cart and the joy she imagines in her grandchild are worth the extra money, much like the fireworks at the long-ago Deepavali festival. Ruku knows Puli could earn the money for the toy by begging, but his youthful enthusiasm and her motherly feelings for him win her over.

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Her joy from the market is short lived. Nathan has grown ill again. The coming of the monsoon makes matters worse. Despite his wife’s concerns, Nathan insists on working. He knows his end is near and wishes to die at home in his village than in the city beside cold strangers.
It is a cruel twist that Ruku is having thoughts of a happy homecoming with Nathan’s long foreshadowed collapse comes. When well-intentioned strangers ask if she has sons, her grief grows as she is reminded that here they are among strangers and not among kin. Once again, fate deals Ruku a heavy blow.


Nathan is carried back to the temple. Ruku remembers the night in a daze. Strangers brought her a lamp and water so she could clean the mud from her dying husband. For most of the night, Nathan talked in a fever, calling for his sons and muttering incoherently. Ruku cradles his head in her lap.
Towards morning, Nathan regains his senses and touches Ruku’s face. He tells her she must not mourn his passing as he will live on through their children. He asks her if they were happy together; she says yes. Ruku holds him until he breathes no more.

It is important to remember that Ruku is telling this story as a memory of her life. This most recent event is hardest to relate as she feels it happened in a dream. The final tender moments between husband and wife show their true affection and tenderness they shared. Even at his death, Nathan’s wish was for his wife’s happiness; he comforts her by the reminder that their children will carry his memory on.


Ruku is at last able to return to the village and lures Puli with her with the promise she can fix his health. She is greeted by Selvam and Ira and introduces Puli as the son she and Nathan adopted. Of Nathan’s death she says only the passing was gentle and she will speak of it later.

The book’s final chapter brings Ruku’s story full circle. From the beginning of her story, we know that she was indeed able to provide medical treatment (via Kenny) for Puli. His fingers will not grow back but the disease will take no more of his flesh. We also know that Ruku’s final days will be happy ones - she expresses no regrets in her old age. She has faced much hardship, including the death of her beloved husband, and yet she expressed no bitterness or anger. She truly has learned to gather nectar in a sieve.


Ruku (Rukmani)
Ruku is a poor, Indian village woman who serves as the novel’s protagonist and narrator. She tells the story of her life from her days as a nervous young bride of 12 to her twilight years as an old widow. Along the way she endures much: infertility, rumors about her morality, the death of children, floods and droughts, her daughter’s prostitution and albino child and the death of her beloved husband.
At first, Ruku is reluctant to face change but she learns that one must adapt if one wants to survive. Her simple wisdom, her ability to hope in the face of hopelessness and her courage to find joy in the everyday are an inspiration. As a narrator, Ruku is usually truthful, even about her own shortcomings. She reveals that she does not always understand the world but she refuses to be defeated by it.

Nathan is a poor tenant farmer and Ruku’s loving husband. His quiet and steady devotion to his wife and children helps carry Ruku through difficult times. He dreams of owning his own land and providing a better life for his family, but nature and society conspire to keep him deep in poverty. Like his wife, Nathan loves the simple beauty of life in their quiet village. He is ultimately defeated by the loss of his land and his attempt to start a new life in the city.

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Ira (Irawaddy)
Ruku and Nathan’s eldest child and oldest daughter, Ira is an obedient and loving child. Ruku marvels at her beauty, wondering how she and Nathan managed to produce such a lovely child. Ira makes a good marriage because of her looks but is abandoned by her husband as a barren woman. Ira sacrifices her honor and works as a prostitute in an effort to save her younger brother. Her lifelong dream of motherhood is finally realized when she gives birth to Sacrabani, a child fathered by one of her clients. The child is albino but Ira refuses to let that stand in the way of her love.

Ruku and Nathan’s fifth son and the only one who does not leave the village, Selvam grows into an intelligent and caring young man. Selvam is offered the chance to surpass his mother’s teachings and work with Kenny to build a hospital in the village and to receive medical training. His loyalty to his parents is proven when he offers to give up this opportunity to help save the family land. Selvam also remains close and loyal to his sister Ira and her child and pledges to care for them for their lives.

Kenny (Kennington)
Kenny is an English doctor who appears from time to time in Ruku’s village. Ruku first meets him at her mother’s deathbed and stands in awe of him for much of her life. When Ruku is unable to conceive, Kenny helps her. Later, Kenny mentors Ruku’s youngest son, Selvam. Over the years, Kenny and Ruku develop a friendship despite their cultural differences. Although he often expresses frustration at Ruku’s silent suffering and backwards (in his eyes) ways, he ultimately grows to respect her strength and simple wisdom.
The novel is told in flashback - at the start, we meet Ruku as an elderly woman reflecting on the events of her life. This structure allows Ruku not only to narrate her life experiences but also to analyze them, helping the reader to see how she learned and grew from each event.
The novel is also divided into two parts: Part one covers the majority of Ruku’s married life; the much shorter part two deals with Ruku and Nathan’s failed attempt to move to the city after losing their land and contains the falling action of the novel.
The first chapters (Ch. 1-3) deal with Ruku’s transformation from an uncertain child bride to a confident young wife and mother. These chapters are mostly without hardship - the family is poor but has enough to eat; Ruku and Nathan begin to realize they will never own their own land but have hopes that their children may some day rise out of poverty. The one obstacle Ruku must overcome, her temporary inability to have sons, is nearly forgotten after she has five sons in as many years.

The arrival of the tannery marks a turning point in Ruku’s life as well as in the course of the novel. In this second section (Ch. 4-12), Ruku’s life becomes more complex as she must deal with losing her daughter to marriage and the subsequent failure of that marriage, the impact of the tannery on her family including the loss of her oldest sons, and the increasing impact of the weather on the rice crop and the family’s finances through flooding monsoon rains and the onset of drought. Still there is hope for a better future and bright moments in life (like the Deepavali festival), although each struggle dims hope just a bit more.

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The third section (Ch. 13-16) deals with the severe drought and period of extreme hunger. The drought claims the crop as well as Ruku’s sons Raja and Kuti. Ira turns to prostitution to try to help the family and save Kuti - it seems that the family’s fortunes could sink no lower. Kunthi’s blackmail attempt exposes Ruku’s long held secret (her visit to Kenny’s clinic) and reveals the book’s biggest surprise - Nathan fathered Kunthi’s sons. Just as Nathan and Ruku’s marriage survived Kunthi’s storm and emerged stronger, the family survives the drought and dares to hope once again.
The next section (Ch. 17-23) shows the family’s recovery from the drought. Ira has her albino child and the family shows unity and strength as they accept the child in the face of the village’s disdain.

Just when it seems that the tide has finally turned for the family, the worst happens - the family is informed they must leave the land immediately as it has been purchased by the tannery. Ruku feels the tannery has stalked her family all these years and now has finally devoured them. She admits though that other forces - nature in particular - conspired against them. Ruku and Nathan’s decision to go to the city marks the climax as it will alter the course of their lives and change the direction of the storyline.

The final chapters (Ch. 24-30) contain the falling action and cover Ruku and Nathan’s journey to the city, their struggle to find their son (and their disappointment at his fate), their bad luck in being robbed and their resolve to return to their familiar village. It also introduces the character of Puli, the young boy who will provide Ruku with new reason to hope at the end of her life.
Since the novel opens with the beginning of Ruku’s marriage, it is fitting that it ends with the death of her beloved husband. The final chapter brings the narrative full circle and we now understand how Ruku became the woman who tells the story.

Adapting to Change
Above all else, Ruku must learn to deal with change in her life. The arrival of the tannery is the biggest and most disruptive change but there are countless others: her marriage, motherhood, the fates of her children, moving to the city. Nathan instructs Ruku on the importance of adapting or bending to change in order to survive in life. Like Ruku, everyone faces changes. The way in which we respond to those changes carries over into how our lives will play out. Despite her initial reluctance, Ruku does learn to become adaptable and thus survives many hardships that would have broken a less flexible person. As she comes to know well - life is always uncertain and plans must be adaptable.

No matter what hardships tear at her resolve, Ruku never entirely loses hope for the future. Her ability to find joy in small, everyday things allows her to see possibility even in her darkest hour. Ruku realizes that without hope there is no joy in living and without joy there is no life. Although her hopes are dashed again and again, Ruku never ceases to develop new ones - even at the novel’s end, she is full of hopes for the future of her children.

Ruku’s family was the most important thing and the one thing she could never fully lose. Her family bonds were certainly tested - she lost sons to death, to moves and to personal weakness but maintained strong relationships with the family that was left. She also understood the importance of love and acceptance of family members even when their decisions or beliefs were not her own. Her relationship with Puli shows her understanding of the need for family bonds. She attributes the lack of such bonds to much of Kenny’s unhappiness. Ruku’s bond to her husband is most touching and clearly shows the true definition of love.

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Traditional vs. Modern
Ruku’s discomfort with the tannery came from the fact it disrupted her traditional lifestyle. Traditional values of family are broken by the tannery: no longer do sons follow in their father’s footsteps, and daughters are easily led astray. Ruku’s encounters in the city also show her discomfort with modern things: female doctors in pants and latrines for example.

Cultural Differences
This theme is illustrated in Kenny and Ruku’s relationship. Although they were friends, the two frequently disagreed with or misunderstood one another. What Kenny saw in Ruku as ignorance and weakness, she saw in her self as signs of strength and simple wisdom. The best example of this is Kenny’s insistence that Ruku should ask for help when suffering. To do so for her would be a sign of failure as in her culture strength and grace were gained only through such suffering.

Man vs. Nature
Nature provides constant challenges in the novel. The poor who work the land are most affected by nature’s fury as is clearly seen during the flood and drought. Despite nature’s ability to harm, Ruku still finds it a beautiful and peaceful thing - in fact, it is one of the reasons that draws her back to her village. Ruku’s statement that nature is like a wild animal one has tamed is fitting.

Ruku is the first person narrator of the story. Ruku tells the story as an old woman looking back on the events of her life, so she reflects in addition to simply narrating. Ruku knows only her own thoughts and information given to her by others.
The page numbers listed are from the Signet paperback edition.

1. “. . . for in the beginning I had not wished my husband to know that I was putting myself in the hands of a foreigner, for I knew not what his reaction would be. I had consoled myself that it would be time enough to tell him if a child was born; and now I found I could not do it, because he would surely ask why I had not told him before . . . What harm, I thought, if he does not know; I have not lied to him, there has just been this silence.”
Ruku seeks medical treatment from Kenny when she is unable to conceive but delays telling Nathan. The longer she waits the more difficult it becomes as she knows he will wonder why she kept the secret in the first place. Years later, the secret will catch up with her when Kunthi threatens to reveal it to Nathan.

2. “There is no going back. Bend like the grass that you do not break.”
Nathan gives this advice to Ruku as she laments the coming of the tannery. The tannery brings many changes, most are unpleasant, but Nathan realizes they cannot return to their quiet former life. If they are not flexible enough to adapt to the changes, they will be broken and unable to live.

3. “Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you.”
Throughout the novel, nature provides constant challenges for Ruku and her family. First flooding monsoon rains and then severe drought take the rice crop, driving the family to the brink of starvation. Ruku recognizes that nature is to be respected as it has the power to take life and to give it.

4. “I felt desperately sorry for them, deprived of the ordinary pleasures of knowing warm sun and cool breeze upon their flesh, of walking out light and free, or of mixing with men and working beside them.”
(p. 52)
Although her friend Kali envies the comfortable, easy lives of the Muslim wives of the tannery managers, Ruku pities them. This demonstrates her ability to find joy in the little things - for her, feeling the sun is far more valuable than the jeweled rings the Muslim women wear.

5. “What was it we had to learn? To fight against tremendous odds? What was the use? One only lost the little one had. Of what use to fight when the conclusion is known?”
Unlike her oldest sons and Kenny, Ruku does not understand the need to fight for change. This proves a great source of frustration in those relationships because she feels it is best to suffer in silence (to deal with what life gives you) while they feel you must stand up and protest or be drowned by those who would take advantage of you.

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6. “it seemed to me that a new peace came to us then, freed at last from the necessity for lies and concealment and deceit, with the fear of betrayal lifted from us, and with the power we ourselves had given her wrested finally from Kunthi.”
After Ruku and Nathan confess their secrets to each other, they are able to stop Kunthi’s blackmail and emotional hold over them. Instead of breaking them apart, the truth makes their relationship stronger. Theirs is clearly a marriage based on true partnership and love.

7. “’Limited, yes,’ I agree. ‘Yet not wholly without understanding. Our ways are not your ways.’”
(p. 111)
Ruku and Kenny develop a friendship over the years but still have difficulty understanding one another. Kenny does not understand Ruku’s reluctance to stand up and fight against injustice. He sees her as ignorant; she proves to be the wiser by recognizing that their cultures have different ways of handling hardship and that her limited knowledge of the world does not make her stupid.

8. “I held him, this child begotten in the street of an unknown man in a moment of easy desire, while the brightness of the future broke and fell about me like so many pieces of coloured glass. I did not want his mother to see. . .”
Ruku hoped the birth of Ira’s child could be joyful despite his unknown father and Ira’s work as a prostitute; however, those hopes are dimmed when she sees the baby is albino. At first Ruku sees this as a sign of punishment, a further misfortune brought on Ira. Ira’s love for her child soon changes Ruku’s opinion and the family adapts yet again.

9. “In our lives there is no margin for misfortune.”
(p. 136)
This illustrates the delicate balance between survival and death Ruku and her family must keep everyday. As the novel shows, they are vulnerable to every hardship whether manmade (like the tannery) or natural (like the drought).

10. “’Would you hold me when my time is come? I am at peace. Do not grieve.’ ‘If I grieve,’ I said ‘ it is not for you, but for myself, beloved, for how shall I endure without you, who are my love and my life?’ ‘You are not alone,’ he said ‘I live in my children.’”
Nathan’s dying words to his wife; this demonstrates the strong bond between them and again illustrates the theme of hope - even in death there is hope for the future as lives on in their children.

The Tannery
The tannery symbolizes the force of change. Ruku blames much of the unpleasantness of her life on the tannery, as it was the thing that disrupted her peaceful life. The tannery does cause much of her misfortune simply because it radically changed their traditional village life.

Ira’s Dowry, Fireworks, the Dum-Dum Cart
All of these are symbols of Ruku’s hope. Even in the worst of times, Ruku tried to set aside for the future and understood the importance of little “splurges.” Without such hope, Ruku surely would have given up on life long before the novel ended.

Water is a symbol of life. Without water the family does not eat. Too much water and they don’t eat either. Life for the poor is a delicate balance and much depends on the whims of nature. So important is water that Ruku and Nathan name their firstborn, Irawaddy, after a river.

Represents life. Without it they die. When Ruku must ration her last ollacks of rice she literally counts the number of days they will live. Ruku and Nathan go to the temple for rice so that they may survive in the city.

A recurring idea or motif throughout the novel is change. Ruku must deal with many changes in her family, her village and in herself. She learns to adapt to changes instead of letting those changes break her.

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Nectar in a Sieve
Kamala Markandaya
Date Published
A village in rural India and an unnamed Indian city, probably in the mid 1900s
The forces of change
Ruku must learn to deal with many changes and hardships in the course of her life
Reflective and hopeful
Point of View
First Person (the story is told as a flashback from Ruku’s perspective)
Rising Action
Ruku marries, has children, deals with change in her village with the coming of the tannery, suffers floods, deals with her daughter’s failed marriage, loses sons, and suffers drought and starvation.
Ruku and her family lose their land and she and her husband must leave the only life they’ve ever known.
Falling Action
Ruku and Nathan suffer further misfortune in the city and decide to return to the village. Nathan dies before they can do so but Ruku returns to her remaining children.
Hope, Consequence of Change, Traditional Values vs. Modernization, Man vs. Nature, Family
The Tannery, Ira's Dowry, Fireworks, the Dum-Dum Cart, Rain/Water, Rice, Change



Kamala Markandaya (1924 - May 16, 2004) was a pseudonym used by Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, an Indian novelist and journalist. A native of Mysore, India, Markandaya was a graduate of Madras University, and afterwards published several short stories in Indian newspapers. After India declared its independence, Markandaya moved to Britain, though she still labeled herself an Indian expatriate long afterwards.
Known for writing about culture clash between Indian urban and rural societies, Markandaya's first published novel, Nectar in a Sieve, was a bestseller and named a noteable book of 1955 by the American Library Association. Other novels include Some Inner Fury (1965), A Silence of Desire (1961), Possession (1963), A Handful of Rice (1966), The Nowhere Man (1972), Two Virgins (1973), The Golden Honeycomb (1977), and Pleasure City (1982/1983).
Markandaya died in London on May 16, 2004.
Nectar in a Sieve is a semi-autobiographical novel by amala Markandaya.

Plot introduction

Nectar in a Sieve follows the life experiences of a woman named Rukmani who lived in India during a period of intense urban development. It begins with a brief description of her childhood and tells the story of a life filled with hardships. As the story continues through their life of struggles, Rukmani and Nathan must raise their children, sustain the farm that gives them life, and continue to hope for a better future. Rukmani battles poverty, hunger, her neighbors, industrialization, natural disasters, betrayal, and the harsh reality of death.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title of the novel Nectar in a Sieve is an allusion to the poem “Work Without Hope” by Samuel Coleridge. “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, and hope without an object cannot live.” (lines 13-14, "Work Without Hope"). There are no direct references in the book to nectar or sieves, but hope is a very important quality of the lives of the characters. Rukmani and her family are very poor, and they have almost nothing except each other. Sometimes the only thing that keeps Rukmani going is her dream of a better future. This dream is the object she is hoping for. Because she has a goal and the hope that it will be attainable, she is able to find a reason to keep toiling away in the field and raising her family. “In that field, in the grain which had not yet begun to form, lay our future and our hope.” (pg 78, 2002 paperback edition). Hope gives Rukmani motivation to work as hard as she can, even when the benefits are not immediately apparent. “Hope and fear. Twin forces that tugged us first in one direction and then in another, and which was stronger no one could say.” (pg 78, 2002 paperback edition). If Rukmani does not have hope, she will be overcome with fear because the future is uncertain. Whenever fear is in control, it is like nectar in a sieve. To Rukmani, it seems as if her hard work is for nothing because the results of this hard work, the nectar, always seem to disappear, as if through a sieve. Eventually, however, she always finds a glimmer of hope. At the end of the novel, although Rukmani has lost everything that is important to her, she manages to find hope in her expectations of what will happen after she dies.

Plot summary

Married to a poor farmer, Nathan, because it is convenient for her family, Rukmani must leave everything she has ever known and learn how to run a household by herself at the age of twelve. In a society where raising sons is her purpose in life, Rukmani finds that she can bear only a single daughter, Irawaddy. She seeks out the help of a local European doctor, Kenny, who is able to revive her fertility and allow her to have six sons. Meanwhile, a tannery is built in the village and begins to take over the land, the system of trading, and the way of life for the people who live there. Rukmani seems to be the only one who recognizes this as a danger, and stands alone in her protest against modernization. Her three oldest sons leave her to find a better life somewhere far away from their family. Then the next son is killed in a labor dispute at the tannery, serving only to magnify her hatred of everything associated with it. They enter a time of drought and famine, and Rukmani's youngest son Kuti comes close to starving. Irawaddy is forced to turn to prostitution to earn a little money so she can survive. One night Rukmani mistakes Irwaddy for Kunthi, a woman she hates in the village, and attacks her. Soon after, Kuti dies. Eventually, the tannery officials take over the land that Nathan and Rukmani have been living on for decades. With nowhere else to go, the couple travel by oxcart and on foot to a city, and after confusion learn that their son no longer lives there. Their money stolen, they work at a stone quarry. There Nathan dies and Rukmani returns to their other son in the village with nothing except a young boy they met in the city. After losing everything, she still grasps a thread of hope that there is something waiting for her even after death.

Characters in "Nectar in a Sieve"

: the narrator and main character of the novel who at age 12 married Nathan and has a daughter and six sons. She is not the average Indian woman of her era because she can read and write and is respected by her husband. She also refuses to be satisfied with her circumstances and is always hoping for something more. As the novel progresses, she matures in many ways but never stops hoping.

: Rukmani’s husband, a poor landless tenant farmer. His main priority is tending the rice paddies that are their only source of income and food. He feels a tremendous burden to provide for his family, whom he truly loves. He represents the constant tradition that Rukmani discovers is an inherent part of life in India.

: a European doctor who occasionally lives in the village providing medical assistance to the residents. He has a negative view of traditional Indian culture and does not understand the hope that Rukmani has. He wants to bring about changes to improve their lives and can’t comprehend the incompatibility of those ideas with their way of life. He represents a positive European influence in their lives.

: eldest child and only daughter of Rukmani and Nathan. Because of the vast age difference between her and her brothers, she becomes a second mother figure in their lives. When drought and famine overcome her family, she turns to drastic measures to ensure that her family, especially her youngest brother, has enough to eat. She represents sacrifice and unconditional love.

: Irawaddy’s illegitimate son. He is albino and represents the purity of his mother’s seemingly sinful actions. He is proof of her unconditional sacrifice and love for her family. He is also pure and potentially representative of a 'christ-like' figure.

: Rukmani and Nathan’s neighbor. She represents corruption, evil, and selfishness. She stops at nothing to ensure she ends up ahead.

Arjun, Thambi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, Kuti
: Rukmani’s other children.

: child that Rukmani and Nathan meet while living in the city, after finally being evicted from their farm. They are amazed by his independence and resourcefulness and he acts as their guardian. Because he is physically handicapped and still manages to live successfully, he embodies Rukmani’s hope.

Major themes

Throughout the entire novel, Rukmani is faced with struggle after struggle with no indication that her circumstances will improve. Each time her situation worsens, Rukmani endures quietly, holding on to the hope that things will soon be better. She believes that a person’s spirit is the most important factor in overcoming the harsh realities of life. “Well, and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creatures indeed to be so weak, for is not a man’s spirit given to him to rise above his misfortunes?” (pg 111, 2002 paperback edition). Rukmani has a spirit filled with hope and longing for something more than what she has. This theme runs throughout the entire novel along with optimism. "Hope and fear. Twin forces that tugged at us first in one direction and then in another, and which was the stronger no one could say. of the latter we never spoke, but was always with us." (pg. 78, 2002 paperback) Fear comes along as a theme with hope, and it is always present it seems with Rukmani.

Allusions/references to other works

The title of Nectar in a Sieve is a reference to the poem Work Without Hope. This poem was written in 1825 by Samuel Coleridge. The allusion and symbolism are discussed more fully in the section that explains the novel’s title.

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science

Nectar in a Sieve portrays the conditions of India during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

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