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 far.
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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 Kunthi.
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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.
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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.
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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 child.
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 fail.
The moneylender who thrives on the misfortunes of others.
The village shopkeeper’s homely wife who befriends Rukmani.
The kind servant of Murugan’s former employer in the city.
Murugan’s abandoned and unfaithful wife.