Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Analysis

  • Tone

    Non-judgmental, Thoughtful

    Markandaya is an Indian writer living in England and writing in English about a life of rural poverty that is not exactly her own. Markandaya was sometimes criticized as less than authentic because she didn’t live the rural poverty-stricken existence about which she writes. She often countered that her physical distance from India gave her the power to objectively comment on what she observed.

    This defense certainly resonates when we think about Markandaya’s portrayal of her characters’ actions and thoughts. She addresses the best and worst aspects of rural life and poverty (which she saw firsthand traveling through South India), but she doesn’t get caught up in romanticizing (or vilifying) aspects of daily village life. Instead, she imbues her characters, particularly Rukmani, with strengths and weaknesses that essentially typify the rural Indian existence. Rukmani is hopeful and enduring, but she often reacts with emotion when it comes to her family. Markandaya sympathizes with her characters, but she manages to ground their emotion in very real events.

    Because Markandaya has a sense of the reality of living in rural India, her characters are realistic. Most importantly, our narrator Rukmani embodies Markandaya’s reflective attitude. The author’s objective eye is given voice in the narrator’s realistic reflections. For instance, Markandaya may know that there is an inherent controversy in having a foreign doctor battle the problems of infertility. Rukmani’s own interactions with Kenny, sometimes edgy, sometimes shy, capture that tension without any high-handed declarations about the significance and implications of colonialism.

    Ultimately, Markandaya’s distance to her own Indian culture serves as both a strength and weakness to her writing.

  • Genre

    Literary Fiction, Semi-Autobiographical

    Literary Fiction

    Markandaya’s novel is a literary account of a changing India. Still, it doesn’t focus on political or economic details, instead choosing to follow only one matriarch. Markandaya’s narrative is successful in eschewing specifics while still presenting symbols, events, and characters that tell us about the onslaught of modernity in India. Though the book can rightly be read as a story of India’s transition into the post-colonial era, it is important that many of these details are left out. This is a deftly crafted personal narrative that can be understood as a universal tale of family, hope, and endurance. The specific details (in some readings) can melt into the background, as there’s enough richness in the psychological complexity of the characters and the meaning of the events to supplant a purely political reading.


    Some people might argue that the book is semi-autobiographical, as Markandaya was an Indian woman living around the time of Rukmani. Actually, Markandaya was the daughter of a rail transport officer, and she attended the University of Madras for writing and freelance journalism. Though she didn’t finish her degree, she did move to England, where she married an Englishman, did some secretarial work and other jobs she described as "dull but amiable," and went on to become a canonical Indian woman Commonwealth writer. That’s definitely a far cry from Ruku’s life.

    Still, though Markandaya’s life wasn’t all that similar to Ruku’s. Markandaya was incredibly sympathetic to the causes of the rural poor in India, and likely saw much poverty while traveling South India with her father by rail. She was also influenced by Gandhi’s efforts to highlight the plight of rural Indians in poverty under British rule.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    The line "Nectar in a Sieve" is taken from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which you can read about in "What’s Up with the Epigraph." Without analyzing the poem, the title alone reflects something of the book: nectar is a lovely liquid that will eventually drain away when put into a sieve (a sifter). The title is a beautiful way to talk about the inevitable draining of life in the face of suffering and death. The events of the novel parallel this theme quite closely. The title cast the beauty and the misery of life next to each other, and raises the question of which has the upper hand, the nectar of life, or the sieve of destruction.

  • What’s Up With the Ending?

    The ending of the book can be seen as an open-ended passageway asking the reader to imagine the rest of Ruku’s life. Within the context of the narrative structure, the ending marks the completion point in the circle of Ruku’s story. Ruku literally begins chapter one by telling her story in hindsight. The present captures the final days of Rukmani’s life as she reminisces on what has come before. As narrator, Rukmani takes us on a tour through the past events that lead up to the present.

    The ending of the novel is satisfying as a closure to one chapter of Ruku’s life, but the beginning of the novel marks the close to Ruku’s real life story. At the beginning of Nectar in a Sieve we see that she is with her children and grandchildren, and that her adopted son, Puli, is still with her, having staved off fatal leprosy. Ruku has lost her husband and is losing her sight, and her life is coming to a close.

    It’s important that the book opens, but doesn’t end, with Ruku’s consideration of her dying days. If Ruku faced death at the structural end of the novel, the whole affair would be a clear story about the fruitlessness of suffering, a tale of misery capped by death. Instead, Ruku ends the novel on a hopeful note. She has returned home to her happy place, has her family by her side, and a new chapter of her life lies before her. We know she is aging, and so her dying days are inevitably upon her, but Markandaya doesn’t want her death to be the take-home message of the whole novel.

    Instead, as scholar Indira Ganeshan notes in her introduction to the novel, the book ends with the word "later," which can be taken to indicate promise and hope of the future. The end of the book invites the reader to imagine the future. To learn what actually happens "later," one need only to flip to page one. But to feel the inspiring promise and endurance of the future-which is the real gift of Markandaya’s novel-one needs only to close the book, and rest thoughtfully on its final word.

  • Setting

    Rural India, a city in India


    Part One of the novel takes place in an unnamed village in rural India, while Part Two takes place in an unnamed major city in urban India. Markandaya’s decision to avoid specifics is deliberate: the fact is that the first part of the story could take place in any part of any agricultural nation, and the second part in among any sector of the urban poor. This lack of specificity opens the scope of Nectar in a Sieve: this story could apply to families other than Rukmani’s. The important thing is that our characters go from subsistence living in a largely agricultural economy, to barely making a living in a city economy.

    Times are changing, and industrialization is encroaching on the rural areas, so the agriculture and working classes are forced to move into similar situations of poverty in urban landscapes. This could be just as easily be a story in today’s world: imagine a Montana man’s family’s corn farm being bought out by big agri-business, forcing him to move to an unfamiliar factory job in a city. The plight of modernity is universal, and while the details are rooted in India, the story belongs to anyone who’s ever moved from country to town as a result of poverty.

    This element of moving also makes the story something of a pastoral: one of those tropes where the country life is represented as sometimes idyllic and generally better than city life. In this novel, the beauty of the landscape is almost a reflection of the goodness of the people on the land. Though bad things do happen in Ruku’s village, people in the city seem infinitely worse-off. Only in the city does Ruku see people push the crippled and scrounge for food like animals. The implication is that people are most natural in rural surroundings. When they are taken out of these surroundings and thrust into the dirty artificiality of the city, they lose a bit of their.

    It’s notable that the novel’s most evil character, Kunthi, proudly argues that she’s not tied to the earth, whereas morally upstanding Ruku celebrates and reveres the earth. In this pastoral reading, the goodness of the earth is a moral reflection of the goodness of people, and a polluted earth (i.e. the city) is a stronghold for the morally weak, thieves, crooks, and generally antagonistic people.


    Markandaya avoids a specific timeframe in the novel, which makes the notion of time ambiguous. There is, however, a lot to interpret in the ambiguity. One argument can be made is that that the book anticipates India’s colonial independence (so it’s before 1947). On the other hand, some say that Markandaya’s fictitious world may be a reflection on the country after India’s independence.

    India was a colony of Britain from 1858 until 1947, but the movement had begun much earlier. Markandaya’s novel was published in 1954 but it was most likely written earlier, when Indian independence was a controversial topic. Most critics locate the work relative to that important year of 1947: the year of Indian independence and the partition of India into India and Pakistan. Though Markandaya avoids dates, we get some details that are helpful in locating the book within the broader history of India.

    However, you could argue that the events of the novel take place post-independence. The fact that Muslims are regarded as foreign, and that the economy is moving from being solely agricultural to more in line with international industrial practices hint that this might be a post-colonial India. (For more on this, see the Historical Shout-Outs section.)

    Still, there’s a case to be made that Ruku’s India is about the time before Independence. Ruku’s attitude towards life is that external circumstances are what they are, and that there’s no reason to fight them. Her attitude towards her sons’ agitation at the tannery for higher wages demonstrates that she often favors passivity in the face of stronger forces. This kind of attitude is exactly contrary to the teachings of India’s great liberation leader, Gandhi. Gandhi encouraged Indians to realize that they could fight for a better life, rather than continuing to accept the status quo of being inferior to the British.

    Unlike Ruku, Gandhi talked of rights and justice; her language is more aligned with the pre-Gandhi way of thinking. However, Rukmani’s sons seem to reflect Gandhi’s teachings. Even if they don’t speak specifically of Gandhi, and even if they seem to pre-date Gandhi, this younger generation represented by Ruku’s sons embodies the changing attitude in India. This might mean that independence, and the ideology that came with it, were still on the horizon.

    Further evidence that the book dates from pre-independence India might be found in the influence of white people in India. Ruku explicitly says that Kenny has power as a white man. Such an acknowledgment would not be an appropriate belief during a time when India had just forced the white British Empire out of its affairs. Kenny’s entire hospital endeavor is also exemplary of the kind of projects the British set up in their colonial campaign to "civilize" the Indian natives. Kenny might be a modern Peace Corps volunteer, spreading the benefits of modernity to the rest of the world.

    This novel’s relationship to a specific time in India’s political history is unclear; there is certainly more than one time period in which the work can be situated. The take-home message, though, is that Markandaya explicitly avoids having this political conversation, and in some ways, tries to elevate the book beyond political details. Without anchors in a specific time or place, the novel is allowed to be a more universal story about a family trying to make it against great odds. Without the burden of politics and history, we can focus on the emotional and dramatic import of the story.

  • What’s Up With the Epigraph?

    "Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, And hope without an object cannot live."

    The epigraph comes from the 1825 poem "Work without Hope" by the English Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

    ALL Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
    The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
    And Winter, slumbering in the open air,
    Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
    And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
    Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

    Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
    Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
    Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
    For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
    With lips unbrighten'd, wreathless brow, I stroll:
    And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
    Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
    And Hope without an object cannot live.

    The poem is an unconventional sonnet; it develops a main idea in the first twelve lines, and is capped by a big thought in the final couplet. The poem follows a narrator describing the industriousness of nature’s creatures, preparing for the coming spring. All of Creation is at work, but the speaker is sullen as the only creature he can see who finds himself without an occupation.

    He notes that while he is a part of Nature, the world does not work for him. For example, it is not for him that the amaranths (flowers) bloom, and he watches as the richness of Nature escapes from him in the streams. In the final couplet the speaker sums up his despair and explains the ultimate reason for his listlessness: he cannot work as he has no hope. He has nothing to hope for, and so he has no life to speak of. He is an observer, not a participant, in the wealth of the natural world, and as he does not partake in it, he does not receive its bounty.

    Markandaya uses this poem’s final couplet as an epigraph to hint that the problem described in the poem will be a central issue in the novel. Our characters here are awed by the beauty and richness of nature, but they do not always receive happiness from it. Their work is never-ending. Unlike the poem’s speaker, however, the characters in Nectar in a Sieve are constantly at work, but their work only provides enough to survive and not to celebrate. We learn throughout the novel that survival itself is never a certainty.

    Markandaya’s use of the poem in Nectar in a Sieve is ambiguous. The epigraph puts forth, but does not answer, the question of whether the characters actually have hope. The preceding parts of the poem – which Markandaya deliberately leaves out – make it clear that Coleridge’s speaker is hopeless. Markandaya, however, gives no such certainty about her characters. Ruku, Nathan, and the others might have an object for their hope, and their work might not be in vain. If they work in vain, then their doom is certain; if they work towards survival or spiritual redemption, then their efforts become meaningful.

    Thus the epigraph captures the central tension of the book: the beginning and end of the book never explicitly tell us whether Rukmani and her family suffer in vain. The characters of the book identify with the idea that work without hope is like nectar draining from a sieve. It is up to the reader, though, to decide whether these characters are actually working without hope. If the characters are buoyed by their hope and work, they may get to enjoy the nectar of life before it slips away.

  • Writing Style

    Simple, Subtle, Honest, Earnest

    Rukmani’s narrative is presented in a matter-of-fact style. She doesn’t abstract or intellectualize her circumstances. Often she gives the reader a "this happened, then this, then this" account.

    However, what makes the text interesting are the occasional dreamlike pauses or asides from the narrative that give us a peek into Rukmani’s actual feelings. When Rukmani talks of her wedding night, she does it with reference to the many examples of romantic nights that she and Nathan shared. This is a subtle hint that her arranged marriage has produced genuine love.

    We get a similar window into Rukmani’s thoughts when she buys the cart for Puli. Initially she resists making the expensive purchase, but she relents when she remembers that no matter what else, Puli is still a child. She then buys a cart for her grandson Sacrabani. Though she’s described Sacrabani as a strange child, this gesture clues in the reader on the idea that Ruku has come to similar conclusions about Puli and Sacrabani. Without a specific word about her decision, Rukmani communicates that she had has some insensitive feelings, but that she’s gotten over them by thinking more broadly.

    Rukmani is open about her failings – her petty and selfish thoughts are as available to us as her lofty and noble ones. For example, Ruku admits that when Selvam is quiet as he hears about the land being sold, she immediately thinks he is selfish and doesn’t care about the family’s situation. This thought is pretty harsh, especially after Selvam has been so good to the family. Ruku puts it out there, and then deals with it immediately, chiding herself for having thought it. Also, she says she can’t help Janaki when Janaki’s family is forced to leave town, and she admits that she can’t afford to think about where they’ll go. We excuse these seemingly mean-spirited thoughts, when Ruku thinks fondly of Janaki again during the joyous celebration of Deepavali.

    Ruku is honest with us about her limitations. We see through her sincere and open prose that she is a good woman, who is trying hard to be a better person. For her honesty, we trust her. The private details, misgivings, failings, and joys that she shares openly only inspire us to believe that she’s earnest of feeling and spirit.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


    The tannery is, among many things, a symbol of modernity. It transforms the village environmentally and economically. It also transforms the relationships between the people within the village. People like Kunthi are glad for the tannery, while Rukmani sees its filthiness and commercialism as a threat to village life. Rukmani loses three sons to the tannery.

    As a company, the tannery provided Arjun, Thambi, and Raja each with a different way to deal with their dire poverty. Without this opportunity Ruku’s sons might well have turned to the land, rather than turning away from their family. As a symbol of modernity, the tannery allows the boys to think of the larger developments going on in the world. This inspires two of them to leave their own home searching work elsewhere. Just as the tannery represents possibility beyond the family land, it also subtly degrades the importance of family life.

    In addition to an economic role, the tannery has a social role in the novel. By working at the tannery, Ruku’s sons are breaking caste, or their fixed role within Hindu society. Just as the tannery ignores the tradition of agriculture on the land, it also ignores the tradition’s that family’s pass down from father to son. With the advent of the tannery, all bets are off. The values of family and tradition are supplanted by the possibilities that come with sprawling industrial modernity.


    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.


    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.


    Drums in Nectar in a Sieve symbolize times of great change. Our introduction to drumming occurs at Ira’s wedding (6.11): a drummer joins with a fiddler to make up a whole band. Then, as the miserable storm that drowns the fields and nearly destroys the town subsides, Ruku listens to the incessant "drums of calamity" beating for the whole town to hear (7.25). In their rhythm, she says she hears "the impotence of human endeavor." Worse, the silences are more ominous than the beats themselves, as they seem to only signal greater and incessant doom. Just as a silence following a beat will always be followed by another beat, Ruku is sure her disasters will pile one upon the other.

    The next instance of drumming occurs at Deepavali, the Festival of Lights (10.8). It is an upbeat time in Ruku and Nathan’s lives, as food is no longer scarce. Their fortunes have shifted away from hunger, and the drumming of that night signals a change in rhythm, which will lead to the conception of their last baby, Kuti. These drums brought a child to Ruku, but the next ones will take boys from her. Workers show up in the town beating drums, calling men to come to Ceylon (12.34). Arjun and Thambi, who have just left the tannery, decide that their lives must march on (with our without their family), so they follow the call to a far-off land.

    Drums take on another meaning when they are present at Raja’s death (15.8). The drums begin on the morning Raja is to be cremated. As is customary, the women stay behind instead of attending the actual cremation. Ruku listens to the drum-beats, and when they finally stop, it is a signal to Ruku that the burning is complete, and that Raja’s body is no more. The drums here seem to symbolize life as a drum beat, a reliable thing that ticks on so long as the heart has beats left in it.

    The dum-dum carts that Ruku buy for Puli and Sacrabani represent the final instance of drum-like rhythms in the book. Puli’s little beat following them along as he pulls the cart behind him symbolizes Ruku’s endurance against all odds. The little toys are with her when she and Puli return to the village. It’s notable that Puli clutches the silent cart in his arms in his moment of hesitation over being welcomed to Puli’s family. But Ira’s immediate warm acceptance of him is a hint to the reader that he will soon joyously pull the cart, with its little drumbeat, behind him again.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Narrative Voice: First Person (Central Narrator)

    Rukmani is the narrator of her own story, which she tells in a flashback. As with any story told in the first person, it’s important to remember that everything the narrator tells is selected for a reason. Thus every detail she includes (like the phrase she repeats to herself as Nathan is dying) and every detail she deliberately excludes (like what exactly Kenny did for her infertility) is deliberate. What Ruku chooses to tell us ends up being a reflection of Ruku’s own values and personality. The events of the story take on an added meaning when we realize they’re excerpts of an entire life. What Rukmani shares with us are those special moments that a dying woman reflecting on her life thinks are important.

    This flashback point of view allows the whole story to be Ruku’s own reflections on her own life. She tells us the story as past tense, and she occasionally adds foreshadowing and interpretation that she couldn’t have known at the time. These little "notes from the future" are "present Ruku" interpreting "past Ruku." When they happen, they’re important markers. In regular first-person mode, a narrator is able to tell a compelling and straightforward story. The usage of first-person flashbacks, though, is an opportunity to elevate the simple narrative to thoughtful reflection without cluttering the story itself.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Booker’s plot structure doesn’t perfectly fit this novel because the story is not told in a usual style leading up to a single end or climatic event. There are elements of "The Quest," "Tragedy," and "Voyage and Return," but none is a single guiding aspect of Ruku’s life; instead, these are fairly incidental to the arch of the plot.

      "Rebirth" is perhaps the most appropriate for this book among Booker’s plots, but even this classification is problematic. Arguably, not much has changed over the course of the narration. Ruku’s story is comprised of one hardship after another, and only punctuated sporadically with the little joys that characterize a typical rebirth story.

      But we are hesitant to put it into this category because the rebirth trope relies on some miraculous redemption by another happening at the end of the story. There is no such miraculous intervention (though Rukmani does find a savior in Puli), and when she returns to her life in the village, the reader knows she will face the same struggles and difficulties she had known in the past. Ultimately, this is story of how Rukmani acquired grace and quiet acceptance in the face of great hardship. Unlike the rebirth trope, what’s most important is how Ruku has stayed her steady self in spite of all hardships. Her triumph in the end is not that she is born again, but simply that she continues to live.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Rukmani marries Nathan and moves to his modest home to start a life and family.

      This is one of the best times in Rukmani’s life. Her marriage is underway, and her husband, Nathan, is kind to her. Rukmani and her husband are full of hope for the future: Nathan will eventually be able to buy their land, and Rukmani will raise a happy healthy family, who will take on the legacy of farming. The family is also established in this period – Rukmani gives birth to Ira, and eventually five more sons in rapid succession. Though times are a bit tight, this period is generally characterized by a hopeful feeling of promise and potential.


      Rukmani struggles to keep her family afloat through monsoon, drought, starvation, and general poverty.

      Each member of Ruku’s family faces his or her own challenges and deals with them individually. Arjun and Thambi leave for Ceylon, abandoning their family; Murugan leaves his family for a servant job in the city; Raja, weak from starvation, is killed while he is stealing from the tannery; Ira is abandoned by her husband, returns home, and turns to prostitution to feed Kuti; Kuti dies of starvation and sickness, and Ruku and Nathan struggle through starvation and fear of betrayal before admitting that neither of them has been completely honest.

      All of these personal conflicts take place against the backdrop of Ruku and Nathan’s greater conflict with the land. Their livelihood is threatened by monsoon and drought, causing crops to fail in one way or another, and resulting in starvation. This poverty informs the personal conflicts of the characters, but also serves as an umbrella of the general difficulties that the entire family faces under harsh conditions.


      When Selvam decides to work with Kenny, we learn that every last one of Nathan and Rukmani’s children have deserted the family’s traditional livelihood in one way or another.

      When Selvam decides to work with Kenny, it’s the last nail in the coffin for Ruku and Nathan’s hope that they might keep the land and prosper on it. Selvam’s decision means that Ruku and Nathan can only keep the land for as long as Nathan can work; Ruku talks with Kenny about the fact that they do not have the luxury of planning, as they can never anticipate what will happen next.


      Nathan and Rukmani find out their land is being sold to the tannery. They must leave the land they’ve been on for thirty years.

      This is the point of no return in the novel. The land is gone, their livelihood is gone, and there is no hope of keeping the home they’ve made together. Ruku and Nathan have lost their battle against the merciless reality of subsistence living.


      Nathan and Rukmani set out to find Murugan, encountering many hardships along the way.

      Selvam, Ira and Sacrabani will figure out some way to carry on, and only Rukmani and Nathan will leave. They set out to the city with high hopes – they know that if they find Murugan, he will keep them and assure they are taken care of. Their quest for Murugan is populated with little setbacks, especially the theft of their goods and money. Still, they hope they will find Murugan and once again have a home.


      Nathan and Rukmani discover that Murugan has fled his family and his job. Later, the leprous street boy joins the two travelers, Puli, who leads them to a job in the stone quarry that helps them earn enough money to go home.

      Nathan and Ruku finally find Murugan’s home, only to learn there is no more Murugan. It’s clear from their daughter-in-law Ammu’s living conditions that they cannot stay with her. They settle into a life of homeless poverty in the temple and begin to nurse hopes of returning to their village, even though they know they’ll be in poverty there too. Puli helps them get the money to make this happen. Even though they’ll be getting out of the city, it’s rather anticlimactic that they’ll only go back to the village (and the poverty) that is familiar to them. Though it’s not much solace, at least they’ll be going back to their home village and family.


      Nathan dies in the nameless city. Rukmani returns home to her village and remaining children with Puli in tow.

      Nathan doesn’t make it, but Ruku finds her family again and announces that Puli is now a part of it. The family still struggles, but Ruku is now more of an observer than a participant. Her time is over, and the time for her children, who will likely struggle as she did before them, has arrived.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Rukmani and Nathan must finally give up on their land as their plot is being sold to the tannery. They must leave to the city to find their son Murugan and a new life.

      Act II

      Rukmani and Nathan are destitute and homeless in Murugan’s city. They discover that there son is nowhere to be found: he has deserted his wife (and by extension, his parents). They have nowhere to turn and are left with no means to either support themselves or return home.

      Act III

      Rukmani and Nathan earn a little money to return to the village. Nathan dies before they get there. Rukmani goes back to the village with Puli, and Selvam and Ira greet them. Her children will have to figure out how to create a new life.

    • Allusions

      Literature and Philosophy

      Samuel Coleridge (epigraph)