Though Nectar in a Sieve’s protagonist, Rukmani, lives in poverty for her entire life, the novel tracks her initially rural surroundings as they become increasingly urbanized—from the arrival of the tannery to her self-sustaining village and the industrial slums it creates, to Rukmani and Nathan’s eviction from their land and decision to seek out their son in a large city. While Rukmani finds great happiness in her life as a poor farmer, navigating towns and cities proves a bewildering and miserable experience. Her life’s great tragedy is the dissolution of her rural society, despite its desperate poverty, and the loss of security she enjoys within that society. However, Rukmani’s sons sharply criticize the farming life their parents enjoy, pointing out that they live at the mercy of their landlords with no chance of improving their circumstances. The novel thus creates a tender picture of rural life but refuses to romanticize it, showing that farmers like Rukmani are just as vulnerable and oppressed as the urban poor.
For Rukmani and Nathan, life on the farm initially provides an opportunity to live in comparative independence and freedom even though they are poor and uneducated. Rukmani’s narrative style is usually straightforward and blunt, but when she describes her small farm she lapses into lyricism. As a young bride, she asks herself, “when the fields are green and beautiful to the eye […] and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times […] what more can a woman ask for?” Nathan especially derives his self-worth from working the land. He’s proud that “he had no master” as a farmer and is never happier than when teaching his sons “the ways of the earth.” Even though the family barely has any money or possessions, Rukmani and Nathan feel that the farm allows them to live with freedom and dignity.
The village’s transformation into a larger and larger town coincides the downfall of the family’s fortunes; their eventual journey to the city marks the lowest point of Rukmani’s life. When a large tannery comes to the village, for instance, it immediately transforms the family’ lifestyle. Rukmani is suspicious because the influx of workers drives prices up and makes the town unsafe for children; besides these material concerns, she complains that “they lay their hands upon us and we are all turned from tilling to barter.” Perhaps because it involves interacting with an outside world she doesn’t quite understand, Rukmani sees transactional labor as less honorable than farming, and she attributes a larger psychological malaise to the town’s development. Later, strikes at the tannery forces Rukmani’s two oldest sons to flee the town; a tannery guard kills another son, Raja. The urbanization of the city, then, directly correlates to the dissolution of the family.
When Rukmani and Nathan finally lose their land, they travel to a large city where their son Murugan is living. In the city, thieves steal all their possessions and money, which results in an intensification of their material poverty and demonstrates that the city fosters a less communal and principled way of life than do small towns. Even Murugan is not immune to this degeneration; to her shame, Rukmani discovers that he has run away from his wife, Ammu, and their child, disowning his obligation to provide for them. It’s no accident that Nathan’s health quickly declines and he dies in the city; his physical weakness points out the sharp contrast between the fulfillment he derives from life as a farmer and the sense of bewilderment and loss he experiences trying to make his way among the urban poor.
While Rukmani and Nathan believe that rural struggle is infinitely preferable to urban poverty, their more educated sons challenge these notions, pointing out that whether they live in the city or country, the lower class is disadvantaged in the same ways. To Rukmani’s dismay, her oldest sons, Arjan and Thambi, seek jobs at the tannery; they don’t want to be like their father, who “labors for another and gets so little in return.” Thambi also points out what Rukmani prefers not to notice—that Nathan doesn’t own his land and will never be able to save up enough money to purchase it. After Thambi makes this comment, she even acknowledges that “almost all we grew had been sold to pay the rent of the land,” an injustice that she’s never before acknowledged. The boys’ concerns prove valid, as eventually the land agent, Sivaji, informs Nathan that the landlord has sold their plot to the tannery. In light of their abrupt eviction, against which they have no legal recourse, the independence that Rukmani and Nathan associate with their farm seems like a mockery. In fact, they’re just as vulnerable to exploitation and hardship as are urban wage laborers Rukmani sees in the city.
The novel’s depictions of rural farming imbue Rukmani’s life and vocation with beauty and dignity. However, while she praises her protagonist, Markandaya sharply criticizes the unjust systems under which the rural poor function, pointing out that while urban poverty looks worse, the rural poor are subject to many of the same disadvantages.
Rural vs. Urban Poverty ThemeTracker
Rural vs. Urban Poverty 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?
“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 […].”
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.
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 […].
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.