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Nectar in a Sieve

Kamala Markandaya

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?

Reflecting in Chapter 1 upon the happy first year of her marriage, Rukmani succinctly touches on themes and motifs of significance throughout the novel. Nature and its beauty appear in the sun and the green fields as the first source of her well-being. Rukmani expresses her appreciation for Nathan, who has discovered a beauty in her that she did not know she possessed. At the same time, Rukmani conveys Nathan’s appreciation for her and for a beauty that is more than skin-deep. The all-important grain represents life itself. A good store of grain means more than sustenance—it means freedom from fear and doubt about survival. Her mention of the shelter of a roof foreshadows a time when the roof is threatened by monsoon floods, but it also acknowledges that the hut Nathan built for her with his own hands is sufficient for her needs. Initially, she felt diminished by the mud hut with its thatched roof, but she has grown in understanding since her first days as a bride.

Since fertility is such an important concern for Rukmani, the sweet stirring of pregnancy to which she refers completes her catalog of happiness. Procreation is the critical role for a woman in Rukmani’s society, and a woman who fails to conceive early in her marriage may be renounced by her husband, as Ira is. After Ira’s birth, Rukmani’s failure to produce a son for Nathan nearly destroys her happiness. When she first meets Kenny, the signs of grief in her face reveal her desperation to conceive. Fertility and procreation celebrate the precious quality of life for Rukmani. Her “sweet stirring” is linked to her awakening sexuality and the bond of desire and love she and Nathan share. In one sentence, Rukmani captures the elements of her happiness. By wondering what more any woman could ask, Rukmani is mindful that true joy comes from essentials rather than from luxuries.

2. Privately I thought, Well, and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creatures indeed to be so weak, for is not a man’s spirit given to him to rise above his misfortunes?

After Kenny offers Selvam a position as his assistant, Rukmani counters Kenny’s philosophy on want and endurance in Chapter 19. Once again Kenny exhorts Rukmani to cry out when she needs help rather than suffer in silence. Yet even her argument against his position is silent, expressed only in her thoughts. In this passage, she highlights the contrast between Western and Indian traditions. Kenny stands for action, particularly to alleviate physical suffering, and as a doctor, he dedicates his life to this goal. In the chapter just preceding the quote, Kenny admits to Rukmani that he has lost his wife and children because of his work in India, another concept quite foreign to Rukmani, for whom family is critical. As a westerner, Kenny fights the appalling poverty of India with his will and his skills. He works among the people until he droops with fatigue. Kenny lives what he preaches, taking direct action against suffering by treating the villagers’ illnesses and crying out for help through his fund-raising.

Rukmani, on the other hand, puts more emphasis on the spirit than on the flesh. She considers it a weakness to give in to trouble. As her losses mount, her endurance increases. When Raja dies at the hands of the tannery guards, Rukmani does not cry out for compensation, for she believes there is no compensation equal to a human life. When the monsoon flood ruins their crops and damages their shelter, Rukmani turns to her resources and savings rather than expecting help from outside. With her strong spirit, she refuses the role of “pitiable creature” even though she is poor. In Hindu belief, suffering is a form of purification, and Rukmani is willing to bear her suffering and rise above misfortunes. However, there is one exception: when she realizes she is barren, she cries out to Kenny for help. By consulting Western medicine, Rukmani reaches across the philosophical divide.

3. It is not enough to cry out, not sufficient to lay bare your woes and catalogue your needs; people have only to close their eyes and their ears, you cannot force them to see and to hear—or to answer your cries if they cannot and will not.

Two events in Chapter 21 lead Rukmani to continue her reflection on crying out for help: the death of Old Granny and setbacks in the hospital construction. Rukmani is devastated when Old Granny dies on the path to the well, starved and alone. She feels culpable, partly because she stopped selling her vegetables to Old Granny to earn her livelihood and partly because she accepted a rupee from her at Sacrabani’s birth. Bitterly, she observes that the villagers provide the last decencies for Old Granny once she is beyond asking for further assistance from them. Rukmani feels that the villagers, herself included, closed their eyes and ears to Old Granny’s plight though she lived within sight and sound of them. She speculates that Old Granny might have been saved by the hospital had it been finished, but Nathan points out that a hospital is not a soup kitchen, and even the tireless Kenny understands that the hospital will not be able to serve all those who need help. Although Rukmani is amazed that strangers do often give to the needy in her village and in soup kitchens elsewhere, in this passage she laments the extent of the need and the ease with which it can be ignored. She realizes that help requires two-way communication, dependent in part on the needy asking for help, but equally dependent upon a receptive humanity to answer those needs.

4. For where shall a man turn who has no money? Where can he go? Wide, wide world, but as narrow as the coins in your hand. Like a tethered goat, so far and no farther. Only money can make the rope stretch, only money.

By Chapter 27, Rukmani has lost everything, even the hope of turning to her son Murugan, who has abandoned the city and his family. She and Nathan return to the temple and unhappily subsist on the single daily meal the temple provides. Rukmani and Nathan consider the skills with which they might earn a living and find none of them suited to the city. Nathan can farm but has no land. Rukmani can spin and weave but has no money for materials. Despite all of the people and the commerce surrounding them in the city, they have no opportunities. This passage is Rukmani’s lament. Her vivid image of the tethered goat describes both her constraint and her powerlessness. It evokes the gentleness of the goats at the temple whose grateful eyes thanked Rukmani for a mouthful of leaves. In the country, Rukmani and Nathan manage to survive without much money by living simply on the products of their own labor. In the city, with no work available, Rukmani rues the fact that only money counts. The city’s insistence upon cash reduces a person to an animal state and deprives Rukmani of the free will that characterizes her as human. Just as city thieves rob Nathan and Rukmani of their last coins, the city’s unjust structure robs them of liberty and choice, their birthrights as humans.

5. “Would you hold me when my time is come? I am at peace. Do not grieve.”
   “If I grieve,” I said, “it is not for you, but for myself, beloved, for how shall I endure to live without you, who are my love and my life?”
   “You are not alone,” he said. “I live in my children. . . .”

This dialogue between Nathan and Rukmani as he is dying in Chapter 29 completes the circle of their life together. Reminiscent of a groom with his bride, Nathan asks Rukmani to hold him. On several occasions in the novel, Rukmani remembers the physicality of their love, reaffirmed in this request. In the first chapter, Rukmani recalls the sweetness of nights she went to her husband, not as a pained and awkward child bride, but as a woman. In Chapter 10, the Festival of Deepavali provides the setting for a night of joy and passion between them. In her reflection on married love in Chapter 20, Rukmani draws upon her life with Nathan to describe both the fire and the tenderness they shared. Now that Nathan prepares to leave his body, he seeks Rukmani’s encircling arms one last time. For Nathan and Rukmani, their physical love provides one of the sweetest aspects of their human existence and underscores the precious quality of life itself.

As Rukmani begins to grieve for her impending loss, Nathan reminds her of their important contribution to the continuation of life. She will not be alone, he says, because he lives on in his children. Throughout Rukmani’s story, she has celebrated life and its abundant fertility. The years of her barrenness were harder for her to bear than the years of privation and loss. While she endured hardship with quiet dignity, she cried out for help to conceive her sons. When Nathan assures Rukmani that he lives on in their children, he promises his continued care. She need not be alone or unloved because of the lives they created together from their separate selves. Nathan also assures his wife that he is at peace. His physical journey is over, but his enduring spirit has achieved the liberation and transcendence that are the great goals of a Hindu life.

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