Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


Rice is the overriding symbol for life itself in Nectar in a Sieve. Nathan presses grains from his harvest into Rukmani’s hands to impress his bride with their prospects for prosperity. As Rukmani learns to plant, she is struck by the wonder of seeds that contain, for her, life itself. Mounds of rice tinted with saffron and fried in butter mark the birth feast for Rukmani’s first son. The monsoon floods destroy the paddy and, with it, the family’s chance to eat that season. They use their precious savings to buy rice at exorbitant prices, for without it they will not live. When the drought takes their harvest, Rukmani runs her fingers obsessively through the last of her hoarded rice. She loves the feeling of the rice because she loves life so fiercely.


By their strong and patient work, bullocks are closely allied with the hardworking peasants who live on the land. The bullocks who carry Rukmani as a bride to her new home wear bells on their horns to tinkle a happy accompaniment to the song of birds and sweet smells of the land. Like Nathan and Rukmani, the bullocks underscore the harmony of nature. They provide the dung Rukmani uses to burn for fuel and waterproof her hut. But like the peasants, the bullocks suffer from the injustice of overwork. One of the bullocks pulling them to the city develops a festering sore. The carter explains that he has to continue to work the animal in order to make his living, just as Nathan and Rukmani must work to gather in their harvest even while they are starving to death. The bullock flinches when the yoke is put upon his raw neck, but he patiently accepts his fate. Rukmani’s sympathy for the injured beast is indicative of her stand against the injustice of the peasant’s lot.

The Sari

Rukmani’s wedding sari is the material possession she most prizes, and she holds fast to it as a source of prestige, dignity, and pride. Made of rich cloth with wide borders in silver thread, it communicates that her father was a headman and that she comes from important people. For Ira’s wedding, Rukmani brings forth hoarded stores of food and delicacies to make a fine showing for the feast, but, more important, she provides the wedding sari for Ira to wear. During their hard and hungry times, Rukmani holds on to the wedding sari to wear at her sons’ future weddings so she will not shame them. When faced with destitution, Rukmani must choose between the sari and the land. She offers the sari for sale along with their bullocks and household possessions in order to hold on to the land they need to live. By relinquishing her most prized possession, Rukmani reduces her attachment to worldly goods as an important step toward achieving the Hindu virtue of dharma.