Portraying the lives of Indian subsistence farmers, Nectar in a Sieve is permeated by unflinching depictions of unspeakable suffering. Even at the best of times, Rukmani's family is only precariously secure, growing just enough to eat. When beset by sickness or agricultural failure, they have no resources to sustain them, and when they are evicted from their land, they have no other way to make a living. In order to cope with the repeated disasters that befall the family, Rukmani chooses to view suffering as inevitable and unremarkable; rather than trying to avoid calamity, she focuses on shepherding her family through it. Kenny, a British doctor who befriends Rukmani, repeatedly chastises her for this viewpoint, saying that suffering is preventable and people should constantly struggle against it. Ultimately, the novel argues that both Rukmani and Kenny’s stances are valid but incomplete: while Kenny’s actions often provide Rukmani with crucial assistance, her beliefs ensure she maintains peace of mind despite the suffering she experiences throughout her life.
Rukmani is an extremely stoic character, accepting without question that her life will rarely be secure and often full of suffering. She describes the events of her life, many of which disturb the reader, with a bluntness that clearly helps her confront these situations. For instance, when she throws up from fear while driving away from her wedding with Nathan, virtually a stranger, she doesn’t dwell on this fear but rather Nathan’s gentleness in tending to her. Later, while listening to a destructive storm destroy her family’s crops, Rukmani says she “understood a vast pervading doom.” However intensely aware she may be of the suffering that is going to befall her family, she has no plans or hopes to evade it; instead, she only braces herself to endure it.
Even when it comes to her own children, Rukmani prefers to accept their suffering rather than work to avoid it. When her daughter Irawaddy’s husband leaves her because she can’t have a child, Rukmani knows that without a man’s support Irawaddy will become a beggar once her parents die. However, she says that “one gets used to anything,” and that after thinking it over she “accepted the future and Ira’s lot in it.” When her two sons Arjan and Thambi, who work at the tannery, strike for a longer lunch hour, Rukmani believes the attempt to change their working conditions is foolish, asking “of what use [it is] to fight” when “one only lost the little one had” by doing so. To Rukmani, the dominance of the rich over the poor is part of the natural order, and it’s easier to accommodate oneself to the suffering this causes than to strive against it.
Kenny, a gruff but charitable doctor, challenges Rukmani’s belief that suffering is natural, arguing that people can mitigate the calamities that threaten them through active struggle. Kenny arrived in India working for an unnamed British company, but he makes his home in Rukmani’s rural province in order to provide medical care to people who desperately need it. Although he frequently belittles his patients, he’s also remarkably assimilated into their society and provides free medical treatment to Rukmani and many others.
Most importantly, Kenny acts on his beliefs by founding a hospital in the town with money he fundraised in Britain. The hospital remains unfinished by the end of the novel, but it has the potential to seriously mitigate suffering from curable diseases, thus supporting Kenny’s argument that it is possible to combat human suffering through thoughtful action. By contrast, when Rukmani encounters Kenny during a famine, she bravely assures him the family will endure their suffering until better times arrive; Kenny explodes in frustration, telling her that “you will suffer and die, you meek suffering fools” and exhorting her to “demand—cry out for help—do something.” To Kenny, Rukmani’s refusal to strive against her desperate circumstances is a character deficiency and, in a broader sense, a quality that prevents her society as a whole from advancing.
The novel refuses to definitively endorse either character’s mindset, acknowledging that each has its benefits. While Rukmani is skeptical of Kenny’s beliefs, she also profits by them: instead of accepting her infertility, she seeks treatment from Kenny and subsequently bears several sons. One of those sons, Selvam, becomes Kenny’s apprentice, pursuing an educated career that will insulate him from the suffering and poverty of his parents’ lives.
Moreover, it’s important that Kenny’s views are shaped by membership in an imperialist society, bent on arranging the world to its own benefit. In contrast, Rukmani’s country has been subject to British rule for generations, so it’s reasonable that her culture is permeated by a sense of the futility of controlling outside events. Both Rukmani and Kenny, then, are informed by their positions as citizens of colonized and colonizing nations.
Yet even as his mindset benefits Rukmani’s family, Kenny’s constant striving has alienated him from his own wife and child, whom he left behind in Britain. And though Rukmani is often incapable of protecting her family, her tendency toward acceptance allows her to derive peace of mind and deep calm from her husband and children. While the novel doesn’t definitively endorse either character’s outlook, it’s also important that Rukmani’s mindset does allow her to weather a very difficult life and to look back on it, as an old woman, with contentment rather than bitterness.
Suffering 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.
“Times are better, times are better,” he shouts. “Times will not be better for many months. Meanwhile you will suffer and die, you meek, suffering fools. Why do you keep this ghastly silence? Why do you not demand—cry out for help—do something? There is nothing in this country, oh God, there is nothing!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Privately I thought, Well, and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creatures indeed to be so weak, for is not a man’s spirit given to him to rise above his misfortunes? […] What profit to bewail that which has always been and cannot change?