Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Part 1, Chapter 16 | Summary

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Summary

Nathan's crops are doing well, but they still need three weeks before he can harvest them. The family grows weaker every day. Kuti, Rukmani's five-year-old son, in particular, looks near death. His eyes have turned dull, and he spends all his waking hours moaning. Sores and blisters cover his body, and he breathes heavily. Rukmani watches, waiting for him to die. A few days later he appears to be doing better. Irawaddy delights in his recovery. That evening, while lying in bed, Rukmani feels hopeful for the future as she drifts between sleep and wakefulness. She hears footsteps in the distance and sees the hazy outline of a woman in the hut. She leaps from bed, thinking the woman is Kunthi returning to see what else she can steal. Rukmani throws herself violently on the woman, kicking and beating her. She hears a shrill scream, "Mother!" and realizes the woman is Irawaddy. Nathan and Selvam carry Irawaddy's limp and bloody body into the hut. They discover that when Rukmani leapt on her, Irawaddy's glass bracelets shattered, cutting her side and wrist. Rukmani knows Irawaddy could never afford bangles and suspects she must now be working as a prostitute.

In the early morning as Rukmani washes the bloodstains from her daughter's clothes, a rupee slips out of the folds of her sari and disappears in the river. Later when Rukmani checks on her daughter's wounds, Irawaddy moans and says she has one rupee tied to her sari Rukmani should use to buy Kuti something to eat.

Before Irawaddy's wounds heal, she returns to the streets. Her parents try to stop her, but Irawaddy will not be swayed. She always brings her earnings home, although Nathan never eats food bought with Irawaddy's money. With more food to feed him, Kuti appears to get better, but he dies shortly after.

Analysis

This chapter provides the turning point of the novel. Rukmani attacks her own daughter in a murderous rage, losing whatever grip she had left of her humanity. Although Rukmani believes the figure to be Kunthi rather than Irawaddy, in the moment Rukmani feels willing to murder another person to stay alive. In Rukmani's previous encounter with Kunthi, she looked upon her neighbor with sympathy, even generosity, that defines her Hindu faith. Now she simply wants Kunthi dead. Irawaddy's screams end the attack and save Rukmani from becoming a murderer.

Markandaya carefully contrasts the novel's prostitutes, Irawaddy and Kunthi. When Irawaddy becomes a prostitute, she does so to save her beloved brother, Kuti. Knowing she has already lost her eligibility as a wife, Irawaddy exploits her beauty to keep her family alive. Her actions feel noble, whereas Kunthi's feel selfish. From the beginning of the novel Markandaya describes Kunthi as vain and sensual, leading readers to believe she became a prostitute for enjoyment rather than need. While to Rukmani the act of prostitution is sinful in itself, Irawaddy can be forgiven while Kunthi must be condemned.

Finally, this chapter introduces the image of a single rupee. Irawaddy comes home this night with a single rupee (25 cents) to feed Kuti. The rupee slips under the water as Rukmani washes the bloody sari, and Kuti dies soon after. Later in the novel Old Granny gives her last rupee to Rukmani as a gift. A while later when Old Granny starves on the side of the road, Rukmani can never forgive herself for accepting money that could have provided Old Granny a few more meals. Vivid scenes like these force readers to see the devastating desperation between life and death in a starving community.

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