Born to the village headman, Rukmani is spoiled by her social station in the village. When she is twelve and ready to become a bride, she expects a grand wedding like her older sisters enjoyed. However, her family’s circumstances have declined under British rule, and Rukmani is married to Nathan, a landless tenant farmer. When she first sees the mud hut Nathan prepared for her, she compares it in her mind to her father’s fine house and sinks to the ground in fear and despair. Yet instead of ranting or pouting, Rukmani notices Nathan’s pleading expression and reassures him. After this difficult beginning, Rukmani continues to call upon and develop her better nature. She learns the chores of a farmer’s wife and soon improves upon them by growing a superlative vegetable garden. Rukmani is closely associated with the earth and draws spiritual strength from its fertility and beauty. She learns to help other women in childbirth, to adapt to and accept the unpleasant changes the tannery brings to the village, and to withstand seasons of want and hunger. Instead of petulance, Rukmani exhibits tenacious and life-affirming endurance.
Rukmani faces loss after loss over the years, and as her endurance is continuously tested, her capacity for anger intensifies—but her spirit also grows. Kunthi arouses her rage by suggesting several times that Rukmani is sexually involved with Kenny. The first time, Rukmani grabs her and shakes her so furiously her sari drops away. The second time, Rukmani’s wrath so overpowers her that she longs to kill Kunthi. Finally, in a murderous rage, Rukmani attacks and almost kills Ira, mistaking her for Kunthi. After this near disaster, Rukmani finds peace by telling Nathan the truth, forgiving him for his transgressions, and learning to control her anger so she is never again tempted to injure another person. Rather, Rukmani grows in generosity and compassion. She gives up the strictures of caste when her sons go to work in the tannery, and she gives up the tradition of shame when her daughter turns to prostitution. Rukmani forgives her daughter-in-law for failing her duty to help them, and she learns to judge strangers not by their differences but by their deeds and their hearts. Finally, she extends her love and care to Puli, a child even more destitute than she is. By the end of the novel, Rukmani has conquered the hardships of her existence.