Rukmani marries her husband, Nathan, at the age of twelve, and the rest of her life is consumed by the grueling labor of maintaining a house and raising several children on scant resources. Although she represents an ostensibly conservative view of femininity, Rukmani actively endorses her way of life, asserting her contentment with Nathan. Moreover, by describing her loving and fairly equitable relationship with her husband, her unabashed sexual desire, and the authority she acquires as a matriarch, Rukmani challenges stereotypes of traditional Indian society as inherently repressive of women. Meanwhile, Rukmani’s daughter, Irawaddy, and her neighbor, Kunthi, provide two less conventional views of women’s roles. Both work as prostitutes, but Irawaddy does so in order to provide for her siblings during a famine, whereas Kunthi appears to do so out of boredom and a desire to sow mayhem. By the end of the novel, Irawaddy achieves redemption by becoming a loving mother, while Kunthi disappears from the narrative altogether. Written in the 1950s, Nectar in a Sieve is revolutionary for its depictions of women as intelligent, capable, and sexual partners—however, through Kunthi’s demise, the novel argues that such qualities are only valuable if they help women fulfill traditional roles within the family.
Rukmani both fulfills and defies stereotypes of traditional Indian womanhood. She’s married off at a young age, but after brief unhappiness at leaving her family, she quickly acclimates to her new life, describing with pride her first garden and increasing facility with household affairs. Through her happiness as a young bride, the novel questions the assumption that traditional Indian culture is regressive and oppressive of women. While Rukmani is outwardly subservient to Nathan, it’s important that he respects her deeply, praising her for being able to read and write even though “it could not have been easy for him to see his wife more learned than he himself was.” Rukmani frequently makes decisions in the house, and it’s she who handles their limited supply of money.
Rukmani is also frank about her sexual desire for Nathan—Nectar in a Sieve is one of the first novels to address the taboo topic of sexual desire among Indian women. Rukmani remarks that while people say “a woman always remembers her wedding night,” she derives more sexual satisfaction later in her marriage, “when I went to my husband matured in mind as well as body.” Here, Rukmani establishes female desire as natural and positive, rather than shameful. She also quietly insists that her narrative focus not on the act of marriage as the climax of a woman’s life, but rather the importance of maturity and development throughout an evolving marital relationship.
Through her failed marriage and her brief stint as a prostitute, Rukmani’s daughter, Irawaddy, challenges her mother’s satisfaction within conventional gender norms. Like her mother, Irawaddy marries young. Her husband, however, returns Irawaddy to the family after she fails to bear children. Because Irawaddy is unlikely to find another husband and there are not socially acceptable ways for women to support themselves, it’s likely she’ll become a beggar after her parents die. Irawaddy’s grim fate shows that, despite Rukmani’s happy marriage, her culture does often fail its women.
Irawaddy herself contravenes and fulfills expectations of women by working as a prostitute in order to buy food for her youngest brother, Kuti, after a crop failure. While Rukmani is devastated when she finds out, she comes to respect Irawaddy for her pragmatism and sacrifice. Eventually, Irawaddy conceives a son; although her child is a public declaration of her social dishonor, Irawaddy and Rukmani love him deeply. Because she’s acting to save her family and because personal relationships are more important to her than social norms, Irawaddy emerges as incredibly brave. However, it’s important to note that if society provided any legitimate methods for women to make money and provide for their families, Irawaddy wouldn’t have been forced into prostitution. The flip side of Irawaddy’s bravery is the implicit critique of a society that limits women’s freedoms without providing any safeguards against poverty and starvation.
Like Irawaddy, Rukmani’s neighbor Kunthi defies social norms and eventually becomes a prostitute. While her exact motives are unclear, it seems that she’s acting for personal gratification; the novel characterizes this transgression of social norms as malicious and threatening. While Rukmani describes her own sexuality as positive, when she encounters Kunthi scantily clad and wearing sandalwood paste on her throat, she characterizes the other woman as unwholesome and threatening. In her description, Rukmani lingers on the makeup Kunthi uses to alter her appearance; Kunthi’s physical artifice suggests moral deception as well. Eventually, when Rukmani eventually discovers that Nathan has slept with Kunthi and fathered her two sons, Rukmani’s suspicions prove correct.
Kunthi uses this secret to blackmail Nathan into giving her the family’s supply of rice, threatening them with starvation. She’s a threat to the cohesion of Rukmani’s family, both emotionally, by ostensibly seducing Nathan (Rukmani largely absolves her husband from culpability in this affair), and materially, using her sexuality to take their food. Kunthi’s sexuality earns her punishment. By the time she arrives to beg for food, Kunthi is haggard and emaciated; she tells Rukmani that she has parted from her husband, although it remains unclear when or how this split occurred. While Rukmani and Irawaddy’s sexuality bolsters familial unity, Kunthi’s contributes to her family’s disintegration—at least, Rukmani interprets the situation this way. Normally compassionate, she’s uninterested in Kunthi’s plight because she considers her an enemy. However it’s important to note that the two women are very similar. Like Rukmani’s family, Kunthi’s teeters on the brink of starvation; and like Irawaddy, she may have been driven to prostitution by circumstances beyond her control. Implicitly, the novel uses Kunthi to point out that restrictive gender norms encourage even kindhearted women to judge other women in black-and-white terms, rather than appreciating the complexities of their individual circumstances.
While Rukmani and her family accept Irawaddy’s unconventional sexuality because it is selfless and benefits the family, Kunthi’s emerges as immoral because it threatens the family unit. Kunthi shows that the novel is only willing to challenge contemporary expectations for women up to a point. Nectar in a Sieve provides an important and nuanced meditation on the place of women within a traditional but rapidly changing society. While its treatment of women’s roles within traditional marriages is groundbreaking, it’s ultimately unwilling to articulate a way for women to live outside the roles of wife and mother to which their society confines them.
Women and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Women and Sexuality Quotes in Nectar in a Sieve
A woman, they say, always remembers her wedding night. Well, maybe they do; but for me there are other nights I prefer to remember, sweeter, fuller, when I went to my husband matured in mind as well as in body, not as a pained and awkward child as I did on that first night.
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.
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.
It seemed to me that a new peace came to us then, freed at last from the necessity for lies and concealment and deceit, with the fear of betrayal lifted from us, and the power we ourselves had given her finally rested from Kunthi.
“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.