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Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Part 2, Chapter 24 | Summary



Rukmani packs up the few belongings she and Nathan have, including their sleeping mats and a single pot she hopes to offer her daughter-in-law. Rukmani has not spoken to Murugan in over five years and has never met his wife. She knows their arrival will be surprising. She and Nathan, ladened with emotion, climb onto the bullock cart that will drive them to Murugan's village, saying goodbye to the land and their remaining children, perhaps forever. The journey is long and uncomfortable. After the first day Rukmani notices the yoke rubs roughly against one of the bull's backs, leaving it raw and infected. The driver has no choice but to force the animal along on trip after trip because otherwise his family would starve.

When Rukmani and Nathan finally arrive, the carter drops them off 15 miles from the section of the city where Murugan lives. They walk for hours in search of the street where Murugan's house should be. Some passersby help the lost couple. Others ignore them. They stop to rest for a few hours, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the busy city. As dusk approaches they are still too tired to resume searching. An old man they hadn't noticed before, sitting in a nearby doorway, tells them they can find shelter for the night and a free meal at a temple, only a short distance away. They decide to go there and look for Murugan the next morning.

On the way to the temple, they see several people also headed there. A crowd of beggars swells toward the temple, and Nathan and Rukmani travel along with them. Inside the temple the priests offer a short religious service, which causes Rukmani to feel sentimental and reverent. A drum strikes, the service concludes, and everyone rushes into the courtyard where the food offerings for the service will be dispersed to the crowd. Rukmani and Nathan set down their bags and join the mob. Rukmani manages to find a place in the food line, but Nathan is left behind in the pushy crowd. Rukmani tries to convince the priests to give her two portions—one for herself and one for Nathan—but they refuse. Rukmani splits her single serving, happy to have something to share. When they return to the hallway they realize their bags have been stolen. Luckily Rukmani pinned their savings to the inside of her sari, but she feels disappointed to have lost her pot. They fall asleep, and Rukmani rouses slightly when she feels something fluttering around her face.


The bullocks pulling the cart become clear symbols for Rukmani and Nathan. One is healthy while the other is injured. Both bullocks share the weight of the yoke, but the weaker struggles to keep up with the healthy one. As the journey progresses, Rukmani notices that the yoke had rubbed a "large raw patch" on one of the bullock's shoulders. When she questions the cart driver, he says he has no choice but to continue working the animal because his family's livelihood depends on it. This description directly mirrors how Nathan continues to work the land during the famine despite being told he is starving to death. Like the bullock that "cringed, but accepted the torment" of its job, Nathan continues to give everything to his crops whether or not there will be a harvest. The driver whips the animals, urging them forward, and they stumble along the road toward their goal. In the city Nathan and Rukmani stumble through city streets as the desperation to stay alive acts like whips on their backs.

The temple scene further illustrates how desperate people lose their humanity and become like animals. Starvation leaves no room for kindness or sympathy. When people line up for food, they push aside the weak and shove themselves to the front of the line. When Rukmani asks for extra food for her husband, people turn on her like jackals.

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