Nathan and Rukmani name their firstborn child Irawaddy, "after one of the great rivers of Asia, as of all things water was most precious to us." (2.48) There is great emphasis on rice in the novel: when Nathan shows Rukmani the grain of the harvest and promises their prosperity lies in it. Throughout Nectar in a Sieve, it becomes increasingly clear that grain and seed are nothing without water. India be hit by the occasional monsoon rains, but rain is nearly impossible to predict on a daily basis.
In some ways, the rain patterns reflect the balance of certainty and uncertainty that characterize Rukmani’s view of the world: good times and bad times will both come, but how intense, and when, can never be predicted. It is best to accept the uncertainty and do what one can with what one has, just as one either waits for the rain or wishes it to end.
The first troubles of the family come just after Ira’s wedding, when a heavy and incessant downpour drowns the rice fields and ensures that there won’t be much eating that year (7.4). The next great catastrophe is a terrible drought (13.1). The marks the first time Nathan and Ruku are threatened with the loss of their land. The two have to sell nearly everything they own just to keep the land, and of course after all of their most prized possessions are gone, the rain comes again.
The effect of the drought, and the starvation that looms bring some of the family’s saddest times. First, Rukmani and Nathan discover the fissures in their marriages (Ruku’s infertility treatment, Nathan’s infidelity) when Kunthi uses their secrets against them to rob them of their last food rations. Secondly, because the family must scrounge for scraps and garbage to eat, Ira turns to prostitution. Finally, the youngest son, Kuti, dies. Ultimately, all of this could have been avoided had the rains come earlier, leading the crops to come out sooner.
The impact of water on the crops and harvests is evident enough, but water seems to show up as an important symbol in times of scarcity and plenty. During the drought, the tannery has a reservoir that the people of the village to rely on (13.72). The implication here seems to be that when nature doesn’t provide, industry can. This gets to the heart of the mixed feelings surrounding the tannery.
Water is also an important element of Nathan’s death: it drizzles the day he becomes ill, and by the time he dies, there’s an unrelenting downpour. Even the reliable light that usually burns atop the temple has been dampened out by the water, prompting Rukmani to maddeningly repeat, "Fire cannot burn in water!" (29.2). When Rukmani cries out in futility against the water, it’s as if she’s admitting that no amount of hope (fire) can stand up in the face of nature’s great inevitability, death. The rain has increased as Nathan’s strength has dwindled. The water is linked to Nathan’s impending doom as proof that whatever will be, will be.
Water is also important as a symbol for the women. In the most obvious case, consider that Ira is named for a river. In addition, like the women of Nectar in a Sieve, water gives life and takes it away. Rukmani bears many children (giving life), but Kunthi, for instance, has the power to destroy Nathan and Rukmani’s lives by blackmailing them and stealing their food in a time of starvation.
Water is a good thing in moderation, but too much or too little can be deadly. The same reasoning can apply to women's sexuality in this novel. When a woman’s body is dry (or infertile) it can mean her downfall, while prostitution in the case of Ira and Kunthi is a prime example of a woman’s body being too ripe. In this novel, women’s sexuality, like water, must be in moderation, or dangerous consequences could follow.