Poverty is the everyday reality of the characters in the novel. Poverty is not an abstract concept that one can really think about; it’s like a wolf at the door that must constantly be staved off. Poverty is so dire in this novel that characters don’t have the luxury to ruminate on it. Instead, they build their lives around the knowledge that it will always haunt them, and the best they can do is try to keep afloat. Poverty is definitely always present, but one of the strengths of Nectar in a Sieve is that it need not always be the focus. The novel gives us a rare glimpse into the complex lives and emotions people live (even when they are in poverty). Characters are driven by it, but it is not all that shapes them. They cannot financially transcend it, but they learn to define themselves spiritually beyond it.
Poverty limits the characters financially, but it is not ultimately a totally confining force, and is perhaps even an elevating one. As the characters have no material goods, they’re forced to seek greater meaning in philosophical and spiritual happiness.
Poverty is an utterly despicable force that is powerful in the book because it is dealt with so honestly. Rukmani never romanticizes her poverty, instead speaking openly of hunger, hurt pride, and suffering. Her tale takes the mystery out of the anonymous destitute we imagine in homeless shelters and refugee camps. This story is not one of hope, but a challenge to the reader to do something about the arbitrary cruelty of poverty.