In Nectar in a Sieve, the family is the central unite for each individual; every character can be seen for their strengths and weaknesses relative to how they view their position within the family, and to how loyal they are to the family unit. Arjun, Thambi and Murugan desert their family, adding to the general sense of hopelessness, while Selvam and Ira are tied to the family and end up being Ruku’s last hope. Nathan and Ruku sacrifice everything they can for their children, and in the end some other characters rise to the occasion to make similar sacrifices, while others don’t.
Fertility and one’s interactions with children are also central to how the characters function in the novel. We know Ruku most intimately, and she tells us that she sometimes has ungenerous misgivings about children. For example, she weeps to learn Ira is a boy and does not take to Sacrabani immediately. She eventually overcomes her feelings, but she has to think them through, as when she reminds herself that Puli and Sacrabani are just children.
Kenny and Ira in particular show their absolute and unfailing generosity by their interactions with children. Both of them are wonderful with kids in general. Kenny brings treats for Ruku’s children (although he has abandoned his only family), and Ira loves Kuti like her own.
Kenny and Ira think of children as the property of the universe. Kunthi, by contrast, has a mean and hard son who is much like her, and in the end, abandons her. It seems that what people give to children mirrors what they receive in return.
The book is divided into something of a pastoral – with the first part in the country and the second in the city. To a certain extent, location determines the kinds of lives that are possible for the characters. As we get to know Ruku in the first part of the book, she’s constantly going to the land for spiritual sustenance. In good and bad times, she and Nathan look over the fields and rejoice in the fecundity around them.
By contrast, Kunthi represents the degradation of traditional values. She is proud to call herself someone who has never, and will never, take to the earth. Her dislocation from the soil is symbolic of her moral dislocation. The earth, requiring care and tenderness, is good, and people who are removed from it lack the natural goodness of human morality and kindness.
This idea is magnified when Ruku and Nathan reach the city. The temple people do not rely on their own wits or the land for sustenance, and their humanity has hardened as a result. They do not regard Nathan and Ruku as other people experiencing hard times but simply see them as competitors. Even in her most difficult circumstances in the village, Ruku felt for her neighbors. There is, however, no such community in the city. The people of the city do not share the land, and as such they share no common bond with their fellow man. Children fight over scraps in the city like animals. This leads Ruku to think of her own children, who suffered from hunger but were raised happily and learned to compassionately share with others.
Ultimately, Markandaya allows the city (and the modernity of urbanization that it represents) to be a symbol of the moral failings and remoteness of humanity. The natural setting of the country is the place in which the good-natured parts of humanity can dwell and grow.
Social position is notable in Nectar in a Sieve mostly because it is ignored. Rukmani definitely refers to traditional social order, but her own family is the first generation that begins to understand that the old cast rules are being broken down by changing times.
Rukmani’s father suffered because the social structure began to favor people like the Collector over the village headman. On the other hand, Ruku’s dad contradicted social norms by educating all of his children, girls included. The really important thing to recognize is that Rukmani lives in a time of flux – social order is not so distant as to be unrecognizable, but it is fragile and changing. Ruku’s sons first defy convention when they begin to work at the tannery, even though they are of the agricultural caste. Eventually, Ruku comes around to the opinion that making ends meet is more important than following the mandates of their social position.
Ruku disrespects Kunthi for becoming a prostitute (just about the lowest social status), but even Ruku eventually accepts her daughter Ira’s prostitution. Again, the family’s need makes the traditional social order seem less important. When Ruku meets Ammu, Murugan’s abandoned wife, she doesn’t even blink at the realization that that Ammu has also taken to selling her body. Ruku’s acceptance may signify that the old social order cannot withstand the new needs of modernity.
Finally, Ruku and Nathan discover what it feels like to be looked down upon when they begin to be mistaken for beggars in the city. At first, Ruku obsesses over this and commits herself to buying some things to bring to her daughter-in-law’s house so she doesn’t look like a beggar. However, as times become difficult, Ruku worries less about appearances. She knows she’s not a beggar, and ultimately her tenacity is applied to the practical realities of living, instead of giving way to wounded pride.
Social position is initially important, but it is ultimately not paramount, as traditions change and times get harder. Essentially, social position ends up being exactly the kind of thing that can be dropped as practicality demands.