Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Man and the Natural World

By Kamala Markandaya

Man and the Natural World

Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you. So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat. (7.1)

Ruku’s thinking about nature might be a little naïve. Whether she’s looking at Nature or not, it’s going to do what it darn well pleases. Of course she and Nathan have little effect on the land (like, crops will grow where they plant seed) but ultimately nature has the final say.

"Words and words," said Kunthi. "Stupid words. No wonder they call us senseless peasant women; but I am not and never will be. There is no earth in my breeding."

"If there were you would be the better for it," said I wrathfully, "for then your values would be true." (8.1)

Nature is equated with moral goodness in Ruku’s mind. For Kunthi, Nature’s simplicity is reflective of a lack of urban sophistication. Each woman interprets nature differently. Where do these beliefs come from? This is akin to a chicken/egg situation: maybe they get their beliefs from their observations of nature, or maybe they selectively see in nature only what confirms their beliefs.

"Two more mouths to feed," she complained. "Only one of my three sons had the sense to go back. I do not know what is to become of us, for the land cannot sustain us all. So much for reading and writing," she said, accusing me with eye and finger. (12.25)

Kali blames Ruku for her own difficulties: she (Kali) complains that the land can’t sustain her family. It is interesting to note that this would have been true whether or not Ruku had educated her kids. Kali is presenting a false dichotomy, as if the incompatibility of nature and learning is to blame her troubles. (It is actually the tannery, and its refusal to pay properly, that are at fault).

He coaxed me out into the sunlight and we sat down together on the brown earth that was part of us, and we gazed at the paddy fields spreading rich and green before us, and they were indeed beautiful. (12.63)

When Ruku and Nathan are disappointed by the external circumstances of their life, particularly their sons’ choices, they turn to the land for spiritual healing. It is almost as though the land is as much a part of them as their own children.

I took the paddy from him and parted the grass and there within its protective husk lay the rice-grain, just big enough to see, white, perfect, and holding in itself our lives. (12.65)

Ruku and Nathan minister to the land and often talk of how they see it as a part of themselves, but here we get the hint that actually Nature is in control. The seeds metaphorically hold their lives, but the land is literally in control of their lives – if they do not harvest they do not eat.

…before long the rain came lashing down, making up in fury for the long drought and giving the grateful land as much as it could suck and more. But in us there was nothing left—no joy, no call for joy. It had come too late. (13.73)

Nature alone cannot provide happiness, even if it is forgiving after it has been so cruel.

The sowing of seed disciplines the body and the sprouting of the seed uplifts the spirit, but there is nothing to equal the rich satisfaction of a gathered harvest… (17.9)

Ruku is continually hurt by the drought as it slowly kills her loved ones. Here we see her tactic for endurance: she constantly rationalizes, as though her interaction with the land is part of her own personal development. This kind of rationalization may be dangerous, but it is perhaps the only way Ruku can survive against these terrible odds. The rich harvest is not a given consequence of discipline and an uplifted spirit, it’s just a joyous coincidence that has more to do with luck than with anything else.

This is one of the truths of our existence as those who live by the land know: that sometimes we eat and sometimes we starve. We live by our labours from one harvest to the next, there is no certain telling whether we shall be able to feed ourselves and our children, and if bad times are prolonged we know we must see the weak surrender their lives and this fact, too, is within our experience. In our lives there is no margin for misfortune. (23.58)

Ruku recognizes that the yield of the land is rather arbitrary – sometimes it delivers and sometimes it doesn’t. When she’s frank like this with us, it puts the rest of her philosophical talk about the religious value of suffering and endurance in perspective. It’s as though she knows, deep down, that this isn’t about a moral or philosophical life, but about simply feeding one’s family. The moral and philosophical stuff is just a way to deal with the arbitrarily cruel forces of nature, almost a self-delusional pacification, and Ruku seems to concede that here.

With each passing day the longing for the land grew; our plans were forged against a background of brown earth and green fields and the ripe rustling paddy, not, curiously, as they were, but as we had first known them… fresh, open and unspoilt, with their delicate scents and sounds untainted, with skies clear above them and the birds finding sanctuary in the grasses. And at the same time, keeping pace with these longings, our distaste for the city grew and grew and became a sweeping, pervading hatred. (27.9)

Ruku and Nathan’s remoteness from their land has allowed them to romanticize it – they think of it fondly because they only remember the good times there, not the bad times that drove them to the city in the first place. They’re basically suffering from emotional and economic dislocation, and they use their dislocation from the land as a proxy for their frustrations. They well know that Nature is not a magically happy place, and returning to it will not solve anything, but while they’re away from it, they can dream of it being better than it actually was, because it’s definitely better than where they are now. (Or is it?).

I remember looking up for the flare that had ever burnt on the top of the temple, and it was quenched; and the black demons of fear came shrieking at my ear and would not be silenced, for all that I repeated like a madwoman, "Fire cannot burn in water." (29.2)

Ruku knows Nathan is dying. Of all the things she’s endured in her life, this one alone cannot be rationalized. We see if she hadn’t been doing that the whole time, she might have been driven to madness. It brings to mind Hamlet’s potent line to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (For more on Hamlet, see our module.) Ruku could bear the cruelty of nature to her harvests and livelihood, but she cannot bear nature’s inevitable touch of death. Like her other philosophical moments, she’s philosophizing on the truth of nature, but this philosophy doesn’t bring her any comfort – it only exposes that man is powerless in the face of natural events.