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.
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 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.