Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Chapter 20

By Kamala Markandaya

Chapter 20

  • It is time for Ira to give birth, and Rukmani prepares the house. She puts bamboo outside of the hut (a traditional warning to her husband and son that a birth is occurring in their one-room home). She cleans the house, puts down wet dung, and takes out the straw pallet women lie on to give birth, the same one she had used to give birth to Ira and all of her children.
  • Rukmani then contemplates how many births the house has seen, and notes that this is the first that is not her own.
  • As she thinks on it, she is plagued by doubts about the origin of Ira’s baby. A man takes his wife gently, and watches over her in pregnancy, but when a baby is born out of wedlock, there is no guarantee that the baby will be clean, or the mother safe.
  • Rukmani notes that Ira seems unperturbed by such concerns, and concludes that if she ever does worry, she wouldn’t do it in front of her mother.
  • Rukmani delivers Ira’s baby, which confirms all of her fears about the strangeness of a baby born from a strange situation.
  • Ira’s baby is an albino, with white skin and pink eyes. She hands the baby to Ira and is shocked when Ira seems completely unfazed by the baby’s oddity.
  • Rukmani is confused: either Ira has gone mad, or her own pride as a mother gives her the strength to ignore the abnormality of the baby. She treats the baby as though it were perfect.
  • Nathan is particularly perturbed by the whole affair, and he blames himself for letting this happen. To him, the baby is wrong, and his weird physicality is a reflection of just how wrong the situation is.
  • Rukmani tries to comfort him with the fact that Ira is OK with everything, but the parents dwell on the fact that the baby, with his sensitive albino eyes and skin, shrinks from the sunlight. The same happy sunlight that reared her children is a bane to this baby.
  • The town gets news quickly of Ira’s strange baby, and people come flooding in to see him as if he is a local curiosity. People are either sympathetic or they delight in the family’s misery.
  • Nathan finally can’t take it anymore, and he declares they should have the traditional ceremony to name the child, which will remove all excuse for the "well-wishers" to make their visits of curiosity. On the tenth day after the birth, Old Granny arrives.
  • The older woman gives a rupee to the baby, and Rukmani later learns it was her last. Old Granny blames herself for Ira’s misfortune, because Ira’s failed match was her doing.
  • Rukmani realizes no one is to blame. Kenny has assured her that the fact that the baby is albino is not the fault of the father, but just a freak occurrence. Rukmani accepts that trying to lay blame is futile.
  • It is when Kali finally comes to visit the baby that all of the concerns are blown open and put to rest. As Rukmani’s most garrulous neighbor comes in to peer at the curiosity, Kali says what everyone has been thinking – the baby is simply not normal. Nathan is sour, Ira looks hurt, and everyone is silent and uncomfortable until Selvam puts them all to shame.
  • Selvam is not even sixteen, but he is sensible. He declares that a pink-eyed baby is just as much a baby as a brown-eyed one. He chides Kali harshly, saying her own maternal instinct should have told her this.
  • With this declaration made, he comforts the baby, who smiles at him. Kali, meanwhile, has slinks away, appropriately shamed by her own insensitivity.