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Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Part 1, Chapter 14 | Summary



The rains finally arrive, and Rukmani and Nathan sow new seed. The family watches with a mixture of hope and fear as their rice crops grow. They have no food left and no money to buy anything, but Rukmani has cleverly stashed away a small stock of rice. She divides it into small piles and sees she has enough to feed her family a few mouthfuls of rice for 24 days. With only this small amount of food, the family begins to starve. They forage for what they can, but because so many others in the village are also starving even scraps are difficult to come by. Nathan grows so weak and anxious he convulses and screams at night.

Kunthi shows up at Nathan and Rukmani's one day, looking near death. She demands food from Rukmani, who is at that moment cooking a few tablespoons of rice for her family. She offers Kunthi a sip of rice water, but Kunthi demands grains. She threatens to tell Nathan about Rukmani's secret visits with Kennington if Rukmani does not oblige. Terrified, Rukmani gives Kunthi a week's worth of rice. Later the same evening, Rukmani sneaks out to check on her rice reserves and discovers, to her horror, all of the rice missing except a handful.

She angrily wakes up her sleeping children and confronts them, accusing each of eating or selling the rice. Terrified, they each answer that they would never steal from their own. Tearfully, Nathan, who walks in from the field when he hears Rukmani's shouting, admits to stealing the rice. He confesses that he gave it to Kunthi because she threatened to reveal to Rukmani that he is the father of her children. Stunned, Rukmani tells Nathan that Kunthi extorted rice from her too. She forgives Nathan for keeping his secret, and they both feel relieved to be free from Kunthi's manipulation. Time passes as the family barely stays alive. Kuti, only five years old, struggles most.


The rains offer hope of a bountiful harvest, but food is still weeks away. Rukmani surrenders the first of her dignity when she sells the saris, but she and her family sink further away from their humanity when they are forced to eat garbage and grass to stay alive. The family suffers the excruciating physical pain of hunger, which Markandaya describes in heart-wrenching detail. Most modern readers will never witness the slow torture of starvation, yet Markandaya's passages of suffering offer timeless descriptions of drought, famine, and death.

The exchange between Kunthi and Rukmani over rice reveals the depths of their characters. Kunthi, who lost her dignity long before this moment, uses gossip and manipulation to stay alive. She reveals that her husband left her and her sons abandoned her, so she has no one to rely on but herself. She uses the tools at her disposal—namely, her sexuality—to stay alive, yet Rukmani leads the reader to believe Kunthi, like the cobra, is pure evil. In contrast Rukmani represents the dutiful Hindu wife. Forgiving Nathan for his affair is an act of loyalty as much as self-preservation. She knows she could never survive without Nathan, so there is no point in being angry.

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