Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Part 1, Chapter 12 | Summary



Rukmani's sons Arjun and Thambi continue to work at the tannery. Their wages help the family, but because they are grown men working long hours they require more food and regularly need new clothing. Rukmani isn't able to save at the rate she had hoped, but she doesn't complain. One day Rukmani walks in to town to bring the boys lunch, as she sometimes does, but guards surround the tannery. They will not tell Rukmani what has happened. They only say there has been trouble inside and the workers are forbidden from leaving. Late that night her sons trudge home and reveal they had been organizing a labor strike for better pay. Rukmani cannot understand why they would ask for more from a job that has already given them so much. The workers go on strike, but the tannery simply hires more men to fill their positions. With the lost income, Rukmani has to stretch their resources.

Soon after recruiters arrive, pounding drums on the outskirts of town, and Rukmani's sons learn of a job opportunity in the tea fields of Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). They decide to depart immediately. Rukmani knows she will never see her sons again. At the same time, Kennington has recommended Rukmani's third son, Murugan, for a servant's position, so he will be moving to a city only two days' travel time away. With three sons gone, Rukmani feels depressed, and Nathan tries to cheer her by pointing out the healthy fields, which will surely provide a bountiful harvest.


The labor strike at the tannery answers Kennington's question about why peasants don't demand better rather than relying on fate. Arjun and Thambi recognize the wealth disparity between those who own the tannery and those who simply work there. While the wages are considered good in the impoverished village, the full-time wages of two strong, healthy young men only allow their family to buy enough rice not to starve and enough fabric not to go naked. The young men recognize they will never be able to buy their own land or change their social standing, no matter how hard they work or how much they save. Meanwhile, the tannery owners live in large houses and their wives wear expensive jewelry. While Rukmani cannot comprehend her son's "greed," the well-read boys understand on a personal and academic level that their lives are unjust. Their attempt to strike fails, leaving the young men with less than they had before. They are fired from the tannery and have no other work options. They must travel abroad, likely as indentured servants, in hope of making a life for themselves. Throughout the novel Kennington wonders why peasants don't demand better from their government, and the boys' experience shows why most people would rather accept their fate than take a chance.

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