Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Part 2, Chapter 27 | Summary



With nowhere left to turn, Rukmani and Nathan join the rest of the beggars at the temple. Each day they go out in search of a few pennies to scrape by, and then they again join the throng for the free meal and shelter in the evenings. They adjust quickly to a beggar's life. Determined to return to their village, Rukmani tries to sell her services reading letters, but she often makes only a few coins a day—enough to buy a daily rice cake—so she and Nathan don't starve. Both she and Nathan fear they will starve to death on the streets.

One day the leprous boy, Puli, returns demanding his owed payment. When he realizes the couple has nothing to give, he offers to help them find work at a rock quarry. The quarry pays well, but due to his disease Puli cannot hold a hammer himself. The streetwise boy gets the couple set up for their first day's work. They cannot yet afford hammers, so they break rocks into small pieces using another rock. The work is backbreaking and difficult, but they make more in a single day's work than in a week of Rukmani's reading letters on the street. Puli becomes the couple's de facto adopted son, guarding their possessions and tallying up their money as they eagerly save to return home.


Puli's return provides Nathan and Rukmani the street smarts they need to survive the city. They form a symbiotic relationship with Puli—he offers his knowledge, and they offer their affection. Both sides desperately need the other. Puli secures work for Nathan and Rukmani at the rock quarry, a job leprous Puli is unable to do himself, ensuring a quicker return home for Nathan and Rukmani. In return Rukmani offers Puli affection, which he hasn't had in years. Puli laps up the attention, reminding Rukmani, and the reader, again how even as a child he lost his humanity to survive on the streets.

Rukmani's failed attempt reading letters further explores mid-19th-century India's devaluation of women. Because women were considered second-class citizens, men would rather taunt and harass Rukmani than use her services, despite their need for literacy. For Rukmani, being a woman provides almost as big a hurdle to overcome as being poor.

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