The Positive Message of Inner Triumphs

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Although Nectar in a Sieve is an Indian story, it was written in English for Western readers, perhaps to give a glimpse into the hardships endured by people in Asia. The subject matter, however, threatens to distance readers from the work because of the pervasive hopelessness that runs throughout the novel. For Western readers, especially Americans, this bleakness may overshadow Markandaya's attempt to create a story about the triumph of the human spirit. Markandaya's portrayal of life for the rural poor in India may be accurate, but the absence of a single character who rises above his or her bleak prospects tends to eclipse the author's positive message. While some of the characters overcome adversity in some of its guises, they never overcome their hopeless situations, which is not a fate to which American readers are generally receptive. By reviewing the experiences of Rukmani, Nathan, their family, and other villagers, it will become clear that each character's life is marked by hopelessness. But, by briefly exploring the Eastern experience and mindset, it will also become clear that inner triumphs are possible, even amid unrelenting circumstances.

Prior to marrying Nathan, Rukmani lives a comfortable life. Her family is not wealthy, but they have the resources to live free of worries regarding food, clothing, or shelter. Her oldest sister had a handsome dowry and a grand feast for her wedding, which indicates that the family had at least a modest income. Rukmani is the fourth daughter, and although her dowry is small, she has something to offer her future husband.

Once Rukmani marries Nathan, a poor tenant farmer, however, her life becomes a series of hardships and heartaches. As the wife of a farmer, she soon learns to work very hard with her husband in the rice paddy. As hard as they work, their lifestyle remains very humble. She faces the real possibility of her family's starvation when the weather claims their crops. In fact, her youngest son does not survive a drought; he dies of weakness from malnutrition. Because she is poor, Rukmani must humble herself before a man she despises in an effort to sell her wedding sari and other nice clothes because she needs money to feed her family. Nathan does not earn enough money to save up and buy his own land, so when the landlord tells them to leave because he is selling the land to someone else, they have no recourse. Worse, they have no other means of supporting themselves. In search of their son, they find themselves helpless and lost in a strange city where their belongings and money are stolen. Having nowhere to go, they sleep in the temple at night with all the other beggars, and, having no income, perform backbreaking work in a quarry to earn the money to return home. In the end, Nathan dies before they begin their journey home, and Rukmani is left a widow. For Rukmani, life is constant struggle and worry about her children. For Nathan, even his life of relentless work is ultimately taken from him. They never get an opportunity to improve their condition, and they are forced to live day-to-day, reacting to each disaster as it comes.

Because Rukmani's children come from an impoverished family, their futures are limited and they suffer their own hardships. Ira, the daughter, seems to find the road to happiness and financial comfort when she marries a man who is the only son of a landowner. Five years later, however, she is returned to her parents because she has failed to produce any children. Ira becomes depressed until Rukmani...

(This entire section contains 1727 words.)

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gives birth to a son, whom Ira mothers. When the child's health declines steadily from lack of food, Ira resorts to prostitution to earn money to feed him. As if this were not tragic enough, her little brother dies anyway. Later, Ira becomes pregnant out of wedlock, a serious social stigma in Hindu society. The baby is born and he is albino, meaning that all by herself, Ira will have to raise a son who is the subject of ridicule and fear and will likely never marry.

Rukmani's sons also suffer cruel fates. Her two eldest sons take jobs in the tannery, which enables them to earn good money for the family but requires them to engage in a business that processes the remains of slaughtered cows, sacred animals to Hindus. When they lose their jobs, they decide to answer a call for workers in Ceylon. Although their culture encourages families to stay as close together as possible (especially sons, who have a choice), the call of money is too strong for them, and they never see their families again. Their story is sad because they grew up in a happy family with parents who loved each other, but the poverty was so distasteful to them that they were willing to sacrifice their relationships with that family for the sake of money.

The third son takes a job a hundred miles away, as a servant in a house owned by a wealthy female doctor. Rukmani and Nathan arrive only to find that he has left to take a job with higher wages. From there, he took up a life of women and gambling and abandoned his wife and children. This story shows that, for this man, as for his two older brothers, the lure of money was stronger than that of family or stability. First, he left his happy (but poor) family, then he left a job working for a generous and compassionate woman (the doctor), and then he sank into a life of gambling, forsaking his responsibility to his own immediate family.

Rukmani's fourth and sixth sons die; one is killed when he attempts to steal a pelt from the tannery to sell, and the other dies of malnutrition.

The fifth son takes a job as Kenny's assistant at the new hospital. Because his mother educated all the children to read and write, they could have found opportunities not open to everyone, but the fifth son is the only one who takes advantage of this. His seems to be the most promising story, but his job pays very little. It is unlikely that he will make a comfortable income in the career he has chosen. Besides, he seems to be punished for his decision when the construction of the hospital takes seven years to complete. Each of the children's stories is colored by the poverty and hopelessness of their collective situation, and in the end none of them seems to find a way out of it.

Markandaya's portrayal of the other villagers offers little hope that their futures will be brighter. Kunthi, a neighbor's wife, loses her husband when he learns that she has been prostituting herself to the tannery workers. She loses her beauty, her virtue, her reputation, and her friends, and has to resort to blackmail to get Rukmani and Nathan to give her food. She reasons that if she can only regain some of her health, she will be attractive enough to resume her work. Kali, another neighbor's wife, is a good friend to Rukmani when they are young. She is faithful, kind, and comforting to Rukmani in times of uncertainty and fear. In later years, however, she seems to have become insensitive and thoughtless. She makes rude, inappropriate remarks about the albino baby and is no longer welcome in Rukmani's house. The years of trial change her basic good character. Old Granny is an endearing character who sells fruit and peanuts to scrape out a meager living. She has no home and is forced to live on the street, but remains friendly and as generous as she is able to be. In the end, she dies of starvation on the street.

Without a single character to give the reader hope, the message seems to many Westerners to be that a life in dire poverty is a life in which no effort is worthwhile and no victories are possible. The best any of these characters hope for is to survive another day to face another misery. And the Western experience, both in literature and in life, has left Western readers unwilling to accept such a reality. Western readers, especially Americans, are drawn to stories of people who are in devastating situations yet find a way to a better life. Stories of underdogs who rise above their circumstances through hard work, cunning, good luck, and the kindness of others are popular and lasting in Western culture. Examples include the title characters in the American classic Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the English classic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and the character Jean Valjean in the French classic Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. These literary heroes are not wholly make-believe figures but are echoes of the Western experience. America (and to a lesser extent Western Europe) has offered to poor people opportunities for material advancement unparalleled in history. In the West, being born to poverty does not mean, necessarily, dying in poverty. Young nations rich in natural resources and capital, blessed not just with political but also with economic freedom, have provided countless routes to material comfort for many of those willing to work as hard as Markandaya's characters toil. Readers who have known nothing but opportunity find it difficult to understand or accept the kind of destitution that is not diminished, even by heroic effort. Unfortunately, many readers will miss the fact that Markandaya does have a positive message here.

The positive message of Nectar in a Sieve is grounded in the Eastern idea of an internal overcoming. Easterners are not accustomed to the ever-expanding material opportunities bestowed on Westerners. They are well acquainted with the grinding, unchanging poverty faced by Markandaya's characters. They know that, for some, the only ground on which victory is possible is the interior landscape of the mind and heart—a victory that is won by remaining, as Rukmani does, sane, loving, compassionate, gentle, and even hopeful in the face of every reason to be otherwise. This is an unfamiliar victory to Western readers, but surely a noteworthy one.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Nectar in a Sieve, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.

Harmony and Fulfilment

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The depiction of man-woman relationship in Kamala Markandaya is different from what we have observed in the novels of Anita Desai. Her protagonists are strong-willed and courageous, but they do not suffer from the existentialist dilemma of saying the "Yes" or the great "No." They are often conformists who accept life and surrender themselves to its vagaries. Unlike the sophisticated heroines of Anita Desai, love means living for them. Hence, they cherish their relationship for the sense of security, companionship, belongingness and fulfilment it provides them in the face of cruel social, economic or political upheavals. The fictional world of Kamala Markandaya is no utopia. Disillusionment and despair; disappointment and frustration abound in the lives of her protagonists also. But they are no idealists; they know that all mortals are fallible; and believe that the great courage lies in "bending like grass" and not in saying the great "No." They are no relentless seekers of individual identity and thus, not afraid of involvement and surrender. They are, indeed, great heroic figures in their capacity to rise above their misfortunes. However, those who cannot adapt or adjust, face dissonance, disillusionment and disintegration in Kamala Markandaya's world also.

In Nectar in a Sieve Kamala Markandaya is mainly preoccupied with the sufferings of peasants in Colonial India. She, therefore, views the problem of human relationships in this novel, in the context of economic forces, social evils and vagaries of cruel nature. The novel also dramatises the tragedy of a traditional Indian village and a peasant family assaulted by industrialisation. Nevertheless depiction of human relationships is her cardinal concern.

Nectar in a Sieve is a woeful tale of the trials and turbulations [sic] of a peasant couple. Rukmani, the youngest of the four daughters of a village headman, is married to Nathan, "a tenant farmer who was poor in everything but in love and care for … his wife." Reconciled to her lot, she lives with her husband in a hut built by his own hands, and facing utter penury, she bears him children.

Rukmani and Nathan, like archetypal figures, Adam and Eve, are pitted against the forces of industrialisation, social evils and natural calamities. Despite the crushing weight of these forces, the tender human relationships between Nathan and Rukmani make Nectar in a Sieve a fictional epic on Indian life. These unsophisticated peasant characters become grand tragic figures because their matrimonial bond is characterised by understanding, self-sacrifice, and above all a deep faith in all humanities.

The relationship between Rukmani and Nathan is angelic and almost divine. Their life together, for the major part of it, is miserable, unhappy and disappointing, yet they face it with full confidence and trust in each other. Rukmani feels Nathan to be with her even after his death. The novel opens with Rukmani telling us: "Sometimes at night I think that my husband is with me again, coming gently through the mists, and we are tranquil together. Then morning comes, the wavering grey turns to gold, there is a stirring within as the sleepers awake, and he softly departs."

Nectar in a Sieve can be described as a novel about the economic implications of human relationships. The dwindling financial position of Rukmani's father forces him to marry her to a tenant farmer. The glaring disparity between the financial and social status of a village headman and a tenant farmer is obvious to Rukmani even at the tender age of twelve. Rukmani's three elder sisters were married in a befitting manner, but as luck would have it the headman is no longer of any consequence and hence Rukmani "without beauty and without dowry" is given away to Nathan—a tenant farmer. Everybody takes pity on her. She herself feels humiliated and has apprehensions about her future happiness:

And when the religious ceremonies had been completed, we left, my husband and I. How well I remember the day, and the sudden sickness that overcame me when the moment for departure came! My mother in the doorway, no tears in her eyes but her face bloated with their weight. My father standing a little in front of her, waiting to see us safely on our way.... And I was sick. Such a disgrace for me.... How shall I ever live it down? I remember thinking.

However, Nathan is immensely rich in regard to his love and care for his wife. His loving and caring ways make Rukmani overcome the disgrace and shame she felt at the time of her wedding. Nathan's limited financial resources and his landless status does not come in the way of their happiness and contentment. Rukmani says, "I haven't forgotten, but the memory is not sour. My husband soothed and calmed me." It happens because he "was poor in everything but in love and care for me, his wife.… Our relatives, I know, murmured … 'A poor match,' they said, and not always quietly. How little they knew, any of them!"

Unlike the couples in Anita Desai's novels, Rukmani and Nathan have mutual understanding. Right from the beginning a deep understanding exist between the two. Nathan is aware of her anguish and disappointment when the young bride comes to his mud hut. He realises that she is used to better living. He makes sincere efforts to cheer her up, assuring her of better times to come. His loving concern and good conduct dispel her doubts and misgivings.

This mud hut, nothing but mud and thatch, was my home.... I sank down. Nathan's face filled with concern, as he came to hold me....

He said, "Perhaps you are frightened at living here alone—but in a few years we can move—maybe even buy a house such as your father's. You would like that?"

There was something in his voice, a pleading, a look on his face....

"No," I said, "I am not frightened. It suits me quite well to live here." ...

"Such harvest as this," he said, sliding the grains about in his hand, "and you shall not want for anything, beloved."

These are not mere hollow words to sooth and calm the agitated mind of Rukmani. Nathan's concern for Rukmani's happiness is genuine. He makes preparations for the welcome of his new bride. He builds, with his own hands, a sort of cozy nest where he plans to start a life of married bliss. There is a vast difference between the imposing house of an erstwhile village headman and his humble hut of mud and thatch. He, therefore, does not tell his wife that he himself with love and care, built her home. Kali reveals this to the amazement of Rukmani: "The fuss your husband made! Why, for weeks he was as brittle as a bamboo before it bursts into flame! He built your hut with his own hands.… He had made our home himself, and I had felt only fear to live in it."

This love or consideration forms a solid foundation for a fulfilling relationship between the two. Rukmani's heart is filled with ecstasy; she is proud to have such a loving and sensitive husband. She frankly tells him: "'I am glad she told me. Should I not be proud that you have built this house with your own hands?'" There is no disappointment, she considers herself the most fulfilled woman, supremely blessed and perfectly contented in that Arcadian atmosphere. Nathan's humble hut and the green paddy fields become her most prized possessions:

While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eyes, 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? My heart sang and my feet were light.

As Rukmani and Nathan evaluate each other positively, their relationship is strengthened with the passage of time. Rukmani loves, rather adores Nathan, because he is not a male chauvinist. Nathan, in her eyes, is an efficient, hard-working and loving husband who shows great patience towards his ignorant, plain, child bride. She learns many household jobs from Kali and Janaki. Nathan does not snub her either for her plain looks or her lack of accomplishments. Unlike Gautama (in Cry, The Peacock), he does not belittle her for her ignorance. All this makes Rukmani confess: "For myself, I am glad I married 'beneath me,' for a finer man no one could have had.… I know, for I was ignorant of the simplest things.… Not one cross word or impatient look, and praise for whatever small success I achieved."

Admiration or regard for each other's qualities makes for a positive, reciprocal relationship, says Stott. If Rukmani is happy with Nathan, Nathan is equally proud of Rukmani whom he considers the best of all women. This opinion remains unchanged even after many years of married life. After Ira's wedding, on a Divali day, they all enjoy themselves in a carefree manner around the bonfire. Nathan abandons himself to the joy and gaiety of the moment and lifting up Rukmani he says, "I am happy because life is good and the children are good, and you are the best of all."

Rukmani and Nathan have unflinching faith in each other. She considers him her friend and guide. All confusion and misery dispel under his steady assurances of a happier future. Rukmani is sad when her sons, Arjun and Thambi, leave for Ceylon to work there in tea-plantations. She cries bitterly and feels shattered at the thought of being separated from her sons. Nathan comforts her by diverting her mind to a bright future:

"You brood too much," Nathan said, "and think only of your trials, not of the joys that are still with us. Look at our land—is it not beautiful? The fields are green and the grain is ripening. It will be a good harvest year, there will be plenty.... We may even make enough to visit our son—would not that be good?"

Thus he sought to comfort me, and after a time I was with him, thinking pleasuraby of harvesting, and of plucking the pumpkins swelling on the vine, and visiting our son—and so we made our plans.

Rukmani has an absolute trust in Nathan and does not take offence if he loses his temper or uses harsh words. She believes that he cannot be inconsiderate to her. She interprets his outburst of anger or impatience as the outcome of his concern for her welfare or his being distracted by something really beyond his control. Being unable to pay the amount they owed to the landlord, Nathan decides to sell everything including the seed for the next crop. Rukmani does not agree to this proposal. Nathan feels crossed and shouts at her: "'Do you think I am blind and do not see, or so stupid as to believe that crops are raised without seed? Do you take me for a fool.…' He was not shouting at me but at the terrible choice forced upon us.… I thought, smothering my sobs. He is distracted and does not mean to be harsh."

At times devotion and trust; love and concern for each other make the spouses secretive. This tale of ideal conjugal relationship has its own share of lies, concealment and deceit. Nathan, like other mortals, falls a prey to the evil charms of Kunthi and sires her two sons. Nathan is mortally scared of Kunthi lest she might tell Rukmani about it. He is aware of the trauma it can cause to the innocent Rukmani. The fear of betrayal forces him to steal the rice that Rukmani has hidden underground. When Rukmani comes to know about the theft, she takes the children to task. Nathan can no longer bear it, he confesses his guilt, crying bitterly:

"Kunthi took it all, I swear it. She forced me, I did not want you to know."

"She has a strange power this woman," I said, half to myself.

"Not strange," Nathan said. "I am the father of her sons. She would have told you, and I was weak."

Nathan's frank confession of his clandestine relation with Kunthi is the cruelest surprise in Rukmani's life. She is torn asunder by a bewildering variety of negative emotions that come surging upon her one after the other. It is an unexpected turn of events revealing to her that Nathan is a fallible mortal: "Disbelief first; disillusionment; anger, reproach, pain. To find out, after so many years, in such a cruel way. Kali's words: 'She has fire in her body, men burn before and after.' My husband was one of those men. He had known her not once but twice."

Faithlessness on the part of the spouses is the rudest jolt to even the most fulfilling of matrimonial relationships. However, Rukmani's courage, self-control and level-headedness save her from being swept away by a sense of mortification. She feels cheated, but she does not give vent to her anguish because she also has feet of clay. She herself has practised concealment and deceit; of course for valid reasons, and has not been absolutely honest with Nathan about her relationship with Kenny, the doctor. In spite of her best intentions she has sinned by flouting the moral code of absolute honesty of deed and thought in matrimonial ties. That Kunthi is powerful, she knows herself because she has also been blackmailed by her into giving her the rice for not divulging her secret about Kenny. Nathan is Rukmani's most precious possession, and she does not want to lose him at any cost: "'I need you, I cried to myself, Nathan, my husband. I cannot take the risk, because there is a risk since she is clever and I am not."

Nathan's uninhibited revelation hurt Rukmani, no doubt, but it infuses her with moral courage to be honest and open; to throw away the crushing weight of her foolish silences. She feels immensely relieved from Kunthi's sinister hold, and tells Nathan how Kunthi had extorted rice from her also. She feels more comfortable as: "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."

The Kunthi episode, though not moulded into a dramatic context, reveals an important fact about human ties. Howsoever intimate a relationship may be, there is much that remains unknown, unseen and untold to the individuals concerned. The complete knowledge of the deeds and personality of an individual is impossible even in the case of the most intimate of human bonds. Each one is an island. Thus a complete sharing of our life with each other, in the real sense of the term is a myth. Nevertheless the Kunthi episode is a touchstone of the real strength of the relationship between Rukmani and Nathan. It is an example of what sociologists term as "external stress" introduced into a relationship. These external factors can prove disruptive if the ties between two individuals are weak or shaky. A strong, healthy relationship of some duration has the capacity to adapt to such an extra-system load. By the time this unsavoury fact comes to light, Rukmani and Nathan are already happily adjusted with each other, and no dislocation is caused in their daily life or relationship.

Although Nathan and Rukmani are unsophisticated village folks, they understand the significance of their relationship with each other. They feel that united they stand, divided they fall. Together they have been able to bear the unequal strife between helpless peasantry and the menacing forces of an unjust social order, industrialisation and the blood-thirsty moods of wild nature. The ties between them are strengthened because of their mutual trust and empathy. They suffer together and try to mitigate each other's suffering. Their eviction from the land is the cruelest blow of all. Rukmani is terribly afflicted, she knows that a landless labour has nowhere to turn to. Nathan is also upset. But his presence by her side makes the misery bearable: "Together there was more strength.… I knew neither could have borne it alone."

During the long years of togetherness Nathan and Rukmani achieve the coveted "interpersonal fusion" that makes them heroic and brave. The love, faith and trust they have for each other invest them with a stoic calm to face the worst in their life. They vacate their fields, and their hut—the mute spectators of their joys and miseries; prosperity and penury for thirty years. Rukmani feels dizzy, her "throat is dry. I lean against my husband, he is already leaning on me, together we achieve a kind of comfort." Once uprooted from the land, their life becomes a nightmare. On their way to their son's house in the city they first lose their meagre belongings and then the money they have. Penniless they reach his place, only to find out he has gone away. To earn money for their return they become stone-breakers. A tenure of thwarted hopes, deprivations, hunger and tragedies, takes toll of Nathan's life. Their last moments of togetherness are poignant and touching. They forget the gruesome realities of their unhappy existence, pangs of regret, repentance and sorrow and sit together enveloped in thoughts of joys and married bliss they had:

Midnight, and as always before, his paroxysms eased....

In the calm stillness I saw him open his eyes, his hand came to my face....

"You must not cry, dearest. What has to be, has to be."

"Hush," I said. "Rest and grow better."

"I have only to stretch out my hand," he said, "to feel the coldness of death. Would you hold me when my time is come? I am at peace. Do not grieve."

"If I grieve," I said, "it is not for you, but for myself, beloved, for how shall 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.

"Have we not been happy together?"

"Always my dearest always."

"It is slipping away fast," he said. "Rest with me a little."

Nectar in a Sieve, thus, incorporates an ideal fulfilling man-woman relationship against the backdrop of a life full of harrowing experiences. The matrimonial bond between Rukmani and Nathan rests serenely on the solid foundation of trust, faith and understanding. They are not sophisticated like Maya, Sita, Nirode or Nanda Kaul, but they have the wisdom to accept life and people as they are. Moreover, they prize their relationship with each other above everything else. "A woman's place is by her husband" is the strong conviction of Rukmani, she also believes in compromise and one's capacity to rise above his or her misfortunes. "What profit to bewail that which has always been and cannot change."

Source: Usha Pathania, "Harmony and Fulfilment," in Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya, Kanishka Publishing House, 1992, pp. 54-63.

March to Autonomy

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The foregoing chapter dealt with the analysis of the filial bonds in the novels of Anita Desai. In her writing these ties, no matter whether stifling or fulfilling, continue to affect the sensibilities of her protagonists. Their severance is a painful experience. In Kamala Markandaya too, this relationship is significant. For her also, these equations persist in life. The basis of exchange between parents and children changes throughout the life cycle, depending on each side's circumstances, but its importance remains. External factors such as economic hardships and changing values and attitudes, very often, adversely affect these fundamental ties. Nevertheless, these bonds are sacred, powerful and enduring. Even when the solidarity is affected, these ties, in her novels, do not become a noose around one's neck. Kamala Markandaya favours greater freedom, trust and understanding between the parents and children. The filial ties, therefore, are no insufferable bondage for her characters. Their march towards autonomy is consistent, smooth and inevitable.

Nectar in a Sieve deals with human relationships in their variegated aspects. The chronicle of Rukmani and Nathan's life illuminates the multicoloured, everchanging nature of filial ties. The children are the flesh and blood of their parents. Theoretically, this should make the ties strong and permanent. However, the hard facts of human existence, as depicted in the novel, highlight the impact of money on filial ties.

As sociologists like Graham A. Allan maintain, kin-relationships provide one with a sense of security. In Nectar in a Sieve, the social and financial status of Rukmani's father gives her a sense of confidence and makes her hopeful of a bright future. She is proud to be the daughter of a village headman. She is the youngest of the four daughters. Rukmani's mother worries about her dowry, as the earlier three marriages have squeezed them dry. Nevertheless, being a village headman's daughter, Rukmani is confident of her future happiness. In order to cheer her mother, she tells her: "'I shall have a grand wedding.… Such that everybody will remember when all else is a dream forgotten.… For is not my father head of the village?' I knew this pleased my mother, for she would at once laugh, and lose her look of worry." Her brother tells Rukmani that her father is no longer of consequence since the power now vests in the collector and the persons he appoints. This shocking revelation naturally frightens her. She feels insecure and anxious: "This was the first time I had ever heard that my father was of no consequence. It was as if a prop on which I leaned had been roughly kicked away, and I felt frightened and refused to believe him."

Sociological research points out that "positive concern" for each other's happiness is mutual in filial bonds. However, this is also a proven fact that daughters feel more involved with their parents and show greater affection and consideration towards them. At the tender age of twelve, Rukmani displays considerable understanding of her parent's limitations. She is considerate towards them and does not want to hurt their feelings. She accepts their decision regarding her marriage ungrudgingly, as she does not wish any misery to her helpless parents. She remembers her wedding day when her mother in the "doorway, no tears in her eyes but her face bloated with their weight" bids her farewell.

Rukmani's thwarted expectations of a suitable marriage could have created dissonance. However, she continues to be attached to her parents. She does not complain or show any resentment, for being married beneath her. "To reduce dissonance, people emphasize the positive aspects of the chosen object while emphasizing the negative and deemphasizing [sic] the positive aspects of the unchosen object." Rukmani appreciates the positive contribution of her parents towards her proper upbringing. She is proud of her father and appreciates his foresight, as she remarks: "It was my father who taught me to read and write. People said he did it because he wanted his children to be one cut above the rest; perhaps so, but I am certain that he also knew that it would be a solace to me in affliction, a joy amid tranquillity."

Loving and caring parents are believed to do anything for their children. Gifted with foresight at times, parents cultivate tastes and skills primarily for their children's sake. After her marriage with Nathan, an illiterate peasant, Rukmani's ability to read and write is of no avail. Nevertheless, she practises writing purposely so that "when my child is ready … I will teach him too; and I practised harder than ever lest my fingers should lose their skill."

The birth of her daughter does not weaken the attachment between Rukmani and her mother. She gets busy with her child and now finds the journey to her parent's house tiring. Yet she visits them though at longer intervals. "Since there was so much to be done in my own home; and my mother, knowing this, did not reproach me for the long intervals between my visits."

Parents care and pray for their children even when they are grown-up and can look after themselves. Rukmani's mother feels unhappy when, for many a year after Ira's birth, Rukmani does not bear a child. Despite her own failing health, she tries her best to help Rukmani. This concern on her mother's part profoundly impresses Rukmani, who many years later vividly remembers and reproduces the words spoken by her mother on her death bed:

"When Ira was nearing six, my mother was afflicted with consumption, and was soon so feeble that she could not rise from her bed. Yet in the midst of her pain she could still think of me, and one day she beckoned me near and placed in my hand a small stone lingam, symbol of fertility.

"Wear it," she said. "You will yet bear many sons. I see them, and what the dying see will come to pass … be assured, this is no illusion."

Rukmani and Nathan are the product of a culture where the birth of a son is a blessing and that of a daughter a sort of curse. Rukmani, though quite liberal in her views, is not free from this bias. As luck would have it, her first child is her daughter Irawaddy. She is sad when on uncovering the small form she finds it to be a girl's body. She tells, "I turned away and, despite myself, the tears came, tears of weakness and disappointment; for what woman wants a girl for her first-born?" Nathan does not express his disappointment, his behaviour, however, shows his preference for a son. Initially he pays scant attention to her, as he had wanted "a son to continue his line and walk beside him on the land, not a pulling infant who would take with her a dowry and leave nothing but a memory behind."

Nectar in a Sieve depicts the life of a by-gone era with all its social norms and cultural attitudes. During those days, son always had a place of pride in the family. Parents loved their daughter, but they were proud of their sons. Nathan, Rukmani and even her father are no exception. When Rukmani gives birth to her first son, Arjun, Nathan is besides himself with joy and celebrates the occasion by hosting a grand feast to the whole village:

My husband was overjoyed at the arrival of a son; not less so, my father....

"Your mother would have been glad," he said. "She was always praying for you."

"She knew," I told him. "She said I would have many sons."

As for Nathan, nothing would do but that the whole village would know—as if they didn't already. On the tenth day from the birth he invited everybody to feast and rejoice with us in our good fortune.

Nectar in a Sieve stresses the fact that the preference for sons is often on theoretical grounds. Rukmani and Nathan are, no doubt, keen on having a son for various reasons, yet, the shock of getting a daughter as their first child is temporary. Daughters are equally dear to parents. They also love their parents no less than the sons. The discrimination between son and daughter disappears as the child starts responding to the parents. Nobody can ignore the loving advances of a child—whether a son or a daughter. Nathan is overwhelmed when Ira "at the age of ten months she called him 'Apa,' which means father, he began to take lively interest in her."

Rukmani and Nathan are affectionate parents who inspire trust and confidence in the heart of their children. Ira accepts her parents' choice with her usual docility, but she frets at the thought of leaving her parents, the impending separation from them makes her sad. Once she asks a little wistfully: "How frequently I would be able to visit her, and, although I knew such trips would have to be very rare since her future home lay some ten villages away, I assured her not a year would pass without my going to see her two or three times."

The real worth and strength of a relationship is judged in the times of need and adversity. Parental obligation is not over by simply marrying away their daughter. The prime concern of parents is to see their children happy and blessed with all the good things of life. Rukmani and Nathan bring up their daughter Ira affectionately, and marry her well. Unfortunately, she is not destined to enjoy married bliss because of her being barren. She is abandoned by her husband and has to live with her parents. They are wise, understanding parents, who never, by word or deed, make her feel an unwanted burden.

All this, however, should not make one forget that jealousy and rivalry affect the most intimate human relationships. The children, howsoever, devoted they are, at times resent the parents enjoying or achieving something which is denied to them. Ira has been deserted by her husband for her inability to conceive. Consequently, the advancing pregnancy of Rukmani is unpalatable for her. She envies her mother, and Rukmani is well aware of her resentful looks; "Sometimes I saw her looking at me with brooding, resentful eyes and despite myself I could not help wondering if hatred lay behind her glance."

Financial implications often determine the nature and quality of interaction between the parents and children. The relationship between Ira and her parents in Nectar in a Sieve suggests that children are obedient, meek and submissive as long as the parents are responsive to their needs. When the children have to look after their parents, their attitudes undergo unbelievable changes. They tend to become defiant. With the sons gone and starvation engulfing them from all around, Ira takes to prostitution to ward off hunger. This reversal of role matures her into a woman who defies her father. To Nathan's utter dismay she goes out of the house despite his efforts to check her. Hunger has converted her into a revolting volcano, the fury of which astounds both Nathan and Rukmani:

"Where do you go at this hour?"

"It is better not to speak."

"I will have an answer."

"I can give you none."

Nathan's brows drew together: she had never before spoken to him in this manner. Looking at her, it seemed to me that almost overnight she had changed....

"I will not have it said—I will not have you parading at night—"

"Tonight and tomorrow and every night, so long as there is need. I will not hunger any more."

I think he laid a restraining hand on her, for I heard her say, "Let me pass," and there was a slight rustling sound as she withdrew from his grasp.

The bookish norms of propriety and filial obedience operate under congenial and placid circumstances. A hungry man is forced to surrender his values; to act against his cherished convictions. Bhabani Bhattacharya views the theme of hunger in its wider perspective. It makes people helpless and wretched. In So Many Hungers, owing to utter helplessness, Kajoli's neighbours give in and "sell" their daughter, and Kajoli also at one time gives in, primarily to help her family. In the fierce struggle for survival, all becomes fair. Rukmani and Nathan helplessly bow to Ira: "Well, we let her go.… We had for so long accepted her obedience to our will that when it ceased to be given naturally, it came as a considerable shock; yet there was no option but to accept the change, strange and bewildering as it was, for obedience cannot be extorted."

However this bewildering change is a transitory phase. The bond of love between Ira and her parents remains intact. Nathan remains kindly disposed towards her. One day Ira's son asks her about the name of his father. This upsets Ira. Rukmani tries to pacify her agitated mind by suggesting to Ira that she should have declared him dead. The conversation hurts Nathan, who asks Rukmani to discontinue it. As a father he can imagine the compound feelings of guilt, hurt, and remorse that are lossing [sic] and tumbling in his daughter's mind:

"Leave it, leave it," said Nathan. "Do not upset the girl any more."

He put out his hand to Ira, but she shied away from him. I saw her leave the hut.

"It is no use going to her," Nathan said sadly. "Such comfort as there is to be had must come from her own spirit."

Nevertheless, after a little while he did go to her and his gentleness melted her last remnants of control, for she began to weep. I heard her crying for a long time.

Ira's rejection by her husband, her taking recourse to prostitution to save herself as well as others, and the birth of an albino child have rather too much for her to endure. But a deep understanding and kindness on Nathan's part assuage Ira's emotional trauma.

For Erich Fromm, the most important role of a father is parental love and guidance. According to Gandhiji, the best teacher is father and the best school is home. Nathan is an ideal father to his sons. Arjun and Thambi work in the tannery but on holidays they help their father on the land. Nathan teaches them various agricultural activities in the field. He values and enjoys their company and his superiority to them in regard to his knowledge makes him feel good:

One day in each week ... Arjun and Thambi would help their father on the land, and this gave Nathan a great pleasure. He liked to see his sons beside him, to teach them the ways of the earth: how to sow; to transplant; to reap; to know the wholesome from the rotten, the unwelcome reed from the paddy; and how to irrigate or drain the terraces. In all these matters he had no master, and I think it helped him to know he could impart knowledge to his sons, more skilled though they were in other things, and able to read and write better than any in the town.

Like all other emotional bonds the filial relationship grows and develops through many stages. A time comes when the parents lose their hold upon the thoughts and acts of their own children. With their first step into adulthood, the children are inclined to judge and evaluate themselves. They tend to march towards autonomy and independence. This happens with Nathan's sons also. Arjun and Thambi hand over their wages to Rukmani, their mother, to spend as she likes. However, a strike in the tannery makes Rukmani and Nathan realise that Arjun and Thambi have grown up, though neither of them has touched twenty. They are aware of their rights and have already started thinking of their posterity. Rukmani vividly describes the conversation that reveals a lot about their grown up sons:

"What has happened?" we ask with trepidation. They are still our sons, but suddenly they have outgrown us.

"Trouble," they say. "We asked for money and they took from us our eating time."

I bring out some dried fish and rice cakes. They are ravenous. "More money?" I say. "What for? Do they not pay you well already?" "What for?" one echoes. "Why, to eat our fill, and to marry, and for the sons we shall beget." And the other said, "No, it is not enough."

The grown-up children often become strangers to their parents. The phenomenon of generation gap in terms of expectations and attitudes is bound to enter into the parent-child relationship. Nathan, wise as he is, realises that the best course is not to interfere and let them make their choice, their decisions. He advises Rukmani also not to be sentimental at this juncture. "I do not know what reply to make—these men are strangers. Nathan says we do not understand, we must not interfere. He takes my hand and draws me away. To his sons he is gentle."

At times human relationships, howsoever intimate, do not afford an opportunity to scan other's thoughts and acts. Much remains unseen, unknown even in intimate bonds. Rukmani's sons, though obedient and loyal, keep certain secrets from their parents. They do not want to disturb the calm lake of their parent's lives by tossing the stones of revolutionary thinking. Rukmani narrates:

Looking back now, I wonder how it came to pass that not until that fateful day did we realise the trouble that had been brewing. No gossip, not a whisper, had come to us of the meetings the men had held at which my sons had been spokesmen; nor of the agitation that followed; nor of the threats by the owners.... All this we heard only later.

As the bonds are strong, the parents defend their children at all costs though they cannot evaluate objectively the act of their children. Nathan defends his sons when the villagers accuse them of inciting others: "Enough?" he shouted. "More than enough has been said. Our children must act as they choose to, not for our benefit. Is it not enough that they suffer?"

Separation from children is unbearable for parents. Arjun and Thambi cannot remain idle in the face of economic hardships. They leave for Ceylon to work as labourers in a tea plantation. Nathan, as a man, bears the pangs of separation silently, but for Rukmani this is unbearable. She makes desperate efforts to dissuade her sons from going away:

"If you go you will never come back," I cried. "The journey costs hundreds of rupees, you will never have so much."

The tears came, hot and bitter, flowing and flowing.... They spoke soothingly—of how much they would earn, and how one day they would return—as one does to a child....

They left at first daylight ... each before he went kissed Nathan's feet, then mine, and we laid our hands on them in blessing. I knew we would never see them again.

Nathan is a level-headed, practical man, who is fully aware of the fact that the deteriorating economic condition warrants the departure of their sons. As a sole provider for the family of eight people, what moral right has he to force his sons to stay with him? Like Michael in Wordsworth's poem of the same title, Nathan knows full well:

If here he stays, What can be done? Where everyone is poor, What can be gained?

They restrain themselves, and as Michael sends Luke away telling him, "but it seems good / that thou should'st go," Rukmani and Nathan bid farewell to their sons. Later they calmly bear even the murder of their third son, Raja. They know that as they have nothing to eat, it is impossible to protest or resort to any legal action. Rukmani assures the tannery people that they would not be claiming anything from them. "'You should not care,' I said very softly to him alone. 'It does not matter.'" Rukmani now pressed by the rigours [sic] of hunger and deprivation, feels sorry for the ailing Kutti and wishes him release from this wretched, cruel existence: "I would go to him with beating heart to see if the fight has ended; but again and again he struggled back to consciousness, took up again his tormented living; almost I wished it otherwise." When Kutti dies they become almost insensible to grief or sorrow. Rukmani rather feels relieved: Nathan comes and kneels beside him with harsh sorrowing face and bitter eyes. "I knew too well what he felt. Yet, although I grieved, it was not for my son: for in my heart I could not have wished it otherwise. The strife had lasted too long and had been too painful to call him back to continue it."

Rukmani and Nathan are not possessive in their love for their children. Despite adverse circumstances and great suffering they remain kind to their children. They do not force their choice of profession on Selvam, their only son, left now. His love for reading and writing makes him lose all interest in the land. As an assistant to Kenny, he wants to join a hospital. He hesitates to reveal this to his mother. But Rukmani does not want to come in the way of her son's plans or happiness:

"I have told my father," he said hesitantly. "He is very willing."

I smiled at him. "So am I. I wish you well."

He relaxed. "I am glad. I thought you might be—were—displeased."

"Not displeased. Perhaps disappointed, since all our sons have forsaken the land. But it is the best way for you."

The deep understanding between Rukmani and Selvam is of that order where verbal communication is hardly needed. Much remains unsaid about the relationship between Kenny and Rukmani, but he shows great maturity in understanding its true nature. When he decides to work with Kenny, her mother is filled with foreboding, but she does not discourage him:

"It is the best way," he repeated after me. "It will be a great venture. We have many plans and much hope."

We both relapsed into silence. I watched him covertly, wondering ... but then I thought resolutely, I will not take the fire from his resolve or sow suspicion between them, and so I held my peace. But his steady eyes were on me, calm and level.

"I am not unaware," he said quietly. "But is it not sufficient that you have the strength and I have the trust?"

"It is indeed," I said with relief. "I wanted only that you should know."

We smiled at each other in perfect understanding.

In human relationships the notion of give and take operates, and giving is often more satisfying than taking. Rukmani and Nathan are among the most unselfish parents. They reject Selvam's offer to give up his job at the hospital and rent a piece of land for agriculture. The offer is tempting to Nathan because his roots are there in the land, and without land he cannot survive. Yet resolutely, he turns it down, saying: "'No, my son. I would not have it so.... There are some things that cannot be sacrificed … besides I would never be happy. Certainly your mother would not let me rest,' he added, smiling a little." Even during a time of irredeemable misery the needs and aspirations of their children remain uppermost with them. They are moved by the plight of Ammu, their daughter-in-law, who has been deserted by Murugan, their son, "'We will return to our son and daughter,' Nathan says, not replying directly. 'But what of you, my child? It is we rather than you who should ask. We have had our day, you are still young.…'"

The foregoing discussion brings us to the conclusion that the filial ties, as depicted in Nectar in a Sieve, are largely fulfilling and cherishable. The tyranny of circumstances makes them sour at times, but based as they are on mutual understanding, absolute trust and a spirit of self-sacrifice, the bonds do not turn brittle or bitter. The children move away from their parents not because they wish it but because adversity leaves no other option for them. Rukmani and Nathan are proud of their sons who have the courage to find a way out of their misfortunes and confidence to carve a new destiny. They are the wisest of the parents as they encourage their children in their ventures, and let them plan their future.

Source: Usha Pathania, "March to Autonomy," in Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya, Kanishka Publishing House, 1992, pp. 143-54.


Critical Overview