Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Transformation

By Kamala Markandaya


How quickly children grow! They are infants—you look away a minute and in that time they have left their babyhood behind. Our little girl ran about in the sun bare and beautiful as she grew, with no clothes to hamper her limbs or confine her movements. Then one day when she was five—long before Arjun was born—Nathan pointed her out to me as she played in the fields.

"Cover her," he said. "It is time."

I wanted to cry out that she was a baby still, but of course Nathan was right; she had left infancy forever. (3.38)

From the moment that Ira stops being an infant, she is burdened with what it means to be a woman in this society. Her life will change: her parents will clothe her, and the restrictions on her behavior and movement will increase until she’s finally sent off to be married. Though her parents make these changes and restrictions against her with the best of intentions, nothing will protect her from the world.

Change I had known before, and it had been gradual. My father had been a headman once, a person of consequence in our village: I had lived to see him relinquish this importance, but the alteration was so slow that we hardly knew when it came. I had seen both my parents sink into old age and death, and here too there was no violence. But the change that now came into my life, into all our lives, blasting its way into our village, seemed wrought in the twinkling of an eye. (4.1)

Ruku has a million reasons to resent the tannery, but she suggests that it’s the swiftness of the transformation it brought about that’s hardest to bear. It’s not just the tannery itself that bothers Ruku. What upsets Rukmani most is the fact that even from its earliest building stages, it was clear that the tannery would change the pace of village life. It’s almost as if the changes brought about by the tannery bleed into nearly every facet of Ruku’s life.

"Besides, you will not want me so often," I said. "This home, your brothers, are all you have known so far, but when you have your own home and your own children you will not miss these… (6.8)

A woman traditionally leaves her father’s house for her husband’s house. Rukmani knows that Ira will miss her, but she seems pretty comfortable with Ira essentially trading her old family for a new family. Rukmani can be wistful about this, but the reality is that her daughter’s success will require cutting ties with her past and setting up shop elsewhere. Rukmani seems to accept this change glibly, as she does with most things that pain her deeply.

Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew—or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be. (10.5)

Rukmani can’t afford to think of the fates of the people whose lives are changing around her. She’s just on the cusp of great disaster herself, and if she thinks of Janaki she’ll be forced to remember the instability and uncertainty they all share, relying on the land. Pushing away thoughts of Janaki is Rukmani’s futile attempt to pretend the current happiness and stability she’s having are going to last.

"I will have an answer."

"I can give you none."

Nathan’s brows drew together: she had never before spoken to him in this manner. Looking at her, it seemed to me that almost overnight she had changed; she had been tender and modest and obedient, now she had relinquished every one of these qualities; it was difficult to believe she had ever been their possessor. (16.52)

Before she turned to some way to make a little money, Ira was just moping around the house, ashamed of her barrenness. Her change of attitude is actually pretty understandable. In the face of the other changes she experienced, such as losing her husband, Ira was a passive victim. With this change of career, Ira is actually making her own choice: she’s transformed from a victim to an agent of her own fate. It’s kind of empowering, even though her choice leads to an illegal activity.

Not in the town, where all that was natural had long been sacrificed, but on its outskirts, one could still see the passing of the season. For in the town there were the crowds, and streets battened down upon the earth, and the filth that men had put upon it; and one walked with care for what might lie beneath one’s feet or threaten from before or behind; and in this preoccupation forgot to look at the sun or the stars, or even to observe they had changed their setting in the sky: and knew nothing of the passage of time save in dry frenzy, by looking at a clock. But for us, who lived by the green, quiet fields, perilously close though these were to the town, nature still gave its muted message. Each passing day, each week, each month, left its sign, clear and unmistakable. (20.1)

The center of the town changes dramatically, but the outskirts remain village-like. The transformation of the seasons is still visible in the village areas – though the people of the town can’t afford to notice it. The seasons will continue to happen reliably, whether or not people recognize them any longer.

He understood her well, better than I did who was her mother; in fact, I wonder whether parents ever know their children as they know one another. (22.1)

Ruku’s children are her joy and pride – indeed she wasn’t a happy woman until she had sons. The fact that Ruku begins to recognize the closeness her children share with each other signals a change in her own thinking. Her children do not really belong to her. Ruku resigns herself to the fact that they’ll do what they want, and that she’ll never be able to rely on knowing who they are. Ruku’s realization helps her deal with her children as they evolve from obedient boys and girls to independent, and sometimes rebellious, men and women (i.e. when Selvam chooses to leave the land, and Ira turns to selling her body).

"What can we do? There are many like ourselves who cannot provide for the future. You know it yourself."

"Yes; I know…. I do not know why I asked; it was needless. There is no provision at all," he said, speaking half to himself, "neither for old nor young nor sick. They accept it; they have no option." (23.22)

This is the first time Kenny admits that Ruku has a point. He seems a bit worn down by the desperation, suffering, and uncertainty around him. He’s finally able to admit that maybe people around him are in insurmountably difficult situations. It’s interesting that he doesn’t sound broken, just realistically resigned to reality.

There had been a time when we, too, had benefited—those days seemed very remote now, almost belonging to another life—but we had lost more than we had gained or could ever regain. Ira had ruined herself at the hands of the throngs that the tannery attracted. None but these would have laid hands on her, even at her bidding. My sons had left because it frowned on them; one of them had been destroyed by its ruthlessness. And there were others its touch had scathed. Janaki and her family, the hapless chakkli Kannan, Kunthi even…. (23.57)

Ruku looks at the tannery as a major force of negative change in her life. It’s notable that she has all of this angry feeling towards the tannery, but later she’ll admit that nature has as much of an effect on her wellbeing as the tannery. She seems to be more accepting of nature’s impact, whereas she really resents the tannery for its influence. We’ve got to wonder how this is justifiable in her mind, when they are both just external circumstances over which she has little control.

As it was we said no more—not that night at any rate, although subsequently we had more discussions than I can recount—accepting only that we were to go and that our children and grandchild were to stay. (23.94)

This is a major change in roles of the family – the parents can no longer take care of the children, but the children cannot yet take care of the parents. There’s pain in the separation, but it’s also painful to think of how much Nathan and Ruku sacrificed for their children, only to come to this point. The land they’ve worked so hard for, in the end, is a thing they have to leave.