Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Kamala Markandaya

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for? (1.39)

Here Rukmani describes her ideal life. She delights in simple pleasures, and her ranking of important things includes food to eat and the beauty of the land. A happy life is made up of countless external factors, and while Rukmani is grateful for many of them, she can endure with only a few if she must.

"You chatter like a pair of monkeys," said Kali’s husband, "with less sense. What use to talk of ‘exchange’ and so forth? Their life is theirs and yours is yours; neither change nor exchange is possible." (8.14)

Kali’s husband thinks that there’s no use in reflecting on and examining one’s life, especially not relative to other people’s. It’s interesting that while Ruku is usually on the side of passively accepting what life brings to her, she can still judge the lives of others. She pities the Muslim women locked up at home. Though she doesn’t understand them, they are actually in parallel situations, each having equally pitiable external circumstances over which they have no control.

"Whatever will they say?" I said, my face burning as he let me down again. "At our age too! You ought to be ashamed!"

"That I am not," he said, winking, to the vast delight of the onlookers. "I am happy because life is good and the children are good, and you are the best of all."

What more could I say after that? (10.17)

Nathan, like Ruku, sees life simply. He and his family are in the most joyous part of their lives, celebrating Deepavali together, and Nathan is overcome with emotion. His happiness doesn’t rely on material goods, but rather he sees life as the sum of a good family and a good wife above all. It makes sense, then, that even in darkest times, Nathan can be incredibly happy and loving with his wife. She is probably the most central part of his life.

"Why fear?" said the old lady. "Am I note alone, and do I not manage?"

I thought of her sitting in the street all day long with the gunny sacking in front of her piled with a few annas’ worth of nuts and vegetables; and I thought of Ira doing the same thing, and I was silent.

"It is not unbearable," said she, watching me with her shrewd eyes. "One gets used to it.:

It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and the smell of the tannery; they no longer affected me. I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast from town, and I grieved no more; so now I accepted the future and Ira’s lot in it;… (11.47)

Faced with Old Granny’s poverty and isolation, Ruku has to admit that life is inescapably hard, especially for lone women. However, Old Granny offers the view that life is about adaptability and the ability to get used to anything. Ruku relinquishes her worry a little bit about this: one cannot strive in the face something against which one is powerless. Life is about change, and no amount of worrying will change that.

What was it we had to learn? To fight against tremendous odds? What was the use? One only lost the little one had. Of what use to fight when the conclusion is known? (12.23)

Rukmani disagrees with the assertion of Kenny and her sons that people must learn to fight for what they want. Ruku is not a risk-taker. To her, the potential consequences must out-weigh the potential risks. It’s important here to note that it isn’t that Ruku doesn’t understand that one can fight. Rather, she has thought about it and still decides that fighting isn’t worth it. In this passage, she proves she isn’t just a mindless pushover – instead she sees her life as a balance of the desired and the possible.

"Would you have us wasting our youth chafing against things we cannot change?" (12.51)

Ruku’s sons are very different than her and Nathan. Arjun responds sharply to her that the idea of wasting away one’s youth working against impossible odds is foolish. Of course, this is similar to what Ruku and Nathan have done, sticking their heads in the sand when life seems to offer them no options. The difference is not that they are less ambitious than their sons, but perhaps that they are less angry, and more accepting. Nathan and Ruku decided long ago that it is easier to stay and bear poverty in a place they know, than to set off to ills they know not of elsewhere. Even if it’s a poor life, this is their life.

"Let us not sacrifice the future to our immediate need."

"What is the alternative?" he shouted. "Do you think I am blind and do not see, or so stupid as to believe that crops are raised without seed? Do you take me for a fool that—"

He was not shouting at me, but at the terrible choice forced upon us; (13.57)

This is only one of the many such choices that Ruku and Nathan have to make – faced with the problem of alleviating immediate poverty, they are essentially forced to cut off their hands to pay for their feet. Whether they’re selling their seed for the land or collecting dung off the land to fuel their stoves instead of letting it be fertilizer, they’re constantly sacrificing the present for the future.

Hope, and fear. Twin forces that tugged at us first in one direction, and then another, and which was the stronger no one could say. Of the latter, we never spoke, but it was always with us. Fear, constant companion of the peasant. (14.3)

Rukmani accepts that fear rules her life. Hope is a salve, but fear is the far more overpowering of the two. Ultimately, it feels like hope is the kind of thing one tells oneself in worst moments, a gentle lie to stave off the impending darkness.

Privately I thought, Well, and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creatures indeed to be so weak, for is not a man’s spirit given to him to rise above his misfortunes? As for our wants, they are many and unfilled, for who is so rich or compassionate as to supply them? Want is our companion from birth to death, familiar as the seasons or the earth, varying only in degree. What profit to bewail that which has always been and cannot change? (19.36)

Rukmani vacillates between viewing her acceptance of the world as a strength and as a weakness. She has a noble spirit, choosing to endure in the face of adversity. On the other hand, her nobility is the necessary consequence of her life. Maybe she could give in to the hopelessness around her, but what would that accomplish? In the end, perhaps what seems like nobility isn’t that at all – just the necessary lens, a lie one tells oneself.

So it had been with my sons, so it was now with Old Granny, one day it might be the same for me, for all of us. A man might drift to his death before his time unnoticed, but when he was dead and beyond any care then at last he was sure of attention… (21.3)

Death is indeed an expected end to life. But it may also be a welcome reprieve. The meticulous care a deceased person is painful to Rukmani because it sharply contrasts the fact that such care is missing in life. It’s as if the care people wish they could give to each other is reserved for one big farewell, once a person is no longer there to make demands.