Nectar in a Sieve


Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Like his older brothers, Selvam doesn’t take to the land; although he’s hardworking, he’s not a very good farmer. One day, he announces that he can’t stand to work on the farm, and that Kenny has offered him a job in the new hospital he is building. He can learn quickly, as he already knows how to read and write better than Rukmani. Rukmani and Nathan are disappointed that Selvam is pursuing a different way of life, but support him nonetheless. Rukmani warns Selvam he may hear rumors that Kenny gave him the job as compensation for a sexual relationship with his mother, but Selvam says stoutly that he won’t pay any attention.
Although he’s pursuing a different—and probably better—career, Selvam follows in his older brothers’ footsteps, leaving the farm to pursue opportunities that his education opens for him. By this time, worn down by consistent agricultural calamities, Rukmani is less skeptical about a livelihood that doesn’t depend on the land. Selvam’s immediate understanding of her warning shows the deep confidence and trust that exists within the family.
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When Rukmani next sees Kenny, she thanks him for helping Selvam and asks about his new project. He shows her blueprints for a hospital much bigger than the town’s tiny dispensary. Rukmani is perplexed, asking where the money will come from; Kenny replies that he has been raising money in Britain during his trips away from the village. As he’s done before, he tells Rukmani that “you must cry out if you want help.”
Sometimes it seems that Kenny is hectoring Rukmani without practicing what he preaches, but here he’s truly putting his beliefs into action. The idea of the hospital points out that much of the suffering Rukmani considers natural and inevitable is in fact preventable. If it can be constructed, the hospital would be a powerful argument for Kenny’s views on suffering.
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Rukmani assents, but she privately reflects that people “would be pitiable creatures indeed” if they were always asking for help, instead of learning to suffer their various burdens, which can never be alleviated. Kenny can tell that she disagrees with him, and points out that no “spiritual grace” comes from suffering or starvation. Rukmani counters that Indian priests often fast and punish themselves, and Kenny shakes his head, saying he will never understand her culture.
While Kenny’s hospital may help the people of the village, it won’t really help Rukmani to change her views about suffering. For instance, seeing her sons’ deaths as preventable, rather than inevitable, would add guilt and regret to the grief she’s already experiencing.
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