Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Women and Femininity

By Kamala Markandaya

Women and Femininity

Nathan at first paid scant attention to her: he had wanted a son to continue his line and walk beside him on the land, not a puling infant who would take with her a dowry and leave nothing but a memory behind; but soon she stopped being a puling infant, and when at the age of ten months she called him "Apa," which means father, he began to take a lively interest in her. (2.49)

As Kenny later reminds Ruku about Ira’s own baby, a child is a child. Al children will no doubt engender love accordingly, regardless of the circumstances of their births. Ruku and Nathan are not excited about having a girl first, but they learn to be excited about Ira being Ira. Nathan is a loving man – he learns to love Ira just the way he learned to love Ruku. He’s not one for big concern about gender roles and expectations; he loves his women in spite of what society says they should do or be.

I did so, and as soon as the door was closed the woman threw off her veil the better to select what she wanted. Her face was very pale, the bones small and fine. Her eyes were pale too, a curious light brown matching her silky hair. She took what she wanted and paid me. Her fingers, fair and slender, were laden with jeweled rings, any one of which would have fed us for a year. She smiled at me as I went out, then quickly lowered the veil again about her face. I never went there again. (8.15)

Rukmani does not feel a connection to this woman, though they are both keepers of their homes. Instead, the woman’s alien culture and lifestyle are more important defining aspects in Ruku’s eyes. She has culture in common with Kali, Janaki and Kunthi, and perhaps this is an important aspect of them being a community of women.

"Neighbors, women… and I a failure, a woman who cannot even bear a child."

All this I had gone through—the torment, the anxiety. Now the whole dreadful story was repeating itself, and it was my daughter this time. (9.16)

It’s interesting that Ruku agrees that a woman’s importance largely rests in her ability to bear a child. Ruku didn’t ever overcome these feelings to find her self-worth as a woman – she got over them by bearing children. She suffers because of Ira’s failure to conceive, and her only solution to Ira is not a philosophical one about a woman’s greater worth. Instead, she’ll seek to fix Ira’s biological problem.

I was getting more and more worried about her: she moped about, dull of hair and eye, as if the sweetness of life had departed—as indeed it has for a woman who has been abandoned by her husband. (11.1)

Ruku’s personal and cultural views admit that a woman’s worth is largely defined by her relationship to her husband. Ira has been abandoned by her husband, and this defines her worth as a woman. Her husband leaving her affects her own views of herself, and her mother doesn’t do much to ease that grief, likely because her mother understands and believes Ira is actually lessened by this abandonment.

"She is happy with the child," I replied, "but I do not know what is to become of her in the future."

"Always worrying," he chided. "It is a mercy that she is young again, should one not be grateful?"

He was a man and did not understand. (11.44)

Nathan is less burdened by cultural norms about abandoned women than Ruku is. To him, what matters foremost is Ira’s happiness. He doesn’t understand (or doesn’t believe) that Ira’s entire happiness should rest on her worth to a man. It’s hard to discern though, whether he’s unconcerned because he doesn’t understand the full brunt of the culture’s evaluation of women, or because he disagrees with it.

Under her faded sari her breasts hung loose; gone was the tense suppleness that had been her pride and her power. Of her former beauty not a vestige remained. Well, I thought, all women come to it sooner or later: she has come off perhaps worse than most. (14.17)

A woman’s beauty is an aspect of her value. Ruku married below her caste in part because she wasn’t a beautiful woman. Kunthi is notable because of her beauty, and ironically she sells her beauty to prostitution. Kunthi wants food because she thinks health will bring her beauty back. Ruku has never had to worry about her beauty so she seems more comfortable with the fact that beauty will go.

"Yes, of course, darling," Ira cried, and all the guilt of her efforts to have an abortion was in her voice. "I would not lose you for anything. Why do you have to ask?" (22.9)

Ruku is adding commentary here – she knows she would’ve traded Ira for a boy, so she can be less forgiving and gentle in her harsh (but honest) assessment of Ira’s position. The love for the child is immaterial to Ruku – the important thing is that Ira’s womanhood has left her in a particular societal position, and an abortion would’ve been preferable to being a marked woman who is also the single mother of an albino.

Ira and I did what we could; but the land is mistress to man, not to woman: the heavy work needed is beyond her strength. (23.1)

While cultural values dominate much of how women are viewed in the novel, Ruku brings up a physical reality here. It’s not society, but biology, that limits Ruku and Ira when it comes to the land. While social strictures are regrettable, some of a woman’s limitations are simply insurmountable.

The doctor meanwhile was approaching. Under the thin shirt I saw the figure of a woman and I whispered hastily to my husband: "Be careful—it is a woman." Nathan turned bewildered eyes on me. "The trousers—" he began, but there was no time to say more and he stopped short, confused and stammering. (25.47)

Ruku is as surprised as Nathan at the high position of this woman in their society. Here Ruku reveals that she buys into all the cultural norms about what women can and should aspire to be. A woman doctor is an aberration, and Ruku sees her as an alien creature, one to be feared (hence her warning to Nathan).

"One must live," she repeated, defiant, challenging, sensing reproach where none could be; for it is very true, one must live. (26.36)

Prostitution is a reality for women in the book, and Ruku eventually accepts it without judgment. Ruku’s society’s limitations on women left them few other choices when they were faced with poverty. Moral norms no longer really factor in for Ruku’s regard of prostitution, as she’s come too close to the practical economic reality faced by poor women. (Interestingly, many First World women that are hard-up today make the same choice.)