The meaning of life is constantly questioned and probed in this text. Life means different things to different characters: For Rukmani, it is an opportunity for endurance and spiritual cleansing through suffering; for Nathan, life is about finding little joys and simple pleasures. Kenny’s life is about helping those who suffer, regardless of the cost to one’s self. Life’s meaning is a dynamic thing, and it changes with circumstances. When harvests are good, life is not hard, and so it isn’t thought about that often. When things are bad though, there is always an opportunity to reckon with the reality that one must go on, and that life must have some innate value that makes it worth living. The characters struggle and find that meaning, each in their own way.
Rukmani is different from her children in that she does not view life as a dynamic learning experience. (12.23) Ruku has a firm view on the meaning of life, based on her cultural and spiritual values. Her children, by contrast, adjust their view on the meaning of life based on what’s going on circumstantially in their lives.
Each person’s view on the meaning of life is shaped by their social status in life – Kenny has the luxury of pity, Kunthi’s life is defined by her dissatisfaction as a woman of the earth, and Ruku accepts being a plain village woman.
Suffering is fact of life in Nectar in a Sieve. Characters suffer financially, but they also suffer in deeper and more personal ways. Rukmani watches as her children starve, and her family breaks apart. She even holds her husband as he dies. There’s a message that suffering, because it is a natural part of life, must be borne. There’s also a lot of interesting discussion between Kenny and Rukmani about whether suffering can be fought. These characters question whether there’s any purpose in being angry about the injustice of suffering if there’s nothing they can do about it. Ultimately they come down on different sides. Rukmani accepts suffering, while her last son devotes his life to trying to alleviate it. Suffering brings spiritual cleansing, but it also inspires people to hope that there is something beyond suffering.
Though Rukmani purports throughout the novel to have a system of beliefs that appreciates the meaning and value of suffering, the greater thrust of the novel suggests that the author, Markandaya, may actually believe the amount of suffering in the story to be needless.
Transformation has many facets in Nectar in a Sieve. Characters are transformed by hardship, learning how to endure and transcend difficulties. The town is transformed by the tannery, which disrupts caste traditions and the environment. The world is becoming modern and industrial, a change from rural and agricultural. Characters’ values change when faced with the reality of what poverty drives people to do (prostitution, thievery, etc), and their own hopes for themselves are gently dimmed and often redirected throughout the novel. Change is inevitable, and the story directs its focus toward watching people grow and adapt to the world as it changes around them. They have no choice but to transform if they are to survive, and this transformation occurs socially, but also personally.
It’s not India’s political situation alone that changes in the book, it’s the Indians themselves. Note that all Nathan and Ruku’s children do exactly the opposite of what’s expected of them, and their parents are powerless to do anything about it. The book is about changes that were occurring with the new generation of Indians, as India was going through its own national growing pains.
Rukmani has changed over the course of the story; the woman she describes at the start of the novel is young and flush with hope. The reason the book is so focused on suffering and failure is because Ruku, retrospectively, realized those things were the greatest influences in her life, and they’ve changed her into a resigned (but content) old woman.
Nature is a dual force in the novel. It brings great joy but also great pain. Characters often get angry about other forces beyond their control (the tannery, their children). However, for all the grief they get from nature, they never come to resent this powerful force. One of the greatest philosophical points of the book is that nature reflects the arbitrary beauty and suffering inherent in life. One can only appreciate what there is to appreciate, and endure what must be endured. Though nature often hurts her, in the end it is the thing for which she endures, knowing that it too endures and will last long after her.
Nature is a cruel force, but it stands in contrast to the even more cruel force of urban modernity, which destroys the environment and the traditions of India. Within this paradigm, for all its challenges, nature is definitely the lesser of two evils.
Poverty is the everyday reality of the characters in the novel. Poverty is not an abstract concept that one can really think about; it’s like a wolf at the door that must constantly be staved off. Poverty is so dire in this novel that characters don’t have the luxury to ruminate on it. Instead, they build their lives around the knowledge that it will always haunt them, and the best they can do is try to keep afloat. Poverty is definitely always present, but one of the strengths of Nectar in a Sieve is that it need not always be the focus. The novel gives us a rare glimpse into the complex lives and emotions people live (even when they are in poverty). Characters are driven by it, but it is not all that shapes them. They cannot financially transcend it, but they learn to define themselves spiritually beyond it.
Poverty limits the characters financially, but it is not ultimately a totally confining force, and is perhaps even an elevating one. As the characters have no material goods, they’re forced to seek greater meaning in philosophical and spiritual happiness.
Poverty is an utterly despicable force that is powerful in the book because it is dealt with so honestly. Rukmani never romanticizes her poverty, instead speaking openly of hunger, hurt pride, and suffering. Her tale takes the mystery out of the anonymous destitute we imagine in homeless shelters and refugee camps. This story is not one of hope, but a challenge to the reader to do something about the arbitrary cruelty of poverty.
The home is a place of stability in this novel. The home represents safety and protection, but it is also the keeper of people’s larger lives. When Rukmani packs up her home to go, she leaves it only physically. Her home lives on in her memory, and it travels with her as she struggles to pray. Ultimately, Nathan and Rukmani dream of returning to their home, and to the memory of the life they once had. Their home is not a place that exists any longer, but it’s a space in memories and emotions that symbolizes their sense of belonging. When Nathan and Rukmani’s sons leave home, they are leaving behind their whole lives. Selvam and Ira, who chose to stay in their village and take back their mother, represent the hope of stability and love. They have become a spiritual home, which is a familiar comfort for a dying old woman.
Nathan’s home is the land, while Rukmani’s home is wherever her husband is. Arjun and Thambi could not be at home without financial assurance, and Ira’s home is where she can be accepted with her child. Different characters locate their home differently, as home is not a physical location but a state of mind dictated by comfort.
Home is equally a space of comfort and confinement, depending on whose perspective you’re considering. For example, the only way Kenny can be comfortable is by having no single place of comfort. He is at home in his own displacement.
Nectar in a Sieve is full of all different kinds of love. Family love, romantic love, love for children, and abstract philosophical love of life and land, are all central to the novel. The ability to endure throughout hardship is one of the most present motifs in the book, and often takes the form of love. Rukmani fears she cannot go on without her love, and when she comes back to her home, she has made peace with herself, likely inspired and comforted by her love for Puli and her children. An interesting note on family love – it’s not a guarantee that love and understanding follow from being related or married in this novel – a lot of the novel is about the genesis of love between people. Nathan and Ruku come to know each other, and Ruku comes to know Puli in a way that shows love is about the growth of relationships.
Selvam is the only one in the family who loves Sacrabani immediately and without reservation. Ira cries a lot, and Ruku and Nathan still have their doubts about the odd child. Ultimately, Selvam, who has sacrificed so much for the family and saves them all in the end, is the only character who understands the true meaning of unconditional family love.
Love is one of the most subtle and powerful, forces in the book. It isn’t spoken of explicitly, but it imbues nearly every choice made by the characters we meet. Its quiet presence makes it more powerful than a more concrete force.
Foreignness is most present in this novel as a trope of colonialism. The colonial world has brought in unfamiliar objects, people, and ways of life. The tannery, the Muslims that come to work at the tannery, the white men, the caste-breaking, and the breakdown social structure are all changes that intrude on people’s lives, and are difficult to bear because they are so alien to what is normal. The colonial world is to blame for bringing strange and foreign things, and for disrupting traditions, but there’s also other foreignness central to the novel. Characters are often foreign to each other. Ruku’s children make decisions she doesn’t understand, and she can’t relate to Kunthi’s love of the urban or Kenny’s worldview about suffering. Foreignness is an inevitable part of relationships, and characters must learn to overcome it, by overlooking it, or, in better cases, by understanding it in order to communicate.
Familiarity is not necessarily a central part of empathy; often it is those characters who are most foreign, who inspire the most sympathy. As ironic as it may seem, empathy may cause characters in the novel to be less inclined to help each other. Because Rukmani is familiar with the problems that Janaki, Old Granny, and others in her community face, she is uninspired to help them, thinking they, should deal with their problems on their own. Had their woes been foreign to her, she might work harder to understand and help them.
Nectar in a Sieve hints at the fact that women did not have as much power in their society as men. The women of this novel, however, exercise tremendous and unusual power in many different ways. Rukmani is educated and savvy; her brave actions to seek fertility treatment allows her and Nathan to have sons, and even though she’s technically subservient to Nathan, she’s gained power in their relationship by gaining his love. Also, Rukmani exercises power by narrating her own story: she is in control of what we know, and has power over her readers. Ira and Kunthi turn to prostitution to gain economic power. This choice hints at the deeper power that women’s sexuality gives them over men. Men may "own" them for a few minutes, but ultimately it’s their allure that gives them power over men. Men have no choice but to seek their services, as the need they inspire is so great. Women are definitely restricted in a formal sense, but the women in this novel are constantly breaking and ignoring those restrictions – Ira raises her baby, Rukmani writes letters in the market place, Kenny’s woman friend is a doctor – and while they all certainly know that they are women, this isn’t the sole defining limitation on who they are or can be.
Women in the novel are guilty of judging each other in the same manner as they judged are by men. Rukmani especially accepts the limited and confining social roles women are supposed to play; this leads to a lack of empathy and empowerment among the women.
Women are allowed to be keepers of the home, which in this novel is a special source of power. Rukmani is no less powerful than Nathan, she just has a different sphere of influence than he does. This is supported by the fact that Nathan relies on Rukmani as an equal partner, not a subservient wife.
Power is another important force in Nectar in a Sieve. Much of the novel is driven by the fact that the characters are often powerless against external circumstances. They are at the whim of the weather, the tannery, the landowners, and any other number of more powerful forces. However, power is also about the will of an individual. Though Rukmani and Nathan are forced into certain directions by outside power, those forces allow them to develop tremendous personal power. Nathan is buoyed by his convictions, and Rukmani has astonishing endurance and patience. The couple, though limited by external circumstance, has found that they need internal willpower in order to go on. In the landscape of the greater world, but the strength and bravery with which they face that outside world is a testament to their own personal power. They have hope in spite of everything around them, and this hope gives them the power to go on.
The tannery is a powerful force in the village, and is has power over the opportunities and economic mobility of the characters. When the tannery officials come to seek Ruku’s acceptance of their claim that they are not liable for Raja’s death, they are implicitly admitting that they only hold power so long as the people allow them to hold power. This is symbolic of the larger hold of power that Britain and industry had over India – power can only be held unconditionally so long as it is not resisted or questioned.
It is only when characters put aside their considerations of their power relative to each other that genuine loving and kindness can occur (as when Nathan eschews his power as a controlling husband, or Kenny overlooks his higher social position to befriend Ruku’s family).