Several times while in the city Rukmani refers to the stone goddess or god in the temple where she and Nathan are staying in Nectar in a Sieve. What might Markandaya be saying about the role of religion in the characters' lives?
In Kamala Markandaya’s novel Nectar in a Sieve, religion takes a definite back seat to secular human endeavors. Nature and human progress are the instruments of Rukmani and her family’s doom. The construction of the tannery that devastates Nathan and Rukmani’s community, her failures to conceive for so many years, Raja’s death and Ira’s difficulties conceiving, Kuti’s sickliness due to the family’s financial inability to care for four-year-old and Ira’s decision to work as a prostitute so as to be able to purchase enough food to nourish the young boy – only to later see him die anyway – all run counter to their collective faith in the gods. Markandaya’s notably cynical attitude towards religion is prevalent throughout his novel, and Rukmani, his narrator, give voice to the naivete the author wants his readers to ascribe to his protagonist. An early clue as to the role religion will play in Nectar in a Sieve is provided in Chapter III, when Rukmani describes her and Nathan’s difficulties conceiving a child. Visiting her mother, a deeply spiritual individual, Rukmani’s narrative posits definite limits on the willingness of divine beings to intervene in human affairs:
“My mother, whenever I paid her a visit, would make me accompany her to a temple, and together we would pray and pray before the deity, imploring for help until we were giddy. But the Gods have other things to do; they cannot attend to the pleas of every suppliant who dares to raise his cares to heaven. And so the years rolled by and still we had only one child, and that a daughter.”
Far more telling, however, and far more despairing, is Rukmani’s description of her youngest son Kuti’s ill health and the efforts made to help the child. In Chapter XVI, the aforementioned situation involving Kuti, who Rukmani observes finally appearing to regain his fragile health, is described by her as follows:
“I gazed at the small tired face, soothed by sleep as it had not been for many nights, and even as I puzzled about the change, profound gratitude flooded through me, and it seemed to me that the Gods were not remote, not unheedful, since they had heard his cries and stilled them as if by a miracle.”
That Rukmani would later learn that Kuti’s improvements were entirely the product of the depths to which Ira had been forced to sink to earn money constitutes as resounding a denunciation of the role of religion in his characters’ daily lives as one can possibly imagine.
Nectar in a Sieve was written in the years immediately following Indian independence from British colonialism. The British occupation had succeeded to an astonishing degree in Anglicizing India, and Markandaya was determined to encourage her nation – despite her British husband – to respect its own culture and traditions and to reforge its own identity. Given that political agenda, one can ponder the secular tone of her most famous work. That said, the novel ends with Rukmani’s fifth son, Selvam, expressing his joy and appreciation upon seeing that his mother is safe: “’Thank God,’ he said. ‘Are you alright?’” An innocent, innocuous expression of gratitude to the Gods, or one imbued with deeper meaning, the reader is left to speculate for his- or herself.
Nectar in a Sieve is the story of Rukmani. She is an old woman when the story begins and she tells her life story. She was the daughter of a village headman, who having fallen on hard times, arranges a marriage for his daughter, Rukmani. She is twelve when she marries Nathan, a tenant farmer.
Rukmani says that Nathan was a good husband who was understanding when it took her a while to learn how to be a wife. They have a daughter during the first year of marriage, then she doesn't have any more children for many years. She lets Dr. Kenny treat her infertility without her husband knowing. A tannery is opening up in their village, and this means terrible things for small farmers. The family, which has now grown to be very large, falls on hard times. After many tragedies, Rukmani and Nathan go to the city to live with one of their sons. There is a temple in the city, which many people stay in. Rukmani speaks often of the god or goddess in the temple. They place food in front of the god. They all take time to pray to the god.
Religion is seen to be very important to Rukmani and Nathan. Although they have suffered many hardships and sadness, they don't lose faith. They keep working hard to get what they want. They want to return home, and they work extremely hard to return. This story is tragic, but there is an underlying sense of hope throughout the whole story. We see terrible things fall on this family, but Rukmani's faith and attitude stays the same. She is positive and has a good outlook on things. This makes us see that religion is very important to her and the whole village. They take it very seriously and although things might get bad, they have the faith to know things will work out.