Nectar in a Sieve
Foreignness is most present in this novel as a trope of colonialism. The colonial world has brought in unfamiliar objects, people, and ways of life. The tannery, the Muslims that come to work at the tannery, the white men, the caste-breaking, and the breakdown social structure are all changes that intrude on people’s lives, and are difficult to bear because they are so alien to what is normal. The colonial world is to blame for bringing strange and foreign things, and for disrupting traditions, but there’s also other foreignness central to the novel. Characters are often foreign to each other. Ruku’s children make decisions she doesn’t understand, and she can’t relate to Kunthi’s love of the urban or Kenny’s worldview about suffering. Foreignness is an inevitable part of relationships, and characters must learn to overcome it, by overlooking it, or, in better cases, by understanding it in order to communicate.
Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'
- Rukmani is foreign to Kenny in nearly every way, yet they forge a special relationship. How does foreignness operate in their interaction? Do they ever understand each other?
- What types of foreignness exists in this novel, and how, if at all, can it be overcome? Is foreignness an obstacle, or an opportunity for learning and exchange?
- Rukmani decides it is her wifely duty to essentially be subsumed by Nathan. But does she remain foreign or separate from him in any way?
- Rukmani often feels foreign to her children, though they are her own flesh and blood. She often doesn’t understand their actions. Does she try to make sense of the choices they make? Address especially her relationship and interactions with Selvam.
Chew on This
Familiarity is not necessarily a central part of empathy; often it is those characters who are most foreign, who inspire the most sympathy. As ironic as it may seem, empathy may cause characters in the novel to be less inclined to help each other. Because Rukmani is familiar with the problems that Janaki, Old Granny, and others in her community face, she is uninspired to help them, thinking they, should deal with their problems on their own. Had their woes been foreign to her, she might work harder to understand and help them.