At age 12, Rukmani marries a rice farmer, Nathan, and goes to live with him in his small village. Rukmani, from an early age, honors the Hindu traditions of loyalty, love, and reverence and always looks optimistically toward her future. The first hurdle in Rukmani's life appears when she fails to conceive for six years after the birth of her first child, a daughter, Irawaddy. Rukmani visits a Western doctor for fertility treatments, a secret she keeps from her husband, and gives birth to four sons in quick succession. (She gives birth to a fifth son years later.) During a monsoon, and then later a drought and its ensuing famine, Rukmani plots different ways to keep her family alive, never losing her faith or optimism, even when her children begin to abandon the family or when they die. Rukmani remains steadfastly religious, trusting in her faith rather than asking for handouts. Throughout her trials, Rukmani grows in compassion, learning to forgive those who harm her and to generously offer her affection to those for whom compassion is lacking.
Nathan, an uneducated rice farmer, subverts Western expectations for arranged marriages by loving Rukmani fiercely from the moment he takes her as his bride. Proud of his wife's literacy, Nathan offers Rukmani independence, uncommon for the time and place. He works together with Rukmani in perfect partnership to keep their farm and family alive during tough times. Nathan works himself to death in the hope of bettering his family's life, never pitying himself or asking for help. However supportive, Nathan is imperfect: he fathers sons with the village prostitute, Kunthi, and keeps the secret from Rukmani for many years.
Irawaddy, also called Ira, starts life with a bright future. Beautiful and well raised, she marries a "good match," a man higher in social standing than her own caste. Unfortunately, Irawaddy's husband abandons her after five years of marriage when she fails to conceive a child, leaving her dependent on her parents for life. No longer a virgin, without a dowry, and likely barren, Irawaddy knows no man will marry her again. When the family starves during a famine, Irawaddy turns to prostitution to keep her young brother Kuti alive. Because she turns to the profession for "noble" reasons, Rukmani views her choice as self-sacrificing rather than sinful. After all the suffering in her life, Irawaddy accepts her fate and searches for happiness where she can, such as in her joy with her child, Sacrabani.
Kennington, also called Kenny, is a Western doctor who dedicates his life to caring for the Indian poor. Not only does Kennington offer medical services to villagers like Rukmani, he tries to offer social change. Kenny, more than any other character, understands that without institutionalized change the poor will remain poor and the rich will remain rich. He tries to educate Rukmani to rally for a better life, but he doesn't fully understand the marginality in which impoverished families like Rukmani live. He blames their adherence to tradition for their "backward" ways. Despite his often crude judgments, Kenny acts as Rukmani's benefactor by bringing her family food and milk and by securing training or jobs for two of her sons.
Kunthi acts as the novel's main antagonist. A prostitute and manipulator, Kunthi appears marked by evil from the novel's opening, when Rukmani associates the character with a cobra. At first Kunthi represents vanity and sexuality—she has an affair with Nathan and can often be seen flirting with men at the tannery. During the famine, her promiscuity turns to prostitution, through which she loses her husband and sons. Unlike Irawaddy, whose choice to engage in prostitution is seen as valiant, Kunthi's choice is seen as self-serving, vain, and evil.