Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Power

By Kamala Markandaya


The following week I sold almost my whole basket to him, keeping only a little for Old Granny. I did not like selling to him, although he paid me a better price. It was business and nothing else with him, never a word of chaff or a smile—or perhaps it was the flattery I missed—and I would much rather have had it the other way; but there you are, you cannot choose. (3.52)

Ruku is powerless to choose her buyer – this is the nature of business. Regardless of how she feels, she has to go to where she gets the best price. It’s interesting that the money she earns gives her some economic power. Has she has given up personal power in order to earn it?

About this time Arjun was in his early teens. He was tall for his age and older than his years. I had taught him the little I knew of reading and writing; now he could’ve taught me and most other people in the town. (9.19)

Arjun’s education will give him power, but ironically his power will only end up crippling him. His literacy allows him to lead the movement for higher wages at the tannery. His literacy is not persuasive against the tannery because there are many more people to fill the spots left empty by the strike. There are limits to the power of literacy; it cannot always assure one a higher position or greater leverage when dealing with people in power. Ultimately, literacy only gives one power to know how far one could go, but in this case, it does not provide the power to get there.

"I will ask Kenny to help you. White men have power."

"Indeed they have," he said bitterly. "Over men, and events, and especially over women." (9.31)

Ruku’s admission is startling but true. Though they are foreign to this society, white men seem to have greater power than non-white men. Her son resents this (with reference to the tannery), but he also resents the ripple of white power over other aspects of society, especially as white people have changed the social dynamic (with regard to his belief of the rumor of his mother’s infidelity with Kenny). White folks have just waltzed into their society and believed they can do what they want politically, economically, and personally.

Sandalwood paste smeared her swelling hips, under her hips were dark painted shadows which gave them sensuous depth, the nipples were tipped with red.

I released her. She stood there before me panting, with her hair shaken loose and coiling about her shoulders.

"Guard your tongue," I said, "or it will be the worse for you."

She said nothing for a moment, while she rearranged her garments, recovering herself a little; then once again that maddening, insulting half-smile curved her lips.

"And for you," she said, with knives in her voice, "and for your precious husband." (11.27)

Ruku and Kunthi are in a battle over who has greater power. Kunthi’s sexuality is far more powerful than Ruku’s – not only is she more beautiful than Ruku, but her body paint and nakedness seem to assert her ownership of her own body as a sexual creature. Ruku, by contrast, rests on the power of her status as an honorable married woman and mother. Kunthi represents woman’s power as an object of sexual desire, while Ruku is a powerful figure of the domestic woman. That’s also why Kunthi specifically threatens Ruku’s family life, talking about her husband. Everyone might know Kunthi is a prostitute, so her sexual power (and social inferiority) are certain, but Ruku’s power as a family woman might be more compromised by Kunthi’s knowledge, both about Ruku’s visits to Kenny and also about Nathan’s fathering of Kunthi’s children.

When a whole week had passed thus, the tannery officials called a meeting to announce that those who did not return to work would be replaced. My sons came home from that meeting even more silent, if possible, than they had been in the past. This was the test, and it failed. The next morning the tannery had its full complement again, most of them workers who had gone back, the remainder men who were only too glad to obtain employment. (12.20)

Power is often not aligned with principles. Ruku’s sons have chosen to use what they think is their bargaining power to stand up against the tannery. In the end, the tannery gets its power from people whose needs compromise their principles. For the poor, the power of conviction has no chance against the power of necessity.

So we stood and argued and begged, and in the end Sivaji agreed to wait. He took the money and turned to go, then he hesitated and said, a little wistfully: "What I do I must, for I must think of my own…. I do not wish to be hard. May you prosper."

"May you prosper too," I whispered, hardly able to speak, for his words had left me defenseless. (13.69)

The power of human kindness sometimes shines through even in the darkest moments of practical reality. Sivaji has to do his job, and Ruku and Nathan condemn him for his acceptance of the cruelty his job requires. When they see Sivaji as just an agent of a remote power, they can hate him, but when he shows kindness and empathy, he reminds them that he too is just a guy struggling to make ends meet. Power is a chain, and it’s easy to resent those that are right above you until you remember they too are just below someone else.

It became possible for me to speak as well. I told him of her earlier visit and the grain she had extorted from me also; and it seemed to me that a new peace came to us then, freed at last from the necessity for lies and concealment and deceit, with the fear of betrayal lifted from us, and with the power we ourselves had given wrested finally from Kunthi. (14.81)

We realize here that it wasn’t Kunthi’s power that was in control of Nathan and Rukmani. Actually, it was the power of their own secrets. The lies and concealment were more about Nathan and Rukmani’s fear of being found out in their betrayals of each other. Kunthi only had power as a possible means by which the truth might come out, while the real power lay in the delicate lies on which Nathan and Ruku had built their relationship.

"I must know," I said, imploring. "It is better that I should know than that I should imagine."

Ira gave me a sidelong glance: "Your imagination would not travel that far." (16.45)

The power of the imagination is greater than the power of the truth. Ruku labors under not knowing the truth, and so her imagination is allowed to run wild, ultimately leading her to darker things than even might be true. Ira, by withholding the actual truth, has power over her mother and forces her mother to imagine the worst.

"It is a long time since," she said. "You had better have a meal here before you go." She called to the servant and spoke to him rapidly, and he came, looking none too pleased, to lead us to where we had to go. (25.63)

It’s interesting that the lower classes seem to begrudge each other a little help. The servants at the doctor’s house initially tried to shoo away Nathan and Rukmani, taking them for beggars. The servants continue to be disdainful, and it’s only the doctor, who is better off than all of them, who offers a little charity. There’s no empathy among the poor, perhaps because they’re struggling to be better off than somebody, perhaps because they see each other as competitors, or perhaps because familiarity breeds contempt.

Yet I thought, what I did not wish to think, of the time when the disease that had claimed his fingers would creep up, eating away his limbs—or attack some other part, his feet or his eyes. What then of this bright fearless child who boasted that he stood alone? There is a limit to the achievements of human courage. (27.132)

Puli may have power over how he approaches the world, but in the end, he is powerless to stand up against his disease. No amount of street smarts can save him from his illness. If he’s going to be saved, he needs to submit to the help of others. (This is particularly painful for him because he is continually proud he is of being able to take care of himself.) Still, sometimes it’s more courageous to ask for help than to stubbornly do things on your own, especially if not asking for help means certain death from leprosy.