In Rukmani’s quest for dignity, hunger is a potent enemy. Fear of hunger, she says, torments the peace of every peasant who lives by the vagaries of the wind and rain. Tired of constant hunger, her elder sons break up the family to seek new lives in a new land. Another son resorts to theft and is killed for it, leaving Rukmani to grieve for his meaningless life. Her daughter chooses the degradation of prostitution over the degradation of starvation. Rukmani nearly becomes a murderer, thinking Kunthi has come to steal the last of their rice. In the city, Rukmani observes the supplicants at the temple pushing and shoving like animals to secure a share of food. Similarly, beggar children snarl and fight like beasts over a scrap dropped in the street. Rukmani indicts both the industrialization of the villages, represented by the tannery, and the laws of land ownership that impoverish and displace peasants like her and Nathan. In Nectar in a Sieve, hunger breeds thieves, prostitutes, murderers, and subhuman beasts. Not only nature’s whims but also the choices of an unjust society produce the shameful misery of starvation.
The poor in Markandaya’s novel often suffer at the hands of the strong, but some of them understand that knowledge is a powerful weapon for change. Rukmani insists on teaching all of her children to read and write, even though many in the village believe such knowledge leads to trouble. Her eldest sons are branded troublemakers because they dare to band the workers together in a strike for better wages. The tannery wins because the workers’ coalition fails to hold. Arjun complains that the people will never learn, echoing Kenny’s sentiments as an educated outsider. Rukmani turns to Kenny because, she says, white men have power. Kenny uses his power for good, treating the poor and raising funds to build a hospital. Kunthi uses her knowledge to exercise an evil power, but once Nathan and Rukmani share the truth with each other, Kunthi’s power over them is broken. Puli shares his knowledge of the city to help Nathan and Rukmani save money for their fare home. Throughout the novel, the admirable characters are those who apply their knowledge to help people stand together in a display of moral power.
Rukmani is a strong voice for the world’s poor because she speaks with clarity and truth. She reveals a world the literate are seldom forced to examine, and her descriptions of the physical ravages of starvation are simple, powerful, and timeless. One of Rukmani’s particular strengths lies in confronting her own misconceptions, as people and events often challenge her traditional views. Her sons repudiate their caste, her daughter redefines dishonor, and her grandson crosses the barrier of skin color. Kenny demands that she rethink her preconceptions about distrusting strangers, suffering passively, and taking action against injustice. In each case, Rukmani gets stronger because of her devotion to truth, and at the same time she exhibits the Hindu belief that truth transcends all other moral values.
Fertility is so precious to Rukmani that she takes risks to pursue it. When she is pregnant with Ira, she encounters a cobra in her pumpkin vine, and though it might have killed her and does induce early labor, she does not stop raising vegetables for fear of snakes. Her vegetables are a source of both food and beauty to Rukmani, and she compares their rounded shapes to fertile young women. She conquers her fear of a foreign doctor to seek treatment for barrenness, risking Nathan’s disapproval. Because of Kunthi’s blackmail, the risk extends to losing Nathan’s love and support, without which she feels she cannot live. Ira’s miseries also stem from infertility, and she loses her husband to another woman because she cannot give him sons. The fertility of the land is paramount, for when the land does not produce, the family starves. Images of grains of rice, sprouting paddy, and the harvest represent life itself.