Nectar in a Sieve


Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Selvam spends less and less time at home now that he works for Kenny. The hospital encounters many delays in building, and Selvam and Kenny alternate between enthusiasm and dejection. Rukmani feels skeptical and exasperated as she watches the building progress, feeling that the men lack the patience to see the project through.
Rukmani’s skepticism when Kenny originally presented the plans to her is now justified. Although he intends the hospital to prove his own approach to human suffering, he’s now learning that “calling out for help” and correcting suffering is easier said than done.
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In the meantime, Old Granny dies on the street. If the hospital were finished, she could have spent her last days there, but she has no relatives and no one to take care of her when she can no longer make a living. One day she disappears, and her body is soon found near the well. It appears she has died of starvation.
Granny’s grim death points out the inability to solve large and systemic problems through one-time fixes, like the beginning of the hospital.
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Rukmani takes Old Granny’s death especially hard. She regrets accepting the rupee from her, which could have provided food for several days, even though Nathan points out it could only have prolonged the inevitable. He says that she could not have stayed in the hospital for very long; after all, it’s a place for sick people, not a soup kitchen. Rukmani doesn’t know what a soup kitchen is and he explains to her, pleased to know more than she does for once. Selvam has explained this to him, having learned about it himself from Kenny.
Selvam’s new job is expanding his parents’ conception of the outside world. This is a new experience for Rukmani, who is used to being the most educated person in the house. However, while she sees reading and writing chiefly as a pastime, now she’s learning that it can expose her to revolutionary new ideas—like the rudimentary principles of social welfare represented by the soup kitchen.
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As the hospital progresses, people begin to seek jobs and assistance from it. Rukmani knows that Kenny won’t be able to attend to even a tenth of the people seeking help, even if the project was finished on time. To Rukmani, it seems like the two men are trying to fill a bottomless pit.
While Markandaya approves of Kenny’s personal altruism, she makes clear that India needs systemic and internally driven change, not personal philanthropy or imperialist intervention.
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Selvam begins training as a doctor with Kenny, and by his second year treats some patients by himself. Kenny pays him a small wage. Rukmani wonders how he will pay a staff to run his hospital, and Kenny doesn’t seem to have an answer to this question.
Kenny usually scoffs at Rukmani’s literal-minded approach to problems, but she adeptly points out the serious flaws in his project.
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