In classic literary fashion, the changes that Rukmani (Ruku) go through throughout the novel are presented in broad sweeping images in the first few chapters, foreshadowing what will come. Ruku begins narrating the story as an old woman with a son who is not her own and eyes that are growing too dim to see the world clearly, although this dimness does not apply to her life-visions that appear before her with such vividness that she reaches out to touch them as though they were present with her and tangible.
Ruku goes through many changes throughout the story, which begins in her girlhood when she has the trusting confidence of a well loved young girl (under twelve years of age) and which ends in her agedness when she has the worldly wisdom of an old woman who has managed to remain without bitterness and who, living seemingly countless times in the face of hopelessness, pursued an object to give her reason to reclaim hope.
Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live. (Coleridge, "Work without Hope")
As a momentary aside, Coleridge's couplet, borrowed from his 1825 sonnet "Work without Hope" and used by Markandaya as the story's epigraph, is representative of Ruku's life experience and explanatory of her motivation for claiming Puli as her own, and it can be paraphrased (restated in prose language) like this: He has work but has no hope, so his reward is the minuscule bit of nectar trapped in a sieve, for hope without work (an object) cannot live. Another way to paraphrase this difficult couplet is this: Work is hope; without hope, work is lost sweetness. Hope is purpose; without purpose, hope cannot live. Understanding this couplet correctly leads to understanding Ruku and her story correctly (misinterpret this couplet and you will misinterpret Ruku).
To return to Ruku, in a subtly incorporated flashback we are shown that as a young girl, Ruku loved, believed in and respected her father and mother, even though as the fourth daughter, she might have an inadequate dowry at her marriage. When she was then married without any dowry at age twelve to a tenant farmer and taken to live at a great distance from them in a mud hut built with his own hands, she fully understood that her father, even though he was headman of their village, had lost his wealth and its equal weight in power to the "Collector" who now governed the village and now held the power and wealth.
At her marriage, Ruku changes from a happy, well-beloved girl to a young bride ill equipped for her new life without servants and plenty and who was filled with fear at the stark barrenness and poverty of her new surroundings, even though Nathan, her new husband, was filled with hope and joy because of the ample harvest that filled one room of their mud hut. As time passes and she learns the depth and tenderness of her husband's caring heart and loving, patient ways, Ruku changes again. This time she discovers the joy of a newfound womanly love toward her husband, toward her work (especially tending her garden, which grows with the same strength she herself grows with) and toward the new life stirring within her:
"You are not a child any more," [Nathan] said at last. "You have grown fast since the day we were married...." While the sun shines on you and the fields are green ... and you have ... a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for? My heart sang and my feet were light....
[N]ot all the clamor which invaded our lives later could subdue the memory or still the longing for it. Rather, [the later clamor] has strengthened [the memory] ....
In many ways Nectar in a Sieve describes the external more than the internal changes that Rukmani experiences; she remains consistently hopeful, devoted, and full of courage in the face of tremendous and tragic changes in her circumstances and community. The tannery destroys the peaceful village she occupies with her husband and children, resulting in higher prices and what she perceives as moral decay. Her daughter's failed marriage and the loss of her husband's farmland force the family to leave their home. Their plan to stay with their son collapses when they discover he has abandoned his wife and child; Rukmani and Nathan are left destitute and homeless. Nathan dies and the last constant in Rukmani's life vanishes as she becomes a widow. Rukmani is able to survive only because she has managed to preserve her optimism and hope in the face of every obstacle—in short, because she has cultivated something constant within herself.
That said, she does learn along the way—she learns what it means to be the mother of a family and a member of the village. She learns to be flexible with her husband Nathan's help; he shows her that she must adapt to changes like the tannery and learn to live with what she cannot change. She applies her newfound flexibility and ability to accept the inevitable when her recently married daughter is returned to her, barren and rejected by her husband's family:
"It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and the 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."
Ruku experiences immense hardship throughout Nectar in a Sieve. One tragedy after another occurs as we watch Ruku take each punch. The biggest two points to consider when discussing Ruku's changes throughout the novel are both her ability to adapt and sense of hope. While she always had the best intentions and worked to make life enjoyable for her and her family, she was constantly being tested by the world around her. The tannery had essentially caused the destruction of her beautiful village, even taking her son Raja.
When looking at Ruku and her family, they appear powerless and unable to fight back against the decaying of their village and overall well being. However, internally Ruku's will is becoming stronger and stronger as she keeps moving forward, despite the continuing circumstances. She is determined to her duty as a mother and wife.
Ruku learns to adapt throughout the novel but the element of hope is what drives her to continue and to develop her will power. Clues to this can be found in the title of the novel. Nectar in a Sieve is borrowed from a line in the 1825 poem called Work Without Hope, letting us peak into the mind of how Ruku thinks:
Work without hope draws nector in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.
By the end of the novel, Ruku had fully realized she was powerless against what she could not change. Instead of grieving for it, she accepted it completely into her old age. Though there is obvious sorrow in Ruku, there is also quiet strength and gratitude along with the remaining unwavering hope for the future.