While Rukmani’s life is difficult and tragic in many ways, the one thing that sustains her is her abiding love for her family. Nectar in a Sieve presents familial love and familial sacrifice as the most important aspect of life. While this point of view is beautiful and inspiring, it’s also poignant because Rukmani’s deep love for her family coexists with her inability to protect and provide for them. The novel points out that while the family’s emotional cohesion is important and praiseworthy, it doesn’t help them combat the calamities that repeatedly occur. Ultimately—and tragically—the novel presents the crushing poverty and oppression they experience as more powerful than family bonds.
Both Rukmani and Nathan orient their lives completely around their children. Rukmani finds deep satisfaction in motherhood—even though she wants sons because they are more valuable as farmhands, she loves her firstborn daughter, Irawaddy, whom she describes as an ideal and beautiful baby. Nathan also dotes on his daughter, and his behavior is presented as unusual for a man; in fact, Nathan’s devotion to his children pushes back against assumptions that familial stewardship is an inherently female role.
Gestures of familial sacrifice are frequent. In times of famine, Rukmani goes without food so her children can eat, and Irawaddy sacrifices her honor by working as a prostitute in order to feed her younger brother, Kuti. Family is also more important than social convention. Rukmani loves and supports her daughter even after she turns to prostitution, and she cares for her grandson even though he’s born out of wedlock.
However, Rukmani’s consuming love for her children juxtaposes with her frequent inability to provide for them. In times of famine, the entire family is quickly reduced to starvation; at these junctures, Rukmani has no resources to draw upon. Although she goes without food herself and provides spiritual comfort to her children, it’s not always enough. For example, despite Rukmani’s and Irawaddy’s sacrifices on his behalf, Kuti, dies of malnourishment. Rukmani is also unable to protect her children from the social forces that threaten them. When a tannery guard accidentally kills her son Raja, for instance, she’s unaware that she’s entitled to justice and doesn’t seek legal recourse. For Rukmani, deep maternal love does not necessarily imply advocacy on behalf of her children.
Ultimately, the novel argues that while strong and selfless family bonds can survive even amid desperate circumstances, familial love is not an effective weapon against social injustice or oppression. Rukmani’s and Nathan’s love for their children does not enable them to fight the quasi-feudal tenant farming system which prevents them from keeping enough food to feed them, nor does it allow them to combat the tannery, which kills poor children with impunity.
By the end of the novel, Rukmani’s family is reduced in size—two of her sons have died, while three others have left to make their fortunes in faraway places, never to see their parents again. Although Rukmani has been a devoted mother, her family structure crumbles by the time she reaches old age. The novel emphasizes the tragic deaths of Raja and Kuti and the loss of Arjan and Thambi not to emphasize Rukmani’s failure as a parent but to show how personal love and initiative inevitably fails against the structural injustice of the society within which the family lives.
While the novel creates a moving portrait of Rukmani’s family, it refuses to romanticize family life. The disasters the family undergoes are an implicit call for social structures that promote and reinforce strong bonds among family members, rather than imperiling them at every turn.
Family Quotes in Nectar in a Sieve
She nodded slightly, making no comment, yet I knew how bruised she must be by the imminent parting. My spirit ached with pity for her, I longed to be able to comfort her, to convince her that in a few months’ time her new home would be the most significant part of her life, the rest only a preparation […] but before this joy must come the stress of parting […].
None more so than Ira: the transformation in her was as astonishing as it was inexplicable. I had feared she might dislike the child, but now it was as if he were her own. She lost her dreary air, her face became animated, the bloom of youth came back to her.
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.
She was no longer a child, to be cowed or forced into submission, but a grown woman with a definite purpose and an invincible determination […] It was as simple as that we forbade, she insisted, we lost. So we got used to her comings and goings, as we had got used to so much else.
“If I grieve,” I said, “it is not for you, but for myself, beloved, for how should I endure to live without you, who are my love and my life?” “You are not alone,” he said. “I live in my children,” and he was silent, and then I heard him murmur my name and bent down.