Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Suffering

By Kamala Markandaya


"At least it stood until the worst was over," said Kali to me, "and by God’s grace we were all spared." She looked worn out; in the many years I had known her I had never seen her so deflated. She had come to ask for some palm leaves to thatch the new hut her husband was building; but I could only point to the blackened tree, its head bitten off and hanging by a few fibres from the withered stump.

"We must thatch our roof before the night," I said. "The rains may come again. We need rice too." (7.12)

Usually, suffering inspires empathy and sympathy from others. In this situation, though, everyone is suffering, and it seems no one has anything to share or give each other. Ruku deals with this delicate situation in a rather matter-of-fact way by denying help to her friend. It might seem a little harsh to us, but in desperate times, everyone’s pretty much on his own. It’s a bit jarring, and it makes us think that when Ruku’s family falls on hard times, no one will be there to help them. Still, Ruku expects to be treated that way, so maybe it’s not a big deal when she treats others that way.

"Times are better, times are better," he shouts. "Times will not be better for many months. Meanwhile you will suffer and die, you meek, suffering fools. Why do you keep this ghastly silence? Why do you not demand—cry out for help—do something?" (7.44)

For Kenny, the solution to suffering is to cry out. He thinks the people don’t cry out because they somehow think the suffering is noble. What he does not realize is that sometimes when you cry out, there’s no one there to help or listen. To Kenny, something must be done about suffering. To Ruku, it’s all well and good that something should be done, but that doesn’t mean anything will, be done. She reasons that it is best to grin and bear one’s burden, rather than be disappointed when no help arrives.

How heartless are the young! One would have thought from his words we had purposefully starved him, when in fact of what there was he always got the biggest share after my husband.

"So," I said, "we do not do enough for you. These are fine words from an eldest son. They do not make good hearing."

"You do everything you can," he said. "It is not enough. I am tired of hunger and I am tired of seeing my brothers hungry. There is never enough, especially since Ira came to live with us." (9.22)

Rukmani knows that she’s been trying her best, and that her best is not enough. Still, she resents this fact being pointed out. To her, suffering is an opportunity for everyone to put their lot in together, and really get through it as a group. Arjun has less romantic notions about suffering – he’s hungry, and while his mom might get an "A" for effort, that’s not filling his empty belly. He, like Kenny, thinks there are ways to get around suffering instead of accepting it nobly.

Nathan said not a word. There was a crushed look about him which spoke of the deep hurt he had suffered more than any words could have done. He had always wanted to own his own land, through the years there had been the hope, growing fainter with each year, each child, that one day he would be able to call a small portion of land his own. Now even his sons knew it would never be. (9.37)

Suffering in this book is bigger than the small failures of crops and harvests. Nathan’s whole life is wrapped up in the land. When his sons cruelly point out that they won’t work on the land because the land will never be theirs, they aren’t just getting out of fieldwork. They’re crushing their father’s spirit. Suffering doesn’t only come from droughts and monsoons – sometimes it’s the people closest to you that can hurt you the most.

"Enough!" he shouted. "More than enough has been said. Our children must act as they choose to, not for our benefit. Is it not enough that they suffer?"

The veins on his forehead were bulging. I had never seen him so angry before. Kali went away. Then the men went too, father and sons, leaving me alone who had no understanding. (12.30)

In Nectar in a Sieve, father and sons suffer in different ways. Ruku doesn’t grasp any of it, perhaps because it is the quietly desperate suffering of men who cannot provide for their family. Because this burden does not belong to Ruku, she cannot understand this problem. Nathan likely feels impotent because he cannot provide for his family. Still, the desertion of his sons only adds to his suffering and his wounded pride. He must now go at it alone, and they have robbed him of both physical help and morale.

"That is why he and his kind are employed," Nathan said bitterly. "To protect overlords from such unpleasant tasks. Now the landlord can wring from us his moneys and care not for the misery he evokes, for indeed it would be difficult for any man to see another starve and his wife and children as well; or to enjoy the profits born of such travail." (13.23)

It seems that suffering only exists in the world because people who are not suffering can close their eyes to it. It would be hard to eat your dinner while watching one of those "Save the Children" commercials, but it is pretty easy to change the channel. Sivaji the Collector is essentially the means for the Zemindar to not have to see the suffering he causes others.

There we were, the four of us, hysterical, released, rocking with laughter and gasping for breath which ran out as fast as we sucked it in. The hollow cheeks and bulging stomachs, the grotesque, jutting bones, became matter for laughter; already, though they were still with us, in our minds they belonged to the past—to the painful past that we thrust from us with all our force; and the laughter was in some measure born of relief that we could do so. (17.2)

At some point, the degree to which this family suffers is actually absurd. It seems like there is always something devastating occurring: starvation, losing daughters to prostitution, monsoons, drought, etc. The characters of this story seem to only be able to make sense of it through laughter. Their laughter is strange: in some ways it’s triumphant, but in other ways, it’s really just an opportunity to recognize the utter insanity and great irony of everything that’s happened to them. Laughter takes power and gravity away from suffering, but it also might be the only way one can react to a suffering that is inexplicable and unjustifiable.

Nevertheless, after a little while he did go to her and his gentleness melted her last remnants of control, for she began to weep. I heard her crying for a long time. (22.30)

Ruku is at first alarmed that Ira shows no signs of horror or revulsion at her own child. When Ira finally does break down, Rukmani doesn’t go to her. Is this Ruku breathing a sigh of relief that her daughter is not crazy? Does Ruku feel ashamed at all for not alleviating any of Ira’s suffering?

For all their play they looked as if they had never eaten a full meal in their lives, with their ribs thrusting out and bellies full-blown like drums with wind and emptiness; and they were also extremely dirty with the dust of the roadside and the filth deposited upon it; and the running sores many of them had upon their bodies were clogged with mud where blood or pus had exuded. But they themselves were forgetful of their pains—or patient with tem as the bullock had been—and played naked and merry in the sun. (25.16)

Suffering isn’t the only emotion present in the novel. Even in the most awful situations, there are moments of joy to be snatched from the clutches of despair. These street kids have the same desire for joy that other kids do, even if they don’t live totally normal lives and are reduced to scrapping over crusts.

There is no touching this girl, I thought. Misfortune has hardened her, which is just as well, she will take many a knock yet. (26.50)

Ammu’s approach to suffering is essentially the exact opposite of Ruku’s. While Ruku bears her suffering with piety and an obstinate hopefulness, Ammu has decided to view the world as one big place full of people trying to take advantage of her. Still, you might not be able to blame the girl for being so harsh – Ruku always has Nathan to share the burden, while Ammu suffers alone.