Nectar with a Sieve portrays a family living as subsistence farmers in rural India. The parents—Rukmani and Nathan—are totally committed their agricultural way of life, but most of their sons, who have a slightly higher level of education, question their parents’ values and eventually leave the farm for good. Rukmani idealizes the land and the lifestyle it provides, and initially views her children’s lack of interest as a tragedy; in her opinion, education has rendered them impractical when it comes to daily life. However, as the novel progresses, Rukmani herself becomes disillusioned with dependence on the land, which often fails the family and leads to desperate famines. In contrast, her son Selvam’s superior education and knowledge of the outside world enables him to provide for his sister and aging parents when they can no longer live on the farm. At the beginning of the novel, the land emblematizes stability, but by the end education represents a more secure way of life.
As a young wife and mother, Rukmani derives great fulfillment from living off the land. However, as the farm repeatedly fails to provide for her family, she gradually becomes disenchanted. Although she initially balks at living in a mud house, Rukmani proves an adept housekeeper and gardener, taking pride in the size of her vegetables. In one romantic description of the farm, Rukmani mentions the fields, which “are green and beautiful to the eye,” just before she says that her husband notices beauty in her “which no one has seen before.” Associating the land’s beauty with her own, she shows just how closely she identifies with the farm and derives her sense of self from it.
As the novel progresses, multiple natural disasters, from storms to crop failures, leave the family on the brink of starvation. During one period of famine, Rukmani’s son Raja is killed while looking for food in town and her youngest, Kuti, dies of malnourishment. Rukmani says that shortly after Kuti’s death, the crops began to prosper “with a bland indifference that mocked our loss.” Once, she saw the land as a benevolent force that ensured stability for her young family. Now it seems not only unreliable but actively malicious.
While Rukmani initially believes that education has lead her sons into unwise decisions, Selvam’s educated career eventually saves the family when their farm fails. Rukmani is proud of being able to read, a skill which few women possess. She teaches her sons, and with this advantage and access to the growing town they develop a political consciousness that she fears and opposes. As young men, Arjan and Thambi grumble at the power held by “white men,” like the British doctor Kenny, which Rukmani has always taken for granted; they keenly perceive the injustice of working land they will never own, refusing to join Nathan in the fields. When they organize an unsuccessful strike with fellow tannery workers, putting their education and new beliefs to work, Rukmani says that she does not even know “what reply to make” because “these men are strangers.” Worker’s rights are irrelevant to Rukmani; increased education has damaged the cohesion of her initially tight-knit family. Arjan and Thambi’s disappearance in search of work does chip away at the family’s integrity, seeming to prove Rukmani right.
However, Selvam follows another path towards education by apprenticing with Kenny. Taking this job involves an explicit choice between agriculture and education: Nathan is growing too old to work the farm alone, but he gives up his beloved work so that Selvam can follow his own inclinations and build a better life. Eventually, this choice proves wise. When the landlord evicts Rukmani and Nathan from their land, they experience the ultimate failure of the agricultural system to provide a stable way of life. At this critical juncture, it’s only Selvam who can provide for Irawaddy and Irawaddy’s illegitimate son. When Rukmani returns home from her failed quest in the city she depends on Selvam’s future livelihood as a doctor to sustain her. From Rukmani’s relative narration as an elderly woman, it’s evident that Selvam has achieved some success in this field. While Rukmani thought education would tear her family apart, it’s precisely Selvam’s education that binds the family’s remaining members together.
Rukmani never describes knowledge and learning with the lyricism she extends to the land. Even at the end of the novel, agriculture is privileged because it represents the most joyful period in Rukmani’s difficult life. However, by the end of the novel, her love for the land is balanced by her painful understanding that living off the land has directly caused many of the family’s tragedies. Through Rukmani’s gradual shift of view, the novel argues that the benefits education can bring to impoverished groups outweigh its disruption of traditional life.
Agriculture vs. Education ThemeTracker
Agriculture vs. Education Quotes in Nectar in a Sieve
When the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?
I think it cost him a good deal to say what he did, and he never varied his attitude once […] I am sure it could not have been easy for him to see his wife more learned than he himself was, for Nathan could not even write his name; yet not once did he assert his rights and forbid me my pleasure, as lesser men might have done.
Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you. So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long it will give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat.
“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 […].
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.
Have I not so much sense to see that you are not one of us? You live and work here, and there is in your heart solicitude for us and love for our children. But this is not your country and we are not your people.
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.