Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Foreignness and 'The Other'

By Kamala Markandaya

Foreignness and 'The Other'

"Why do you not demand—cry out for help—do something? There is nothing in this country, oh God there is nothing!" (7.44)

Kenny seems to think that one only needs to cry out for help in order to receive it. Rukmani, however, knows what it is to struggle for her and her own, and often believes that struggling against the inevitable is futile. Kenny’s declaration that there is nothing in this country amounts to hopelessness; Ruku, by contrast, knows there is nothing in the country for people who are not willing to help themselves. Kenny, ever needing help and trying to help others, is engaged in a project that goes against the many values of his adopted country. His hopelessness is Ruku’s reality. Even if he understands that, he still resents it.

"I waited all day," I gasped. "I must see you. My husband will be back soon and then I cannot come."

His frown deepened. He said coldly, "You people will never learn. It is pitiful to see your foolishness." (11.5)

Kenny judges Ruku’s hesitation to be open with Nathan as "foolishness," and he ties that foolishness into her whole culture with "you people." Cultural sensitivity doesn’t matter at all to him – in his eyes, whether this is about Indian culture or not, it’s stupid. It’s hard to tell whether Kenny’s judgment of Indian culture implicitly assumes that he knows better, or comes from a superior culture.

"What has happened?" we ask with trepidation. They are still our sons, but suddenly they have outgrown us. (12.10)

Rukmani doesn’t understand how the boys could agitate for more money, but it’s interesting that she thinks of it as them having surpassed her and Nathan. She’s basically the opposite of Kenny – her sons are doing something she doesn’t understand, and she assumes it is because they are superior or have some greater understanding than she does, not because they’re being foolish. Rukmani feels like she doesn’t know the boys anymore, and she can’t do anything about it. Her own children are adopting values that are foreign to her tradition, and so the boys have become foreign to her.

A strange nature, only partly within my understanding. A man half in shadow, half in light, defying knowledge. (12.83)

The relationship between Kenny and Rukmani is a strange one – Kenny seems to reveal things to Ruku that even he is surprised about. It’s as if talking to her sometimes leads him to conclusions or realizations about himself. We get the sense that it’s not just that Ruku doesn’t understand Kenny; Kenny seems to actually be quite foreign to himself.

…Other farmers and their families, in like plight to ourselves, were also out searching for food; and for every edible plant or root there was a struggle—a desperate competition that made enemies of friends and put an end to humanity. (14.83)

The struggle against starvation has made people remote from their own humanity. Hunger has turned them into people they themselves don’t even recognize, and it’s also made them alien to each other. Their reliance on their natural surroundings has failed them and, ironically, has made them unnatural creatures, foreign to their natural selves.

"You simplify everything, being without understanding. Your views are so limited it is impossible to explain to you."

"Limited, yes," I agreed. "Yet not wholly without understanding. Our ways are not your ways."

"You have sound instincts," he said.

For the first time since I had known him I saw a spark of admiration in his eyes. (18.52)

Ruku reminds Kenny gently that they are not better or worse than each other, but they simply understand things differently. Her humble relativism checks his glib cultural superiority, and he knows it.

"Yet our priests fast, and inflict on themselves severe punishments, and we are taught to bear our sorrows in silence, and all this is so that the soul may be cleansed."

He struck his forehead. "My God!" he cried. "I do not understand you. I never will. Go before I am too entangled in your philosophies." (19.39)

There’s a tension here: Kenny might not understand the foreign religious principles of Hinduism, or he might understand them and still disagrees with them. Here, we see that he avoids delving too deeply into the issue. Instead of exploring what Ruku believes and why, he’d rather dismiss her whole belief system as foreign. This is a glimpse of Kenny as convinced by his beliefs, and maybe lacking the interest, or the energy, to challenge them. He doesn’t understand the ways of other people, but he has his own understanding of how they need help, and how he can help them. We’ve got to wonder if it is right for him to impose his values on people, decide what they should want and give it to them? Is that really helpful?

Apart from this he burnt easily, even an hour or so in the sun would bring up red, scaly patches about the neck and forehead and make him fretful, whereas my children had grown up in the open and thrived on it. (20.22)

Sacrabani is foreign to Ruku because he looks different from other children. In Ruku’s mind, he already carries the shameful mark of being an illegitimate child – his albino deformity is just the icing on the cake. For Ruku, it’s almost as if his physical strangeness is an appropriate reflection of the moral strangeness under which he was conceived.

Each night was a struggle, more fierce now that we were daily engaged in it. I saw, night after night, what I had not observed before: the lame with their crutches knocked away from them so that they fell and were unable to rise; the feeble separated from their supporters so that their numbers were halved. (27.8)

The city is foreign to Nathan and Ruku geographically, environmentally, in terms of customs. But its most glaring foreignness comes from the way it transforms people into creatures that are entirely different from people Nathan and Ruku have encountered before. Humanity as Nathan and Ruku have known it, is altered. The natural setting they once lived in fostered a natural relationship between people. In the city, people are foreign to each other, but they’re also entirely foreign to human kindness. It’s like they’re living in an altered landscape, where the rules of humanity have changed.

He himself did not appear to find any difficulty in managing without, except that once or twice he had to use both hands, and there was a certain awkwardness in his handling of the food. Despite myself I could not keep my eyes off his hands; the harder I tried to keep my gaze fixed elsewhere, the more it fastened itself to those stumps. Puli, seemingly unaware, continued eating stolidly. He is used to it, I thought. He knows and accepts the shameful probing curiosities of human beings. (27.52)

Human beings have a natural curiosity about people that are different. Ruku doesn’t judge Puli for his difference, but his experience is foreign to hers. Besides his physical deformity, which she can’t help but look at, she is also enamored of Puli because he’s so different from her. His can-do attitude, brashness, and self-assurance, are a comfort to Ruku because these characteristics are so foreign to her own personality. Puli’s ways make him comfortable in this foreign place, which is in turn a comfort to Ruku. In a strange twist of events, she’s found comfort in his foreignness.