Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Part 1, Chapter 9 | Summary



One morning Rukmani sees two figures approaching in the distance. She realizes it's her daughter and son-in-law, so she makes a pattern in white rice flour by the door to greet them. As Irawaddy draws closer, Rukmani realizes something is wrong. When they arrive Rukmani learns Irawaddy's husband has come to return her because she has failed to conceive a child and he no longer wants her. While Rukmani feels he hasn't been patient enough—it has only been five years—Nathan understands: "He is justified ... a man needs children."

Devastated, Irawaddy sinks into depression. At the same time Rukmani's eldest son, Arjun, takes a job at the tannery. At first Rukmani discourages him, but Arjun argues that he will no longer go hungry, especially now that his sister has returned and they have another mouth to feed. Before long Rukmani's second son, Thambi, joins him. Their income helps the family stay afloat, but Nathan feels saddened that his sons will not join him in the fields.


Irawaddy's sad fate highlights the plight of childless women in Hindu culture. Fertility is revered above all else, and no one blames Irawaddy's husband for divorcing her. Readers will remember that at the time of her abandonment, Irawaddy is only 19, which means she still has many childbearing years in her future, yet because she has already lost her virginity and dowry it is highly unlikely any man will marry her.

Arjun and Thambi's decision to take work at the tannery surprises Rukmani for many reasons. First, as Hindus, the boys would be forbidden from touching the skin of a slaughtered cow. In this way the boys turn their back on religion to make money. Second, they take the work despite being outside the "caste" of a tanner. To Rukmani, traditional Indian castes should be respected, and she expected her boys to take over Nathan's fields someday. Arjun and Thambi, like Kennington, are willing to forego tradition for the sake of progress.

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