Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve Chapter 26

By Kamala Markandaya

Chapter 26

  • Nathan and Rukmani go to the Collector’s house on Chamundi Hill in search of their son. It’s a fine and beautiful house, but as the old couple approach, a man immediately runs out to shoo them away, taking them for beggars.
  • They announce they are not beggars, but have come to look for their son, Murugan. Hearing this, the man immediately softens, and brusquely delivers them to Murugan’s wife’s godown before rushing off. ( A "godown" is a tiny section of a warehouse that can be used as a home.)
  • Murugan’s wife’s dwelling (one small square room set in a long row of similar rooms) is not too different from the one Das and his family kept.
  • At the threshold, Rukmani and Nathan hesitate, overcome with excitement and a kind of shyness. They think about being reunited with their son, whom they haven’t seen for so long, and finally meeting his wife, whom they’ve never known. They can’t quite bring themselves to step into the door, so they call for Murugan’s wife from the threshold.
  • A thin girl with "untidy hair" answers them at the door, and their reception is shockingly cold. She wants to know who they are and what they want. Once more, Ruku is embarrassed that she and Nathan must look like beggars. Nathan explains that they aren’t beggars at all, but Murugan’s parents.
  • Hearing this, the woman, (we find out that her name is "Ammu"), lets them in, but she looks strangely uncertain about what to do with them. It turns out her discomfort stems from the fact that Murugan has left her. He’s been gone two years, and she safely assumes that he isn’t coming back.
  • Of course, Nathan and Rukmani are shocked – they’ve come this far for nothing. It’s clear the girl is struggling on her own just to feed the two babies she has. There’s no way she’ll be able to take care of them too.
  • Her demeanor with them is cold, likely because she understands that they came to get help. Ammu seems accusatory of the old couple. Ruku understands this coldness because the blame is partly theirs: had they raised him better, he would not have deserted this woman and his child.
  • Ammu announces that she’ll be going off to do her work (cleaning houses) but Nathan and Rukmani can stay until she gets back to reach the children. The baby she has on her hip begins to cry as soon as she puts him down. Ruku wants to hold him to see if he’ll quiet down.
  • Ammu is fine with that, but she adds sharply that Rukmani should know the child is not her grandchild. She defensively says "One must live," expecting Ruku to have some scolding for her, but of course Ruku doesn’t. (It seems Ammu, driven by hunger like Ira, turned to giving away her body for money. The baby must be less than two years old, and was thus conceived after Murugan left.)
  • Ammu returns from cleaning houses (where she earns fifteen rupees a month and gets free housing) at midday, and Rukmani can tell that she and Nathan were not really supposed to take up Ammu’s invitation that they stay for a meal.
  • Their meal is made with half-hostility. It’s clear the girl has some concern for what will happen to these old people, and where they’ll go, but she can’t take on their burden in addition to her own. The sooner they leave her, the better.
  • As Nathan explains that they’ll be on their way back to the village, he qualifies that they only came to the city for their son. There’s added awkwardness as Rukmani tries weakly to defend Murugan’s desertion, saying he must have had some reason. Ammu is infuriated by this, and says Murugan only left to chase women and gambling.
  • Nathan diffuses the tension a little by assuring Ammu that they’ll go back to their son and daughter in the village. He worries for her though: she will face one challenge after another as a young woman fending for herself and two babies. Ammu is cold in her replies – she’s sure she can take care of herself and her children just fine. Rukmani can tell the girl has been hardened, and can anticipate that Ammu will only receive more challenges.
  • There’s only so long one can hang around in awkwardness and hostility, even when one has no place to go, so soon enough Nathan and Rukmani leave.
  • Rukmani notes that the parting is sad, even though the meeting was a bit weird. She’s saddened by the prospect that she’ll likely never see this daughter-in-law and these children again.
  • Lost in their thoughts, Rukmani and Nathan wander to the wrong exit. One of the servants screams behind them that they’re supposed to use the servant’s exit, and they should remember that for next time. Nathan (who still has his usual gracious dignity) replies that they are not servants, and there will be no next time.