The narrator and protagonist of the novel. Rukmani recalls with
clarity and unflinching honesty the choices and decisions that have brought both
joy and despair. Her father taught her to read and write, and she passes these
valuable skills on to her children. She develops a great love for the beauty and
the land. Though not outwardly beautiful, she is loving, hardworking, thrifty,
and patient. She is also capable of violence when pushed too
in-depth analysis of Rukmani.
Rukmani’s husband, a tenant farmer who loves the land. Nathan is
gentle and kind to his wife and becomes a true life partner to her over the
years. None of his children show interest in working the land with him, which is
both heartbreaking and a hardship for him. Nathan is upright and thoughtful,
serious but also capable of joy. A tireless worker with a gift for farming,
Nathan introduces hardships to his family through his infidelity with
in-depth analysis of Nathan.
A white doctor who ministers to the people in the village. When Kenny
helps Rukmani overcome her infertility, she is forever grateful, and the two
become friends. Kenny finds his Indian patients both endearing and frustrating.
Their poverty appalls him, and he believes in fighting fate—a Western viewpoint
he voices throughout the novel. Kenny is mysterious, private, moody, and
occasionally sharp-tongued, yet he does what he can from time to time to help
Rukmani’s family. He is tall and gaunt and has eyes the color of a kingfisher’s
wing, neither blue nor green.
in-depth analysis of Kenny.
The village beauty, pregnant when Rukmani first meets her. Kunthi is
distant, reserved, and slightly contemptuous of Rukmani, but she is provocative
with men. She rejoices when the tannery makes the village larger and more
exciting, and she often goes to town for the admiring looks she receives from
young men. People say she married beneath her, and when times are desperate,
Kunthi turns to prostitution and extortion.
in-depth analysis of Kunthi.
Rukmani’s daughter, her first child. Ira is named for the great
Irawaddy River because water is so precious. Ira is more beautiful than either
of her parents and has a sweet, obedient, uncomplaining nature. She sings like a
bird. When her husband abandons her because she is barren, she falls into a
depression lifted only by the birth of her youngest brother, Kuti. She devotes
herself to him with great determination, as she later does to her own
illegitimate albino son.
A nine-year-old leper orphan from the city, and head of a gang of
street children. When Puli begs, he assumes a pathetic, helpless demeanor, but
he is strong and clever in the ways of the streets. Rukmani and Nathan survive
with his assistance and trust him with their savings, turning to him as they
could not to their own son.
The wife of a neighboring farmer in the village. Kali is plump and
jovial, and she introduces Rukmani to the neighbor women. Kali shows the young
Rukmani how to perform the chores of a farm wife. She helps out at the birth of
Rukmani’s first child. Kali expresses the views of the villagers about events in
the novel and is particularly disdainful of Rukmani’s belief in the value of
reading and writing.
A woman without family who barely scrapes a living selling produce in
the village. Old Granny remains friendly with Rukmani even after Rukmani stops
selling garden produce to her. At Rukmani’s request, Old Granny arranges what
all consider a good marriage for Ira. Old Granny never forgives herself for the
failure of that marriage, and she brings a rupee as a gift when Ira’s baby is
born, when she herself is starving.
Rukmani and Nathan’s first son. Though Arjun is a wonderful student,
he goes to work in the tannery because he is tired of being hungry and of
watching his siblings go hungry. He is generous with his earnings, giving them
all to his mother for the family. He is idealistic and becomes a spokesman for
the striking tannery workers.
Rukmani and Nathan’s second son, who also goes to the tannery. Like
his older brother, Arjun, Thambi is idealistic and generous until the tannery
turns him bitter. He and Arjun become known in the tannery as troublemakers, and
they must leave their village and their family in order to make lives in the tea
plantations of Ceylon.
Rukmani and Nathan’s third son. Kenny refers Murugan for work in the
city and reports to Rukmani that he is doing well. However, Murugan stays away
from his family. He marries without consulting his parents, then fails to let
them know he has abandoned the city, his job, and his wife and
Rukmani and Nathan’s fourth son. Raja is killed by tannery watchmen
for allegedly stealing a calfskin during a time of famine.
Rukmani and Nathan’s fifth son. Selvam is conscientious and
hardworking, but he does not take to farming. When Kenny offers him the job as
assistant in his hospital, Selvam embraces the opportunity. Selvam is
compassionate and shames the adults who criticize his sister Ira’s albino baby,
Sacrabani. Selvam has a special bond with Ira and promises his parents he will
care for Ira and Sacrabani.
Rukmani and Nathan’s sixth son, born to Rukmani late in life. Kuti is
a happy baby who brings Ira out of her hopelessness, but he suffers the most
when famine comes. His wailing is nearly impossible for the family, especially
Ira, to bear.
Ira’s albino son, considered a freak by the villagers. Sacrabani is
conceived as a result of Ira’s prostitution. His skin and hair are white, and
his eyes are pink. He sunburns easily, and sunlight hurts his eyes. He suffers
the ridicule of children and the stares of adults.
The agent for the landowner. Unlike most go-betweens, Sivaji does not
demand bribes from the tenant farmers. Kindly and compassionate, he allows
Nathan and Rukmani extra time to pay their debts when the crops
The moneylender who thrives on the misfortunes of
The village shopkeeper’s homely wife who befriends
The kind servant of Murugan’s former employer in the
Murugan’s abandoned and unfaithful wife.