Ostensibly, by bringing new methods of manufacturing to a region previously defined by subsistence farming, the tannery symbolizes progress and development. However, it actually destroys the traditional lifestyle that has provided Rukmani with deep joy, without providing anything to compensate for this loss. Early in the novel, Rukmani and Nathan are surprised to discover that workers have arrived to construct a large tannery in their sleepy village. While some neighbors hope the tannery will bring new jobs and prospects, Rukmani is suspicious and reluctant to accept its presence; in the end, it’s she who proves right. Over the years, the tannery drives massive change in the village, mostly for the worse. The influx of new workers drive prices up without providing increased prosperity for the villagers. Local men, including Arjan and Thambi, find work at the factories instead of farming the land their fathers have worked for generations; instead of improving their lives, the tannery makes them into wage slaves unable to negotiate for better hours or conditions. In this way, the tannery represents a brand of development that promotes economic profit for the elite without doing anything to improve the lives of the impoverished. The village was once cohesive and rooted in local practices, but workers bring vices like alcoholism, and local control gradually concentrates in the hands of factory bosses, meaning that the town no longer serves the interests of its inhabitants and is sometimes actively hostile to them; for example, Rukmani’s son Raja is beaten to death by a tannery guard while looking for food near its compound. Markandaya ultimately uses the tannery, and havoc it wreaks on the village, not to defend traditionalism but to critique visions of development that are not egalitarian in nature.
The Tannery Quotes in Nectar in a Sieve
“Never, never,” I cried. “They may live on our midst but I can never accept them, for they lay their hands upon us and we are all turned from tilling to barter, and hoard our silver since we cannot spend it, and see our children go without the food that their children gorge […].”
So they were reconciled and threw the past away with both hands that they might be the readier to grasp the present, while I stood by in pain, envying such easy reconciliation and clutching in my own two hands the memory of the past, and accounting it a treasure.
Nobody asked, “Where do you go from here?” They did not say, “What is to become of us?” We waited and one day they came to bid us farewell […] then they were gone, and the shopkeepers were glad that there was less competition […] and we remembered them for a while and then took up our lives again.
“If it were your land, or mine,” he said, “I would work it with you gladly. But what profit to labor for another and get so little in return? Far better to turn away from such injustice.” Nathan said not a word. There was a crushed look about him […].
It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and smell of the tannery; they no longer affected me. I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast from town, and I grieved no more; so now I accepted the future and Ira’s lot in it, and thrust it from me; only sometimes when I was weak, or in sleep while my will lay dormant, I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting and no longer calm.
I do not know what reply to make—these men are strangers. Nathan says we do not understand, we must not interfere: he takes my hand and draws me away. To his sons he is gentle. Into the calm lake of our lives the first stone has been tossed.
People will never learn! Kenny had said it, and I had not understood, now here were my own sons saying the same thing, and still I did not understand. What was it we had to learn? To fight against tremendous odds? What was the use? One only lost the little one had.
Somehow I had always felt the tannery would eventually be our undoing. I had known it since the day the carts had come with their loads of bricks and noisy dusty men, staining the clear soft greens that had once colored our village and cleaving its cool silences with clamor.
Tannery or not, the land might have been taken from us. It had never belonged to us, we had never prospered to the extent where we could buy, and Nathan, himself the son of a landless man, had inherited nothing. And whatever extraneous influence the tannery may have exercised, the calamities of the land belong to it alone, born of wind and rain and weather, immensities not to be tempered by man or his creations.