Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Chapter 23

By Kamala Markandaya

Chapter 23

  • We learn that Murugan, the son who had gone away to a city to work as a servant, has married. Ruku and Nathan could not afford to attend the wedding, but more importantly, Nathan was too sick to make the trip.
  • Nathan is approaching 50, and is plagued by rheumatism and fevers that leave him increasingly weak. As a result, Nathan is unable to work the land. Though Ira and Rukmani try as they can to tend to the earth, they cannot make as much of an impact as Nathan did.
  • Kenny cares for Nathan, and tells Ruku that the man hasn’t been eating well enough. Rukmani points out that they eat as well as they can.
  • Kenny also thinks that Nathan worries too much, which only makes him weaker. Rukmani says he is right to worry, as his whole family depends on him for their livelihood. She immediately regrets saying this to Kenny, as she doesn’t want to seem selfish. Ruku acknowledges, though, that this is the truth, and even Kenny cannot deny that.
  • Talk then turns to whether Ruku’s many sons can support the family. Rukmani notes that her sons have made their lives elsewhere, and almost instantly, Kenny crumbles. He knows he has taken the last of Rukmani’s sons from her, and he is stricken by it. Still, Rukmani assures him that she wants for Selvam what Selvam wants for himself.
  • Kenny asks Rukmani if she never plans for the future, and she gently points out the obvious. Under conditions like these, no plans can be made. Rukmani declares that they are all in God’s hands.
  • Before long, Nathan begins to get better, almost miraculously.
  • Then, everything takes a turn for the worse.
  • Rukmani comes home one day to find Sacrabani cowering in a corner, looking with terror and curiosity at his grandfather, who is sitting on the floor gazing into nothingness. Rukmani thinks Nathan has just had one of his attacks again, and she gives him water to drink, tending to him gently.
  • Nathan then announces the worst news of all: Sivaji has paid a surprise visit, and their land is to be sold to the tannery. The thirty years they’ve spent on the land doesn’t matter because the tannery will pay more. What’s more: the deal has already been completed and the family only has two weeks left.
  • Rukmani is naturally in shock, and wonders where they’ll go, and what they’ll do. She finally admits that they are surrounded by mad chaos.
  • Rukmani and Nathan are both in shock, and they distractedly discuss what on earth the tannery will do with this little land that is only good for rice growing. Rukmani helpfully the fact that at least they won’t have to carry much, in consolation.
  • Rukmani then wanders into her own thoughts about the tannery, declaring that she always knew it would be their ruin. Some have benefited from it, no doubt, but many more have suffered, it seems. Her family once had prosperity from the tannery, but those days seem to have long since passed.
  • Rukmani then pauses in her reflection to admit that the tannery is not entirely to blame. The land is a fickle thing, and people who make their living on it must live with the uncertainty that there will be times of plenty, and times of nothingness, glut and dearth in equal parts, both equally impossible to anticipate.
  • With the land gone, Rukmani knows they have nothing. She walks into the hut, and surveys the long history of what has happened there.
  • Selvam comes home later that night, and when Nathan breaks the news to him, he is thoughtfully silent. Rukmani has a moment of weakness and wonders whether Selvam’s silence is because he does not care. She immediately remembers Selvam is a quiet, thoughtful man and quickly is ashamed of herself.
  • When Selvam finally speaks, he is furious. Like his brothers before him, he has an acute sense of justice, and he declares that it is simply not right that the tannery should do this.
  • His parents are more pliable to bad fates, choosing not to shake their fists at heaven in futility. Nathan declares they will go to Murugan in the city. He’s too old now to be able to guarantee hard work and profit – no one would sell land to him under that kind of uncertainty. Rukmani’s optimism rails against Nathan’s harsh words, but he insists that they are true, and must be said.
  • Nathan comforts Rukmani, and in a tender moment, he lays his hands on her temples. It becomes clear to her that they suffer for each other more than for themselves. It might be easier to not have to worry about each other, but they couldn’t bear their other worries if they didn’t have each other.
  • Rukmani’s head is unclear, and she leaves the practical arrangements of their future to her husband and son.
  • Rukmani breaks out of her blurred thinking when she hears Selvam speak. In a profound moment of self-sacrifice, Selvam offers to return to the land. He and his father can work it together, and perhaps they might live as they once did. Nathan brightens for a moment at the prospect, but his generosity matches his son’s. He knows what he would be taking away from Selvam by putting him back on the land, and Nathan’s final verdict is that Selvam should pursue his hospital work.
  • Then there is the question of Ira and Sacrabani. Though Nathan and Rukmani are sure they must go, Ira declares she and her son have a home here, as uncomfortable as it may be. People are used to her and her strange son, and she does not want to start a new life somewhere else.
  • Selvam vows to care for Ira and Sacrabani, though it pains him that he has nothing to give his parents. Taking care of his sister and nephew is the best gesture he can offer.
  • It is settled that Selvam will take care of her and her son. In the end, it is decided that only Nathan and Rukmani will go, leaving behind what’s left of their family.