Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892
Rukmani: A Hindu woman who lives as a tenant farmer outside a small village in India and is the first-person narrator of this story.
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Nathan: A tenant farmer and Rukmani’s husband.
Hanuman: Owner of the general shop in the village.
Kali: Rukmani’s neighbor, a woman who is prone to gossip but who has a good and helpful nature.
Janaki: Another neighbor woman who is the wife of a shopkeeper.
Kunthi: A young neighbor woman who takes a disliking to Rukmani.
Nectar in a Sieve opens with an old woman, Rukmani, who lives in a small town with her sons and daughter, recalling her life. In her younger years, she lived with her husband and children on a paddy field on the outskirts of the village. Her husband is now dead. Rukmani begins to tell the story of her life, starting with the arrangement of her marriage. She was the youngest of four daughters; her three older sisters were married off before she was, leaving her with no dowry. Her parents had no choice but to marry her, at the age of twelve, to a poor tenant farmer—that is, a farmer who did not own his land. It is a source of shame for her and her family because the tenant farmer is of a lower social status than her family.
Rukmani’s new husband, Nathan, brings her to their new home, which is a two-room mud hut with palm leaves for a roof. It stands at the edge of the paddy field that Nathan tends. Rukmani views it with private disdain because she is used to better living. She is despondent at having to leave her family behind and move into a poor farmer’s unfurnished home; but Nathan tries to gently comfort her. Later, a neighbor will tell her that Nathan had built the house especially for her, and she will feel both gratitude towards him and shame for her initial snobbery.
A week after moving in, Rukmani meets her new neighbors at the stream where the clothes washing in done: Kali, a gossipy but good-natured woman; Janaki, the wife of a shopkeeper; and Kunthi, who regards Rukmani with a coolness that Rukmani does not understand. Eventually, Rukmani becomes used to life with Nathan, who is a gentle, patient, and loving husband to her, for which she counts herself lucky. He is skilled at raising and harvesting rice in the fields, and she is able to afford luxuries such as ghee, sugar, and curds, which she purchases from the small village. Rukmani slowly learns the ways of farming as well; she discovers her talent for gardening and raises a prodigious crop of vegetables, of which she and Nathan are very proud. Rukmani becomes content in her life and says, “While 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?” During these early months of their marriage, Nathan and Rukmani prosper and are able to save and to eat plentifully.
The opening paragraphs of the novel reveal a great deal about the customs of Rukmani’s world, especially as they pertain to social classes and the role of women. In Rukmani’s society, women must rely completely on their fathers and husbands for their livelihood, and girls are married off at an age that we generally view as young: Rukmani, for example, was married at the age of twelve. Daughters are a burden to a family because they require a dowry—that is, a payment to the husband or husband’s family. The bigger the dowry, the more prosperous a husband can be negotiated. Like Rukmani and her sisters before her, the women do not have a say in whom their husbands will be; it is up to their father to make the decision. While Rukmani’s sisters were able to make better matches, she, as the youngest daughter, is left without any dowry and thus has no choice but to be betrothed to a man of a lower class than she.
The account of her low marriage also reveals changes that are undergoing Rukmani’s society as well. Her father, for instance, used to have significant influence as the headman of the village; from this fact it can be assumed that the village had a great deal of autonomy. However, outside forces, embodied in the form of a tax collector, now wield control over Rukmani’s village, and Rukmani’s brother bitterly notes that their father no longer has the power he used to.
Although Rukmani is at first disdainful of the life she was being forced into, she soon gets used to it and comes to find great beauty in the farming way of life. Even though subsistence farming will bring Rukmani and her family a great deal of hardship and will never be able to provide fully for their wants, Rukmani steadfastly describes their way of life as ideal: her idealization of farming, especially in contrast to the factories, towns, and cities she will encounter later, is a constant theme throughout the novel.