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The title Nectar in a Sieve is taken from the final lines of a famous poem “Work without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). This poem mainly focuses about humankind’s relationship with the natural world, which I believe is one of the main themes in this novel. This novel unravels the bonds between family traditions in a growing India, conflicts between a traditional agricultural and industrial society, importance of traditional cultural practices, people’s reluctance to change, and the impact of economic change.
“The rice would have to be lifted plant by plant, and the grain separated from the husk, and the husk beaten for the last few grains… it meant working long hours in the flooded fields with bent back, and much labouring thereafter converting the paddy into rice” (Kamala Markandaya, Nectar in a Sieve, London: The John Day Company, 1954, p.97)
Kamala Markandaya portrays the Indian society as people who only seek to find happiness and strength by imagination, not by working hard to achieve their dreams. They are happy with what they have; not aiming to reach ahead and working toward higher achievement. Rice is not only symbolized as life but also power. Without rice they are not able to make a living or provide food for their family. When Rukmani and Nathan are faced with a bad season for harvesting, they turn to prayers, hope and belief. They are powerless to do anything else hence they make rice the subject of their desire. Without rice they believe that there is no life nor are they able to sustain a reasonable living, no matter how intolerable that life is.
Much of the novel is driven by the fact that the characters are often powerless against external situations. However, power is also about the determination of a person. Though Rukmani and Nathan are forced into different directions by outside power, this allows them to develop internal power. Nathan always maintains his confidence, and Rukmani has a lot of patience. They have hope in spite of everything around them, and this hope gives them the power to go on.
“You will see,” he said with confidence. “We will find our strength. One look at the swelling grain will be enough to renew our vigour”. ( p.97)
There is so much hope in Nathan’s tone within this quote. Hope could be foreshowed as a better future. Markandaya could be implying that there is much belief within the people of India and that someday they will find what they are looking for. Never giving up seems to be the motto they lead by. Even though, this “hope” is put forward as false hope, Markandaya could be saying that Indian people are very easily manipulated by people with higher power. During pre and post independence, the hierarchy of an Indian family was known to be as the man, who is the superior followed by the women of the family. In a way this is an allegory, in which Nathan is symbolized as Nehru and Rukmani as the Indian people. Hence, it is seen that Rukumani is obliged to believe the false hope that Nathan puts forward.
“Soon all will be well, I thought. We shall eat and the strength will come back to us, and there will be no more fear.”(p.99)
Rukmani is characterized as a strong voice for the poor people of India and her description of battle against starvation is simple yet powerful. She often confronts her own disbeliefs, as people and events often challenge her traditional views. Markandaya frequently implies suffering is a fact of life in this novel. Rukmani and Nathan not only suffer financially, but also suffer emotionally. As the chapter progresses we see that Rukmani ultimately accepts suffering, while Ira dedicates her life trying to improve it. This provides a clear description that the Indian people who devote themselves to the traditional Indian culture welcome suffering as it comes which is a contrast to the generations exposed to modernity, as they are determined to improve their standards of living.
“Ira gave me a sidelong glance: “your imagination would not travel that far.”
“You do not know me,” I said, troubled. “And I no longer understand you.”
“The truth is unpalatable,” she replied.” (p.102)
I believe the power of the imagination is greater than the power of truth [Copyright Veena Pradeep Kumar]. The lower caste societies are driven to imagine for a better future and higher wealth. Since the “truth is unpalatable” for them to face, Markandaya implies that it is not possible for the Indian society to think to far ahead, because there is nothing being done to improve the economic conditions in Indian after Independence. Rukmani is kept not knowing the truth and so her imagination is allowed to run wild, ultimately leading her to darker things that might even be true. Ira, by withholding the actual truth, has power over her mother. This shows that Indian government is able to keep the truth hidden and this gives them the power to impose false hope over the lower caste society.
“I will have an answer.”
“I can give you none.”
Nathan’s brows drew together: she had never before spoken to him in this manner. Looking at her, it seemed to me that almost overnight she had changed; she been tender and modest and obedient. Now she had relinquished every one of these qualities; it was difficult to believe she had ever been their possessor.”(p.103)
Ira’s transformation in behavior can be seen acceptable, but mostly to people who have adapted to a changing society. Since, she is no longer accepting her fate; Ira is making her own decision, which is empowering, even though her decision leads to an illegal activity. Ira is symbolized as the Indian people adapting to modernity. This proves that the society transforms only by hardship and learning how to accept it and to rise above difficulties.
The town is transformed by the tannery, which disrupts caste traditions and the environment and makes the people have an internal dispute about religious values and that of having enough money to support their families. India is transformed from rural and agricultural to modern and industrial. The values of the Indian people change when they are faced with the reality of what poverty can do to them, such as prostitution. Change is expected by certain people after Independence and if they wish to survive then they have no choice but to transform.
“She was no longer a child, to be cowed or forced into submission, but a grown woman with a definite purpose and an invincible determination. We had for long accepted her obedience to our will that when it ceased to be given naturally, it came as a considerable shock; yet there was no option but to accept the change, strange and bewildering as it was, for obedience cannot be extorted.”(p. 104)
This description shows that Rukmani and Nathan were learning to accept change as it comes. Learning is a symbol of hope. This also shows that there is possibility for a brighter future for them. The protagonist describes Ira as a “Grown woman with a definite purpose and an invincible determination.” This proves that the changing society did have aim and determination to rise above all, and achieve what seemed impossible to them.
“Our last child, conceived in happiness at a time when the river of our lives ran gently, had been taken from us; I knew too well what he felt. Yet, although I grieved, it was not for my son: for in my heart I could not have wished it otherwise.” (p.105)
Throughout the novel water is portrayed as a symbol for life. Rukmani and Nathan named their first child Irawaddy, “after one of the great rivers of Asia, as of all things water was most precious to us.” (p.20). Even though throughout the novel the main focus remain on harvesting rice, it is obvious that grain and seed are nothing without water. The rain patters also predict the good and bad times that Nathan and Rukmani undergo. Due to the effect of the drought, the family faces starvation, hence, Kuti dies. This could have been avoided if it had rained earlier.
The struggle of individuals caught between tradition and modernity, or between
India and the west, is a very common theme in Indian literature written after independence. This struggle is clear in Nectar in a Sieve, as Rukmani often finds herself battling between her traditional views and opinions, and the various modern events that seem to be taking over her life.