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Themes

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.

Questions About Poverty

  1. Does Rukmani ever feel guilty for bringing her children into a situation of poverty? Does she see herself as responsible for their suffering, or does she think it is something they should all bear through together? (Think of her response to Arjun’s complaint that there isn’t enough to eat, or Selvam’s calmness at hearing the land had been sold.)
  2. Does Rukmani take poverty for granted? Does she resent it, or does she appreciate it in a weird way? Is Rukmani’s view akin to a shtick from a Dickens novel, where poverty becomes a gauge of moral goodness and personal humility?
  3. Is the poverty in this novel realistic? Can we relate to he characters relatable, or is their experience with poverty, starvation, and displacement too far from our own experiences for us to be empathic? If one does not relate or sympathize with the plight of the poverty-stricken, does the book still resonate?
  4. The Indian characters in the book don’t seem to back each other up, though they all suffer from poverty. (Think of Ruku’s refusal to help Janaki or even Old Granny.) Kenny, on the other hand, has devoted his own life to helping the Indians get out of poverty and suffering, even though his convictions have put him into poverty and suffering. Do the Indians in the novel view poverty as natural or inevitable? On the other hand, as an outsider, does Kenny have a superior moral view of his own poverty that contradicts his obligation to vanquish it for others?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

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.

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