Nectar in a Sieve
by Kamala Markandaya
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Drums in Nectar in a Sieve symbolize times of great change. Our introduction to drumming occurs at Ira’s wedding (6.11): a drummer joins with a fiddler to make up a whole band. Then, as the miserable storm that drowns the fields and nearly destroys the town subsides, Ruku listens to the incessant "drums of calamity" beating for the whole town to hear (7.25). In their rhythm, she says she hears "the impotence of human endeavor." Worse, the silences are more ominous than the beats themselves, as they seem to only signal greater and incessant doom. Just as a silence following a beat will always be followed by another beat, Ruku is sure her disasters will pile one upon the other.
The next instance of drumming occurs at Deepavali, the Festival of Lights (10.8). It is an upbeat time in Ruku and Nathan’s lives, as food is no longer scarce. Their fortunes have shifted away from hunger, and the drumming of that night signals a change in rhythm, which will lead to the conception of their last baby, Kuti. These drums brought a child to Ruku, but the next ones will take boys from her. Workers show up in the town beating drums, calling men to come to Ceylon (12.34). Arjun and Thambi, who have just left the tannery, decide that their lives must march on (with our without their family), so they follow the call to a far-off land.
Drums take on another meaning when they are present at Raja’s death (15.8). The drums begin on the morning Raja is to be cremated. As is customary, the women stay behind instead of attending the actual cremation. Ruku listens to the drum-beats, and when they finally stop, it is a signal to Ruku that the burning is complete, and that Raja’s body is no more. The drums here seem to symbolize life as a drum beat, a reliable thing that ticks on so long as the heart has beats left in it.
The dum-dum carts that Ruku buy for Puli and Sacrabani represent the final instance of drum-like rhythms in the book. Puli’s little beat following them along as he pulls the cart behind him symbolizes Ruku’s endurance against all odds. The little toys are with her when she and Puli return to the village. It’s notable that Puli clutches the silent cart in his arms in his moment of hesitation over being welcomed to Puli’s family. But Ira’s immediate warm acceptance of him is a hint to the reader that he will soon joyously pull the cart, with its little drumbeat, behind him again.