Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Chapter 16

By Kamala Markandaya

Chapter 16

  • As usual, life is difficult. Rukmani in particular worries how they’ll be able to harvest this season’s rice, as they’re significantly weakened by starvation. The real concern, though, is that the paddy won’t be ready for harvest for another three weeks.
  • They’ve all endured thus far, but they worry that Kuti, who is not yet five, won’t make it. He goes hungry, like the others, but he also can’t sleep because of a horrible rash that covers his body and makes him claw at his skin, leaving sores and blisters. Ruku is concerned that he might die at any time.
  • Suddenly, Kuti seems to be getting better. He stops whimpering and even sleeps. Rukmani is certain that the gods have answered their prayers for Kuti, and she goes to sleep peacefully. Waking before daylight, she hears footsteps approach the hut. All she can think is that the steps belong to Kunthi, who must have come back to take what little is left to steal.
  • In a panicked fit, she quickly gets out of the hut, and hurls herself against the woman she sees approaching. Rukmani loses control of her senses, and throws her anger and hatred into beating the living daylights out of the intruder. She’s shaken from that stupor as her pummeled victim cries, "Mother! Mother!" Nathan has rushed out to pull Rukmani from their daughter, Ira.
  • Ira is badly beaten, and Nathan is furious at Rukmani for not recognizing their own daughter. Rukmani can only mutter in her defense that she thought it was Kunthi.
  • The biggest surprise of the evening is that many of Ira’s wounds and gashes came from the breaking of the glass she was wearing. Where she managed to get glass bangles, and why she’s walking around with them at night only has one possible explanation: Ira has turned to prostitution.
  • As Rukmani takes Ira’s sari to the river to wash off the blood from the squabble, she sees a shining rupee drop from the folds of the garment into the water. As Ira rests, recovering from the wounds, and Kuti whimpers, ailing from hunger, Rukmani can no longer deny that her daughter has been dancing in the street for money.
  • Rukmani wrestles over her concern for Ira, never speaking of it explicitly, but quite obviously pained. Ira has made up her mind to sell her body, however, and will not be deterred.
  • Nathan is harsh with his daughter. He runs into Ira as he comes home from the fields at sunset, and the girl is dressed and ready for the night shift. He calls her out as a common strumpet, and a harlot, but she is unmoved. So long as there is hunger, Ira will find work, even if it’s of a distasteful sort.
  • Ira’s parents have done their best to forbid her work, and she has decided to be disobedient. Rukmani resigns herself to the fact that there is nothing else to be done. With Ira’s money, they can afford to eat again. Still, Nathan will not touch any of the food bought from the girl’s work.
  • The baby Kuti, though, is less discerning about where food comes from. He seems to get better in the first few days of Ira’s patronage, but he begins to weaken again. One evening, he cries out to his mother weakly that he has lost his sight. Ruku is frightened but tries to calm him.
  • Rukmani goes to Kuti when she hears him turn over. She notices that he’s looking towards Ira with unseeing eyes. Rukmani holds him and sings to him, seeming to forget in those painful moments that it’s clear the life has left his body. In his death, the marks of suffering have gone from his face. Rukmani notes painfully that she could not have wished for him to come back to the life of suffering that he has left.