Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Themes



Rukmani's life is filled with struggle, yet she remains resolutely optimistic about her future. Married off to a poor rice farmer at the age of 12, Rukmani struggles through loneliness, infertility, starvation, and great loss with persevering optimism. The novel's title, Nectar in a Sieve, refers to nectar, a sweet liquid, and a sieve, a device with meshes that allows liquid to pass through while trapping solids in the device. The title suggests Rukmani's ability to appreciate the short, sweet moments in life before they disappear. During the Deepavali celebration in Chapter 10, for example, Rukmani's family struggles to eat, yet she doles out precious pennies for the children to buy fireworks because "it is only once ... a memory." Similarly, at the end of the novel when she and Nathan have been saving to return to the village, she feels overcome with happiness while at the market with Puli. She buys fried pancakes instead of plain rice cakes and wooden toys for the children: "Well, if we are extravagant it is only once." No matter what suffering comes Rukmani's way, she maintains optimism that life can only get better. She tells Kenny, "Want is our companion from birth to death." Rather than wallow in what's lacking, Rukmani always chooses to look ahead: to the next meal, the next year, or the next harvest.


Rukmani and her family work to ensure their survival despite the seemingly insurmountable setbacks that threaten their existence. In this way Nectar in a Sieve reads as an elegy to the determination of the human spirit. Rukmani continually plans and plots ways to ensure her family's survival. When famine strikes, she sells her prized possessions—her saris—to Biswas, determinedly arguing a fair rate. She carefully rations out the rice, guarding every grain against her own gnawing hunger. She reserves her emotional energy for survival, immediately forgiving Nathan for his affair with Kunthi and refusing to wallow in sadness when Kuti and Raja die. "You have little enough strength, without dissolving it in tears," she tells her daughter during that trying time. Similarly, in the city Rukmani easily fights her way to the front of the beggar line in the temple, ensuring her own and Nathan's survival. Nathan, on the other hand, refuses to fight, and the crowd pushes him aside. Rukmani explores many different ways to make money for their survival, from selling vegetables, to reading letters, to breaking rocks. At the end of the novel the reader doesn't question whether she will be able to survive.

Other characters learn different ways to survive. Kunthi and Irawaddy exploit their beauty by becoming prostitutes. Others, like Raja and the temple beggars, steal to survive. Wily Puli uses his street smarts and unique knowledge to manipulate those around him into supporting his survival, including Rukmani, who happily "adopts" Puli and welcomes him home to her village. When faced with poverty, Nectar in a Sieve proves humans will do everything in their power to survive.


Education and knowledge provide impoverished villagers with power. As the literate daughter of a village headman, Rukmani feels proud of her ability to read and write. When she marries Nathan, seemingly no other literate people live in the village. Nathan also prides himself on Rukmani's intelligence, but others jealously scorn her: "Look at me, am I any worse that I cannot spell my name?" Despite Rukmani's literacy, she is still not an educated woman. Her sons, on the other hand, use reading to better their surroundings. Arjun and Thambi read enough to learn about labor conditions and unions. They use their education to start a labor strike, demanding better pay at the tannery. Although it doesn't go their way, they recognize that the men who returned to work "have sold themselves cheaper than dirt." Their sentiment echoes Kennington, himself a well-educated man, who laments that Indian people "will never learn." Yet Rukmani doesn't understand what either Kennington or her sons are talking about.

These men recognize the power imbalance in India and that education provides the only way for the poor to challenge the rich. Other characters, although not formally educated, use their individual knowledge to get ahead: Kunthi uses her scandalous gossip to blackmail and control those less fortunate than she is, and Puli uses his unique knowledge of city life not only for his own survival but also for the survival of his adoptive parents.

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