Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Symbols



The cobra symbolizes deceit. In Chapter 2, while heavily pregnant with her first child, Rukmani encounters a cobra in her vegetable garden. This frightening encounter occurs shortly after the birth of Kunthi's son and shortly before the birth of Rukmani's daughter, creating an ominous association between the two siblings. Later in the novel the reader learns Nathan, who is Rukmani's husband, fathered Kunthi's son. At the time when Kunthi and Nathan are deceiving Rukmani about the child's paternity, the cobra appears as a symbol of hidden truth and underlying danger. When Rukmani brushes against the snake it is already dead—another layer of deception—and Nathan advises Rukmani that in the future she need only to "be careful and [snakes] pass you by." This advice takes on another meaning when, during the famine, Kunthi threatens to reveal both Nathan's and Rukmani's deceptions—though Rukmani is falsely accused by Kunthi—unless they give her their rice. Nathan's advice summarizes how, for many years, the couple acted cautiously around Kunthi in the hope she, like the cobra, would leave them alone.


The rice is a symbol for fertility and life. Fertility is an important aspect of women's lives in the village. Rukmani risks everything to secretly seek fertility treatments from Kennington when she fails to conceive. Similarly, most of Irawaddy's struggles stem from the fact that her husband replaced her when she could not get pregnant. For village women, fertility equals a happy life, despite the fact that it produces more mouths to feed. Without their fertility, the women are abandoned and forgotten, like Old Granny, who starves to death on the side of the road. Mothers watch their daughters mature into the age of fertility with the same anticipation that they watch the rice field sprout and grow. Farmers like Nathan know that life itself depends on the survival of the rice paddy. When the land is fertile, the family can eat, store, and sell the rice: when the land is fertile, they know they will survive another season. When the rice paddies fail, Rukmani describes them as "faded, useless heaps."


The bullocks that pull the cart to the city symbolize hardworking peasants like Nathan and Rukmani. When Rukmani first sees the bullocks, she notes "the yoke is borne steadily on their shoulders." The animals look fit and balanced for the journey in much the same way Nathan and Rukmani are yoked by their marriage and feel prepared for their first bad harvest—surely they have stored, preserved, and saved enough to see them through. 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. Near the end of the journey Rukmani notices that the bullock's injury has festered, and the animal will "soon be fit for nothing." This foreshadows how Nathan works himself to death in the rock quarry, and because of the yoke both characters will bear the burden.

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