Learning is another symbol of hope in Nectar in a Sieve. As is the case for so much in the novel, education is a double-edged sword. Ruku’s father decided to educate his children, even the girls, which was unusual in that setting. Ruku’s father had once been an important man, and people of her village once said he taught his children because he wanted them to be a cut above the rest, but Ruku states she thinks her father knew that learning would be a comfort to them in whatever times of misery they might later face (2.14). No matter what hardships occur, learning can never be taken away.
Nathan’s reaction to Rukmani’s education is also an important opportunity for him to prove he is an unusual husband. When Ruku is pregnant with Ira, she takes to writing again. Nathan is illiterate, and when he sees Ruku writing, he might well resent it as a marker of his own inadequacy compared to his wife. Instead, he sees it as another reason to be proud of her. This acceptance demonstrates that he is secure and loves her in spite of what tradition might dictate is the appropriate role for a woman (2.21).
Ruku teaches her own children how to read and write, and they eventually surpass her in ability. Her teaching allows her boys, Arjun and Thambi, to become the spokesmen for the strike at the tannery. While neighbors in the village may think that their learning is to blame (22.1), one might actually think that learning was blameless in the process – it just gave the boys the medium, confidence, and ability to express the frustrations they would have had anyway.
In Ruku’s hardest times, when she and Nathan realize they are homeless and penniless in a foreign city, Ruku turns again to learning. She thinks her literacy might bring in some money, so she decides to be a letter writer at market. While she bears some of the scorn of the city-people, who are unaccustomed to seeing a literate woman, the confidence she exudes is all she needs to earn the few annas that will help her and Nathan live (27.12).
Finally, Selvam’s learning ends up being most central to the plot. He had never really taken to the land, and his education allowed him other opportunities. He becomes a quick study of Kenny’s, and ultimately it is his ability that will support the whole family once Ruku and Puli return to the village. Selvam’s learning, though it may have seemed unnecessary for agricultural farming, ends up being his saving grace.