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Themes

Nectar in a Sieve hints at the fact that women did not have as much power in their society as men. The women of this novel, however, exercise tremendous and unusual power in many different ways. Rukmani is educated and savvy; her brave actions to seek fertility treatment allows her and Nathan to have sons, and even though she’s technically subservient to Nathan, she’s gained power in their relationship by gaining his love. Also, Rukmani exercises power by narrating her own story: she is in control of what we know, and has power over her readers. Ira and Kunthi turn to prostitution to gain economic power. This choice hints at the deeper power that women’s sexuality gives them over men. Men may "own" them for a few minutes, but ultimately it’s their allure that gives them power over men. Men have no choice but to seek their services, as the need they inspire is so great. Women are definitely restricted in a formal sense, but the women in this novel are constantly breaking and ignoring those restrictions – Ira raises her baby, Rukmani writes letters in the market place, Kenny’s woman friend is a doctor – and while they all certainly know that they are women, this isn’t the sole defining limitation on who they are or can be.

Questions About Women and Femininity

  1. Is a shared femininity grounds for Rukmani to feel a sense of community with other women in the book? Does she seem closer to them, because they are women, than she does to her husband or sons?
  2. How does Rukmani’s attitude towards Ira change throughout the novel? In what ways do Rukmani and Ira represent the different opportunities women have, and different choices they make? Does Rukmani judge Ira? Does she ever empathize with Ira’s plight as a woman? How does Rukmani’s status as a daughter, mother, and wife inform her relationship with Ira?
  3. What aspects of a woman’s life define her within the novel? Are women considered solely for their roles with respect to men (as wives, daughters, and mothers) or are there independent aspects of their person that make them fully-fleshed out creatures?
  4. Does the book capture the changing roles of women as India changes in the 20th century? What opportunities do the women have? Do they face prejudice or limitations as a result of their femininity? Is femininity within the novel political and historical, or is it rife with the universal problems women faced in a sexist society?

Chew on This

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

Women in the novel are guilty of judging each other in the same manner as they judged are by men. Rukmani especially accepts the limited and confining social roles women are supposed to play; this leads to a lack of empathy and empowerment among the women.

Women are allowed to be keepers of the home, which in this novel is a special source of power. Rukmani is no less powerful than Nathan, she just has a different sphere of influence than he does. This is supported by the fact that Nathan relies on Rukmani as an equal partner, not a subservient wife.

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